Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Principles of Permaculture

“When the needs of a system are not met from within the system, we pay the price in energy consumption and pollution. We can no longer afford the true cost of our agriculture. It is killing our world, and it will kill us.” 
-- Bill Mollison

The first time I was ever introduced to Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, I was sitting in the backyard of a couple’s house, drinking unsweetened green tea, and watching the most adorable child playing shyly by herself while her mother talked to me about their mission.

These were the proud owners of Gray’s Garden, a business my hosts had started by planting and maintaining organic gardens on residential and commercial properties. They had a farm in their small backyard, and wanted to expand to a larger area in Colorado, which they eventually did (they are no longer in the Orlando area).

Every aspect of their lifestyle appealed to me, and I wanted to know more about it. They told me to look up Bill Mollison’s course books and I’ve been thrilled with every page of his Introduction to Permaculture.

Permaculture is both a philosophy and a type of land design. It includes systems thinking, or thinking of life as a whole and complex system of parts that are interconnected. This kind of design promotes sustainability and respect for our integration with the land and its resources.

The threefold ethic of Permaculture: “Care of the earth, care of people, and dispersal of surplus time, money, and materials towards these ends.”

All living things have value to those who study Permaculture, and our American culture would do well to realize its relationship with all things is interconnected and that connection cannot be ignored. If you care for all other living things as you care about yourself, you will live by the principle of doing no harm.

Our current lifestyle is too detrimental to the environment, and if we learn from alternative systems like Permaculture, we can help to save and repair the damage we have done before its too late to turn back.

The Basic Principles for Permaculture Design are as follows:

  • Location: Every element of a landscape’s design should be placed in relation to something else, and they will mutually assist each other. Ex: Plant trees to provide shade and food for animals.

  • Each element should be a multitasker: (Permaculture would not approve of what my significant other calls a “uni-tasker” or something that performs only one function).

  • There should be two or more back-up plans to serve your basic needs: Similar to having a hybrid car, when one resource runs low or out, you should have another to replace it in order to provide things like food, water, shelter, and fire. (I personally love this idea, and we’ll get into how to apply it more in later posts).

  • Efficient energy planning: Such as zoning, or planting/building things in relation to how much we use them or how often we need to tend to them. You would plant a vegetable/herb garden closer than an orchard, because orchards do not produce as often as vegetable/herb gardens.

  • Use regenerative biological resources rather than fossil fuels: For example, it is better to use other plants or less harmful methods to ward off insects than to use pesticides. You can also do companion planting for natural pest control, too.

  • Energy recycling: Energy should be a closed-loop system, where nothing goes to waste. Grow a tree, burn the wood and branches for heat, collect the ashes and use them in your compost to enrich the soil. Another scenario would be: grow food, eat the food, compost the scraps, regrow any seeds.

  • Implementing natural plant succession: There are ways we can use our plants currently growing in an area to aid with preparing the soil for planting - such as using fallen leaves in compost and letting it naturally break down the nutrients.

  • Crop diversity: Planting multiple plants next to each other can assist in cultivating an environment that is mutually beneficial in a functional disorder. It is also wise to be selective about plants and their relation to other plants, as some can be harmful to each others’ growth.

  • Define borders in order to control the land: Whether you are building a fence to keep out animals, or a spiral-shaped compost, you have defined a barrier to better help you manage the land.

The above are very simplified descriptions of complex concepts. You can read about Permaculture more in-depth here or check out Bill Mollison’s books. There are several great resources about this craft, and its applications are endless.

Permaculture, permaculture tree, edible knowledge, the principles of permaculture

Here are a few things anyone can do right now to introduce Permaculture into their food lifestyle:

  • Plant your own garden - it’s a plan for the future, even in cities. There’s a lot of possibility for urban gardens if you look into it.
  • Compost your food scraps.
  • Find new and creative ways to reuse materials to make other useful things - and reduce any habits of buying new things all the time (embrace the re-purposed and recycled).
  • Share this blog to help others learn about the different ways American culture can change to become more self-reliant and responsible with their food choices.
  • Tell your friends about what you are learning and come up with ideas in your area for how to make your little part of the Earth a better place. (This spreads community as well!)

Is there anyone else out there studying Permaculture? What are your thoughts on this method for sustainability? Leave a comment below!

Also, check out my new Community page on Google Plus titled “Food Forests of America” for a larger discussion about building food forests and developing projects. We’ll probably be talking more about Permaculture design too!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Go Wild for Local Food Foraging!

The other day I was walking in a local park, enjoying the great outdoors with my family, when I stumbled upon something I had only ever seen up north at my grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania. I had found a wild blackberry bush in Florida! My mother and I picked the two ripest berries off of the bush, and tasted them. They were a little sour because they were small, but still that familiar delicious, juicy taste. And this experience made me curious - I wondered, what else can I still find to eat just by walking around?

There are actually some great resources I found while investigating wild, free food in my area. One of them was Falling Fruit, a foraging map of the entire world. This map lists various locations where you can find a tree, a bush, or any free source of food available for the picking! There are some places that are more plentiful than others, however I certainly recommend you check it out and see what is nearby your hometown!

arugula, wild edible plants, food foraging, edible weeds
Another opportunity for foraging could actually be growing at your feet - Weeds! (Not to be confused with the drug). Weeds are often seen as unwanted plants we never intended to grow, and often they can take energy away from other plants growing in your garden. However, some weeds are starting to become household staples, such as arugula or lamb’s quarters.

An interesting assessment, according to Jo Robinson from New York Times, some weeds may actually have more phytonutrients than our modern farmed foods. If this is the case, then it may in fact be in your best health’s interest to start adding these wild edibles to your salads and dishes. It’s something to consider the next time you see a dandelion lying around your lawn or garden!

I also wanted to mention a certain food forest that has been in the media recently. Seattle is taking a lead role in sustainability by planting a food forest for surrounding communities to enjoy and pick from. It is designed based on the principles of permaculture, (which I will discuss more in our next post!)

Local food forests are a great idea, just as much as a community garden, and all states and cities in America could learn from this real dedication to community, and to a better and more equal distribution of our natural resources.

A question I pose to those considering creating a food forest, and for anyone interested in this kind of project is: How do you control people from picking the bounty and selling them for profit? This question has been troubling me lately, and I honestly don’t have an answer for it, other than maybe morality’s guilt. Therefore, dear readers, I would be open for some feedback if you have any thoughts on this!

Lastly, unbeknownst to most Americans, there are several invasive species currently growing in our fields, rivers, oceans, and forests and other natural areas that are destructive to our native wildlife. It is actually surprising how much we are spending a year ($137 billion!!!) on controlling these plants and animals, when we could actually be eating some of them instead!

  • Wild boar
  • Autumn-Olive/Autumnberry
  • Prickly Lettuce
  • Asian Claims
  • Garlic Mustard Plant
  • Chinese Mitten Crabs
  • Burbot
  • Watercress
  • Lionfish
  • Fennel
  • Himalayan Blackberry (which is probably what I found in the park)

*Caution: Some invasive species other than those listed here are poisonous, and cannot be eaten.

Lionfish, invasive species, how to solve the invasive species problem

I noticed Lionfish was on the list of the edible species. Such a beautiful fish, however my brother once told me he learned about them in the Caribbean and truth be told: they have known predator! Nothing is eating them, and therefore they are multiplying and dangerous to the ecosystem.

In order to address this problem, some chefs in the Caribbean islands have started to offer Lionfish on their menus. There are contests for Lionfish recipes, and it is helping reduce the population. This is something we need to be doing for all edible invasive species if possible - get creative with their destruction and eat our way back to a balanced environment. This solution can also help reduce hunger issues - and supports a lifestyle connected to nature and helping maintain the order of things, without going overboard. We don’t want to make these creatures extinct, we just want to reduce their power.

Do you have any experience with edible wild plants or foraging? Leave a comment below! Also, you can now follow me on Twitter @EdibleKnowledge to stay updated on sustainable food news and other tips for a better American food culture.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gone Bananas

After writing my last two posts about consumers and businesses, and the REAL cost of food, I set out on a mental quest to discover the impacts of one of the most beloved fruits eaten in America - the banana.

What I wanted to do was to test the GoodGuide's evaluation of bananas, which is currently a 10 - based only on health (bananas are very nutrient dense, although they are slightly high in sugar content). There is currently no data put together for the Environmental and Societal impact sections of bananas. So what is a consumer to do? How can I know if bananas are ecologically friendly?

Answer: I have to do my own investigating.

What I found, however, was just how difficult and muddy trying to sift through the information available about food really is for the consumer. (Current information and studies can be outdated, and information about food is changing all the time as new practices are put in place). However, I tried my best to find the most recent information as possible about bananas, how they are grown, and their current impact.

A marvelous thing about any food grown in the world is that there are usually a few varieties. Doing my research, I found there are actually over 1000 varieties of bananas worldwide! However, the banana variety that most Americans are familiar with is the Cavendish, which is thought to be on the bridge of extinction (because we grow it as a monoculture to maintain its genetic uniqueness, which allows it to become more susceptible to disease).

In America, businesses like to focus on their brands to promote their products, and the only brand I really knew before my investigation of bananas sold in the U.S. was Chiquita. Evidently, they have good marketing, and a catchy tune - “I’m Chiquita banana, and I've come to say, I give you good nutrition in a simple way!”

There are at least two other major corporations who invest in bananas in America - Dole and Del Monte. However, since I see Chiquita bananas most frequently, I focused my research specifically on this company.

A few things I found out about Chiquita: they once got their hands dirty by funding Colombian terrorists and their Cavendish bananas require a lot of pesticide, which is harmful to workers and the towns near the banana plantations.

Nevertheless, Chiquita does make strides in advocating and participating in sustainability initiatives, despite the fact that they don't seem to be able to forego the pesticide use of their own product or to introduce other varieties of bananas in their brand to the American population (which would promote better food security than their current product does).

After reviewing this information, I don't think I can rate industrially-grown Cavendish bananas on a very highly positive scale for environmental and societal impacts. These companies have more cleaning up to do in their practices to reach my acceptable standards for food production in the world I want to live in. What do you think, Readers? Can they do better?

Business Takeaway message: Don’t make bad connections, regardless of pressure. Also, based on your decisions, you have the power to make a big positive influence, or a big negative influence. Make the right choices that lead toward an environmentally friendly business and a socially beneficial product.

Consumer Takeaway message: Eat local as much as possible, or know the practices of the food companies you are supporting before buying their products. If you live in Florida or another tropical location in the U.S., try growing a banana tree yourself or meet people who do!

For those even more ambitious food gatherers out there, my next post is going to be on wild food collection in America and the possibilities still available to those who are interested in this craft.

Are you hungry yet?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What is REAL Cost? Part 2: The Food Business

The most important factor for businesses is often their bottom line. A monetary line drawn that says "this is where we win or lose." Considering REAL cost, where is the business' bottom line for environmental impacts? How would you calculate it?
I'm currently reading a book by Daniel Goleman, called Ecological Intelligence, where he details a business' lack of accountability to their ecological impact due to an inability to measure that impact. Economic impact is measured by ROI, or return on investment, which measures how much money you are getting back after taking into account the economic investment you put into your business so that it will continue to thrive.
ROI works similarly with our environmental impact. The more sustainable and eco-friendly we make our industries, and the better we improve upon our land's use and preservation (which is an investment), the better the health of our environment is going to be. Still, how do we make businesses we purchase our food from accountable for their environmental impact?
One of the most significant points Goleman makes is that businesses have to be honest and transparent to the consumer about their business practices and what effect they have on the environment. In the information age, consumers are already learning this kind of information from alternate sources anyway, so as a business, if you are upfront and honest to your customers, they may even be more generous later in supporting you, than if you had lied to them or tried to hide certain information about your practices originally.
The Dalai Lama said, "The lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity." And he's right! Don't underestimate the shift in consumer spending from one product to the next if they find out you are hiding information from them. Be honest! It's the best way to retain customers for life.
Humans like to use math to validate their decisions, which is one reason statistics are so often used in arguments. Therefore, in order to measure those impacts, businesses need to look at the other costs of their products on the three different levels (yes, the same as those that consumers must pay attention to!):

  • The environmental impacts
  • The social and cultural impacts
  • The impacts on the health of humans and other species

Business can pay attention to how GoodGuide and the Environmental Working Group's Consumer Guides are rating their products, and strive to reduce those three above impacts. Find out where you can cut out negative inputs and outputs. Anything that the business pays for or uses to produce its product should be listed and evaluated, as well as any byproducts of production.
When you are a more accountable and transparent business, your customers will respect you more for the work that you do and the products you provide. I'm reminded of small farmers here, who at any time are usually happy to show you around their farm, how they produce the food they sell, and welcome questions about their business.
As a tie-in: Businesses need to understand the role they play in their customers' lives and the impact they have on the larger world, and consumers need to understand how their purchasing power affects business decisions, and the needs and wants they convey help change how business is run, and shows the impacts they support. The Food Industry can be sustainable, if businesses and consumers work together to ensure they are minimizing their impacts by understanding the REAL costs involved in producing and purchasing food and food products.
So, what is the best bottom line for a sustainable business? It is when the business, the consumer, and the environment are all winning.
If you own a food business or work in the food industry, what are some inputs and outputs you have minimized to lessen your impact on the environment? Leave your comments below! You can also check out Edible Knowledge's Facebook page to keep updated on the posts and other conversations about food and food culture!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What is the REAL Cost of Food?

America is a culture of consumers, rather than producers. We now buy food more than we grow it ourselves. Currently, about 1% of the American population are farmers. We surrender our self-sufficiency and food knowledge for food that is produced faster, grown or made by others, varied due to trade, and monetarily cheap.

We also allow advertisers to promote this culture and convince us that money is what we should focus on. On Taco Bell's dollar menu, they use the implicit question of "Why pay more!" to attract customers looking for the cheapest food. As America's working lifestyle has gotten busier and faster, our food lifestyle tries to keep up with those who cannot afford the time, energy, or dollars to feed their family by cooking at home, (one might note that wealthier people statistically eat out at restaurants more than the poor). Money is a major factor for a lot of people, as we are all directly affected by economics, and we use money daily to make our decisions on what to eat. And yet, is money the only cost to care about when we buy food? Absolutely not, it’s just the one factor of cost we give the most attention.

Why is it a major factor while other definitions of cost seem to fall into the background of unimportance? My only answer to this question: we are disconnected.

Our definition of cost often revolves around money, because the monetary price of food is in our faces every time we go to the grocery store, every time we pull up to the drive-thru, or look at a restaurant menu. It’s EVERYWHERE! We wait for sales on certain foods, look for restaurant coupons, all to cut back on the monetary price of food. However, there are other costs in our food system that are hidden from us, and what we aren't looking for and what isn't in our faces at these places are:
  • The environmental impacts
  • The social and cultural impacts
  • The impacts on the health of humans and other species

I recently made a visit to a grocery store, and have started to see some of this labeling crop up. There was a small description on farmed salmon, informing customers that the flesh of the fish has been dyed an orange color through the salmon’s feed (the hue of which is chosen from a SalmoFan, and the colorant added can account for a third of the feed cost!). The original color of farmed salmon is gray, and thinking that this is unattractive to customers, they feed the fish a synthetic feed that mimics the color they would get by eating a normal diet of krill in the wild to accommodate our society’s understanding of what a salmon should look like. Can you imagine being fed a synthetic substance that actually turns your flesh a different color? The label on salmon, and labels like this, help customers make decisions about the other three costs involved in our food system.

Now, there is some debate on this - Should labels be helping us make decisions? Are the labels we currently use insufficient in telling the story?

Imagine if instead of looking for the price, you paid attention to whether this food item harmed workers, or if the clothes you wear have toxic chemicals in them or if their production polluted groundwater runoff, or what antibiotics are being given to the animals you eat or if they spent their lives sitting in their own manure. What would happen if these impacts were clearly labeled?

I think labels can help us understand the impacts our food production has on the other three cost factors (impacts on environment, species, and culture), and should be used for the benefit of the consumer and to improve the impact on those three factors.

If a food, such as a GMO food, is in the development stage of its understanding of its impacts on humans, American consumers have a right to know which foods are genetically modified, and which foods are not. GMO food is a new experiment, and science experiments should either not be in circulation or should be labeled so that consumers can make educated choices about the food they are eating. If we do not yet have a conclusive understanding of the effect of a food on humans and other species or the environment, it should be labeled. (We’ll get more into GMO labeling later, but those are my current thoughts on the issue).

Other than labels, how can consumers learn about the impacts of their food and food products? The Internet is becoming a very influential source in our knowledge about those impacts, however information is expansive and a consumer’s time is limited. There are some databases to assist consumers in making better decisions about what they purchase, such as GoodGuide and the Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guides. I encourage you to check out these sites to learn more about the REAL cost of your food choices, and to assist you in making more ethical and eco-friendly choices.

Let’s not forget, some of the responsibility should be given to the businesses who produce that food or food product to ensure they are accountable for the impacts of what they produce.

In my next post, we will continue this discussion on REAL food cost and what it means for businesses involved in food production and distribution, and how their relationship between their business and consumers is changing.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Grow Your Own Money

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” said Ron Finley on a TED Talk about living in a food desert and the problems his community faces in dealing with that dilemma. Gardening brings economic benefits, brings together a community, and allows you to control your own food supply.
In regard to economic benefits, gardens are an investment. They start out small, and grow into something big that you can replicate over the years with seed saving, regenerative practices, and general upkeep.
Starting your garden can be as cheap as you want it to be, and can certainly help save you money in the future as you depend less on purchasing food from the grocery stores or markets.
You can grow your garden in various sizes. My current garden is grown in several different clay pots. Some people plant gardens on rooftops, on walls, in any container they can find that might be suitable, even trucks!

Try experimenting with different plants at first to see what works best in your climate and general area. You can purchase seeds online, or several grocery, local produce, and home maintenance stores have them as well. Pay attention to the kind of seeds you buy, and try to get organic or heirloom seeds if possible.

Gardens are an investment in community. A local scene in Orlando, FL called the Dandelion Communitea Cafe has started a Seed Bank project outside of its establishment, which allows locals to freely exchange seeds and encourage gardening. I think this is a wonderful idea, and would love to see other examples of this kind of sharing around the country. Remember, sharing is caring!

For some produce though, you don’t even have to purchase the seeds, all you need to do is know how to handle the scraps from food you normally buy, before you throw them away! Like the carrots in my previous article, there are several different herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you can regrow. (We’ll also talk more about seed saving later).

I’m currently in the process of re-growing an onion. It started to sprout in my pantry, so I cut around the bad parts and put them in my compost pile, used the good parts to cook a nice meal, and replanted the center of the onion, which will produce more layers and regrow itself! Didn't I say plants were smart?

The plants that you grow organically in your own garden reduce pollution and all the need for packaging, transporting, shipping and travel costs. You also get the freshest food delivered right to the soil in your yard by the sun and rain, and your own productive care. You can control how much you grow, how it is grown, and how to distribute it. If we continue to rely on others to produce our food, we are at the whim of their interests, not ours. Every little bit you can do to wean yourself off of that system will help you and your community to become self-sufficient and put power back into your own hands.

Starting a garden is like growing your own money, but it is also much more than that. In my next post, we’ll talk about real cost in the food system, and the price we aren't taking into account with our purchasing power.
Stay tuned!