If you’re like most of us, you don’t think much about the environmental impacts of crops like sugar, soy, or cacao. We don’t see them grown, and thus have little regard for the vast resources required to keep them productive. In fact, many people are so removed from food sources they can’t identify if their favorite fruit comes from a tree or bush, and a recent Missouri University study showed that 79% of respondents believed hamburger comes from pigs. This disconnect is no surprise, considering the distance between urban populations and farmland. But the source of our food is important, and not only from a literacy perspective. The way we grow food across the globe is becoming increasingly harmful, and our psychological distance from agriculture has allowed unsustainable practices to perpetuate largely unhindered.
Commercial agriculture is now estimated to account for 80% of worldwide deforestation, and we lose a total forest area the size of Costa Rica each year. Some of the biggest offending crops, as you may have guessed, are palm oil, soy, cacao, and sugar. The environmental impacts of some of your favorite foods are leading to water depletion from soil, loss of animal and plant biomes, erosion, and increasing greenhouse gases. In other words, humanity is feeding itself into oblivion. But we have to eat, so how can we feed ourselves without killing our home in the process?
A Man With A Plan
In the early 1980’s, Swiss farmer Ernst Götsch moved to Bahia, Brazil, to work on a large farm that loggers had decimated and abandoned. It was an arid wasteland. Götsch worked from sunup to sundown every day to revitalize the land using a complex method he would later coin “syntropic agriculture.” While entropy is the natural breakdown and disorder of systems over time, syntropy, for Götsch, is the opposite: creation and order. After years of researching genetics at the Zurich-Reckenholz Institute, and later teaching sustainable agriculture in Nicaragua, Götsch learned the skills he needed to create syntropy and bring the rain forest back to life. In one year, he planted over 500 hectares of organic, sustainable, food-producing forest. Today it’s a flourishing mecca of food production, the soil is repaired, and the rains have returned. And he did it all without fertilizers or poisons. So what’s his secret?
Breaking It Down
Götsch’s methods are multi-faceted, but one of his primary methods of cultivating healthy plants and soil is constant pruning. “Pruning brings several benefits,” he says. “It makes plants increase root activities, changing their mycorrhiza.” This in turn produces gibberellic acid, a chemical that induces cell growth in plants. The new growth then enhances the plant’s symbiosis with bacteria and fungi, creating more nutrients and natural fertilization. Pruning also increases photosynthesis, which boosts carbon storage and sunlight absorption in plants. This cools the environment, which then creates more water. The pruned material returns to the forest floor, as well, to decompose and further enrich the soil. It’s a beautiful, natural cycle.
As Nature Intended
One of the building blocks of Götsch’s methods is agroforestry, the practice of planting trees and crops together. This is the method he employed on his own successful plantation, which incidentally produces one of the most high-quality cacao beans in the world (according to the London Academy of Chocolate), and it costs him nothing to produce. Götsch cites the ecological balance in the system for his success. A farmer must learn a deep respect and understanding of nature to harness such results. Still, his core ideas are intuitive enough that farmers worldwide have begun practicing them:
- Mulch. Götsch leaves the remnants of his pruning and weeding on the ground, providing ground cover that keeps moisture in the soil. It also creates natural fertilizer as the mulch breaks down. Thick beds of mulch make nests around all his plants, protecting and feeding them at the same time.
- Keep it in the family. Some crops are naturally synergistic. They support each other as they grow, and create a sort of interdependent “family.” Americans may be familiar with the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash, which thrive most when planted together. But Götsch utilizes this principle with many species. Pineapple and manioc grow well together, as do banana and orange trees. Syntropic farmers draw entire schematics of these “families” before planting to encourage optimal growth.
- Timing is everything. Each of these synergistic “families,” or consortia, are influenced by the crops that came before them, and they influence those that will come after. This is a strategy Götsch calls “natural species succession.” This ongoing stream of growth allows certain species to thrive and dominate later on. Trees are nurtured along with more low-growing plants until the trees can flourish, building strata of plants that protect each other. Once harvested, plants are pruned and returned to the soil as mulch to support new growth.
- Go with the flow. Götsch’s life work is shaped by striking a balance between what he calls “unconditional love and cooperation” with the earth’s natural processes. His teachings make it clear that he fosters a deep respect for nature and the science behind abundant, healthy growth. For Götsch, the greatest teacher is nature herself.
While Götsch’s methods create incredible ecological health, the most surprising benefit is that his crops are pest-free. Healthy plants deter pests naturally, using their own systemic chemicals. In fact, insects will primarily infest plants weakened by drought or a lack of efficient nutrients, not healthy ones. When the soil quality is high, the plants are strong and the pests stay away. This means better food production, as well. Most farms use “inputs” like poisons to control invasions, or fertilizers to regenerate depleted soil after a harvest. With syntropic agriculture, the main “input” needed is manual labor. This need decreases naturally over time as the syntropic farm begins to sustain itself. This also means no irrigation, no synthetic pesticides, and no chemical stimulants. When the “inputs” are down and the “outputs,” such as food crops, are high, the farm’s economic value skyrockets.
Spreading the Word
In 2011, Götsch partnered with filmmaker Felipe Pasini to found the Life In Syntropy organization. Through this organization he holds workshops to teach the science of syntropic agriculture to other farmers. Today, the practice is acquiring global recognition, with syntropic farms now thriving in Brazil, Australia, England, and the United States. Workshops on syntropic agriculture now exist worldwide, as well. You can even bring this practice to your home garden. Krishna Village, located in New South Wales, provides retreats with hands-on syntropic gardening classes. The potential for global, sustainable farming is ripe. If enough syntropic farms emerge to replace factory farming, the increase in healthy food production could be staggering. And the earth will thank us for it.
Wageningen University and Research Centre. (2012, September 25). Agriculture is the direct driver for worldwide deforestation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120925091608.htm
StokstadSep, E., NormileJan, D., VoosenJan, P., CohenJan, J., & MoskovitzJan, D. (2018, September 13). New global study reveals the ‘staggering’ loss of forests caused by industrial agriculture. Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/09/scientists-reveal-how-much-world-s-forests-being-destroyed-industrial-agriculture
Ernst Götsch: The creator of the real green revolution. (2018, February 15). Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://believe.earth/en/ernst-gotsch-the-creator-of-the-real-green-revolution/
Home. (n.d.). Retrieved January 21, 2019, from http://lifeinsyntropy.org/en/
Home — tmp. (n.d.). Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://www.agendagotsch.com/
Syntropic Agriculture: The Regenerative Food-Growing Method that Could Reverse Climate Change and End Hunger. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2019, from http://www.patriciasendin.com/2016/08/syntropic-agriculture-regenerative-food.html
Nationwide, S. (n.d.). Plant Defenses, Management Practices, and Pests. Retrieved January 22, 2019, from https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/Soil-Health-Plant-Health-and-Pests/Plant-Defenses-Management-Practices-and-Pests