Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and the intricate form of food production practiced by peasants through much of Asia and South America still express that flattery in relation to Nature. In the Global North, all food production except hunting and gathering is commonly referred to as agriculture. But in the Global South, the peasant and Indigenous styles of food production are increasingly called agro-ecology. The trend is coming soon to communities across the Global North, and may fly under the concept of bio-mimicry.
There’s a world of difference in distinct regions of food production and food culture – not just East and West, which shall never meet, as British imperialist Rudyard Kipling defined it for his generation – but, equally important, North and South. Bio-mimicry is second nature in the South, as is its opposite in the North, though the twain may well meet sometime soon, when cheap oil runs out.
The Southern family-farm-based alternative was brought to the attention of a Northern counterculture of food and farming by Miguel Altieri’s 1987 classic Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture.
Agriculture comes from the ancient Roman or Latin words for field (ager) and cultivation. But fields are hard to come by in the mountainous and forested regions of Mexico, the Andes or Asia. And the process of getting food from wild and mountainous areas has as much to do with tending, gathering and carrying as with cultivating.
In the absence of colonialism, different geographies nurture different food production strategies, and the difference between North and South can be most easily understood from the number of F words describing what farmers tend to. In the North, Farmers mostly cultivate Food (more commonly Food inputs) on huge Fields of land. A few F’s say most of what Farmers do.
In the South, by contrast, peasant families make some of their living by tending small patches of Field for Food and Fabrics, such as cotton. But much of the time, they’re out in the Forest Foraging for Fodder for their livestock, Fish from a marsh, Fuel for the homefires, Fiber to make building materials for homes, Furniture and Fenceposts, or materials to add Fertility to their ancient soils – not to mention meduicinals and countless toher things they Find. While wild forests were seen as the enemies of agriculture in the North, and cut down to make way for farming, in the South, forests are the mainstay of peasant livelihoods, one reason why agro-ecology methods are often also known as agro-forestry.
The multiple productive uses to which land is put in the South mimic nature in at least two ways. First, perennial plants – mango trees, avocado bushes, and grasses fed to cattle are examples — are dominant, much as they are in nature. Both Nature and agro-ecology figured out how to produce food without disturbing the earth with annual plowing.
Secondly, Southerners plant and tend a very diverse range of plants, again mimicking nature, where diversity is the norm. In Northern farms, by contrast, a small number of cereal grains account for the majority of the food consumed by humans and a limited number of favored livestock.
Lauren Baker, one of the pioneer rooftop gardeners in Canada back in the 1990s and more recently the leader of Sustain Ontario, got to see agroecology up close while completing field research )amazing how these agriculture-based terms such as field research are part of our unconscious thinking) for her 2009 Ph D thesis at Toronto’s York University.
Baker met with leaders of mostly Indigenous small farmers in Michoacan, a state in western Mexico known for butterfly habitat, progressive politics and exports of avocado, mango, guava, lemon and lime. Disappointed by their inability to get higher prices for organic produce, local farmers got together to develop production methods that both lowered their production cost and increased the number of local jobs. Through the Michoacan Agribusiness Center and university research done in active cooperation with farmers, a series of family and coop businesses provided organic fertilizers and pesticides from local materials – worm compost, bat guano, stinging nettle and the like – thereby cutting input costs by 70 per cent while creating local jobs.
Baker says this fits with agroecology because “it relies on looking close to home for solutions” just as natural systems are forced to do. “Nothing is wasted; the waste from one process becomes input for another. The flow of energy and materials is circular, as in nature,” she says. “That’s why it can be described as a food web, rather than a food chain,” a Northern term referring to a one-way linear transportation of material and energy “throughput.”
Some versions of agro-ecology practices are starting to catch on in the North, most notably with the recent interest in “grass-fed” livestock, returning livestock to the natural perennial grasses their ancestors ate before humans fattened them more quickly with annual cereal grains.
Other versions may well follow when high gas and fertilizer (made from natural gas) prices kick in and when widespread drought in areas like the North American West makes grains too expensive to feed to cattle or cars. Foods gathered from perennial plants – nuts, fruit, berries and wild rice, for example – may be in for a comeback, as will fuel, fabrics and fiber based on natural materials instead of fossil fuel-based plastics and synthetics.
Who knows, Northern governments might even subsidize farmers to mimic nature by working their lands to produce ecological services, just as wild meadows and forests of the South provide – habitat for pollinating insects and birds, biological filters (deep root systems of wild grasses, for instance) to clean water, or storage of excess carbon in trees, nature’s way of carbon storage. Instead of paying farmers exclusively for food products from fields, we might supplement their incomes with fees for the products and services of forests, marshes and fields.
Imitating Nature and the Global South — that might be the next generation of agricultural adaptation in the North. In the West and North, the early development of agriculture was associated with prophets who took people out of the wilderness. In the coming era, we need prophets to take us back.