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The attached infographic summarizes, and simplifies, a crucial set of ideas about sustainable forms of agriculture – and by extension, sustainable forms of modern life.
These agricultural dynamics or principles are natural, or broadly inevitable and recurring, even as they are widely unappreciated or even unwisely downplayed in our time.
As you can see, and understanding that hybrid approaches are possible, the graphic contrasts two basic approaches to creating food, today and in all times: perennial polyculture and annual monoculture.
Perennial polyculture, as its name suggests, is an approach marked by a generally healthy diversity of plants, and ones that naturally self-renew or regenerate each year. This of course is a broad description of the Earth’s many natural ecosystems, evolved over a billion years or more, and ones that usually include animals that feed on these plants and often symbiotically aid them in turn. In human agriculture, perennial polyculture systems include grassland or pasture animal grazing, forest animal grazing, tree-based fruit and nut production, various hunting practices, and natural fishing and fisheries. Normally, these agricultural systems, or ecosystems, are naturally or readily made fully sustainable, regenerative, and thus resilient or enduring in practice.
By contrast, annual monoculture involves a single annual or annualized plant species grown at scale, or in monoculture. When human agriculture is based on this approach, it normally involves annual harvesting and replanting, and often with regular soil tilling and other forms of environmental disturbance . Across living nature on our planet, annual monoculture is rare or exceptional, though it does exist or recur. This includes following fires and other forms of ecosystem dislocation. But in these and other cases, natural monoculture also typically leads to ecological succession or ascension, plant and animal re-diversification, and a return to typically healthier or more durable perennial polyculture conditions.
In human agriculture, annual monoculture systems include grain and legume farming, other forms of staple and vegetable farming, and animal and fish production based on these foods. As you likely know, these food systems, or again ecosystems, began with and after our initial Agricultural Revolution, approximately 10,000 years ago. Crucially, agriculture based on annual monoculture is naturally more precarious and unstable than perennial polyculture – often requiring significant external inputs and labor, naturally proving more susceptible to both drought and pests, commonly degrading natural soil and water systems over time, and all as tellingly evidenced in the naturally brief and ecologically turbulent history of dedicated human agriculture.
Consistent with these ideas, we should expect and do find in fact that these two approaches to human food production have vastly different and even opposing environmental effects today, as the infographic highlights. As a result, these natural ecological principles in all recommend a modern movement or return to human food harvesting, and thus daily diets, based primarily on perennial polyculture systems, which notably was our ancestral and long-enduring norm or practice as foragers.
I would encourage you to consider and explore these important ideas, and also to share the infographic widely to help increase general awareness of these essential natural considerations in assuring modern human health and sustainability in time.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura.
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An earlier and more in-depth article on food and agricultural sustainability, if you would like to explore this topic…