Organic vs Local? Who Cares. Home Grown Is Sustainable

A couple of months ago there was an article on Treehugger with the name ‘Organic vs Local? Who Cares. Neither is Sustainable‘. Which is a good article about the current problems we face with switching to a more environmental friendly way of producing our food.

The main problems mentioned boil down to the following points:

  1. Current farming methods are energy and water intensive and can’t be sustained in the long run. As they are largely dependent oil used to run equipment and to provide the fertilizers for crops. Water will also become more and more of a problem due to climate change.
  2. Widely used organic farming is more labor intensive and can’t provide the same amount of food as above method (you need 2 to 3 times as much land for the same amount of food). The loss in yield comes from the fact that there’s a larger loss to pests and diseases as no conventional herbicides/fungicides/pesticides are used (rejects from supermarkets are also higher as a lot more of the organically grown produce doesn’t meet the ‘pretty standard‘).
  3. Even if organic farming methods are used they still have to compete with conventional farming methods on price. And so they have to cut costs somewhere. This can result in less than desirable effects like using trucking on manure from feedlots or exploiting workers (extreme low pay, bad insurance, etcetera).

Above points aren’t all the problems and issues mention in the Treehugger article, it does however outline the main issues mentioned in the article.

The alternative to ‘conventional’ organic farming

There’s no question in my mind that we can’t continue with conventional farming as it can’t be sustained in the long run. Due to the damage it causes to the environment and the cracks it already is showing.

I also agree with the main point in the Treehugger article that current organic farming methods won’t work in the long run. These methods are a more environmental friendly method of farming, however, they are a offshoot of conventional farming. They still use massive amounts of energy (farming equipment) and it can’t produce enough food to feed everyone without harming the environment due to habitat loss. Not with the current system we are using.

So with what does this leave us you might think, if neither is an option? In such cases, going of the beaten path could give us our solution. And with all the reading I do about the environment I’ve come across a method which actually looks really promising. It creates habitats for wildlife, makes wasteland productive again, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and has quite high yields and diversity.

The method I’m talking about is called ‘food forests’, which is just like it sounds, a forest set up in such a way that it produces a lot of food. And most intriguing of all, you can walk away from a food forest (ones established) for a couple of years. And when you return it is still producing a lot of food. And with a little effort you can tweak it to bring it back to maximum yield with just 2 or 3 people within a couple of days work.

The following video from the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia explains how they set up such a system, how it works and how they maintain it. As they can explain the food forest method way better then I can, I’ll let them do the talking:

If you would combine this method with ‘traditional’ organic farming for the production of crops like grains, rice and a few other bulk crops, my gues is that you can produce most of the food we need (if not all). And this with a greatly lowered foodprint on the environment and restoration of habitat for animals.

However, like I said, most of our food. We probably still can’t produce everything we need to feed ourselves comfortably. So we need another food production system that complements on the above system to produce the rest of our food, within the current available land. And in the most ideal situation, have a surplus of food so that we can restore natural habits around the world.

The complementary method: home grown

In my opinion the best solution is growing your own food to fill in the production gap of the above methods. I have to admit, I’m biased towards this methods as my family has been growing it’s own food as far as I can remember. And I just love the quality of the produce my dad grows on his plot. Which is also quite productive, we can feed ourselves (and one to four other families) with fresh vegetables for about 6 months a year.

An example of just how productive a home garden can be is the urban farm of the Dervaes family. They have gone to the extreme as you can see from the picture below. Their garden is ridiculously productive for the amount of land they have. Producing up to6.000 lbs of produce a year on 1/10thof an acre. They have even been awarded the ‘garden of the decade award’ by the Natural Home Magazine.

The urban farm of the Dervaes is not the system for the average person, as they spend their entire day a fair bit of their time working for the farm to produce the food they do (I stand corrected about the time your family spends on the urban farm Anais). But you have to admit, it’s an impressive demonstration of what can actually be grown on a little bit of land. And an interesting concept for vacant plots in cities.

Gardens can be a lot more productive as a gardener can tailor the plants used a lot better to the local growing conditions. Also you can give the plants a lot more individual attention. And a garden can be as large. or small, as you want it to be. So it will fit your space, your needs and the amount of time you have available. The achieved yields are actually higher than conventional farming, even if it’s organic. And it doesn’t infringe on existing habitats. And if you set it up properly it can even create habitat for a lot of animals and insects.

However not everyone has a garden for growing their own food. As they live in flats ,or their home doesn’t have a garden. For the people living in flats you can grow your own herbs on your window sill, or some vegetables on your balcony in pots/containers. Although most of them don’t have generous balconies

However for both of the above situations you can create a green roof on which they can grow their own food. The following clip from the White House youtube channel gives a nice introduction to green roofs:

If we combine these systems we can create something that’s organic, environmental friendly and has the potential to produce more food than our current systems. Combine this with a social network of swapping, trading and giving to friends and family for home grown food. Then there is no doubt in my mind that we will have created something that’s far better.

Putting my money where my mouth is

Considering the ‘mission statement‘ of this blog, this means one thing: I need to actually start growing my own food. Now this would actually be quite easy if I had a garden. As then I could use my existing knowledge (I helped my father since I’ve been a little kid) and growing vegetables and fruit in some dirt is unbelievably easy.

But alas, I live in a flat, so I don’t have any dirt I can ‘play in’. I do however have two, quite large, balconies. And this is where the experimental character comes into play. Actually growing food in containers on a balcony requires a different knowledge and skill set than gardening in a garden. I can use a lot of my knowledge about plants on a container garden. However, actually creating a good and productive environment for the plants is more difficult.

So in my experiment I’ll want to do the following things:

  1. Grow as much organic vegetables/herbs as possible with as minimal effort as possible. Like everyone else I do have a day job and a social life. So spending 1 to 2 hours a day on my garden isn’t an option. And I’ll need to grow more than the odd salad bowl a month to make it worthwhile the effort.
  2. Try to grow as much organic fruit as possible. This also has to meet the effort and yield requirements. Which will be hardest for the fruit, as fruit bearing trees and bushes are more demanding/picky about their needs.
  3. Use as little resources as possible. For a container garden you need, among other things, potting soil, seeds, plants, containers and fertilizers. You can imagine this can use quite a lot of resources, with the potential of unpleasant consequences. So the system I set up must be as efficient as possible for the resources consumed/used.

You can image this experiment isn’t little or trivial in any way. And it can easily span years to set up an easy to use system that meets the above requirements. My estimate is that it will take me about two years to set up a basic system that works (set up in first year, tweaking in second year). And then see how far I can push that system.

So this experiment will be split in smaller projects, of which the results and updates will be posted on this site.

Wish me luck with this ambitious project/experiment.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.