Permaculture Without Vegetables

Autumn is salad season here in subtropics, the time of year when the weather is mild and rain reliable enough to produce good quality fresh greens without irrigation. We will have a large salad for lunch every second day from April until July, after which the quantity and range tends to decrease unless we have an unusually wet spring. I could grow more and make a salad every day but we find there is a limit to how much greenery we can eat. We also find ourselves pretty sick of salad by the end of the season, even though we are salivating over them at the beginning. Today I went out into the veggie garden and picked endive, lettuce, parsley, fennel, coriander, rocket, shallots, basil and some oregano for the dressing, coming to a total of 400 g unwashed greens, plus 90 g of tomatoes. To that I added some store bought carrots (mine are just germinating now) at 300 g, and 150 g of cheese. I didn’t weigh the amount of rice bran oil, mustard and vinegar going into the dressing. The greens were washed and chopped with maybe 10 % wastage, carrots peeled and grated along with the cheese and then the dressing put together. Delicious, and plenty for two to share. I then spent about half an hour patiently chewing my way through my half of the meal.

Perishable fresh vegetables that make the bulk of such salads have become something of a fetish in modern industrial civilisation. People have eaten salads and various types of vegetables for a long time but in recent decades they have attained almost mystical powers. We are told we must eat so many servings to live a long and healthy life, though like most nutritional studies the data on this is fairly fuzzy. In ancient times people ate a lot less vegetables than we are recommended today, often in the form of wild and semi-wild seasonal weeds usually eaten cooked to reduce the danger of pathogens. In ancient Rome approximately 70 % of the diet was whole wheat, 20 % olive oil and the remaining 10 % split between meat, fish, dairy and vegetables. The wheat that comprised the majority of the diet was very different to the wheat we eat today. Romans would grind whole wheat, which included the fibre, fat, protein and minerals found in the wheat germ. Unfortunately whole wheat flour rapidly turns rancid, an unforgiveable inconvenience for industrial food systems. Nowadays instead we strip off all the nutrient dense wheat germ, then chemically bleach the starchy interior so it can sit on a shelf indefinitely. Throw in ever increasing amounts of refined sugar, plus cheap chemically stabilised vegetable oils, and the modern industrial diet is indeed improved by bulking it out with fibrous vegetables.

It might be interesting to break down the nutritional value of the salad I ate today. I will halve all the quantities to make the analysis on a per person basis. Firstly in terms of calories (and the percentage of a daily requirement), the salad greens contribute 142 kJ (1.4 %), the carrot 195 kJ (1.95 %) and the cheese contained 1700 kJ (17%). As you can see the greens which take vastly more time to grow, harvest and process contribute basically no calories, a negative energy return for a part of the garden that takes up at least 20 % of my time. The carrots, which are cheap to buy because they are sowed and harvested by specialised machines, contribute a little more. Looking at the two side by side reveals the leafy greens are mostly air, while the carrots are a condensed form of vegetation, which also makes them easier to transport cheaply. And both are about 90 % water. Over 80 % of the energy in the meal comes from the small block of cheese. If I was rushed for time (like most industrial humans with jobs) then the half hour spent chewing all that vegetation is hard to justify when I could eat just the cheese in under a minute. How about protein requirements? The salad greens contribute 1.8 g (3.6 %), the carrots 1.35 g (2.7 %) and the cheese 18 g (36 %). Once again the cheese is doing all the heavy lifting. So what exactly do the vegetables contribute? Some water soluble vitamins (A, B, C, folate) and fibre that supports a healthy and diverse gut microbiome (though research in this area is even more preliminary and fuzzy than nutritional science). The whole wheat eaten in pre-industrial societies provided plenty of fibre. In traditional diets vegetables were used more the way herbs are used today, to provide some extra flavour and possibly some phytochemicals, more like medicine than food. Adding some to the diet is good, but beyond a certain point adding more does little extra. Given the fibrous bulk of vegetables some of their modern benefits may simply come from encouraging more moderate calorie intake since they displace other richer foods. Simply being too poor to eat too much might do as much good.

We live in a society drowning in cheap fossil fuel energy, mirrored by the overabundance of cheap industrial food calories. Obesity is becoming one of the leading causes of death and disease and is increasingly seen as the burden of the poor who cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables. Being fat used to be rare and was often seen as a sign of wealth and success. At the same time vegetables were once seen as a way for the poor to pad out their meals and stave off hunger, while the rich engaged in conspicuous consumption of meat and honey. Today it is fresh vegetables that are the new form of social signalling of wealth and virtue, caused in part due to their unavoidable high labour and transportation costs. Most of the world’s fresh produce is the result of slave or near slave labour conditions, and much of it is invariably wasted in the planet spanning supply lines between mega farms and consumers.

Part of the drift of permaculture from the original whole system approach to what we see today with it trapped in the zone 1 vegetable garden is due to it responding to harsh economics. Most people don’t have access to large enough parcels of land to create a complete system with all zones due to increasing urbanisation and ever growing populations. Even the cofounder of permaculture has shifted their attention to suburbia. Under these conditions people make decisions based on money. The same limited space that can produce a few dollars’ worth of rice or potatoes could produce tens of dollars’ worth of leafy greens or even hundreds of dollars’ worth of fresh herbs. The hidden part of the equation though is that the low cost of the rice or potatoes is subsidised by massive use of fossil fuels and machinery to plant, manage, harvest, process and deliver them to suburbanites. The leafy greens by comparison need to be picked by a real human being for the most part, with some vegetables like carrots being obvious exceptions where humans were replaced by machines many years ago. When you make the comparison in dollar value between lettuce and potatoes you are discounting the value of your own labour in the equation. This is fair in some ways since picking snow peas for yourself for 15 minutes is a blessed relief from the grind of modern life. By comparison picking snow peas 8 hours a day, as fast as possible, for someone else as a full time job for less than minimum wage is hell on earth.

While the oil continues to flow and the far away farm machines and trucks continue to hum this arrangement makes sense. Grow your greens in your suburban garden, using as much irrigation and truckloads of manure as you can afford to maximise output per area, while continuing to buy your calories from the shop at prices subsidised on a civilizational level. But relying on decisions that optimise money is what got us into this trap, and it will keep us there until the oil stops flowing and the machines fall silent. Focusing on optimising for dollars is what created a system that extracts the cheapest labour and natural resources no matter the long term costs. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of these long supply lines. The unfolding economic crisis will expose the terminal weakness of the global oil industry. I am guilty of making decisions based on dollars in the past, in installing my vegetable gardens first, though focusing on seed production has paid off in the short term at least. In the mean time I was hoping to have a few more years to get my calorie crop production systems scaled up. Hopefully the current arrangements will hold long enough for me to make a smooth transition to actually growing our own food, and not just crunchy water. I left suburbia and a money focused career during the 2008 global financial crisis to relocate to a more rural setting and have never regretted that decision for a moment, despite the fact it cost me a huge amount of lost potential earnings. I hope that others can see the writing on the wall through this current crisis and leave suburbia before it really is too late. And for those still trapped in the suburbs for the time being, please devote at least some of your limited growing space to developing a relationship with staple crops. Growing your own food is one of the most revolutionary things a person can do. Just be careful to not mistake vegetables for food.

My slightly weedy Z1 vegetable patch, demanding many hours of hand weeding as soon as possible.
A charming bucolic scene of a basket of freshly picked crunchy water.
A salad dissected and evaluated.
Delicious, but worthwhile?

2 thoughts on “Permaculture Without Vegetables

  1. You’re so right about describing store-bought veggies as crunchy water. I cut recently into a huge capsicum and was hit in the eye with a burst of water. I’m picking my own celery at the moment. Skinny little stalks, probably 3 or 4 times smaller than bought celery, but the flavour knocks my head off.


    1. Quantity over quality dominates in store bought produce when it is sold by the kilogram (kind of like chicken legs injected with collagen solution to bulk them up). When you have home grown greens it really doesn’t take much to do the job.

      Liked by 1 person

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