Approaches to Food and Farming Sustainability

Excerpt of the ‘Ecological Design Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability

In principle, a truly sustainable agriculture system would be able continue indefinitely into the future without degrading its resource base. Since we — humanity — have already done a huge amount of damage to the world’s farmlands and soils, we need more than just sustainable agriculture, we need to create a regenerative farming system that builds soils, fixes carbon, and increases bioproductivity and diversity.

If we apply our ecological understanding of the carrying capacity and evolutionary dynamics of ecosystems, to the question what would a sustainable or regenerative agriculture system look like, we would pay attention to its resource base and how it is regenerate through natural cycles and closed loops. What is the resource base of an agricultural system?

  1. The fertility of the soil and the overall health of the ecosystem;
  2. The health of the water cycle;
  3. The well being of the people who work on the land;
  4. The health of consumers;
  5. The energy balance of the system (‘energy in’ versus ‘energy out’);
  6. Where food is sold, does the return cover the true costs?
  7. The outreach effects. Are the inputs required by the agricultural system produced in a sustainable way?

Organic Farming

While it has been often celebrated for how it helped to feed a rising population of human beings, the so called ‘green revolution’ of large scale industrial agriculture with its addiction to fossil resources and its systematic degradation of local farming communities and biocultural diversity in favour of predatory multinational corporations has turned out to be a failure with disastrous effects. Alternatives do exist. The Soil Association in the UK was started in 1946 and the Rodale Institute in the USA in 1947; both institutions promote and develop organic farming approaches. In 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded. It now has member organizations in 120 countries.

The IFOAM Best Practice Guidelines for Agriculture and Value Chain (more)

In different European languages organic agriculture is often also called biological or ecological agriculture (as opposed to the industrial high chemical and fossil fuel input variety). Over the last fifty years organic agriculture has developed into a well-codified set of principles and practices. IFOAM expresses the aims of organic farming as follows:

  • To produce food of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity;
  • To work with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them;
  • To encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving micro-organisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals;
  • To maintain and increase the long-term fertility of soils;
  • To use, as far as possible, renewable resources in locally organised agricultural systems;
  • To work as much as possible within a closed system with regard to organic matter and nutrient elements;
  • To give all livestock conditions of life that allow them to perform all aspects of their innate behaviour;
  • To avoid all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural techniques;
  • To maintain the genetic diversity of the agricultural system and its surroundings, including the protection of plant and wildlife habitats;
  • To allow agricultural producers an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment;
  • To consider the wider social and ecological impact of the farming system.

See also the IFOAM Principles of Organic Agriculture, which turn out to be remarkably similar to the permaculture ethics. The US Department of Agriculture describes organic agriculture maybe with regard to the methods it applies:

“Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, off farm organic wastes, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests.” — USDA Report, 1980

The existence of agreed standards based on national systems brought together by IFOAM has allowed international trading of organic products to take place with a good level of assurance that products are really organic. The market for organic produce is growing in many countries. There is pressure from governments and large agricultural corporations to reduce standards, including the percentage of organic content in products, especially when demand exceeds supply. IFOAM, the Soil Association in UK, and the Rodale Institute continue to be the guardians of high levels of standards.

Agroecology, Forest Gardening and Analogue Forestry

Agroecology is “the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.” It takes “a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences.” It links “ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities” (Agroecology 2014).

Agroecology, as promoted by Miguel Altieri (1995) is very much aligned with the shift towards a regenerative agriculture. Altieri has done important work on the preservation of indigenous agricultural knowledge and techniques while working for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (Koohafkan & Altieri, 2010). His work has supported an “agroecological revolution in Latin America” to help heal natural ecosystems, create food sovereignty and support peasants (Altieri & Toledo, 2011).

The technique of ‘forest gardening’ is a prehistoric method of food production in many tropical areas. Robert Hart pioneered ‘forest gardening’ in temperate climates and his work has been taken up and developed further by Patrick Whitefield and Martin Crawford, who runs the Agroforestry Research Trust.

The related approach of ‘Analog Forestry’ uses “natural forests as guides to create ecologically stable and socio-economically productive landscapes”. This whole-systems approach to silviculture “minimizes external inputs, such as agrochemicals and fossil fuels, instead fostering ecological function for resilience and productivity”. Ranil Senanayake developed the ‘analog forestry’ approach in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. It has since grown into a global network of practitioners with a standard for certified ‘Forest Garden Products’ (IAFN, 2015). Here is a short video (7mins) showing how Analog Foresty is spreading in Latin America, Asia, Africa and around the world.

Analog Forestry mimics de diversity of a climax forest ecosystem Source

Holistic Management

The wildlife biologist Allan Savory started in the 1960s to developed a particularly promising regenerative agriculture methodology. It might now turn out to be a game-changer for climate change mitigation. Holistic management and its associated technique of ‘holistic planned grazing’ are based on a systems thinking approach that mimics nature. Savory’s ‘Holistic Management’ is “a Whole Farm/Ranch Planning System that helps farmers, ranchers, and land stewards better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic and social benefits”.

The four cornerstones of this practice are Holistic Financial Planning to “make a healthy profit”; Holistic Grazing Planning to manage the effects of resting the land combined with periodic disruption by grazers to improve “land health and animal health”; Holistic Land Planning to help “design the ideal property plan”; and Holistic Biological Monitoring using simple techniques for feedback on land health and productivity (Holistic Management International, 2015). Here is a short video (3:25mins) on holistic planned management.

“Holistic Management teaches people about the relationship between large herds of wild herbivores and the grasslands and then helps people to develop strategies for managing herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds to heal the land. […] Holistic Management embraces and honours the complexity of nature, and uses nature’s model to bring practical approaches to land management and restoration.”
The Savory Institute (2015)

In the last 40 years more than 10,000 people have received training in ‘Holistic Management’ and globally there are now over 40 million acres managed using this system (Savory Institute, 2014). With long-term field trials on four continents, some of them running since the 1970s, the effectiveness of holistic management is well established.

In a 2013 white paper the institute suggested that Holistic Planned Grazing could be applied to approximately 5 billion hectares of the world’s degraded grassland soils in order to restore them to optimal health and thereby sequester more than 10 gigatons of atmospheric carbon annually into the soil’s organic matter, “thereby lowering greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades. It also offers a path towards restoring agricultural productivity, providing jobs for thousands of people in rural communities, supplying high quality protein for millions, and enhancing wildlife habitat and water resources” (2013: 3). There is still some scientific debate about these claims and they are now being evaluated through research and field trials. Here is a short video (4mins) of Allan Savory explaining his vision of Changing our Future.

More on the omni-benefits of regenerative pasture.

Regenerative Agriculture

In recent years organizations like RegenAG, Agricultura Regenerativa Iberica, Regenerative Agriculture UK, and MasHumus, have started to promote and teach the diverse tools of regenerative agriculture internationally.

“Regenerative agriculture focuses strongly on building soils and restoring ecosystems as the foundation to regenerating production, and communities. The importance of restoring watercourses — and the water cycle as a whole — is recognised, along with mineral cycles and biodiversity, as foundations for a sustainable permanent agro-ecological production base. At the same time dependency on external inputs is minimised, whilst improvements to livestock health and quality of produce are enhanced, as well as, the increase in farm profitability — with the most efficient use of the manpower available.”
Regenerative Agriculture UK, 2015

The potential role in carbon sequestration of the wide range of techniques employed by regenerative agriculture has been well documented by Dr Christine Jones (see more at Amazing Carbon). A summary of the CO2 sequestrating potential is shown in the table below, which highlights that sustainable organic farming practices tend to promote the development of at least 4% humus in the soil, compared to conventional agriculture that is reliant on fertilizers and pesticides which strips away the humus content in the soil to less than 1%. In other words, organic agriculture with 4% humus is able to retain 57.6 l/m2 and sequester 528 CO2 t/ha compared to 14.4 l/m2 and 132 CO2 t/ha for conventional agriculture, respectively. This is a fourfold increase in the carbon content and increased water retention capacity as one moves from conventional to organic agriculture. Conversion from convention to regenerative organic agriculture can make a significant contribution to the mitigation of Climate Change, while helping to solve food and water issues at the same time.

Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm is a North American farmer who has built up a model farm attracting international attention. He created a highly productive and healthy agro-ecosystem by planting trees, digging ponds, building huge compost piles and raising grass-fed cows that he moves across the land with the help of portable electric fencing. Mimicking the grazing patterns of ecosystems with diverse grazers, the cows are followed by chickens and pigs using innovative mobile animal shelters. Each species takes a specific role in fertilizing and enriching the diversity of the perennial prairie polyculture it feeds upon (Polyface, 2015a). The 500-acre farm employs 10 people and generates over US$1 million in sales through direct marketing to local families, restaurants and retail outlets. Joel Salatin describes his farming method as a “symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models” (Polyface, 2015b).

The Australian farmers Colin and Nicholas Seis have turned their 2,000-acre farm, Winona, in New South Wales into an internationally acclaimed example of a technique called ‘pasture cropping’. Cereal crops are sown directly into native perennial pastures, combining grazing and cropping into a single land-use method with synergistic economic and environmental benefits. Colin Seis started to develop this technique in 1992 running a herd of 4,000 merino sheep and cropping oats, wheat and cereal rye on the same land. In recent years it has become increasingly popular, with more than 1,500 farmers in Australia converting to the method and farmers in the Northern hemisphere adopting the approach (Pasture Cropping, 2008).

Another important set of techniques needed for successful regenerative agriculture is the production of farm-made biofertilizers, in order to avoid the economically and environmentally disastrous effects of energy-intensive and expensive artificial fertilizers. Among the techniques used are the composting of on-farm organic waste in combination with beneficial microorganisms, fungal mycelia and rock dust for re-mineralization. Many new techniques for organic fertilizer production and soil fertility testing were developed by Latin-American scientists, among them are the Mexican Eugenio Gras, the Columbian Jairo Rivera and the Brazilian Sebastião Pinheiro (for more information see MasHumus).

Biodynamic Farming

This is a system of farming based on the insights of Rudolf Steiner, the spiritual teacher and founder of the anthroposophical movement. This movement has given rise to many communities where education, architecture, the arts, agriculture and many aspects of life flourish. The agricultural ideas are based on a series of ten lectures he gave in the 1920s, but have been developed since by thousands of farmers worldwide. The fundamental principle is to see the whole farm as a physical and spiritual being, whose well-being is in the care of the farmer.

If good health is maintained, abundance will be the result. This requires the integration of a variety of animals, which have different functions in the life of the farm, compared by Steiner to the organs of the human body. He strongly criticised the use of soluble fertilisers, which was just becoming the progressive thing in farming at the time, saying that only little seedlings need soluble nutrients and that established plants need to “work” for their nutrients to be healthy. He also gave detailed descriptions of how to use the phases of the moon and positions of the planets to help plant growth and how to make fertilizers, which, applied in homoeopathically diluted form, could control plant growth and health. These recipes are followed by farmers worldwide in spite of the fact that Steiner had no agricultural experience or specific education and received all his information through a process of meditation and intuitive thought from within the deep practice of holistic consciousness.

Biodynamic farming has its own certification system, which covers all the requirements for organic farming plus certain additions, including a longer conversion period for the land to be prepared for Biodynamic Certification.


Leading Mycologist, Paul Stamets, has been a tireless investigator, communicator, innovator and entrepreneur to show how mushrooms can help us to solve complex problems from cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses. In his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (more), Paul Stamets (2005) links mushroom cultivation, permaculture, ecoforestry, bioremediation and soil enhancement, to make the case that mushroom farms can be reinvented as healing arts centers, steering ecological evolution for the benefit of humans living in harmony with our planet’s life-support systems and its ecological cycles. Here is a link to Paul’s TED-talk (17:40mins) that is well worth watching if you are unfamiliar with this field and Paul’s work.

The four components of mycorestoration include:

  1. Mycofiltration: the filtration of biological and chemical pathogens as well as controlling erosion.
  2. Mycoforestry and mycogardening: the use of mycelium for companion cultivation for the benefit and protection of plants.
  3. Mycoremediation: the use of mycelium for decomposing toxic wastes and pollutants.
  4. Mycopesticides: the use of mycelium for attracting and controlling insect populations.

Stamets has built his company, Fungi Perfecti, into a successful green business and has filed a long list of patents (to protect his innovations against what he calls “the vulture capitalists”). Stamets’ work and extensive collection of fungal mycelia will be a critical resource as ecosystems regeneration becomes a central activity for humanity in the 21st Century.

“On land, all life springs from soil. Soil is ecological currency. If we overspend it or deplete it, the environment goes bankrupt. In either preventing or rebuilding after environmental catastrophe, mycologists can become environmental artists by designing landscapes for both human and natural benefit.”
Paul Stamets (2005: 55)

The Importance of Perennial Crops

“At The Land Institute, ecologists are exploring ways to grow grains, oilseeds and legumes together so cropland can once again benefit from the advantages of diverse perennial vegetation. These new crops [sic] arrangements will be less dependent on nitrogen-based fertilizers and better-equipped to anchor soil, virtually eliminating erosion and chemical runoff, and promise a much smaller energy cost. They interact in complementary ways to manage pathogens and pests naturally, all while providing food for years without replanting. In many situations, the deep roots of perennial grains will better withstand the drought or deluge likely to accompany climate change. They sequester carbon, which helps reduce greenhouse gases, and they host microorganisms and invertebrates that contribute to soil health.”
Land Institute (2014)

The plant biologist and farmer Wes Jackson co-founded The Land Institute in 1976 to work on the ‘problem of agriculture’ and help to “develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and grain yields comparable to that from annual crops”. Wes Jackson has taken a biomimetic approach since the very beginning. The Land Institute’s mission statement reads:

“When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring” (Land Institute, 2015a).

Over the last 39 years the Land Institute has developed a proposal for ‘Natural Systems Agriculture’ and has demonstrated its scientific feasibility. The institute’s extensive plant breeding programme has the long-term vision of creating “a domestic grain producing prairie with the four functional groups represented (warm season and cool-season grasses, legumes, sunflower family)” (Jackson, 2002: 7). Their efforts focus on both domesticating wild species and on turning domesticated annuals into perennials.

The Land Institute has already had its first successes; for example, creating a new perennial grain they named ‘Kernza’ (more on Kernza). Their long-term aim is to “design an agriculture that relies on proven ecological patterns and processes to achieve sustainability, changing agriculture from being extractive and damaging to restorative and nurturing” (Land Institute, 2014).

… continues …

… [this is an excerpt from the ‘Ecological Design Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’. Your can enroll in this course at any time. The next installment of the ‘Ecological Dimension’ will start in early January 2018. The material in this dimension was co-authored by Lisa Shaw, Michael Shaw, Ezio Gori, and Daniel Christian Wahl, author of ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ and Head of Innovation and (Programme) Design at Gaia Education.]