Lean Food

Local self-reliance in food, where the community can buy in little or nothing of what it eats. We will consider this by walking through the sequence of lean thinking: intention, lean means, flow, pull and feedback.


1. Intention: The Proximity Principle Applied to Food

As with all the other “lean” entries, the intention is to provide a starting point for thinking about how local lean economies might provide for themselves from their own resources. The degree of their local self-reliance will vary with time and place. It could lie anywhere between local lite—where communities have access to outside equipment and material resources to support their localisation—and deep local, where they do not. The ideal, for an enduring settlement in line with the proximity principle, is for routine needs to be met from local resources, with some enabling equipment and materials bought in, but the emphasis in Lean Logic is on the dark end of the spectrum, where almost no food—and none of the agricultural materials that depend on oil, gas and coal, such as nitrogen fertilisers—are available from outside the locality. This is a scenario, not a forecast, but it is a critical one to consider.

Communities will be of varying sizes, with varying quantities of land of varying quality, and the skills they will be able to bring will vary. They will have varying luck and judgment. There is less variation, however, in the means available to them—in the logic of local self-reliance in food.


2. Lean Means: Organic Foundations

If nitrogen fertilisers and the various defensive chemicals (biocides) that accompany them become unavailable, the remaining option for food production will be to turn to methods which are at least some approximation of “organic”.

Any model of food production with a future must conserve its fertility. In principle, that means it must sustain a closed-loop system, with everything it produces eventually finding its way back to the soil. But the need to feed large and distant urban populations makes this cycle hard to maintain, so the discovery by Justus von Liebig in the 1840s of a way to capture nitrogen from the air, and to combine it with oxygen to turn it into a form that could be spread on the land, was a major breakthrough. It enabled farmers to sustain the supply of food to urban populations without getting back any of the organic matter needed to sustain a healthy soil.

However, this use of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser has its problems. The first problem is that the form in which it is added to the soil—simple nitrate salts—is quite different from the complex compounds of plant and animal residues in which it comes in a natural ecology. It is a bit like the difference between drinking (or maybe sharing) a bottle of wine on its own and on an empty stomach, or drinking it in the course of a meal: the same wine will have quite different effects. The wine drunk on its own acts more quickly, gives you a rush of alcohol and makes you feel worse afterwards (though an expert analysis of the matter might conclude that any difference in the effect is all in your imagination, since the quantity and nature of the wine in each case is identical).

In the case of agriculture, farmers noticed that when their crops were fed on these “neat” nitrates, there were various unintended consequences (and Liebig himself was aware of this risk). The crops became more vulnerable to pests and diseases, so that the nitrates eventually needed to be backed up by an assortment of agro-chemical biocides. And there were consequences for the soil too, in the form of a loss of humus (we will come to what that is in a moment). This was not only due to the direct impact of soluble nitrates on soil life, but also because “bag nitrogen” encouraged farmers to reduce or even ignore crop rotation and the routine return of livestock manure and other types of organic matter to the soil.

Some farmers and researchers therefore investigated other ways of restoring nitrogen to the soil, and protecting crops from disease without the use of the chemicals—and these experiments, which drew on knowledge that had been available to farmers for a long time, proved to be successful. For instance, nitrogen is restored to the soil by leguminous plants, such as clover, beans and alfalfa, so that if crops of wheat are “rotated” over a period of, say, five years, with an annually-changing series of crops such as clover, grass (feeding sheep or cattle), beans and root vegetables, before coming back to wheat, then (in the case of best practice on a mixed farm with livestock) the soil remains well supplied with nitrogen, without the need for any industrial nitrates at all.L79

The second problem with neat nitrates (also recognised by Liebig) is that nitrogen is only one of the nutrients that plants need. There are many others. Phosphorus is needed both by plants and animals; plants need it for their enzymes to work properly, and livestock needs it for the formation of their bones. Potassium is used by plants for photosynthesis (the production of plant tissue and oxygen from carbon dioxide and sunlight), and animals use it in large quantities for the formation of their body fluids, muscle control and nervous systems. Calcium is used by plants to build their tissue, by the soil (to keep earthworms happy), and animals need it to make bones. And many other elements are needed in “trace” quantities: manganese, zinc, boron (to prevent internal rot in potatoes), copper, molybdenum, cobalt, iron (used by nitrogen-fixing bacteria)—and there is a long list of elements needed in extremely small amounts, such as chromium, nickel and selenium.L80

With each export of nutrient-rich food from the farm, the nutrients in the soil are reduced, and they are hard to replace. For instance, the soil’s stores of phosphates can be routinely topped up, mainly by phosphates imported from quarries in North Africa, but the world’s reserves are being used up quickly. Potassium is contained in almost every kind of rock, but not all soil types are rich in potassium, and it takes a long time to rebuild levels in the soil by the natural processes of weathering. It is easily extracted in industrial quantities from rocks and added to the soil as a form of salt (potash), but that gives plants a “rush” of potassium, rather than the constant moderate levels that they are adapted to, and the only available source for that is animal manure and urine. Calcium, by contrast, can easily be replaced with ground-up limestone and chalk (where these are available). The trace elements, however, are hard to replace; soils vary in their needs, and could be damaged if they are supplied in the wrong quantities, and the cost of adding them is high. Even if they were routinely applied, it could turn out to be to some extent a wasted effort, since the nitrogen fertilisers have the effect of making the soils more acid, which makes it harder for plants to absorb them.L81

For these reasons, the export of soil fertility to cities—from which the nutrients will never return—is a problem that is not solved by the application of nitrogen fertiliser. Rather, it is masked. Farmers can get high yields, but the fine detail—what the food actually contains, what biocides have had to be used for the protection that the crops cannot now provide for themselves, the condition of the soil, how long the supplies of phosphates will last, and the steady loss of trace elements—generally escapes attention. With the discovery of artificial fertilisers, we can patch up the obvious, crude deficits that develop in the soil when its fertility is exported, but that is not the same as maintaining a healthy soil with a future as a source of healthy—that is, complete—food.

This is this problem that engaged the attention of the pioneers of organic agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s. Here is one of them, Walter James (Lord Northbourne), in his book Look to the Land, which, in this context, made the first use of the word “organic”:

. . . the farm must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life. The penalty for failure to maintain this balance is, in the long run, a progressive impoverishment of the soil. Real fertility can only be built up gradually under a system appropriate to the conditions on each particular farm. Artificial manures contribute to the soil only some of the elements which are removed in crops. By the proper conservation and preparation of wastes of all kinds, absolutely everything ever taken from the soil can be returned to it.L82

Organic agriculture

Principle of health: Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

Principle of ecology: Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help to sustain them.

Principle of fairness: Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

Principle of care: Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

~ International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Headline Principles.L87

The fact that human society depends for its existence on a healthy soil is, you might think, obvious, but the organic movement (it has also gone by other names, but can be identified by the principles listed in the sidebar) has been pointing it out for a century or so, and there is still some way to go. The case, in summary, is this:

• The soil is a biologically-active, living system.

• Fertility and minerals taken out of the soil should be replaced, bringing it as close as possible to a closed-loop system.

• Those replacements should usually be composted so that the materials returned to the soil are already in a biologically active form.

• Food from a fertile soil is a necessary condition for the health of the people who eat it.

• The health of plants and animals and of the people who eat them are mutually dependent.L83

Those five points are the essence of Lady Eve Balfour’s classic, The Living Soil, a compendium of the work of the pioneers in the 1920s and 1930s. Sir Albert Howard was among the major influences on this work, and his An Agricultural Testament was the first connected explanation of what is meant by a “fertile soil”. He placed the emphasis decisively on humus—which, he explains, is . . .

. . . a complex residue of partly oxidised vegetable and animal matter together with the substances synthesised by the fungi and bacteria which break down the wastes. This humus also helps to provide the cement which enables the minute mineral soil particles to aggregate into larger compound particles and so maintain the pore space. If the soil is deficient in humus, the volume of the pore space is reduced; the aeration of the soil is impeded; there is insufficient organic matter for the soil population; the machinery of the soil runs down; the supply of oxygen, water and dissolved salts needed by the root hairs is reduced; the synthesis of carbohydrates and proteins in the green leaf proceeds at a lower tempo; growth is affected. Humus is therefore an essential material for the soil if the first phase of the life cycle is to function.L84

And humus, in turn, is a condition for the presence of mycorrhiza, the network of soil fungi which form a link between the nutrients (especially phosphorus) in the soil, and the roots of the plants that depend on them. There is a two-way flow, with organic nutrients flowing into the fungus, and inorganic nutrients being taken up by the plants. The quality and nutritional value of food relies on the efficiency of this interaction; it therefore relies on the presence of organic matter in the soil.L85

Just to be sure, Howard reminds us:

[It is] on the efficiency of this mycorrhiza association that the health and well-being of mankind must depend.L86

And yet, none of this really deals with the loss of phosphates, potassium and the micronutrients from the land. There is no doubt that organic methods mitigate the problem. The well-developed humus in organic soil conserves its nutrients and reduces or prevents erosion. The mycorrhiza it supports make the micronutrients more available to the plants in an organic system, and organic agriculture’s crop rotations invite the use of deep-rooting plants (e.g., chicory, dock) which bring micronutrients to the surface. And the depletion of micronutrients is a slow-moving problem which it is tempting, and to some extent justifiable, to defer for a time, especially when the most pressing issue is supplying the food needed to keep people alive today. But, on a longer view, the depletion of micronutrients—peak micronutrients—needs a solution. Organic cultivation is not it, but it does provide the foundations on which solutions to it can be devised. It recognises the production of food as part of the interconnected network between soil, plant, animal and man (or, as we now prefer, soil, plant, animal, human and planet). It makes the case that (as Balfour writes),

. . . the health of man, beast, plant and soil is one indivisible whole; the health of the soil depends on maintaining its biological balance and, starting with a truly fertile soil, the crops grown on it, the livestock fed on those crops and the humans fed on both have a standard of health and power of resisting disease and infection, from whatever cause, greatly in advance of anything ordinarily found . . . ; such health as we have almost forgotten should be our natural state, so used have we become to subnormal physical fitness.L88

“Health” is not now quite the key property that public opinion looks for in food; its place has been taken by other mainstream aims such as choice, cheapness and quantity. And yet, it remains a priority for critics of industrial agriculture, and organic agriculture has crucial advantages. It avoids contamination of food with biocides. It manages the land in a way that works with natural systems. It conserves the soil with its rich ecology of humus. It makes use of the natural behaviour patterns of predators—insects and birds—to control pests. It conserves the predators’ habitats. It uses strategies such as companion planting (plants that thrive together are placed close together), and it times the planting and harvesting of crops on the basis of an understanding of predators’ life-cycles. The principle here is not that the pests should be wiped out (not least because that would wipe out their natural predators, too), but that they should be kept in check so effectively that they do not damage the crop. Balfour describes the example of an organic farm that was expected to be under attack:

A large-scale organic commercial grower, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers was visited by a team of scientists from Cambridge University—they included plant pathologists and entomologists. They knew it was an unsprayed holding and they came looking for disease and pests. They found isolated examples of everything they expected to find, but, as they put it, they failed to find a single case of crop damage.L89

And she adds,

Whenever pests appear in unmanageable numbers, it is probably safe to assume that nature’s balance of species has in some way been upset [by] man’s mismanagement.L90

Here, then, we have the bare bones of the art of getting food from the earth. And that takes us to the third snag arising from the use of soluble nitrogen and other agro-chemical fertilisers: lean economies won’t be able to get hold of them anyway. They will have to develop other ways of sustaining a healthy soil. Organic cultivation is the only means by which a community can supply its own food. It does not import fertility by the bag; it does all it can to stop it going to waste; it protects its soil; it uses no manufactured biocides. In terms of its direct requirements (that is, not counting the energy needed to manufacture and drive its equipment), it is self-reliant, and close to being self-sufficient.

In its present form, it is of course profoundly dependent on oil and gas for transport, and for equipment and operations such as drying grain or hay, but these dependencies are not intrinsic to it. The process itself (as distinct from the equipment it uses) would still be a functioning, productive source of food even if those energy supplies were not available, and that would by no means be true of conventional agriculture, whose use of nitrates and biocides makes it intrinsically dependent on oil, gas and/or coal. It is a measure of how far our industrial economy has distanced itself from the land that we are able to think of the baseline of rational, local organic food production as being a special case, even as a luxury. In the local lean community, decentralisation and a focus on local capability will not be a lifestyle choice. There will be no alternative.

So we have convergence here. What is right for a healthy soil is also right—in fact, indispensable—for a self-reliant community. It is always a good sign when the solution to one problem turns out to be a solution to one or more others at the same time. That should be no surprise, of course, because we are talking about a complex system, and the insides of such systems join up: common purpose matures to common capability.

And yet, that is not the whole story. The problem of the micronutrients remains unsolved. And this description of the means of growing local food does not really explain how it can be done—how, from that baseline, to discover ways of feeding a community. So this is the moment to continue our progress along the sequence of lean thinking: the next stage is flow.


3. Flow: Flexible Applications

What, then, is flow in the context of providing food for a community? It means inspired flexibility. That could take many forms, all of them right in their own way, and having a contribution to make. The best will no doubt come in the form of inventions of the time and place, but here, for the time being, are some suggestions: a diverse range of food crops that ripen over an extended time rather than all at once; the use of all the horizontal, vertical and below-the-surface spaces for its food; little in the way of clear boundaries between one use of the space and another, or between one ecology and another; broadly-based participation in the supply of food in community; local synergies—that is, ways of joining up the many parts of the food cycle through the whole sequence from harvest to harvest, including the use of all human and animal waste; a convergence of skills—hands and heads, ecology and community.

That sounds like permaculture. There is nothing new about that way of thinking, though the name (a combination of permanent + agriculture + culture)—was first published by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as recently as 1978. What is new is the realisation that it is intensely relevant to our time. Organic agriculture and permaculture are both intended as imitations of nature, but permaculture follows that principle through, working with natural ecologies including permanent grasslands, wetlands, estuaries, forests of various ages and types, and edge-ecologies between one form and another. Permaculture’s case is that, with enlightened intervention, those natural ecologies can be guided towards forms and mixtures of species which, despite the lack of assistance from fossil fuels, are extremely productive.L91


Permaculture is designed to produce a yield within a closed-loop system, recycling as much as it can of its own waste, relying on renewable sources of energy and on ecosystem services such as a healthy soil and natural predators. It uses the diversity of plants and animals, devising ways to integrate them into productive, small-scale, local guilds and ecologies. It applies tested patterns to local situations and it values the opportunities supplied at the margins between distinct ecologies.

There is emphasis on close observation and personal interaction with the ecology, on the need to adjust our own intentions in the light of what we observe, and on creative response to changes in it.

Permaculture has application both to food production and to whole human habitats. It aims to build complex mosaics of ecological exchange, producing a rich flow of food and materials with the minimum need for intervention.

~ Derived from the Design Principles in David Holmgren, Permaculture, 2002L93

Permaculture’s most distinctive form is the forest garden. Forest gardens are based on the principle of “layering”: instead of using the sunlight at just one level, and for a limited period of the year, plants of different heights use it at many levels and on different timings. For the extreme illustration of this we can look to forest gardening in places where there is no winter to speak of. In southeastern Nigeria, local smallholdings are layered in up to nine storeys, with crops consisting of fruit (breadfruit, pear, mango, orange, lime, papaya, bananas and pepper), tree vegetables, timber, fertilisers, thatching, snake repellents, gums, dyes, spices, ground vegetables, maize, melons, yams and peanuts. This is a virtuoso performance, not just in the variety of food and materials produced in a small space, but in their quality. And making it happen—as Robert Hart, the pioneer of temperate forest gardens points out—takes “skilled craftsmanship”.L92 He explains,

A tropical rainforest is a supreme and infinitely varied work of art, but with a touch of human genius, it can be converted into a forest garden system, even more beautiful and vastly more productive. . . . A forest garden, replete with fruit and foliage, blooms, birds and insects, mammals and fungi, fascinating scents and sounds, can be a work of art comparable to any of humankind’s highest cultural attainments . . . a profoundly practical answer to the technology developed since the Industrial Revolution.L94

Can it be done in temperate regions? Well, yes, it can, but that does mean a considerable revision to what is meant by “forest”—and whether it can be called a “forest garden” is a matter of taste.L95 At the very least, there are gaps in the forest, perhaps containing grassland crops—grass, wheat, oats and barley—and water plants. Raised beds with cabbages, leeks and courgettes may also be found in a forest garden, and could look just like what most people would call a vegetable patch. What distinguishes this from more conventional forms of cultivation is that flow of diversity, on the edge of disorder: comfrey for compost, fruit trees, nut trees, a fish pond and crops growing at different heights and to different timings, a harmonic order of species together in the same place. That can only be done if there is a wide variety of species to choose from, to suit local conditions, and permaculture deliberately explores the much underdeveloped potential here. As a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation concludes,

Of more than 50,000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three—rice, maize and wheat—making up two-thirds of this.L96

Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, adds, “It is baffling that we are so reliant on so few species.” And now, with extended studies from Ken Fern, Martin Crawford and others, we have comprehensive guidance on the edible plants, their nature, cultivation and use.L97

There may also be larger fields and larger animals for cereals and milk, playing their part in the cycle of crop rotations, so the diversity will almost certainly include meat: future society would have to be rich indeed if it were willing to forgo the use of uplands for sheep, wild forest for deer, livestock as an integral part of crop rotations, the many uses of pigs and chickens in a waste-free closed-loop system, and rabbits, pigeons and fish as easily-available sources of protein.

A hyperdiverse ecology of this kind undoubtedly encourages an intense spirit of experimentation—established examples include using perennial crops wherever possible (no need for annual sowing); ingenuity in joining systems up in productive ways; or developing the potential of close reciprocal collaboration with chickens. If chickens forage in an orchard in the autumn and winter, and corn marigold, fleabane and ox-eye daisy grow there in the spring and summer, the apples are unlikely to be troubled by pests and diseases. From the bugs’ point of view, chickens are ferocious. They spell trouble for codling moth, apple-, plum- and gooseberry-sawfly, winter moth, scab, pear mite, slugworm, raspberry beetle and cane midge. And they can also warm up your greenhouse, clear vegetable beds of slugs and seeds ready for cultivation, provide manure, save the trouble of digging, pick the lice off pigs, get rid of household scraps and clear willow coppice of the brassy beetle. Oh, and they lay eggs and provide succulent meat, and you can make soup from their bones.L98

Examples, with and without digging

The horticulturalists Alan Chadwick and (later) John Jeavons used physically-demanding, deep-bed, double-dig methods. They followed through the logic of closed-loop systems to their limit, recycling all waste, including post mortem human remains, and they had the benefit of the California climate. Their results were prodigious: they showed that a complete diet for one adult can be achieved on 2,800 square feet (260m2).L99

Michael and Julia Guerra do it without digging: “Why double-dig when you can let the earthworms take the strain? In our 75m2 no-dig urban garden, with raised beds, multilayered plants and about a million hard-working worms, we can get around 150kg of food per year (excluding the 25% that is returned to compost as kitchen waste). That works out at about 26 tonnes per hectare. For food self-sufficiency we would need around 250m2 of perfect soil, climate and aspect per person. We do have to import stable manure to offset the loss via the flush toilet, but we can get by with 30% less of that by adding fertility as a mulch on top of the living soil instead of digging it in. That keeps the worms happy and we let them get on with it.”L100

Charles Dowding, in partnership with his local ecology, has created an enchanting and productive source of vegetables for his part of Somerset. His key recommendation: “Please don’t dig!”L101

In the midst of all this, there is an intelligent, thoughtful species, with a light tread, that knows what it is doing, and has designed the local ecology with insight, making constant interventions like digging unnecessary. Permaculture finds the point of leverage in the system, so that it wants to do what you want it to do; it takes to the fullest development its economies of scale—that is, small scale—and the very high levels of productivity per square metre that are possible under the care of a gardener who knows what he or she is doing. It provides an intense insight into the potential for gardening the world: food production based on attention to detail.L102

And if you are still wondering, after all this, why you can’t put your finger on what permaculture is, and where the difference lies between it and organic gardening, don’t be alarmed, for (as the permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins observes) it is famously difficult to explain in the pub. The reason is that permaculture is not a technique; it is an enlightened freedom to think. Although guiding principles have been devised, it is its commitment to breaking through into fresh uses of local chance and detail that makes it so powerful. You can’t really explain that to the man in the pub. You can explain the specifics of what you have done, or plan to do, but abstractions about how you have opened your mind to anything suggested by the site and inspiration sound vague.L103

The sequence is:

Observe the site in detail and at length: land, water, soil, sunlight, gradients, buildings, boundaries and walking distances.

Design and map the ecology to take root there; review it, reflect on it, imagine living in it.

Enable it. This is the hard work phase—planting; building raised beds and paths; maybe digging a pond or a well; using spaces which catch the sun now, but won’t when the trees you are planting are grown.

Participate. No longer playing The Maker of your productive ecology, you can now take a rest. Well, in part at least, although those raised beds will need frequent attention, not far short of what a gardener with a family to feed would recognise. You are now part of it, living off it, and nudging it, joining up in the network of connectedness which makes an interactive natural system.

Patrick Whitefield summarises, “Permaculture can be described as careful thought followed by minimum action.”L104

Permaculture is, in this sense, a return to normal. Its advocates explain it with enthusiasm, but in the end, it sounds completely obvious: “Yes, but what’s special about it?” Nothing—that’s the whole point. What is special is a model of farming designed in imitation of industry and relying on stocks of unreplaceable fuels to maintain its fertility, to distribute its produce, to protect it from attack by predators, and to support the growth-dependent, fuel-addicted, market economy as the foundation on which the whole structure is built. Permaculture is, in contrast, but brilliantly, nothing special. The output of permaculture or forest gardens is diverse and abundant, but it will not provide bulk deliveries of the identical quality and standards required by a supermarket. As Whitefield explains, a forest garden . . .

. . . will almost certainly yield less top fruit than a simple orchard, less berries than a pure stand of soft fruit bushes, and less vegetables than a simple vegetable garden, but it will produce more in total than any of the single layer plantings.L105

It is therefore a culture for the small-scale, for short distances, for the informal economy. It is for ecologies whose human participants live close by. As Whitefield reflects:

A forest garden does not need a lot of work, but it does need attention. Though it can stand the odd spell of neglect, if it only gets attended to in occasional bursts of energy a few vigorous plants will take over the lower layers and much of the food will go unharvested. It needs someone to wander through it regularly to see how it is getting on, to cut back a rampant plant here, add a little mulch there, pick those tender little leaves or juicy berries before they go past their best. In short it needs someone to inhabit it.L106

And that explains why, among its inhabitants, teachers and advocates, there is so strong an emphasis on permaculture as an ethic. Ethics acknowledge a frame of reference beyond immediate opportunism and the ethic of permaculture comes from the whole experience of the place we live in; from intense engagement with a living ecology that you are part of, and that has a mind of its own. Here we have a network of obligations and mutual care, of sacrifice and ingenuity for the common purpose. Permaculture is ethics made edible.


4. Pull: Participation

Pull is about the invention of solutions; the motivation to accomplish more than you thought you could. And it is happening now, at the beginning of a wonderful worldwide wave of interest in growing our own food, of taking control of what we eat. We have a sketch-map of some of this from Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins:L107

Home-grown food, after a long decline, especially during the affluent half-century 1955-2005, is now on the turn towards recovery. Advice and local support for people who want to grow their own is beginning to reach people who have never done it before, with visits to experienced gardeners and their gardens as sources of inspiration, backed up by websites and local tuition, now strongly encouraged by local Transition groups.L108

• Space within or on the edge of cities has always been needed as a resource, especially for fresh food, and the United Kingdom’s allotments—which fell into neglect, along with a loss of local skills, after reaching their peak during the Second World War—are getting attention again. Most allotments are rented and tended by individuals, but some are collectively managed, allowing people to specialise in the jobs they do best, pooling experience, ensuring continuity, providing encouragement and supplying a wide selection of produce. The demand for them is increasing and some local authorities are responding to this by making more land available, but the problem of land, which will prove to be so critical in the future, is already beginning to be felt as allotment waiting lists lengthen.L109

• Some gardens are larger than their owners can care for; some would-be gardeners have a garden that is too small for them, or no garden at all. There is a natural solution to this: garden shares. Garden owners invite people to grow vegetables in their gardens in return for a supply for their own use. These schemes have been encouraged by the Transition movement, and by freelance initiatives such as Landshare—an exchange service which puts people with garden space in touch with people who could use it. Pinkerton and Hopkins provide guidelines on how to make this rational use of resources work.L110

Community gardens make use of whatever space in the locality seems to be suitable and available—at least for now: neglected orchards, back gardens and spaces on housing estates. Some of this opportunism spills over into guerrilla gardening, in which local authorities and absentee owners may—or may not—be pleasantly surprised by the improvements that have been covertly made to the use of their land. If the results are both decorative and edible, they can attract legitimate offers of less marginal land, such as the garden at the local railway station. Out-of-bounds vegetable growing in a West Yorkshire town in the UK has led to a vegetable-rich urban landscape known as Incredible Edible Todmorden.L111

• Of all ways of supplying local food, community orchards have the clearest potential for celebration. The fruit harvest is a natural festival, with fruit to eat, to cook, to make into juice and cider, to give away. And there are the skills of orchard-keeping to be taught: pruning, looking after the land between the trees (sheep and chickens, maybe), bee-keeping, and the selection of trees and varieties that will pollinate together. As Sue Clifford, co-director of Common Ground, writes, orchards and their carers weave culture and nature together in “a philosophy of living well with the world”.L112

• Then there is community supported agriculture (CSA). This is the model of local food production in which the growing is in the hands of a professional, who earns his or her income from it, but the members of the scheme make regular payments into it and, in return, receive weekly supplies of the food produced. The grower gets a secure income; transport is minimal; there are no intermediaries to claim their mark-up; the schemes’ members get the kind of food they want, grown to the standard they want, and there is the freedom to test practical ideas and take them forward. Some schemes, for instance, are using the opportunity to explore deep reductions in their dependence on fossil fuels. CSAs are designed on the presumption that there is a robust market economy in the background but if, or when, that changes, they will be relatively well placed to adapt.L113

Farmers’ markets allow growers to sell to their consumers direct, supplying both fresh and prepared food in much smaller quantities than the supermarkets would take. And by doing without the intermediaries, they can get a better return for what they produce, without having to raise the price. And the markets are convivial, sustaining networks of acquaintance and conversation across the community.L114

Food cooperatives buy from known local growers producing to whatever standards the community wants. Prices are kept down because much of the work is done by volunteers—the co-production which means that co-ops have (at least) one foot in the informal economy. This model, too, with its established short-distance supply lines, will be comparatively well placed for a future economy with very little money.L115

Is there really no one right way of doing it? That’s pull for you, especially when it gets into the diverse experimentalism of the Lean Economy. These community food solutions are still on a small scale, and even if they are to some extent independent of the market economy, they rely on the stability it provides, and on income flows to provide most of a household’s other material needs. But in the future, with no such market, and maybe no such stability, the task of inventing solutions will be several steps closer to reality where some of these foundations of local self-reliance in food are already in place.


5. Feedback: Organic Capital, Organic Conversation

The feedback that guides and stabilises all this comes in two ways. First, the fertility cycle. This closes the loop by which—as Walter James (Lord Northbourne) puts it above—absolutely everything taken from the soil is returned to it. It is easily said, but hard to achieve. There is no easy way of ensuring that all human wastes are composted and returned to the soil—and that applies especially to potassium, whose transport medium is urine, which quickly leaves the area in a water-based toilet system. As a general rule, the smaller the population, the more feasible it becomes to design and sustain ways of closing the loop in its use of waste. There are, for instance, highly-efficient means of capturing and composting human waste, as well as using urine. One of them involves compost toilets, which work best when urine and faeces are kept separate; but are difficult to design for use above ground-floor level, and some reluctance to use them has been observed. Other means include digesters, which obtain methane, and therefore energy, from decomposing waste. And there are several ways of holding waste and extracting nutrients from the water—by, for instance, growing reeds and aquatic plants in it, and then composting them.L116

The literature on the subject is large and seemingly addictive. It appeals to minds with an outlook on life which will be extremely useful—indispensable, in fact—to local lean economies that appreciate their waste as the capital on which their future depends. It is about loving shit as much as once we loved money. This is the new capitalism.

And feedback in the second sense? Eating the food, of course. But nothing in the organic cycle comes on its own, and eating is no exception: eating invites conversation; organic conversation invites the reflection that supports a human ecology; the ecology supports the whole sequence of reciprocal exchange and gifts—between lovers, amongst families, neighbours and communities—and the gift that is ahead of all others is food. It is given at rituals called “meals”.L117

Mealtime conversations can go anywhere. But they are especially critical to—and often the only way of sustaining—conversations which are not instrumental—that have no practical value. Such conversation-for-its-own-sake can, as Catherine Blyth writes “come close to heaven”. It is the gift of humour, affection, being interesting. It is by far the most important means by which human groups stay together. It is hard to sustain a tedious and infantile ideology over a meal: someone is likely to disagree, and you can’t use notes, or slides. And you need to stop talking sometimes in order to eat. Even if manners are observed, deferential silence is short-lived. You can discover you like someone at a mealtime conversation. Shared meals are the starting point for the common purpose of a community that is working out how to feed itself.


Related entries:

Food Prospects, Larders, Planned Economy, Ecology: Farmers and Hunters.


« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

One Response to “Lean Food

  • I wanted to point out a remarkable location in Portland Oregon, USA; Kailash Eco Village. They have the most complete circular system I have seen so far with up to 55 occupants this renovated apartment complex use all human excrement to fertilize the food forest there in a wonderfully controlled system.


Comment on this entry: