Zero input agriculture is in many ways a reaction to the realisation of how the awesome power of industrialisation dominates even the most sincere efforts to decouple from it. People who keep chickens are almost all merely turning grain produced by diesel powered machines and chemical fertilisers into eggs. Without that artificial support the birds would barely survive let alone produce. Those who raise their own vegetables usually rely on imported manure, mulch and irrigation water, all produced, harvested and transported on the back of a completely fossil fuel dependent system. Without this support the harvest would be meagre at best. Hobby farming, just like industrial farming, is a way to turn cheap fossil fuels into a small amount of food. For many decades people of industrialised nations have had a creeping sense of dread that the current system cannot last but most attempts seem to fall into the temptation for quick and easy answers, which inevitably means consuming even more fossil fuels. Zero input agriculture is my attempt to face this issue head on and try to develop systems that really could support humans without ongoing industrial inputs.
I should interrupt the flow here to acknowledge the writers who have been important influences on me up to this point. Reading Fukuoka was thoroughly eye opening and his core principal of “first do nothing” resonates with me every day. Steve Solomon, author of “Gardening when it counts” also clearly spelled out the realities of vegetable growing and the trade-offs between intensive agriculture popular today relative to extensive cultivation that was more common before industrialisation. Mark Shepard has also been inspirational for showing how the true power of plants lies in unleashing their genetic potential for local adaptation. While I have a lot of respect for people working in the permaculture field I feel it is heading down the wrong path. The publication of Retrosuburbia clashes with my belief that James Howard Kunstler is correct in saying that suburbia was the greatest misallocation of resources in human history and will be abandoned in a post-oil age. Starting around the lead up to the global financial crisis in 2007 I became acutely aware of the precariousness of modern civilisation. In the time since then I have gone through the standard emotional roller coaster of coming to terms with the situation, so much so that talk of impending doom bores me now. I am now far more interested in thinking about what kind of society can come out the other side of the inevitable end of industrialisation. Could the last Roman philosophers have imagined the wonders of the industrial age to come, and maybe even helped them along? Rome accidentally paved the way by leaving cultural models for us to build upon long after their roads and aqueducts crumbled.
In many ways zero input agriculture is no different to preindustrial subsistence farming, but with a few important differences. The first major one is that those systems of peasant agriculture were conducted by large numbers of highly skilled and coordinated people. People in industrial societies have lost many of these skills, along with the necessary strength and stamina. In Australia this culture simply never existed in any meaningful way for Europeans, with the colony being a net food importer for the first hundred years that paid its way by stripping timber, wool and metals for export. My mountain town was founded to cut down all the old growth trees and ship them back to England. Even the aboriginal culture in my region is one of brief journeys that merely passed through on route to richer locations, though provides a few very useful native crops as starting points. All these factors will inevitably make the path forward difficult. The other major difference is that the world has changed dramatically since 1500 AD. On one hand the natural resources (water, forests, soils, fisheries etc) have been widely degraded and the population has exploded, making the job of subsistence agriculture much more difficult. On top of all this is the significant and enduring increase in carbon dioxide levels that will change how plants grow and behave for many thousands of years to come, bring a mix of benefits and problems. On the other hand a much wider range of biological resources such as crop species are available, along with knowledge of how biology works and powerful tools to manipulate it.
Our current understanding of the story of the universe, the earth, life and humanity will likely endure at least as a broad outline. People managed to build cathedrals and sail the globe before they knew how babies were made or that bacteria existed. The idea of controlled experimentation to isolate the effect of variables and avoid wishful thinking will also likely endure, though particularly in biological systems this approach will probably be discarded in favor of structured trial and error. The current attempts to unravel biology by breaking it down to atoms and bases of DNA appears to be mostly a waste of energy, minor interesting breakthroughs notwithstanding. The breathless claims of the power that would be unleashed by reading the human genome have given way to bafflement as every new discovery simply raises more questions and reveals more intractable complexity that defies attempts at reductionist science.
There are promising signs that the biotechnology that was born from an industrial infrastructure could decouple from its dependence on plastic and computers. Simple selective breeding first occurred by accident at the dawn of agriculture, giving rise to a dramatic change in how human societies operated. With improved understanding of the nuances of this process, coupled with a willingness to engage in wild outcrossing to produce new species, the results can be rapid and spectacular as demonstrated repeatedly by Luther Burbank. Low tech methods of genetic manipulation also exist, such as enhancing natural pathways of transgenesis (the shifting of genes between unrelated species, a process that happens naturally anyway), increased rates of mutation, and changes in chromosome number (also common in nature and during domestication of crops). The Belyaev experiment demonstrated how a new wild mammal species can be domesticated in a few years. Plants and animals could also be potentially bred for a much wider range of uses, including medicines, tools, clothing, housing and containers. The original hand sickles of the fertile crescent were goat jaws for example, and one of the earliest crops was the bottle gourd used to carry water rather than produce food. Enhanced microbiology could develop easily maintained strains that widen the range of edible plants. Could humans cultivate fungus gardens like the leaf cutter ants? And finally the taboo topic of human selective breeding could re-emerge.
If all this sounds fanciful then I agree you are probably correct. But imagine if you could explain the culture of pastoralists, caring for and milking goats and cows, to a hunter gatherer who had only hunted them for meat? Or described fields of wheat stretching to the horizon that supported monumental cities to someone who had only dug wild tubers. Or showed an early hominid that their ancestors would one day be curled up around the fire with loyal dogs when they had only ever fled from wolves? They would have been equally incredulous as an Australian bushman if you explained how two wild macadamia species, that made a few scant nuts with nearly unbreakable shells, could be crossed and selected in a few short decades to make a multi-million dollar nut crop. Life can undergo extraordinary changes with humans opening the way.
Humans are capable of interacting with the world in a way that is unprecedented on this planet. In my previous post “No Such Animal” I outlined how humans were originally the first universal predator and herbivore, hunting every animal and eating every plant. The shift to early agriculture in some ways shifted us to being the universal parasite, developing systems that more slowly killed the host of the wider ecosystem. We more recently became planetary scale detritivores, eating organisms that had been dead for millions of years in the form of fossil fuels. Many animals undergo such transitions in their relationships, first as predator when they are relative strangers, then to parasite and host as they become acquainted, and finally to symbionts when they learn to live together for mutual benefit. I believe humans are on the cusp of making this final transition to a species that is the universal symbiont, with the potential to form productive relationships with every species on the planet. We just have to get through the next tricky bit and come out the other side with the tools and ideas intact.