Permaculture Perspectives at the Supermarket
By Natalie Varrallo
It is certainly no rarity to come upon the “organic” tag in supermarket produce sections across the whole of the United States. And while the term itself rightfully connotes healthy and intelligent life choices, it remains among the most misunderstood phrases related to the food industry. For despite their many positive attributes, organic farming methods and the produce that they yield are not quite the all-encompassing pathway to holistic health that they have often come to represent- far from it, in fact. Many of these incorrect notions stem from the overwhelming trend towards heavily processed diets that have dominated western culinary options for the better part of a century. However, the organic movement that came into vogue with the post-Woodstock trend towards alternative lifestyles was not so much a new step forward as it was a sidestepping of the tinned vegetables and microwave-ready meals that had become cultural norms- a sort of back to nature food movement. But the unfortunate reality is that, rather than becoming a starting point for increased awareness and progress in food cultivation and consumption, organic methods have not been improved upon, at least for the vast majority of consumers.
The natural evolution of these organic practices leads directly to the principles of permaculture and it is here that the next widespread developments within the farming and food industries will be found. Practically every question that is left unanswered by the wide-ranging organic label can be met head-on when a permaculture-inspired perspective is utilized. Whereas organic practices don’t take into account a myriad of concerns, running the gamut from ethical to nutritional topics, permaculture goes the extra distance to establish a humane backdrop that places the care of both people and the planet at the forefront. Where the food was grown and how far it has been transported, how its farmers and the soil that they labored on was cared- principles such as these have overarching effects that can dramatically alter what shopping carts across the country look like.
Of course, if you step into a supermarket’s produce section anywhere in America today, you will find yourself surrounded by essentially the same glossy fruits and vegetables glimmering under a subtle mist of water year-round. This lack of variation throughout the country’s regions speaks directly to the issues of seasonality and transportation. Although one can readily acknowledge that the expectations for the food that is produced within the country’s wildly different territories will vary greatly, corporate, economic, and cultural factors have all played significant roles in minimizing the impact of local food sources from rising above grassroots organizations operating around the fringes of select localities generally situated on the East and West Coasts. But while it may seem as though there are too many factors mitigating against a permaculture-based outlook ever influencing the decisions of consumers outside of boutique farmer’s markets in San Francisco and Manhattan, it is important to remember that this is the same position that organic methods were in just several short decades ago.
As with any other movement, the first step towards implementing the principles and ethics of permaculture comes from fostering awareness within the public. It is important to recognize that, by this stage, organic options should no longer be viewed as a periphery alternative but rather as the extensive industry that they unquestionably are. Perhaps the most immediate and observable improvement in produce that is grown using methods of permaculture as opposed to organic processes can be related directly back to the soil that is utilized. It is no secret that the quality of food that is produced directly from the earth is only as good as the soil that it derives its nutrients from; the nutrient quality of your soil will directly affect the nutrient quality of your crops. Numerous studies have shown that the nutritional quality of foods that are produced in conventional and organic settings are essentially the same, but dramatically higher when ecologically-based systems are employed. The main difference? The soil.
Thus, it is by directly considering the earth- its soil, the nutrients that the soil contains, the laborers who tended and harvested its output- that the first advances towards realizing further abundance within the food industry will be found. It is, in its most literal sense, a foundational movement.