Diversity is Key to Sustainable Farming, So Why's It So Damn Hard?


Image credit: digika, used under Creative Commons license.

As Collin explored in his slideshow of permaculture principles, diversity has to be a central part of any approach to sustainability—especially one that models itself on natural ecosystems. From designing sustainable, integrated farms to utilizing a broad mix of energy sources, it just makes sense to not put all of our eggs in one basket. But in a culture that is more aligned with linear, industrial thinking, diversity also brings with it a level of complexity that many of us are not used to. So is there a way to embrace that complexity without blowing our minds? Diversity and Resilience
We know for a fact that ecosystems rely on an astoundingly broad community of plants, animals, microorganisms and fungi to keep functioning. The more diverse the system, the better, because if one species gets hit by disease, famine or some other form of shock, there are other elements playing a similar role in the system that can pick up the slack. This is what is often referred to as resilience—the ability of a system to adapt and reorganize itself in the face of shocks.

Complex Networks of Relationships
But in reality it is not just the diversity of species, but also the diversity of useful relationships between those species, that builds resilience. You could have 10,000 different species of monkey in one rainforest, but if they all played the same—or very similar—roles within the ecosystem of that forest, the diversity would not contribute to resilience. It's not the individual points of diverse elements, but rather the network of complex interrelationships between those elements, that ultimately builds a web that is so hard to break.

I got to pondering this after an insightful conversation with a client about the importance of complexity in organizations and social structures. Because we live in a culture that is so invested in linear, reductionist and industrial thinking, it can be hard for any of us to wrap our heads around what it takes to live with, and even encourage, complexity.

When Is Complexity Too Complex?
To take a specific example, often when I've seen permaculture enthusiasts make plans for sustainable, working commercial farms using the permaculture model, they focus on the idea of developing as broad a range of crops and income streams as possible in an effort to build resilience. But, it seems to me (as a non-farmer, it must be said!) that unless we view this effort through the lens of complexity as well as diversity, we run the risk of spreading ourselves too thinly and coming away with nothing.

The fact is that a commercial farm will need to not just grow a broad range of crops, but to find a way to harvest, process, and eventually get those crops to market (a decidedly linear process). From an economic standpoint, unless you can establish a useful relationship between your crop and a potential market, your diversity of crops only leads to a harder system to manage without contributing to the resilience of your overall system. (There's a reason conventional farmers like crops that all ripen at the same time.)

Diversity & Complexity in Marketing
Many of the popular alternative methods of marketing are, of course, actually attempts at embracing complexity from economic standpoint. Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) or other subscription models are a great way for farmers to make use of a diverse harvest without needing to market each crop separately. But there must always be a balance between building in enough diversity and complexity to promote resilience, and always keeping in mind the ability of the system—or more precisely the folks stewarding that system—to harvest and utilize the crops that are grown.

(Of course if you are developing perennial polycultures for food production alone, but not commercial food production, then this is less of a concern. You pick and eat whatever comes along.)

In short, a diverse and complex food production system needs to also make an effort to bypass linear forms of marketing and economics, and instead fully embrace its position in that complex system known as the human community. You can't shoe horn the production from a diverse permaculture model of food production into the linear systems of the supermarket shelf. But then why would you want to?

As I said above, I am no farmer. I would love to hear from sustainable farmers out there who are already embracing complexity. Not just sitting at their computer writing about it.

More on Permaculture, Perennial Agriculture and Complex Food Production
Permaculture Design Tips for Perennial Polycultures
How a Campus Lawn Became a No-Dig Garden
Awesome Tour of a Permaculture Allotment

Tags: Agriculture | Economics | Farming | Permaculture | United States