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Sustainable Food Production, Is Permaculture the Answer?
- Part 6

March 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

Sustainable Food Production, Is Permaculture the Answer?
- Part 6

by John Rawlins

John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.

Past issues in this peak oil series have touched on a wide variety of impacts that experts expect to result from permanently declining world conventional oil and natural gas production. This article discusses the impact of oil descent on our food supply.

Over the past year plus a bit, total world oil production has been statistically constant; perhaps this is the plateau before the eventual decline, or maybe it’s a pause before slightly increased production for a short time before the decline.

My hunch, based on recent news concerning the world’s four super-giant oil fields (all now in decline), is that decline of total world production is imminent and within three years of beginning that descent. For the U.S., an even more worrisome prediction concerns the pool of oil known as the world export pool — that amount of oil shipped from one country to another. The U.S. imports some 60 percent of its oil.

As time goes on, the number of countries with excess oil for export is declining, and recent news from Mexico’s super-giant Cantarell field (second largest in the world, now declining at 15 percent per year) indicates that by 2008 Mexico could have no oil available for export. Since the U.S. currently gets about 8 percent of its oil from Mexico (or about 1.6 million barrels/day), that translates into shortages in the U.S. next year and increasing within three years to 1.6 mbbl/d (million barrels per day) shy of what we currently use — just from Mexico.

Another country we depend on for a comparable amount of imported oil is Saudi Arabia, and peak oil analysts energetically debate whether the Saudis have entered decline. Their debate now focuses on the world’s largest super-giant Ghawar field, which produces about half of Saudi oil. Mexico has been very open and public about their production issues — Saudi Arabia has not! You can read the Mexico article at the following Web site:

The last time the U.S. experienced shortages of that magnitude was in the 1970s, when we learned that shortages of around 5 percent led to gasoline rationing, hour-long lines at gasoline pumps, speed limit reductions, high gasoline (oil) prices and “stagflation” (high unemployment plus high inflation rates). Such is the nature of a decreased supply of a fundamentally required commodity in the industrial world economic system — and surely there is no more fundamental commodity than oil in all Western societies.

Biggest Worry Is Food

The political emergencies of those years ultimately receded, and we have since reverted to consumption as usual. The future shortages will, in contrast, be permanent and worse each passing year. My biggest worry is food — being able to get a well-rounded diet that is organic, adequate and affordable. In a previous issue, I reported that present U.S. food production is almost totally dependent on fossil fuel (oil and natural gas). We obviously must begin to redevelop our food production system, on an individual basis.

A quick example will illustrate how we will fare if we rely on government action to protect our food supply. In the 2007 State of the Union (SOTU) speech, Bush said we will strive to quintuple our corn-based ethanol supply to replace some oil — specifically foreign oil (huh? — who can tell the difference between foreign and domestic?). If one evaluates these numbers carefully, one finds that this would require the entire present corn crop for ethanol production, and that this would replace only about 11 percent of the energy content of our present gasoline consumption.

So what would be the impact on food supply? Well, we currently feed about 50 percent of our corn to U.S. animals, 20 percent to animals in other countries (export), 20 percent to ethanol producers, and 10 percent to other uses including corn syrup and sweetener — and surprisingly little for direct human consumption of corn kernels. We do, of course, eat the meat that requires all that energy in the form of corn. I reported in an earlier article that corn-based ethanol may not even be sustainable.

Already, some U.S. farmers have started to grow corn in place of soybeans, and, if we embark on the new initiative described in the SOTU speech, that trend will continue to cut into soy (and other) products. Meanwhile, there is less food for humans, and, because of the domino effect of crop replacement, food prices will move up correspondingly.

Price of Oil Will Set Price of Groceries

In fact, the price of oil will set the price of food. Exports will fall, which will exacerbate our negative balance of trade, and whoever depends on our food exports will either starve or find a replacement source of food. However, according to Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, the world is now producing less food each year than it consumes, so there is no replacement. This is resulting in a steady drawdown of world food reserves, and within the next decade the reserves will be zero. (

After that, there will be food emergencies until, in the distant future, the number of humans (who will no longer be eating corn-fed meat) will eventually be in balance with the available food supply in a virtually oil-free world. From 1976 until 1996 I worked for the government but was never a big fan of what I saw there; now I distrust it intensely and plan to do my best to take charge of providing our own food supply as quickly as possible, and furthermore to pass that information and infrastructure on to our children.

Whether this is part of the aging process or a dose of retirement-based reality I may never really know. Meanwhile, corn prices have doubled over the last year as a result of ethanol production growth. (

Sugar prices have tripled over the last three years, because of ethanol production in Brazil. (

At least the Brazilian method of producing ethanol produces much more energy than it uses, so it may turn out to be a sustainable system.

Organic, Local and Personal

At the present time, we rely on petrochemicals for fertilizer (natural gas), pesticides (oil), plus a heavy dose of diesel fuel (oil) for farm machinery and food transport all over the country (and indeed even from the southern hemisphere during our winter). Growing food without those inputs will clearly require the following:

•Organic growing (no chemical fertilizers or pesticides),

•Local growing (minimal transport) and

•Personal growing by a large number of people (keeping food costs down).

When Cuba lost their oil supply from the former Soviet Union, their food-growing infrastructure transformed to meet those exact three requirements in a matter of just a few years. They developed permaculture (permanent agriculture) gardens, forest gardens and intensive personal organic vegetable gardens, with almost half the population involved in growing food.

In the U.S., currently only 1 percent of the population grows food — we face a huge learning curve and need to get with the program yesterday. To paraphrase James Kunstler in one of his best articles ever on peak oil: don’t carp at me because I bring bad tidings, get your rear in gear and do something about it, such as growing food. You’ll eat better, feel better, learn what soil really is and save money. (

Libraries and bookstores generally have dozens of books on organic gardening. In this issue I’ll introduce a few potentially sustainable food-growing concepts. One area about which I know almost nothing is raising animals — we’ve never raised anything but chickens for eggs, and I am a vegetarian for health reasons.

Many knowledgeable people believe that survival in northern climates (short growing seasons) will depend not only on vegetables, nuts, fruits and berries, but also meat for protein — soy comes from many miles away and fisheries are already in decline. I’ve considered raising goats and/or sheep for dairy products, meat, fiber and hides — but so far have done nothing except for some casual reading.

Permaculture Began in 1970s

The permaculture concept began in the 1970s in Australia with Bill Mollison, who partnered with his student David Holmgren. Both have written books, and I have watched some videos narrated by Mollison. Permaculture includes the development of agricultural ecosystems and human systems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. One of the overarching ideas is to zone one’s property so that food production requiring regular attention is close to the house, putting production requiring less attention in a more distant zone along with potential domestic animals.

The general idea of permaculture is to plant lots of perennials so that one does not have to replant all the food each year. This simulates a hunter/gatherer situation with a deliberate high density of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and edible groundcover. Grassy areas are not for lawns, but for animal pasture. One can also use animals to clear land, including elimination of grass along with any attendant chemical fertilizers, followed by more permaculture crops. Two books that describe the philosophy and application in detail are the following:

•“Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability,” by David Holmgren (2002, Holmgren Design Services)

•“Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual,” by Bill Mollison (2nd edition, Tagarri Publications).

When carefully applied, it appears that permaculture applied on enough property has the potential to be sustainable, or nearly so.

Early last summer I organized a day trip for 12 people to take a three-hour tour of the Bullock brothers’ permaculture site on Orcas Island. The eight-acre site (plus 10 leased acres) occupies a south-facing hillside and includes a large swamp at the bottom. Water management is a major feature of the site, and is powered by a few used solar cell panels. They have grown a huge variety of trees, shrubs and groundcover and continue to do plant breeding for local growers and for sale.

They currently average around 10 interns at any one time to help with the workload and to conduct their own experiments. They also have several intensive-growth vegetable gardens in raised beds, and some of the gardens require high fencing to keep deer out.

The Bullocks have been developing this site since the late 1970s and it is one of the more mature permaculture sites in the world. Each summer there are permaculture design courses (two weeks in duration) in western Washington state. The Bullock brothers generally host and help instruct a course, and the Wilder Institute in Port Townsend also generally has a course.

I have also heard of a course nearer an urban setting in Snohomish. Plant nurseries supporting permaculture plantings in western Washington include Raintree Nursery (the biggest) near Seattle and Cloud Mountain Nursery near Everson. When we can’t find what we want from Cloud Mountain, we order from Raintree. Of course, Bellingham has several other very high quality nurseries for many fruit and berry crops.

Forest Gardening, Soil Care and Seeds

A term very closely related to permaculture is forest gardening, and perhaps all forest gardeners consider themselves permaculture practitioners. The “forest” is a system of trees that all yield food (fruit and nut trees), with berry bushes and groundcover between and around the trees to simulate a mid-succession natural forest. Again, all plants are perennials, and most are food crops. Robert Hart was apparently the pioneer of forest gardening in temperate climates. The following book describes the design and planting of a forest garden for a location in England, with a similar climate to that of Whatcom County: “How to Make a Forest Garden,” by Patrick Whitefield (3rd edition 2002, Permanent Publications).

We have long grown some of our vegetable crops, and plan to continue doing so, with one major shift — we want to do it sustainably, requiring (in principal) no outside inputs. We improved yields by following recommendations in Steve Solomon’s book “Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times,” but so far we have had to purchase enough compost to make this more intensive, raised-bed system work.

Solomon recommends digging a bed to a full shovel’s depth, breaking up and aerating the soil, mixing compost into the top two inches and if necessary using soil amendments to get nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus levels desired. The outside shovel width of soil alongside the bed, which should be five feet width or less, is placed on and mixed with the soil bed, so the result is a slightly raised bed with a hard walking path on either side.

The height of the bed above the walking path will initially be about a foot, perhaps a little more. This results in about 12 to 15 inches of aerated soil with about the right mix of solid particles, air and moisture for good root growth. There are no wooden boxes confining the growing bed in this method.

Solomon emphasizes the need to take good care of the soil (since withdrawing food for consumption also withdraws key nutrients from the soil). This requires as much compost as possible, and possibly periodic additions of other soil amendments. He also devotes an entire chapter to seeds and has very strong recommendations for sources that provide high quality seeds. In line with his recommendations, we now mainly purchase seeds from the Territorial Seed Company located in Cottage Grove, Oregon. (

Some of the seed sellers in Bellingham sell Territorial seeds, and you can also get a fine catalog and order seeds from the company Web site. This is not the only recommended U.S. seed source with a climate similar to ours, but it’s the only one I have tried so far. Our first partial growing season using Solomon’s recommended methods did result in larger lettuce plants as well as a great crop of kale and bok choi that continued through the winter months.

Bio-Intensive Gardening

Recently a Whatcom Watch reader (thank you, Dan) contacted me and described another potentially sustainable food growing concept frequently called bio-intensive gardening, promoted persuasively by John Jeavons. This gardening method grows vegetables very intensively (closely spaced) in relatively small spaces.

Planting bed preparation according to Jeavons differs somewhat from that of Solomon. Jeavons recommends “double-digging” the bed, which might be five feet wide by 20 feet long (100 square feet, enough space with his method to feed half a person for a full year!). First, working across the bed, dig a trench 12 inches deep and save that soil for making compost. Then use a fork to break up the soil in the trench to a depth of another 12 inches.

Then move to the adjacent part of the bed, again dig up the top 12 inches and put it on top of the loosened trench from the first dig. Loosen the newly exposed bottom 12 inches again, and so on until the row is as long as you want it. This results in soil aerated to a total depth of 24 inches, and roots can grow very deeply compared with the roots in Solomon’s bed of just over a foot deep.

Because of all the digging the soil will appear raised compared to un-dug soil, but again no wooden sides are necessary or desirable. An added advantage is that the deep roots can bring certain nutrients from very deep to the surface, hopefully decreasing the amounts of soil amendments one has to purchase.

Because the roots in this system can grow deep, they don’t need to spread out horizontally as much as in the Solomon method, and many more plants can be packed into a given area, perhaps two to four times as many as in one of Solomon’s beds of the same size. Jeavons advocates care of the soil above all else, for reasons already described above; he also describes how to provide that care with composting, the double-dug beds and possibly some initial soil amendments to compensate for inadequate soil nutrients, chemistry and structure.

Jeavons also emphasizes the advantages of mixed planting of ‘companion’ species — a concept also used by permaculture advocates (who describe plant “guilds,” or groups of plants that grow well next to one another). The high density of plants makes it possible to place good ‘companion’ plants close to each other in this growing system. To help with maintenance of soil nutrient levels, Jeavons insists on planting winter compost crops as well.

Yet another Whatcom Watch reader invited us to her house (thank you, Mary) and showed us ideas for bed designs, mulch and composting. In late January she had rutabagas, carrots and kale in her beds. We’re now inspired to do even more late-season planting, including some of the winter “compost crops” recommended by Jeavons in the following book: “How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” by John Jeavons (7th edition, 2006, Ten Speed Press).

There is also an abbreviated version of that book, called “The Sustainable Vegetable Garden: A Backyard Guide to Healthy Soil and Higher Yields, by John Jeavons and Carol Cox (1999, Ten Speed Press).”

The bio-intensive methods of Jeavons, combined with some complementary ideas from Solomon, combined with elements of the permaculture techniques, would also work very well in urban environments for relatively small yards currently sporting all-American, uninspiring, noisy, fuel-sucking lawns.

Replace Lawns With Food Crops

Some cities have perma-blitz groups, which will provide experienced volunteers to help homeowners wanting to replace grassy areas with food crops — a win-win in an energy-challenged future. This eliminates the cost of mowing and all that lawn care, including chemicals, when food prices are sure to be much higher than today.

I’ve heard of a group called Food Not Lawns operating in Bellingham, but have yet to meet a member. Reportedly, the group helps perform the equivalent of a perma-blitz for willing homeowners — or perhaps they provide advice on how to convert grassy areas to food production. This movement may have begun in Oregon, and there is an Oregon-based Web site describing the group’s activities:

All the authors listed above are highly insistent on the need to develop good soils using composting methods (and even organic fertilizer input as needed, even though the world may run out of this stuff in the distant future). I wish I had a background in soil science, and this is now high on my list of areas to study in my future after full retirement from teaching.

I also look forward to actually taking a permaculture design course, learning to apply the best aspects of the sustainable growing methods mentioned above, and even experimenting with seed saving and sharing with friends. This is far removed from the science I studied and practiced in my career, but I enjoy it even more — largely because of the time spent outdoors.

Portland Passed Peak Oil Resolution

On a final note for this article, the idea of re-localization of just about everything in our lives has received a boost from the release of a report in Portland. In 2006, the Portland City Council passed a resolution declaring the need for the city to develop an energy descent plan to deal with the expected impacts of peak oil. The council then established a Peak Oil Task Force, which has just released (January 2007) a public comment copy of its report on expected impacts and recommendations.

Students in my Whatcom Community College energy class and I are critically reviewing the document now, and we plan to submit comments on it to the Portland task force. We then plan to identify modifications that we would need in order to apply the same template to the city of Bellingham, in hopes that some day our city and county will begin to deal with the problem of energy descent.

One of the major features of the task force report is its treatment of the subject of food supply; these authors, too, see a huge need for individuals throughout the Portland area to become involved in growing food in urban, suburban and rural areas using sustainable growing methods. The Web site for downloading or reading a copy of that report is:

Planning for this future is a major opportunity for people interested in broadening the traditional permaculture philosophy to deal with the multitude of problems associated with oil dependence and decline throughout our culture. It’s in our collective best interest to deal with today’s massively unsustainable lifestyle problems from an entirely different perspective (to paraphrase Albert Einstein) than the one we used to get us into this mess. Maybe permaculture, based as it is on common sense and ecological ethics, is that needed perspective.

The next article in this series will describe what some towns and cities around the world are doing about energy descent planning. §

Questions? Comments? E-mail John at: (please include “Whatcom Watch article” in your subject line — to insure your message goes through).

Next Month: Global Peak Oil Planning.

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