Permaculture is pragmatic and scientific. It’s a technology, not an ideology. But even with the most rational ideas if, like a curious child, you follow the “but why?” back, you get to a spiritual or ethical base.
Permaculture has three core ethics: care for the earth, care for people, and distribute a surplus – which basically means don’t be greedy. (Modern witches – and ancient ones too for that matter – share both this belief in science and these ethics, which is probably the reason for their persecution in the Inquisition, but that’s another story.)
But it isn’t simple being good! It is really tempting to just give up on the complexity of decisions that take count of carbon cycles, water cycles, climate change, biodiversity, resource depletion, pollution, globalisation, fair trade…. And then to weigh them against each other: Is it better to buy local rice that is irrigated unsustainably, or imported organic rice?
Permaculture has an insight that can help cut through: “simple” and “easy” are not the same thing. Natural systems achieve stablility not through simplicity, but through redundancy and a complex set of feedback loops that allow the system to constantly adjust. We big-brained human animals are very good at making those kind of rule of thumb decisions, using intuition to weigh apples against oranges and fine tune as we go.
Which is nice, because that gets us to a do-able position on making our food consumption decisions ethical!
We don’t have to be purist about it. We just have to take “care for the earth, care for people, and share”, into account in making all the dozens of little decisions we make every day, constantly refining them as we learn, constantly curious about new opportunities and information.
The 100 mile diet is a good starting place. Choice says that “A typical basket of groceries from the supermarket has “food miles” equivalent to two loops of the globe”, which is pretty stunning! Local food is also more likely to be fresh, in season, and least processed. And you have a democratic say in the labour laws that were used to produce it. But I am not about to give up chocolate!
Here’s my rule of thumb boundaries:
The mainstay – vegetables and fruit – are where gardening or buying from a very local permaculture garden type farmer is worth it. They are bulky, delicate, need lots of packaging and cold storage, are produced very exploitatively in some parts of the world, and can be locally produced in enough variety for a healthy gourmet diet practically anywhere. I eat home grown as much as possible, supplemented by local farmers markets preferring organic, sustainable producers.
It’s here that the ethic of buy local carries its own natural consequences. If you buy peas that have been picked more than a day ago, you will be disappointed. If you buy tomatoes that have been picked green on the other side of the world and artificially ripened, well, serves you right!
Eggs are also top of the list for backyard production. A couple of chickens do a huge amount of organic waste disposal work, keeping lots of household waste out of landfill and in the food cycle. There is also a fundamental problem with large scale commercial egg production – chickens don’t like being kept in large flocks. So it is difficult ethically produce eggs at anything larger than a backyard or permaculture mixed farm scale.
Fresh dairy foods need refrigerated transport and cold storage, so it is good to get them from a really local source. Most people don’t have the resources, though to keep a cow or a goat. So the 100 mile standard is a good guide to follow. You can avoid overpackaging by producing your own yoghurt, and if you are keen, home producing cheese. Using dried skim milk powder where recipes allow helps dairy farmers even out the gluts and shortages in the annual cycle. Beware flavoured yoghurts labelled as “low fat” but stuffed with sugars.
Grains, Legumes, Seeds and Nuts
Grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, however are dense, travel well, don’t need cold storage, and there are economies of scale in growing, harvesting and processing. If you are a serious gardener, it is really possible to provide yourself with a good percentage of them. But otherwise, I think how they are produced is the first criteria, then where. I prefer organic, in bulk to avoid packaging, and tune in to information about sustainability. There are good reasons, for example, to prefer Indonesian to Australian rice.
Beef and lamb are usually free range in Australia, but they have a huge environmental impact, both on climate change and on resources. I’ve cut right back on them. Kangaroo is a much better choice for red meat in Australia, from any number of perspectives. And anyway, it’s healthier. See the links.
Chicken is a dilemma. Chickens are not nice to each other when they are stressed, and many consumers would be very disturbed if they were confronted face to face with their chicken meat as live animals. They can be produced ethically in a free-range permaculture system, but almost never are. But chicken is not in the super-foods list and not a really valuable food to begin with. So the pragmatic solution might be to look for sources of expensive, ethically produced chicken. If you find it, cut right back on chicken consumption to make it affordable, and if you don’t, cut right back anyway.
Fish is another dilemma. Harvesting wild fish will soon be seen in the same light as logging old growth forest. The problem is not the harvesting – wild fish have a good life and being part of a chain of predation is their lot in life – no fish ever die of old age! The problem is that a long history of gross overexploitation has taken the resource past the sustainable harvest level, to the point that remaining “old growth” must be uncompromisingly defended. Predators must have a very respectful and protective relationship with their prey species. Those that don’t become extinct.
But where does that leave us? Oily fish with their omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are a really powerful part of a healthy diet, and there are few good substitutes. It is worth deciding to be a good predator, respectful and protective, and printing off a list of sustainable fisheries or emailing it to your phone so you have it with you when shopping. See the links for some good sources for your list.
Spices, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate
Spices often have very small climate zones, and they’re so distinctive that they aren’t easily substituted, which is why they have been traded for all of human history. Buy fair trade. I’m lucky that I happen to live in the right climate zone for growing coffee and tea , but otherwise, the same goes for them. And chocolate.
Please join the discussion. Not simple at least makes for interesting!