Ecological Agriculture Projects Logo

EAP Publications | Virtual Library | Magazine Rack | Search

Join the Ecological  Solutions Roundtable

EAP Publication-23

Redesigning the Food System for Sustainability

 by Stuart Hill

 There is something seriously wrong with a society that requires one to argue for sustainability. It is obvious that our food producing systems must be operated in a sustainable way, for to do otherwise would be to practice delayed genocide on our descendants. The question is not why but what and how: what characterizes sustainable systems, and how can such systems be implemented. In this paper, I will examine these questions and review the driving and restraining forces for change towards a sustainable food system.  

Some characteristics of a sustainable food system

 The primary goal of any food system should be nourishment -- for all the peoples of the world to have access to the foods, or resources needed to obtain them, to achieve optimal physical, mental and spiritual health. Other goals include fulfillment, justice, flexibility, evolution and sustainability.1 Each of these has built-in limits. in contrast to the predominant goals of most modern food systems that emphasize increased productivity (to satisfy primarily distant markets manipulated by advertising), profit (based on private short-term gain at public long-term expense), and power (particularly as a bargaining tool in international relations). Such unlimited goals will always eventually lead to the degradation of person and planet.2

 Sustainability requires that we not only pay attention to our activities, but also to our population density and distribution, because it is the interaction between these three factors and their relationship with the support environment that ultimately determines the persistence of populations (Fig. 1). High density populations exhibiting highly aggregated distributions, and high levels of consumption and associated waste production are the most vulnerable and unsustainable.3

 Achieving the above goals will require that attention be paid to differences between basic needs, which can be met, and wants or desires, which can never be fully satisfied. The most destructive wants are of a compensatory nature and have their roots in neuroses or other psychological states of distress. Thus, in certain individuals, overeating may represent a misdirected striving to feel "fulfilled", the lives of most people in our society being far from fulfilling. In this case, overeating may be compensating for a feeling of emptiness or of needing something deep inside. Over consumption may also be used by individuals to convey an image of wealth. power and control, and in this case it may compensate, along with other metaphorical or symbolic consumptive activities. for a real internal sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.

 It is also necessary to pay attention to the cyclic nature of sustainable ecosystems. Agriculture is a production, consumption. recycle system (Fig. 2), whose sustainability is, in the long run, limited by the degree to which this cycle is cultivated and maintained.

 Much can be discovered about the operation of sustainable agroecosystems by observing natural ecosystems. These always operate within the bounds of certain limits. One such limit is biochemical: organisms must have access to certain chemicals and avoid others that would harm them. The casual way in which our society has, over the past 50 years, synthesized and released into the environment novel chemicals, including many pesticides. is something that clearly must be limited. Additional long, expensive studies are surely not required to ascertain that non-specific novel poisons will always poison organisms other than those for which they are intended. As pests are economically and not biologically defined, searching for specific chemicals can only lead to frustration as chemicals cannot distinguish on the basis of economics. Such problems are best dealt with at the causal level.

 Most societies seem to have difficulty dealing with the causes of problems when they imply the need for structural change. Tragically, much of our expertise is tied up trying to find ways to deal with the recurring symptoms of poorly designed malfunctioning systems. If even a fraction of this valuable resource were freed for work on the redesign of such systems, many of our problems would disappear. I believe there is a functional connection between this reluctance to deal with causes and the common tendency to conduct our lives, carry out our science, do our work, whatever it may be. without examining the assumptions and values upon which these activities are based.4 Most academics argue at the tips of the branches of their disciplinary trees, but rarely examine the roots or foundations of their thinking.

 The occurrence of pests and their control illustrates some of the fundamental differences between current and proposed approaches to problems (Fig. 3). Because of certain features in the design and management of most modern agroecosystems, particularly their lack of diversity in space and time, high incidence of stress. and obstruction of recovery mechanisms, recurrent pest outbreaks are the norm. Pests are perceived as the enemy and are usually promptly attacked with pesticides (it is interesting that military terminology is often used when describing pest control operations).

 Because of difficulties of application, non-specificity and persistence, various harmful side-effects are experienced. The pest population soon recovers and eventually becomes resistant to the pesticides; secondary pests may appear and various ecosystems become stressed and contaminated. Common, at first sight rational, approaches to this are to demand that pesticides be applied more efficiently (e.g., when the pest reaches a particular economic threshold) or that substitutes, such as biological controls (e.g., the release of predators, parasites and pathogens), be employed. What the proponents of these deceptively simple efficiency and substitution approaches usually fail to realize is that the more successful they are, the more they protect and perpetuate the cause of the problem, the maldesigned, malfunctioning agroecosystem.

    Eventually we must abandon these shallow approaches and adopt deep solutions, which demand that we redesign those parts of the system and those approaches to management that are generating the problems. In a redesigned agroecosystem, more time would be spent maintaining the functional relationships among the components, and so prevent problems, and less time trying to solve them. In contrast to present systems, in which we perceive ourselves as separate (on the outside), in redesigned systems we would come to accept our integration into the biosphere, and much of our efforts would be devoted to maintaining balance and paying attention to feedback (Fig. 4).

  Such redesigned agroecosystems would not only respect cycles and limits, but also exhibit much greater functional diversity than most present systems. Efforts towards more complex rotations, multiple cropping, companion planting, inter-cropping, multistory systems and polycultures represent important moves in this direction at the farm level. Watershed management, bioregionalism and permaculture5 are parallel developments at the regional level.

 In addition to agroecosystem design and management, the pattern of food distribution and consumption distinguish sustainable from present food systems. A typical ecological farm would probably be mixed and smaller than the average conventional farm. Cooperative large-scale farms are also possible. One or more areas might be set aside for long term experimentation. The farmer would be more reliant on people and knowledge, and less on imported chemicals and high-powered machines. Most of the resources required to operate the farm would be generated on the farm or obtained within the region. The planning and management of the farm would be highly integrated, the components generally serving multiple functions and always being considered in the context of the whole. Problems would be confronted, where possible, at the causal level, primarily by making a number of changes in the design and management of the systems. Sensitive measures (such as bioassays and ecological indicators) would be used to provide rapid feedback concerning the smooth operation of the farm -- the aim would be to avoid rather than control problems. Marketing might emphasize direct distribution to local populations.

 Preliminary indications are that such designs, though less productive than conventional farms during the transition period, eventually have the capacity to achieve higher levels of production over the long term.6 This is because sustainable systems build and maintain rather than erode their natural capital:7 they use space and time more efficiently; waste is minimized, and a greater number of components within such systems are harvested for food.8

 Rather than export our malfunctioning system of agriculture to developing countries we should do all in our power to promote the evolution of sustainable systems, first in our own gardens, farms, regions and countries, and second in those of others.9  

Implementing a sustainable agriculture

 Up to now I have emphasized changes that need to be made in the external world. These, however, will only come about as by-products of changes in our internal world, in particular, in our perception of ourselves. The evolution of society rests on the shoulders of the evolution of each of us as individuals, and that requires that we free ourselves from the bonds of fear, helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness and associated states.

 Let us examine fear for example. It is a state that most people largely deny experiencing. Nevertheless, for most people fear probably plays a major role in stopping them from adopting a sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately fear is promoted everywhere -- in homes, educational and religious institutions, in the media, in advertising and in political propaganda and international dialogue -- in fact, our lives are bathed in fear. Our senses detect the world through a curtain of fear, which may partly explain why it is not well recognized. Sensing danger, we consciously and subconsciously seek a safe place, and in so doing isolate ourselves from other humans and from the natural environment. It is this separation that characterizes every aspect of our world. Only now, with the development of the so called new physics is the myth of objectivity (which is dependent on separatism) being exposed, and the holistic nature of our material and emotional worlds being recognized.10

 If we examine the widespread problems of food system unsustainability and hunger, it is clear that if we were really serious about finding solutions, most of us would behave quite differently than we do at present. It is because of our various fears, including the fear of admitting fear, that we choose to ignore these problems, initiate repetitive studies of them, propose unsustainable curative solutions, or even argue against the seriousness of the situation.

 It is my assumption, however, that each of us has the capacity to contradict these debilitating patterns and to play active roles in the creation and implementation of sustainable food systems. While plans for implementation may be perceived at any level, from individuals to global, it is most useful to consider what we can do as individuals rather than focusing on what others should do. In considering this it is helpful to refer to Lewin's force field analysis model (Fig. 5).11

 In this model, restraining and driving forces are first identified, then ways are sought to weaken the former and strengthen the latter. Based on the responses of 183 organic farmers in Minnesota, lowa, Missouri and Illinois, Blobaum12 found that those farmers who switched from conventional to organic methods were encouraged to do so (in descending order of importance) through the influence of a friend or relative, as a result of attendance at a meeting, because of concern over livestock health and performance, through contact with company representatives selling organic products and because of concerns about rising production costs, declining soil and environmental health, and the effects of chemicals on human health. Their commitment to this approach was strengthened by the following perceived advantages: better soil filth and fertility, healthier livestock, reduced production costs, better personal and family health, self-satisfaction and peace of mind, avoiding chemical contamination of food and feed, more profit, and the satisfaction of working with nature. Kramer's study of 80 organic farmers in Canada largely supports these findings.13

 Earlier studies by the US Department of Agriculture in the United Statesl4 and myself15 in Canada have suggested that the driving forces for the growing interest in organic farming include rising costs of inputs, increasing awareness of the environmental impacts associated with some conventional practices, increasing pest and disease problems, growing public concern with relationships between diet, environment and disease, results of studies of organic farms that show reduced dependence and vulnerability and comparable profits, and the growing associated interest among farmers, researchers and international development agents.

 In a 1984 survey at an international conference on food issues. about 50 respondents (largely scientists) identified the following as the driving forces for their interest in sustainable food systems: seeing hungry people and oppression, seeing the effects of the present system, discussions with others who are already involved, the realization that the situation can be changed and fears concerning the future.l6 The most frequent suggestions for strengthening these forces included greater access to accurate information and opportunities to discuss this information with others. including cross-cultural discussions. especially with the poor, the development of networks of concerned activists and groups,l7 encouragement and recognition of activists, and value changes among the population.

 Restraining forces were felt to be the lack of financial resources and support. lack of institutional support, lack of awareness and accurate information. lack of time to gain such awareness and implement sustainable systems. and finally a feeling of hopelessness and not knowing where to begin. The most frequent suggestions for weakening these forces were very similar to those for strengthening the driving forces: fostering awareness and understanding. providing opportunities to cooperate with others and discuss opinions openly, exerting political pressure to generate governmental action, and restructuring society and political institutions. Blobaum found the barriers to farmers converting from conventional to organic methods to be poor access to reliable information, lack of supporting research, poor access to special markets and market information, market structure inadequacies, concerns about weed problems, credit discrimination. Landlord pressures, and limited access to organic soil amendments. A shortage of skilled labour may have also posed a problem.18

 From all of the above studies. it is clear that key factors for rational change include access to accurate information. opportunities to collaborate With others in a group, networking among groups, and institutional support and encouragement for such activities. In an effort to meet some of these needs. Ecological Agriculture Projects (EAP) was established on the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in 1974 with support from the Macdonald Stewart Foundation. EAP operates primarily as a resource centre. It responds to requests for information from around the world. publishes papers and bibliographies. produces slide-tape shows. and organizes conferences, lecture series and discussions. It networks with hundreds of organizations, including the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.19 It has conducted several studies for governments and continues to push for more responsible political action. Those interested in helping to further this work are encouraged to contact EAP, or sister organizations within your area, and to let local politicians, educators and influential groups know of your expectations of them.

 The following describes what I endeavour to do to achieve my goals of a rational food system:

 Stuart B. Hill is Associate Professor of Entomology and Director of Ecological Agriculture Projects at Macdonald College of McGill University where he teaches entomology, ecology and soil biology. He is the author of over 100 papers and articles and is co-author of the book Basic Techniques in Ecological Farming (available from EAP). He is interested in networking in the areas of, ethics and agriculture, agroecosystem design and the relationships between human development and the structure and management of the food system.  


1 S.B.. Hill, "A Global Food and Agriculture Policy for Western Countries: Laying the Foundations", Nutrition & Health 1 (1982) pp. 107-117.

 2 A Jeffersonian perspective on the degradation of North American agriculture is provided by Wendell Berry. The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977); and more details of my own thinking are provided in S.B. Hill, Observing Stressed and Unstressed Ecosystems and Human Systems: Means for Recovery and \'Value Identification', Absolute Values and the Search for the Peace of Mankind, Vol 2 (New York: International Cultural Foundation Press, 1980), pp. 1121-1138; and S.B. Hill, Soil, Food. Health and Holism: the Search for Sustainable Nourishment (Ste-Anne de Bellevue: Ecological Agriculture Projects, 1980).

 3 this model was first presented in S.B. Hill, "The Energy Situation and Its Implications for Food Policy", I -M. Besson and H. Vogtmann (eds.) Towards a Sustainable Agriculture (Aarau, Switzerland: Verlag-Wirz, 1980), pp. 170-183.

4 An eastern perspective on the values and farming issue is provided by M. Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (Emmaus, PA.: Rodale Press 1978); and a North American perspective in the proceedings of a conference edited by R. I Haynes & R. Lanier. Agriculture, Change and Human Values, Vol. 1 & 2~(Gainsville, FL.: University of Florida, 1982). Haynes also edits a journal on this topic called Agriculture and Human Values.

 5 The concept of a permanent agriculture or permaculture has been popularized most vigorously by a group in Tasmania; see B. Mollison, Permaculture Two (Stanley, Tasmania Tagari, 1979); see also J. Quinney, "Designing Sustainable Small Farms and Homesteads" Mother Earth News, 88 (1984), pp. 54-65.

 6 There is a considerable literature on the experiences of organic and ecological farmers The following comprise some of the more recent volumes, primarily proceedings of conferences: J.M. Besson & H. Vogtmann Towards a Sustainable Agriculture (Aarau Switzerland: Verlag-Wirz Ag, 1978); R.C Oelhaf, Organic Agriculture: Economic and Ecological Comparisons with Conventional Methods (New York: Wiley. 1978); P. Hanley Earthcare: Ecological Agriculture in Saskatchewan (Wynard, Sask: Earthcare, 1980) R. Boeringa, Alternative Methods of Agriculture (Amsterdam, Elsevier Scientific Pub. Co. 1980); W. Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture. (San Francisco, CA: Friends of the Earth 1980); Cornucopia Project, Empty Breadbasket (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981); B. Stonehouse, ea., Biological Husbandry: A Scientific Approach to Organic Farming (Lon don: Butterworths, 1981); S.B. Hill & P. Ott Basic Techniques in Ecological Farming ant the Maintenance of Soil Fertility (Baser Switzerland: Birkhauser Verlag, 1982); D Knorr, ea., Sustainable Food System. (Westport: A\'1 Publishing Co.. 1983); M.A Altieri, Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture (Berkeley, CA: Divn Biol. Control, Univ. of California, 1983); D.E Brewster, W.D. Rasmussen & G. Youngberg eds., Farms in Transition (Ames, IA: low, State University Pr., 1983): W. Lockeretz Environmentally Sound Agriculture (New York: Praeger, 1983); D.G. Patriquin, "Biological Agriculture: An Affordable Alternative' (manuscript for presentation at Right to Food Conference, Montreal, 1984): T.C. Edens, C Fridgen & S.L. Baltenfield. eds., Sustainable Agriculture and Integrated Farming System (East Lansing, Ml: Michigan State University Press, 1985).

 7 Capital is lost in the form of species, cultivars and varieties. refuge habitats for nature control agents and for organisms concerned with environmental maintenance and skills. The loss of soil in Canada has recently been brought into public focus by the Senate Report. Soil! at Risk: Canada's Eroding Future (Ottawa: Senate of Canada, 1984).

 8 Comprehensive views of the advantages of ecological approaches to food production are provided by J. Todd & N.J.. Todd. Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design (San Francisco CA: Sierra Club Books, 1984): and R. Jackson What is Scientific Agriculture? Holism as an Orientation in Scientific Effort ([Unpublished, Ottawa: Science Council of Canada, 1984).

 9 See for example F.M.. Lappe & 1 Collins, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (New York: Ballantine, 1977); K.A.. Dahlberg, Beyond the Green Revolution: The Ecology and Politics of Global Agriculture Development (New York: Plenum, 1979).

 10 F. Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambhala. 1975); F. Capra, The Turning Point (New York: Bantam Books, 1982); D. Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980); 1. Prigogene & P. Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).

 11 K. Lewin's force field analysis model is well described in P. Hersey and K. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behaviour, 4th ed.. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:: Prentice-Hall, 1982).

 12 R. Blobaum, Barriers to Conversion of Small Farms to Ecological Methods (Unpublished, Butte. MT: National Center for Appropriate Technology, 1980). An edited version "Barriers to Conversion to Organic Farming Practices in the United States", occurs pp. 263-278 in W. Lockeretz ea., Environmentally Sound Agriculture (New York: Praeger 1983). 13 D. Kramer, Problems Facing Canadian Farmers Using Organic Agricultural Methods Toronto, Ont.: Canadian Organic Growers 1984).

 14 U.S.D.A.. Report and Recommendations or Organic Farming (Beltsville, MD: United States Department of Agriculture. 1980).

 15 S.B. Hill. Organic Farming in Canada Unpublished 16 pp. report to Soil and Water Committee of Agriculture Canada (Ste-Anne de Bellevue, QC: Ecological Agriculture Projects. 1982).

 16 S.B. Hill, Implementing a Sustainable Food System. (Unpublished 14 pp manuscript for Right to Food Conference, Montreal, May 31 1984 (Ste-Anne de Bellevue, QC: Ecological Agriculture Projects. 1984).

 17 See for example 1 Lipnack and J. Stamps Networking: The First Report and Director, (New York: Doubleday, 1982).

 18 Blobaum, op. cit.

19 Address of l.F.O.A.M. (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) Rodale Research Center, RD 1, Box 323 Kutztown, PA 19530.  Address of International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture: Newman Centre, University of Minnesota, 1701 University Ave. S.E., Rm 202, Minneapolis, MN 55414.  


Dr. Hill would like to thank the following for their help in preparing this paper: Susan Johnson. Alison Bentley, Linda Gilkeson and Danica Baines for their critical comments or the manuscript: Sandy Letendre for drawing Fig. 3 and Barbara Hill for Fig. 2 Diane Beyeler for typing the manuscript and the Macdonald Stewart Foundation for their support.


Copyright 1984 Ecological Agriculture Projects

Info Request | Services | Become EAP Member | Site Map

Give us your comments about the EAP site

Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University (Macdonald Campus)
Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC,  H9X 3V9 Canada
Telephone:          (514)-398-7771
Fax:                     (514)-398-7621


To report problems or otherwise comment on the structure of this site, send mail to the Webmaster