Can Permaculture Feed the World?

This weekend at a Permablitz event I had a great discussion with another Van-Kal member, and we discussed the idea often sited by Chem-ag that chemicals and corporations are “feeding the world” and that systems like Permaculture would lead to mass starvation.  
My knee-jerk judgement was that, yes, it would be difficult for a system like Permaculture to feed 7 billion people.
But, would it? 
Permaculturists like Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison often claim that Permaculture could feed the world a healthier, more diverse and delicious diet than chem-ag. 
So, who’s right? Chem ag or the Permies?
Well, lets see if we can get to the bottom of this.
For discussion: According to the research of the Grow Biointensive organization, published in “One Circle Garden,” a working man could feed himself 100% of his nutritional and calorie needs with a well-designed 1,000 square feet of garden, less for women, children and sedentary men. Even in a cold climate. 
Lets use Kalamazoo as an example. With it’s population of under 333,000 (metro) it would take 7,575 acres to feed itself using the One Circle diet.  Kalmazoo sits on 25 square miles, or 16,000 acres, twice as much as needed for the One Circle. Subtracting for water, buildings, roads, etc. Kzoo could still probably meet the One Circle plan just off unused areas from within the city! 
But lets go further. 
An approximation often used in Permaculture is that you could feed any settlement with a 50 foot ring around it. Since 25 SM=πr2, (Area of a circle) and C=2πr, we’ll fudge things to keep the numbers easy and say that Kzoo has a rough circumfrence of 18 miles, so a 50ft ring gives us an additional 35,000 acres, (creating 16,000 rewarding Permaculture garden farm careers!) an additional 5 times the minimum amount, to grow crops for trade, security and luxuries. And, since a circle yields the mimimum “edge,” this MASSIVELY under-estimates the actual acreage in our more fractal-like 50 ft border zone. 
Beyond that, a local tapestry of small towns, outlying homesteads, and eco-villages could provide an even greater abundance, should we decide to create a Permaculture civilization. 
This is similar to a calculation made by the Illinois Bioneers that their whole state could be fed off of people’s front yards!
Given that math, I have to conclude that–even if the grow-biointensive research was off by a factor of 100 (giving a calculation of about 2 acres per person world wide, still only one third of the world’s arable land)–the Permaculturists are right, we could easily feed the world a richer, healthier diet in a fraction of the land currently used by chem-ag, by using good Permaculture design, and we’d end up with a more regenerative, richer culture, more beautiful landscapes, healthier ecosystems and full, rewarding employment as a bonus. 
A better world really is possible. And finally, with Permaculture we no longer have to wait for anybody to lead us to it or make it for us. We can build it ourselves, right here and now, starting in our own front yards.  

One thought on “Can Permaculture Feed the World?

  1. Because I'm really this geeky, I thougt I'd cross-check my conclusion with another method, this time starting with the real-world production of two Permaculture-inspired farms. First, Walkup farm, a 4-acre farm in Northern Illinois. This farm used to hold a 40 family CSA, giving us a possible number of 10 families per acre. But this farm also had a large egg CSA, a native plant nursery business, chickens, goats, and about 2 acres of restored prairie for wildlife, so the actual CSA garden fit on less than one acre. But still, lets use that number 10 families per acre to be insanely conservative. Again using the 50-foot border zone of 35,000 acres, we see that we have FAR more than enough land to provide all the fresh vegetables for Kzoo's 330,000 residents at 10 families per acre. Now, being more creative, imagine a Permacultre system based on proximity, where residents use the “zone 1” spaces inside the city to produce high value fruits, salad crops, daily herbs and vegetables like tomatoes. And the “50-foot ring” as a “zone 3” area to provide a large quantity of extra prodcuce and calorie crops for security, production and trade. Surely, even using this 10-family/acre figure, we'd could easily feed all of the residents of the Kzoo metro area and have excess for trade. But, what if we really amped that up? Les Jardins de la Grelinette, a farm in Cold-climate Canada with a very short growing season, has a 200 family CSA on just one acre by using fantastic high-density planting and intercropping. With just half their production, we could produce all of kzoo's vegetables on just 1/3rd of the 50-foot ring, using the remaining 2/3rds for extra fruit, calorie crops, building materials, fibre, etc. So to me there's no question, Permaculture could feed the world, and do a better job of it than our current system that leaves much of the world in starvation and poverty, and leaves even well-fed folks malnourished from its empty-calorie junk food.

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