Food Production Systems Comparison ARTICLE


In this short analysis, I will introduce three different systems of food production as ecologically & economically beneficial alternatives to modern industrial farming.

The systems I will be looking at are:
1. Mayan Milpa Forest Gardening
2. Indigenous Australians Firestick Farming
3. Contemporary Permaculture

I will first introduce modern industrial agricultural systems.

Modern Farming defines success as profits from single-row cropping and ignores all other forms of yield as potential resources (ecosystem health, social utility i.e. happiness through increased recreational time, mineral content in soil, % of organic matter in soil etc.). By using regimented repetitive straight lines as a repeated growing pattern for all crops, irrespective of climate, topography & local vegetative patterns, farmers are able to quickly grow one crop en mass.

As monoculture is preferred then polycultures in Industrial Agriculture, high levels of synthetic biocides & petroleum based products are required to prevent systemic collapse and these inputs can surmount to 90% of a farms costs.[i] The damage from the runoff of these biocides is almost incomprehensible in its scope and has created wastelands throughout the world – which is quite typical of non-traditional farming methods throughout history.[1] It is estimated that one third of the world’s pollution is due to inefficient agricultural techniques (like production & transportation costs).

The father of Permaculture Bill Mollison shares a thought with any hopeful future designer with us: ‘As I reassure all would-be permaculture designers you can do no worse than those prior designs you see about you…’ Modern Agriculture couldn’t cannot get much worse, so there is so much potential for designers wishing to experiment with alternative food production systems.

The Mayans of the Amazon River lived in high density[ii] yet managed to produce abundant yields for centuries, in part due to their forest farming regime the MILPA CYCLE. The Milpa is a traditional agricultural method of cultivating food forests with succession over a 20 year period. The Milpa succession is divided into 4 distinguishable stages:[iii]

Stage 1 of the cycle involves slashing under bush & lower limbs of trees, drying of the slashed material, then lastly a hot burn in preparation of full cultivation of annual polyculture plantations of the Meso-American 3 Sisters Guild: corn, squash, & beans. Surrounding the low canopy is a mixture of edible ground covers, tubers & medicinal plants which are either left alone or removed depending on whether or not the plant is wanted for human consumption, or whether it is advantageous/disadvantageous for the ecosystem.
Stage 2 starts in the fourth year (or thereabouts). By this point a lower canopy has emerged and herbaceous & woody perennials are encouraged via transplanting – particularly quick yielding species like bananas, papayas etc. Fruit trees with longer maturing times (such as mango & avocado) are planted now.
Stage 3 begins as the canopy closes and long-term fruit trees begin to yield. The 3 Sisters Guild is no longer viable; hardwood plantations begin for future usage.
Stage 4 is the final evolution of the Milpa is recognized as the hardwood plantation matures; the canopy is now closed and at the forests main use hunting, foraging & gathering.

As each year progresses the amount of labour input decreases whilst yields increase & vary as ecosystem grows in size, health and begins self-regulation & feedback processes. On a final note, Conservation Scientist Dr. M. Sanjayan makes a compelling case that suggests this way of agriculture evidently proves high-density living & environmental sustainability is utterly viable, in his documentary series Earth: A New Wild.

The term ‘firestick farming’ was coined by Prehistorian Rhys Jones to describe the cultivation techniques of Indigenous Australians – a highly sophisticated observant and abundant agricultural system that certainly shows that Australia was anything but terra nullius.

The tribesman utilised controlled fire ‘to create open pastoral woodland with distinct patches of rainforest or thickets with very sharp transitional edges…’[iv] At the beginning of each annual dry season, typically North-West facing grasslands, heaths & low-fertility ridges were burnt back. In doing so, the available minerals in vegetation became available that was otherwise locked up in bio-mass and edges became more defined (thus greater interaction from multiple ecosystems, thus higher yields). The tribes also harvested & maintained the lands at the same time – by combining both necessary tasks in one sweeping action very little labour was needed to keep this lands productive. The English explorers concluded that any peoples so relaxed about farm were indeed lazy savages, when in fact the tribesman were simply incredibly observant and efficient. The irony is as blatant as day, as modern agriculture requires endless inputs of labour & resources for little profit, if anything. Especially in the modern age, all farms require huge government subsidies to stay afloat and are a heavy burden for nations to bear.

The non-cultivated forests of Australia were described as dark, gloomy & monotonous by English explorers,[v] whilst cultivated land created access ways, shaped matured trees to form hollow branches (critical for native species habitat), stimulated high protein grasses (which attracted herbivores for hunting and system maintenance), and slowly shifted minerals from one landscape to another which allowed for greater bio-diversity in regions that lacked soil mineral content or soil biota. Similarly to Milpa farming, Firestick farming increased eco-system health, bio-diversity and functional interconnectedness. In more bold terms, the abundance of both the Amazon & lands of Australia could not have been created by nature herself – both ecosystems directly have their human caretakers to thank for the abundance of vegetation & wildlife – which is quite a controversial statement as humans are typically seen as more of plague soon to be extinguished but bot examples shows the actual potential for successful future harmonious societies.

Contemporary Permaculture, in all its vastness, was birthed both from the combining of holistic land management principles & ethics of tribal peoples and the findings of modern day science & efficient design. Permaculture is an intentional design science[2], and its ultimate goal is to provide harmony among humans, animals, plants & the planet. Through careful placement of many elements in relation to how one elements output can be the energy source for another creates optimal functionality, yield & diversity whilst minimising labour and waste products from the system. Each Permaculture farm design will vary based on the local biome – each design will be a unique & innovative pattern design in response to the land, animal, & people’s needs of that area.

Contemporary Permaculture takes many forms – from broad acre farms to urban rooftop CSA’s. As Permaculture encourages natural & non-destructive actions in regards to land stewardship, Permaculture farms have little capital inputs such as synthetic biocides, petrol, harvesting tractors etc, and so NET profit (real profit) can be more than double as the farms input (if generating its own energy) will be nearing $0.[vi] The UN stated that localised organic agriculture is capable of providing enough food for the worlds population[vii], which suggests that large broad acre farms hundreds of miles away from where the demand for food is, is unnecessary. Transportation emissions & costs would be nullified if such systems were supports on local & national government level. Above all, Organic agriculture is more profitable thanks to lower input cost requirements, is much more sustainable due to little if any environmental impact, and the social ecological/psychological benefits are innumerable – from increased real wealth to sharp decreases in crime.[viii]

Modern Industrial Agriculture is neither the most financially viable, economically stable, ecologically safe or people friendly system for providing food for society. Its development exploded so fast with the rise of the consumption culture of the 1950’s that competiveness of industry & the necessity of quickly producing always more product has left the industry ethic-less and void of any design. As discussed through the Milpa, Firestick, & Permaculture food production systems it is evident that sound economic alternatives that value life over profits whilst still providing abundance for both earth & all its inhabitant is not only possible, but has been the reality for the vast majority of human history.

One last thought: as cooperation’s have grown in power & profits, nature has been constantly overlooked. As humanity descends into a low energy future, the adaptation of sustainable food growing systems will become the mainstream paradigm and will ensure the food security of our children, and their children.

That, or the human race will be lucky to make it to the end of the 21st Century.

R   E   F   E   R   E   N   C   E         L   I   S   T

[1] Desertification of the lands of ancient Egypt to the modern lands of Southern America is due to tillage of soil. This damage was prior to the invention of both mechanical & chemical warfare on earths delicate top soil circa 1945.

[2] I use the word intentional here to emphasise the necessity for observation & critical thinking in design. Tribes intuitively knew what to observe in their ecosystem as it was taught to them from a young age, and become second nature. The modern day individual lacks this early education so intelligent intentional design as opposed to intuitive cultivation is super important.

[i] Permaculture: A Designers Manual, Ibid.

[ii] Earth: A New Wild documentary series episode 3, Forests. 15:00 approx.

[iii] Exploring Solutions Past, The Four Stages of the Milpa Cycle (online) found HERE.

[iv] Permaculture: Princples & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holgrem pg. 228.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Permaculture: A Designers Manual, Bill Mollison pg. 5 figure 1.1

[vii] The Trews: How We’re Lied To About Food episode 179, Russel Brand 1:00 approx. (online) found HERE.

[viii] This video was a part of an online Civic Ecology course by Ecologist Akiima Price, and I am unable to share the link as it is concealed for privacy reasons, unfortunately. I am indirectly quoting Dr.t Price in this reference.


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