Permanent, multi-story agriculture

Long-term redesign of the food system involves substantial shifts to food from perennial plants and highly metabolically efficient animals and animal products.  Although there are many farm-level successful examples of such "permaculture" systems, little economic analysis has been conducted on a wider level, although what has been done suggests economic viability for many operations at a range of scales (Bastien, 2016). Bastien (2016) reported in her Quebec study that viability was enhanced with organic certification, value added products and limited numbers of enterprises and off-farm employment.   Modelling work has yet to be undertaken to help identify transition pathways to perennial agriculture, especially the mix of perennial and annual systems that will sustain the Canadian population while minimizing resource use and environmental disruption.

The most relevant modelling, dating back to the 1970s and 80s, has been done on widespread transition to organic farming. Although methodologically controversial and not definitive, with organic systems still largely dependent on annual crops, and metabolically inefficient animals, these studies concluded that significant benefits would result from the shift, including improved food quality, enhanced environmental and human health, higher net farm income, and lower government subsidy payments and crop storage costs (Oelhaf, 1978; USDA, 1980; Langley et al., 1983; Vogtmann, 1984, Cacek and Langner, 1986; World Commission on Environment and Development, 1981; Havlicek and Edward., 1989). The effect on consumer food prices was projected to be minimal (Oelhaf, 1983) or substantial (up to 99% increases in some commodities (Langley et al., 1983).  Farm employment and farmer numbers could increase (Cornucopia Project, 1984; Enniss, 1985) and small- to medium-size farms could become more viable (Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, 1980; Madden, 1989). Access to labour, particularly skilled labour would become a concern with more adoption (USDA, 1980; Langley et al., 1983). Bellon and Tranchant (1981) feared that the aging farm population, in combination with the demand by young people for urban-style work conditions, could limit the number of farmers and farm labourers even though work conditions were projected to be better than on conventional farms for those with environmental conscience (Blake, 1987).  Other challenges were projected to include:

  • Possibility of limited access to acceptable farm-scale sources of K for organic producers (Vogtmann et al., 1986). Efficient recycling of wastes and soil conservation were seen as long-term solutions.
  • Limited physical and economic access to manure. Farms that did not produce their own manure would find supplies increasingly difficult to obtain as more farms converted (USDA, 1980; Vail and Rozyne, 1982; Langley et al., 1983).
  • Dependence on imported manure would not, however, be a long-term sustainable practice.
  • Limited access to suitable equipment (e.g., tillage, manure, and slurry management), supplies (e.g., biocontrol agents), and services (e.g., pest monitoring, transition advice).
  • Access to land due to  consolidation

Studies since those early ones have been even more positive on the potential for organic agriculture to feed the world (cf. Zanoli et al., 2000; Badgley et al., 2007; Badgley and Perfecto, 2007; Reganold and Wachter, 2016), though again with significant reliance on annual crops and with assumptions not entirely consistent with the frameworks of this site. Other studies have summarized many analyses of agroecological approaches to farming (which can include organic production) in the global south, often involving more perennials than northern systems, and found significantly higher yields when compared to conventional production (cf. Pretty et al., 2003; D'Annolfo et al., 2017; Adidja et al., 2019).

More recently, and more appropriate to this analysis, Muller et al. (2017) modelled wholescale adoption of organic farming to 2050 in combination with changes to animal diets to less food-competing animal feed, a corresponding reduction in animal numbers and production, and reduced food waste.  Their results  show that a scenario with  60% conversion to organic production, with 50% less food-competing feed and 50% less food waste would need little additional land to meet human requirements.  Dietary shifts, in line with a sustainable diet scenario (see Goal 2, Demand-supply Coordination, Substitution) would include less animal product, and more legumes. Barbieri et al. (2021), in a related analysis, concluded that 40-60% of global agriculture production could be organic with general declines in livestock production and less competition of animal with human feed, use of wastewater, close attention to dietary recommendations and very significant food waste reduction.  Nitrogen availability would be the main limiting factor.

These results are significant because the fear has been that increased adoption of ecological production systems would result in greater deforestation, a scenario that is possible if the shifts are not well designed and managed. Erb et al., (2016) concluded in their modelling work, however, that there are a range of options for feeding the world, including low crop yield scenarios, without deforestation, as long as changes are made to production systems, livestock rearing and human diets. The possibility of deforestation  is reduced with permaculture, since trees and other perennials are essential to the system. Permaculture is an ecological design approach to food production and distribution (Mollison, 1997), with a particular emphasis on creating analogs of natural ecosystems that mimic processes and organisms of the ecological region in which food is produced. It is informed by traditional knowledge, but is not consistent with indigenous ways of knowing (see Frameworks, General, Aboriginal Ways of Knowing). In Canada, permaculture means greater reliance on fruit and nut trees, shrubs and vines and grasslands and the animals that sustain themselves on grass. Scavenger animals fed scraps that humans can't consume are also part of such systems.  There are an ever expanding number of farms in North America, taking his approach (see for example, New Forest Farm in Wisconsin). Modern food forests are growing in Europe, but remain a small part of the landscape and struggle with financial viability given an antithetical conventional economic framework and numerous institutional, regulatory and knowledge related barriers to success (Albrecht and Wiek, 2021). A significant research effort to develop perennial grains (particularly wheat and sorghum), oilseeds (especially sunflower) and vegetables (some of which are part of human consumption history) are also part of this approach (Jackson 1980; Mattern, 2012).

Given current human settlement patterns and densities, it is not obvious the degree to which we can depend on such systems.  They are productive, but not always in things that are part of a current conventional diet, but could potentially be in line with a sustainable diet. The infrastructure to make some foods of permaculture systems readily available is also sometimes limited, for example, not that many operations are able to harvest, shell, clean and sort nuts for retail. And there are significant questions about their ability to satisfy the cultural food diversity of Canada.

Because we do not yet understand the mix of perennial and annual systems and what level of ecological design can realistically be applied at a wide scale, permanent agriculture will coexist to some degree with highly advanced annual systems employing stage 3 IPM and organic production techniques.

So, while there is a permaculture imperative, the path to optimize it is just emerging.  If modelling is implemented at the Efficiency stage (see Research and Development), the steps will be better articulated for implementation at this stage.  See also the discussion under Goal 2, Demand - supply Coordination, Redesign. Albrecht and Wiek (2021), in their analysis of modern food forests, identify critical development pathways that include:

  • long - term and secure access to land
  • motivated entrepreneurs with specialized skills
  • professional planning and site development
  • start-up funding from non-market sources
  • appropriate tools and equipment
  • alleviation of regulatory impedments
  • revenue stream diversification as the forest evolves
  • developing broad networks of support

Payments for ecosystem services (PES)

At the redesign stage, the shift to ecological economic systems is well underway (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Redesign). In such systems, producers are rewarded for all the public services they provide, not just for provision of commodities.  Since conventional markets are unable to value many of these public services, reliance on market approaches is typically incomplete. A mix of market and non-market revenue streams are available to producers as a result, including payments for providing environmental services.  This helps to overcome the externalities problem of conventional systems.  Although there are many reviews of PES programs and instruments (e.g, Mayrand and Paquin, 2004; Powers, 2010; Lippers and Neves, 2011; Schomers and Matzdorf, 2013), none model a normative redesign scenario.

Ecosystem service payments can take multiple forms through multiple avenues and instruments.  Further research on optimal design is required (see Research and Development, Efficiency) and some of the measures described under Substitution fall into this category.  At the Redesign stage, there needs to be a fully integrated PES approach.

Fully integrated means linkages across numerous domains, and with a range of instruments applied to achieving that integration.  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified four classes of ecosystem services that need to be interconnected:

1.Supporting, necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services, such as primary production, production of oxygen, and soil formation.

2.Provisioning, products people obtain from ecosystems, such as food, water, genetic resources,and fuel.

3.Regulating, benefits people obtain from the regulation of ecosystem processes, such as climate, water purification,and erosion control.

4.Cultural, non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation,and aesthetic experiences.

This is obviously broader than just food system function, so there needs to be coherent intervention  across food, fuel, forestry, water and industrial activities.  It can also be connected to integrated income security architecture (see Goal 1, Redesign), in that payments for ecological services, depending on farmer eligibilities, can be substitutes of top ups for income security instruments.

Another key area of integration will be with instruments used at the Redesign stage for Demand Supply Coordination (Goal 2).  Significant changes to what we produce and consume are required and the PES measures need to support those shifts.

Measures that will need to be part of the instrument mix include:

  • targeted, region-specific transition payments to increase production of under-produced foods consistent with a demand-supply coordination framework;
  • price supports for production systems that are challenging yet critical for maintaining regional biodiversity and other ecological services, culture, amenity, or combinations thereof
  • regional and ecologically focused processor subsidies, on a per unit basis, to assure regional supply of perishable foods that require processing to extend their consumption season (e.g., berries)
  • Per hectare payments to landowners to maintain critical habitat (e.g., grasslands, wetlands, forest ecosystems), culturally significant areas (e.g., historical and spiritual sites) and amenities (e.g., walking trails).
  • Area payments to groups maintaining commons (e.g., grazing lands, fish habitat)