WRITER:  Pang, Yiu Kai  (彭耀階) HONG  KONG 

June, 2017.





Lacking Of Systems Thinking

It doesn’t need detailed explanation as nowadays people with some common knowledge all know the mainstream industrial type of farming is harming the global environment as well as consumers’ health. One basic most thing we all must recognize is that no particular species growing on the ground exists independently of other living species and physical environment around it. Rather, there are very complex interactions among any one species and all else on earth in systems enclosing sub-systems or as sub-system within other larger systems. This is why Ecology is the first systems science ever developed by scientists. So, when you treat your crop as existing independently, pumping in nutrients most relevent for it’s specific growth, sooner or later you will have depleted or flooded nutrients needed by a plethora of other entities in the soil and vicinity that are also responsible for providing readily absorbable nutrients to your crop. Although your crop may look nice, growing fast since you’ve pumped in directly related nutrients, but it’s real health has already been affected and the crop has become more vulnerable to contracting diseases.


The War Between Humans And Nature

Going on with the systems negligence, you spray pesticides, fungicides to control diseases, it works! But it also works in further damaging the systems balance of bugs and micro-organisms, much more bugs /germs appear later to attack your increasingly unhealthy plant. Then you have to pump in heavier and heavier doses of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, more and more often, and still works. But  those bugs/germs turn to let you know why they live a short life cycles, that’s to let their spray resistant mutants can undergo enough generations of multiplications to evolve a mainstream strain quick enough to attack your crop again. By then you have to develop new types of chemicals to keep them under control. You continue to succeed, but the war between humans and Nature has escalated.


Releasing Soil Carbon Back Into The Atmosphere

Improper nutrients together with pesticides/herbicides/fungicides kill all living beings in the soil, which in turn releases the carbon stored in their bodies or maintained in soil back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. This quicken the global warming process. Don’t forget that cellulose, fats, and proteins are not only carbon containing compounds, their main constituent is carbon, they form up the main body of all living beings. This is why roughly two-thirds of the earth’s surface carbon is stored in the soil, letting this stored carbon loose into the atmosphere is simply mass suicide. Therefore one of the main tasks for combating global warming is to stop this sort of carbon release, or better still,  work towards getting the atmospheric carbon back to the soil.


Incessant Exploitation of Forests and Biodiverse Places

Soil deterioration not only harm the bio-productivity of farmland, when farming bosses find the output of a piece of field has become too low to be profitable, they will clear another field of environmentally valuable tree coverage, that means the world needs to develop new farmland every year. According to United Nation’s Food And Agriculture Organization’s projection released in 2012, in the next 30 years or so, every year humans need to develop more than 10,000 square kilometer of new farmland to fulfil the increasing food demand, and population growth,  and the most important of all, to replenish farmland that’s become far less productive.


When farming bosses look for new farmland, they of course will not consider low bio-productive places, this usually results in the clearing of highly biodiverse forests. The mass burning of tropical rainforest in Indonesia and large scale clearing of Amazon rainforest in recent years are but some of the classic examples. But if the existing farmland can all be used in a sustainable manner, the need to develop new ones can be diminished by at least 90%.



Damaging Regional And Global Ecosystems

The harmful effect of what we may call farm drugs is not restricted to farmlands, orchards and farm products alone, these drugs do not stop at the fenses but impact surrounding insects and animals in the wild as well. The honey bee is a classic example. People began to be bewildered at the shrinking of bee populations throughout Europe and US in the first decade of the 21st century. At first scientists doubted the mobile phone signals may have interfered the bees’ direction finding mechanism, so that they lost their way home. Subsequent detailed studies found this is not the case. What should be responsible is the newly developed neonarcotinoid pesticides, a kind of insects’ neurotoxin that causes the so called CCD(colony collapse syndrome), the finding led to European Union’s banning of certain neonarcotiniod pesticides in her member countries in mid 10s.


Emergence of Organic Farming

There is much that has been realized about the harm of mainstream industrial farming, and those who are aware of these must be overwhelmed by such foolishness and we need not exhaust exploring all the harmful effects one by one. So what about organic farming? If we can switch the mainstream practice to organic, can all the problems be solved? The answer is, part yes. However, there remain two main environmental problems, i.e., habitat loss and continental hydrological cycling obstruction that are waiting to be solved. As long as your crops occupy farmland, you create these problems no matter you are organic or the first three zones of permaculture.


Habitat Loss From Farming Land

Experienced farmers all know about this, once a piece of farmland is abandoned, in a few years’ time things growing there will no longer be their crops, but many different kinds of mosses, lichens, grasses, shrubs and young pioneer trees together with lots of insects, worms, bugs. It is these plants who have the natural right of abode on that land , not your crops.



Continental Hydrological Cycling Obstruction In Land Occupied By Farming

Looking down upon forest or scrublands from above, you cannot see the exposed ground or soil, layers of plant leavies above have covered it completely, whereas exposed soil can be seen on agricultural land from above or any angle. When it rains, a large portion of the downpour hits the soil of the farmland directly and drains away without hindrance, leaving only a small portion sticking on the leavies and stems. This also applies to vegetable fields, for the short lived vegetable roots do not spread wide, grow deep and last long, leaving the farmland soil easily infiltrable. Instead of running off as surface water, this farmland rainwater filters down into aquifers and so cannot benefit the fauna and flora of the surrounding ecosystem. Not only so, as the stem and leavies can only hold a small portion of the downpoured rainwater, the amount of which can be evaporated back to the atmosphere is also small. Careful studies indicates that on average only about 20% of the downpoured rainwater can go back to the sky, as compared to 80% of natural forest, and it’s this difference which causes shrinkage in continental hydrological cycling.


Deep inside continental hinterland, surface evaporation cannot provide the inland air enough moisture for “enough” precipitation. To have enough rainfall, the water vapour has to come from the oceans. When the oceanic air mass flows inland, it brings along a lot of water vapor evaporated from the ocean surface. However, as these air masses moves inland, most of them precipitates on coastal regions, if 80% of the downpour can go back to the sky, they can retain 80% of it’s water content as they move deeper into the continental hinterland. But if the non-hinter continental land mass has mostly been developed into farmland, then only 20% of the downpour can go back to the sky, the same air mass will move inward with a much drier water content, leaving the continental hinterland without enough rain to keep forests growing. Deforestation in hinterland can kick off a vicious cycle. Without forest cover, sunlight hits the ground soil directly, which heats up the top soil and thus heats up the surface air mass relatively more, making the air temperature in the local area a lot higher than when there was forest. This higher temperature makes rainfall more difficult as higher temperature can hold more water vapour without condensing into water droplets. After the forest is gone, rainfall becomes more scarce, plant growth becomes more difficult, the area downgrades to savanah, and if the process goes on, it further downgrades to grassland or even desert.



Historical Evidences

Inferring from these mechanisms alone we can already conclude that massive land clearing farming causes deforestation and desertification, Factual evidence can be found in the recent geological history. Geographically, Iraq and her surrounding desert are now nearly soil free, yet was historically called ‘The Fertile Crescent’. This was the region in which human first settled 8 to 10 thousand years ago, establishing farmland for wheat and barley. This could not have happened unless there was sufficient rainfall without original forests. We can surmise that it was those thousands of years of wheat and barley farming that turned those fertile lands to desert, thus leading to the downfall of the Babylonian Empire around 2500 years ago. Another classic example of land degradation is Inner Mongolia of China. According to the ‘Classic Of Mountains And Seas’ compiled some time between 2000 and 2500 years ago, that area was covered by forest. Today it has been deteriorated to largely grassland. a Hong Kong Geography professor of The Baptist University attributed the cause of this land degradation to thousands of years of farming in China.



Organic Farming Only One Factor In The Farming Solution

Isn’t those traditional farming in pre-industrial times the equivalent of organic farming? If such kind of farming still led to the disruption of continental water cycling, causing desertification and habitat loss, what then is the use of the latter? We may say although it’s not a long term farming solution, It’s still useful as an interim measure for organic farming is a far lesser evil comparing to the prevalent type as far as the environment and consumer’s health is concerned. Especially in facing the urgent most global warming crisis, organic farming does not release soil carbon back to the atmosphere so much like the prevalent industrial type. Not only so, if organic farmers compost farm waste, the practice can store carbon taken from the atmosphere back to the soil through soil regeneration. Since the carbon in the crops or kitchen waste is taken from CO2 in the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis, composting the farm waste and then putting them back to the soil as fertilizer means CO2 from the atmosphere becomes a part of soil texture, adding up the soil mass, i.e., a process of Carbon Sequestration. Of course, we should bear in mind that not all organic farming has the carbon sequestration effect, only those that compost farm waste or kitchen waste do.


So, before humans can find out an ultimate farming solution, organic farming should still be promoted and developed as an interim  mainstream farming practice.



Having understood all the main evil and merit of organic farming, those who are looking for the way out for all life on earth know that they still need to develop new farming solutions which can be free of all the evil mentioned above. Attempts have been put forth by certain farmer-ecologists since early twentieth century, and some years later two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, together propounded the theory of Permaculture in 1978. In the broadest sense we may say the permaculture theory consists of two parts, one mental and the other material. The mental part deals with the mindset of farming practitioners, while the other part deals with farming arrangements and techniques. We may say permaculture tells people not only how to farm, but also how to think together with an attitude guideline towards farming, or a set of farming ethics.


Why Permaculture Can Solve The 2 Universal Farming Harms?

Many claim this to be the ultimate farming solution for our troubled world. Needless to say, farming ethics directs the behaviour of a farmer, thus her/his farming practice, therefore an ethical set of farming ethics is essential. When asked about how a good motive necessarily lead to a practice which can solve all the farming problems, as permaculture already provides farmers with concrete techniques and arrangements to follow, the chance should be small that a good motive would lead to undesirable results. All we need to ask is only whether a permaculture farmer will follow the farming ethics especially when their farms is situated in highly competitive markets.


It all sounds nice. If so, the rest is only in spreading the idea and practice. However, permaculture can be a farming solution depends largely on zone 5, usually a farmer’s self gazetted wilderness; and a part on zone 4, a mixture of native trees together with artificially planted ones and with free range cattle and or poultry kept inside for money making and usage purposes. Zone 1 to zone 3 makes nearly no difference from organic farming, and so bear the same problem of continental hydrylogical cycling obstruction and habitat loss if zone 5 is too small or even absent, otherwise, when most farms in a place can all be planned according to permaculture principle, their zone 5 will then be connected together and turn the place from non forest farmland back to largely natural forest with lots of zone 0 to zone 3 islands situated inside.The natural forest thus created becomes the restored natural habitat of that place, it can at the same time overcome the hydrological cycling problem caused by the farmlands to a certain degree. Right from the theoretical stage, we can’t be certain if the 2 main problems caused by organic farming can be overcome completely, but it should not be any doubt permaculture can lessen the 2 problems at least to a large extent.


The Reason Permaculture Farms Is Still Very Rare After Half Century Of Development

So far so good, it seems permaculture can no doubt be a farming solution in theory. However, after decades of promotion and practice since mid 70s, so far still nearly no permaculture products can be found in the food market, inspite lots of permaculture schools and courses have been opened in most developing and developed countries, many ecovillages have employed permaculture to plan and run their ecovillages, yet genuine permaculture farms are still rare. Why?


The culprit is zone 5. A farmer can hardly get useful yield from this zone, yet he still need to rent or buy this piece of land, thus the land cost of zone 5 is added to the cost of the other four zones’ yields, making them more costly and less competitive than other organic food. Customers are willing to pay the much more expensive organic food for their own health’s sake, but are they willing to pay a even higher than organic food price simply because permaculture food is more environmentally friendly than organic ones, especially when the average people mostly have a misconception that organic food is already environmentally friendly enough?


Another reason for permaculture’s non popularity is that it has a lot more diverse farming items which would have to be grown or raised in a permaculture farm. In zone 4 you need to have many kinds of fruit trees together with timber, soap and other utility trees. Some cattle and or poultry are better kept underneath as well. Not only so, you need to have a fish pond with many kinds of fish and frogs inside in zone 3……farmers simply find this ineffective and too troublesome.


But the most influential point of all is still permaculture products are not so fit into the competitive market economy. Nowadays most farms in the world are function under just such an economic system. Even granted we can educate the public into buying the more expensive than organic permaculture products, under strong competition permaculture farms will have to search through every corner of their farms for rooms to cut down the cost, zone 5 and even zone 4 are just too pronounced an item for the cost not to be cut there. They will proceed to dwindle the sizes of zone 5 and even zone 4. When the majority of the surrounding farms act likewise, the forest in the place restored through establishment of permaculture farms will be thinned out to such an extent that the restored natural forest can no longer function to remedy continental hydrological cycling and restore lost habitat.


Apart from those well-resourced Permaculture Educational establishments, only those farms functioning independently of existing markets, such as private and community gardens and the genuine Eco-Village, are currently able to employ Permaculture. However, for most farmers, being able to fit into the existing competitive market is an essential production strategy for economic survival. For the majority of farms to switch to a permaculture model of production, a complete change of mindset, agricultural practice models, skill sets and markets would be required. In the short term, that Permaculture might be a feasible farming solution is very much in doubt, unless we can change the current global economic model from existing competitive markets to a resource based, globally collaborative and sharing model. This doesn’t imply that fervent farmers should abandon Permaculture; by no means. The Permaculture campaign should continue, as must organic farming. My aim is that we must not develop a false confidence that there is a solution. Not yet!


"Natural" Farming:

There are other farming methods, which I would rank as ‘better than organic, more feasible than permaculture’ and classify as ‘low input farming methods’. However, I decline to call them ‘natural’ , as most other farmers do. A piece of land dedicated to growing crops is not natural at all. Even though the farmer’s touch on the land may be no more than planting the crop for later harvest. The natural process of the land, even with crops planted, will be that after a few years natural succession processes will replace most of your crops with grass, shrubs and pioneer trees of local species. If those crops persist there for years with more or less the same number, then it must be seen as ‘unnatural’ i.e. the result of the farmer’s effort. So, to be honest we had better call similar methods ‘low input farming method ’. As the name implies, such methods usually input little to no fertilizers, require only a little man power to do the weed trimming instead of elimination. Thus the planted crop co-exists with other herbs and shrubs in the field, and the mutual check and balance of various bugs and germs. It is realized, in this effective species co-existence, that no input of pesticides and fungicides are required. Even so, such farmland still cannot be regarded as restored habitat land, for natural succession still cannot take place there. If habitat restoration is not allowed, the problem of habitat loss is still present. So is the continental hydrological cycling problem, unless the crop is fruit trees, the co-existing herbs and shrubs are simply too small to cover the whole farmland surface and provide large enough canopy to hold enough raindrops.



Returning Farmland Back to Natural Forest?

Most people have a thinking that returning farmland back to natural forest must be a net gain to both the global and local ecosystem, yet upon in depth analysis such conception crumbles at once. One must bear in mind that the amount of global farmland needed is not dictated by the will of farmland owners, but by the global population as well as the type of food they eat, their eating habit, farming methods employed, etc..For example, if the global population increases, more food will be needed, farm owners will develop more farmland to fulfil the increased demand on food and vice versa. If people eat more meat, even though the demand on food remains the same by weight, the demand on farmland will still increase as meat needs far more farmland to produce per unit weight, ......So, suppose a 1000 acre of farmland is turned back to natural forest, as the global food demand won't change because of such practice, it only results in decreasing the amount of food originally produced by the 1000 acres of farmland, thereby increases the demand of food by the same amount, other farm owners will quickly develop 1000 acres more of farmland to fulfil the need in other places, thus render the returning farmland back to wild forest useless.


On the other hand, if the returning of farmland is not just back to an idle piece of wild forest, but can still have food yield as well, the result is going to be completely different. Suppose the abandoned 1000 acre farmland can still have 20% of food yield it originally had, farm owners of other places will only develop roughly 800 acres new farmland to fulfil the increased food demand, not 1000 acres, as the abandoned one can still yield a 200 acre equivalent amount of food. This argument sounds convincing, but how can an abandoned piece of farmland, or rather, a plot of wild forest can still have food yield just seems not possible.