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.


Vertical Gardening On Slope

After our seedlings had matured, we needed to build a garden to put them all in. Our Thai neighbours devised a genius way of utilizing space on our shared land by creating a large trellis on slope so we decided to take their initial design, and push it further by creating mini terraces underneath the climbing trellis. 

photo (3)Whilst the picture does not portray the intensity of the slope, it is steep, rocky, sandy, and hard land to work with.You could terrace the land, dig swales, or various other techniques, though the amount of work it would take thanks to the huge rocks in the subsoil would create much work – and frankly, that isn’t my thing, not one bit.

Instead of creating ditches to slow down water and to prevent erosion, we created semi-sunken planting holes all throughout the landscape – a random mosiac of sorts. As water runs through from high to low, the water will spill over to the plant next to it, and so on. In this way, we minimise erosion, maximise water, for what was 2 hours work, at most.

vertical planterTo simple steps of building this vertical planter goes:

1. Collect 10-12  long sticks (we found ours in the neighbouring forest)

2.  Dig a deep hole for the supporting sticks, making sure they are sturdy and will bear the load, then place in ground.

3. Build the outside of the structure first: a) the cross beam then b) the outer edge sticks.

We made up the construction as we went along and the structure that night, undertook a brutal wind but held together nicely! If you are going to attempt to build such a structure, make sure it is super stable before all else.

And after that, start planting! In small holes, tightly spaced, is the best way. The total area was no more then 10ft by 10ft, and I managed to squeeze in 40 or so plants, without removing of the native vegetation. It is much better to work the native species as opposed to removing them for countless reasons; and for me that main incentive is less digging.

A row of nitrogen fixing pole beans that will climb up the planter in time

A row of beautifully thriving nitrogen fixing pole beans that will climb up the planter in time

The best thing about this design in my opinion is the roof of the structure. At the top of the hill we planted squash and watermelons, which will be trained to climb along the roof of the trellis – those varieties enjoy the tropical sun. After a few months, the roof will be partially covered, so underneath the planter will be partly shaded! We planted underneath partial sun loving plants, like kale, mint, tomatoes to name a few.

In total we spent 2 hours constructing, and we’re a bunch of amateurs. Two people could easily put this up in one hour, planted in full. As it is the dry season in Thailand currently, we watered once every 2 days, which was more then enough for the plants, and was a 5 minute duty as the design and placement of the planter allowed for easy access and quick watering.

In 2 months, this garden will be in over-abundance for a total several hours work. For anyone doubting there green thumb abilities, remember plants grow themselves, all we have to do is plop them in the ground!

happy beans

The Bewildering World of Patterns as Solutions for our Gardens FREE PDF

coverCOPYRIGHt copy

As preparation for our upcoming Food Forrest Gardening Course, I’ve been compiling the lectures I’ve planned into short e-books. Here’s a free download of one I wrote about a subject I find particularly interesting; The Bewildering World of Patterns as Solutions for Our Gardens [FREE PDF DOWNLOAD].

A big, big shout out to Mantra Mundana for editing this. Damn, I don’t know what I’d do without her hard work, and selfless love. Thank you again, darling.

Please read, enjoy and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about developing your garden, or the upcoming course happening in Koh Phangan, Thailand this coming April 13th!

Happy reading!

Designers Manual for Course Students

Honestly it is my favourite book to be published, and I'm holding it here for the first time.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–                        Honestly it is my favourite book to be published, and I’m holding it here for the first time.

The course is filling up fast! And as a surprise for those who are attending the course, we have a hard copy of the amazing, incredible book by Bill Mollison, A Designers Manual. Written over 2 decades ago, it is still the number one textbook in permaculture by the father of permaculture. For anyone serious about design, this is the book that must be slowly read, re-read over and over. We have it available for all students and can get a copy for the students at a discounted price! If you want a copy, and are wanting to be introduced into the wonderful world of permaculture, sign up for upcoming course!

For an introduction so some idea of permaculture, I have written an ebook commentary on a section of The Designers Manual. Download it FREE, here. ForestGardening [PDF] //

Later today I will be posting lecture 4 of the course in PDF format, again, free. !!

Permaculture Rap

If you’ve been meaning to get into permaculture & wonder what it’s all about – these dope verses about permaculture should enlighten and inspire you. Bill Mollison has a brilliant sense of humour so it’s hard to tell if this is actually a joke or not – either way it is hilarious.P-p-p-p-p-p-permaculture!

Up-cycled Bottles for Seedling Propagation

On the first urban permaculture farming course I attended, the teacher brilliantly told all the students, ‘plants don’t know what shape they are in or what shape they should grow into, and nor do they care.’ As long as plants have a medium to grow in, water, sun and nutrients, we can use whatever we have at available to us to cultivate our plants.

An essential permaculture philosophy is that the problem is the solution. Managing excessive plastic waste all throughout Asia is a major issue – especially on Koh Phangan where recycling facilities are minimal and dependence on plastic is maximum. On the island getting plastic from local bins is easy and free, so we gathered many plastic bottles with the idea of raising our seedlings in these plastic bottles – which would’ve been burnt otherwise – thus upcycling a bottle, saving it from being turned into pollution. All of these plants we started on our balcony, a relatively small space – and there are plenty of plants growing.

plastic bottle seedlings

The above photo shows the first leaves of our Okra, Watermelon, Tomatoes, Wax Peppers, Thai Basil and another lone seedling growing quickly in our bottles.

It’s very straightforward to make, and took us in total 1 hour:

  •  Cut a large (1.5L) bottle in half lengthwise.
  • Punch some holes in the bottom of the plastic so that excess moisture can drain. Per bottle, we punctured at least 10 holes.
  • Fill up the container with good, rich soil (worm castings and well rotted compost is ideal).
  • Plant seeds appropriate depth according to seed size. If the seed is small, scatter the seeds over the surface (being careful not too scatter too many to avoid overcrowding) or if it is large, the planting depth of the seed should be twice its size. Don’t worry too much about this – the seeds will most likely sprout regardless of how perfect you plant.
  • And lastly, water with the mist setting on your hose and place in the sunlight.
We also bought a plastic seedling tray from our local organic store. We planted a lot of Chinese Kale and Thai Basil.

We also bought a plastic seedling tray from our local organic store. We planted a lot of Chinese Kale and Thai Basil.

In an upcoming post I’ll talk about taking cuttings and plant propagation – a simple way to duplicate existing plants for our own garden. A great way to gather cuttings to propagate is to go for a walk around your neighbourhood and see what plants are in your neighbours gardens! We found this beautiful Butterfly Pea Bush (a medicinal, edible wild flower) on a side street near our house that we ended up propagating in the seedling tray with our Kale.

Josh gathering Butterfly Pea cuttings for propagation.

Josh gathering Butterfly Pea cuttings for propagation.

And here are some of our chillies and tomatoes growing with Pineapple heads (that will re-sprout for later planting), next to some home-made pineapple banana compote.

seedlings & jam

If you have any questions/comment/success stories or failures, feel free to comment below and let us know how your permaculture endeavours are going. The next post will address how to propagate seedlings in urban environments in a step by step breakdown. Happy Planting!

Practical Permaculture & Forest Gardening Course!

For all the Koh Phangan-ers who’ve been talking to me about learning permaculture – well, finally, after many months, I proudly present to you a practical, hands on, down and dirty food forest gardening course.

Most PDC’s focus on theory – and most of us simply want to know how to grow our own food. So, I’ve taken the most important theoretical aspects of a introductory PDC and combined it with practical gardening so there’s less fluff & more of the stuff students wish to learn.

Check out my poster for details, and contact me to ask any questions about the course. Much love!



GMO Debate

Sam Seder provides a humorous commentary on this debate between young GMO activist Rachel Parent and Kevin O’Leary, pro-GMO journalist who seems to have his hands deep within Monsanto’s pockets.

The main point in this video as Kevin himself states, is that corporations and their researchers don’t know the long-term results of GMO food, which is close to 100% of all of the food stocked in supermarkets. There never has been long-term tests from GMO companies or independents as to how these products effect human or ecological health – besides the fact that ‘…we [the consumers] are the lab rats..,’ which is quoted in the video by Kevin.

Monsanto doesn’t know what effects GMO seeds may have in the long run and so we the people have become the test subjects – and judging by Monsanto’s track records of destroying the land and ruining peoples lives (google India’s Suicide Belt for further reading) the result won’t be great for anybody who isn’t corporate.

One more reason to go organic.

Moving Towards Plastic Independence

image source:

image source:

We all know about society’s over-consumption of plastic. We’ve heard again and again that it takes up to a millennia for plastics to bio-degrade (1), and consumers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year (2). And the issue of micro-plastic in our oceans in the past few years have gained awareness via social media. With all this data being perpetually smothering our faces on a regular basis, it really begs the question why aren’t governments providing effective immediate solutions on a macro-scale to combat society’s rampant plastic consumption? If plastics are so costly in terms of energy consumption and environmental impact, then action has to be undertaken promptly, and in this article are practical solutions as to how you can build and begin successful projects.

Read the full post published on the Permaculture Research Institute here

drastic plastics

Plastics are chains of carbon and hydrogen usually derived from coal, crude oil, and gas and are combined together in a plant creating a ‘polymer.’ The polymer is processed and is turned into plastic pellets or a fine powder – this product is sold to plastic manufacturing companies and it is then transformed into thermoplastics or thermosets. From there the manufacturers use the processes known as injection molding, blow molding or extrusion to create their desired product. Long story short.

To do all this, coal is mined, oil is drilled, gas is hydro-fracked (all of these materials processed and transported), and large processing plants combine the by-products of these materials creating ‘raw’ plastic. Then more fossil fuels are used to turn the raw material into a useable product, and then more fossil fuels are used for transportation. And then some more to ship it to market.

All this reminds me of the wonderful illustration in Bill Mollison: A Designers Manual. Inconceivable amounts of energy is used for the products we depend upon and what’s even more striking is how we consumers dispose of it.


The absurdity of industrial egg manufacturing

My next post will be longer essay as to how on a macro-level we can all contribute to drastic plastc consumption reduction. For now, though, refuse the bag if it’s offered, reuse an old bottle for drinking and recycle it once you’re done.