Given the stark reality that we are now in a time of deficit spending of the earth’s capital, it is imperative that we regard our economic systems as inextricably bound to ecosystems. The two words, ecology and economy— in fact, are derived from the same Greek root: eco, which means house. Food systems are a primary example of the interaction of the two disciplines, and a closer look at food through the dual lenses of ecology and economy reveals many startling inefficiencies and even absurdities in how we currently grow, produce, distribute, consume and dispose of food.
Studying the lessons of wild ecosystems provides some valuable direction for redesigning efficient and non-depleting methods and practices for feeding humans. As clever as we are, we have not yet developed technological processes that are better than nature for renewability. All human-designed products and processes require a draw-down of the earth’s capital stock. Wild ecosystems, in contrast, build organic material and resist stresses, performing this work on contemporary sunlight (as opposed to that embodied in fossil fuels) indefinitely and for free.
We have millennia of wisdom – embodied in wild ecosystems and human thought and experimentation – from which to learn. To cite just one example, the practice of milpa agriculture in Mesoamerica has evolved over hundreds of generations into a mutually beneficial network whereby farmers temporally and spatially shift the growth of maize to feed local populations while sequentially regenerating small forest areas.
In our rapidly urbanizing world, can we design cities that more closely emulate dynamic and productive ecosystems like the milpa? Perhaps agriculture, reinvented as a form of urban infrastructure, could offer such promise, particularly if combined with the multiple synergies of food production, biomass creation, CO2 reduction and sequestration, nutrient recycling, resource renewal and purification, economic revitalization and social vitality.
Author Carolyn Steel will kick-off a day of discussions about these issues at Transforming Cities: How Food Systems Shape Cities on May 2 by explaining her concept of Sitopia (food-place), an integrated design tool with which to address the complex challenges of present and future dwelling. We hope you will join us.