[This article was first published in the volume Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse, and was more recently republished on Feasta’s web site.]
We all talk about food but our discussions are generally confined to our own spheres of interest. So, while food links farmers to CEOs, advertisers to aid agencies, community activists to urban planners, gardeners to chemical engineers, geneticists to nutritionists, lorry drivers to commodity traders, and cooks to economists in a complex web, crucial relationships and unifying issues are missing from most conversations.
Moreover, we usually assume that the issues we don’t discuss are unrelated and unchanging. Indeed, those working on one issue usually have beliefs that preclude engagement with those working on others. For example, urban planners assume that farming yields are the same regardless of scale and context. This leads them to discount urban agriculture as a fringe pursuit rather than a productive and essential use of urban and peri-urban land. The disconnect between production and nutrition is perhaps more critical. Farmers and nutritionists rarely discuss the nutritional quality of a carrot and how it could be improved through farming practices. Farmers are more concerned with yield and appearance while nutritionists typically assume that all carrots are created equal.
At this critical point in human history it is essential that we gain a more holistic understanding of food. We need ways of thinking about food which not only encourage engagement between specialists but also allow more integrated systems-wide approaches to develop.
Food security is perhaps the most effective lens through which to see the complexity of food systems as an integrated whole. There are numerous definitions of food security but most would have a lot in common with that used by one of the world’s largest food security organisations:
The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is a non-profit North American organization dedicated to building strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. We seek to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available and selling food that is regionally-based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability. 
Described this way, food security is a positive goal, in much the same way that financial security is. It can be approached incrementally — the numerous components of the food systems, and each of the many transformations that are made, can be evaluated to determine whether they increase or degrade food security. Alternatively, the entire food system can be evaluated holistically to identify key weaknesses or opportunities. Food security is a scalable concept, useful for a community or region, or at an individual family scale, or for the entire global population. It is also descriptive without being prescriptive, recognising that there are many ways of achieving food security and the forms that it takes could vary radically for each person, community or region.
There are two general approaches within the broader food security movement, neither of which have adequately addressed the critical issues facing us. This is because both generally assume that the broader context of economic growth, cheap energy, resource abundance and environmental stability will continue. The first approach, and the most common, focuses on achieving an advanced degree of self-reliance. This approach, which is evident in the CFSC statement, is more likely to ensure the security of a community’s food supplies in an economic collapse as well as during energy and resource shortages. The supply will be protected through greater reliance on local inputs, better relationships between producer and consumer, and the increased resilience of the local social and economic systems that results from having a local food system. However, the supply will likely falter in the event of extreme weather conditions in the region, sustained social disruption or war.
The second approach is to ensure a diversity of supply. This is often the goal of global organisations such as the FAO  which recognise the need to ensure “timely transfers of supplies to deficit areas” in order to respond to “harmful seasonal and inter-annual instability of food supplies” caused by climate fluctuations, drought, pests, diseases, war, as well as natural and man-made disasters. This approach is essential if regional disruptions in food security are to be mitigated but will be less useful during a global economic collapse and while energy supplies are contracting rapidly after the energy supply peaks. However, it is overly dependent on the global supply of energy-intensive inputs, stable economic and political systems, and complex financial relationships.
In view of the complexity of crises we face, we need both approaches — for now. In future, though, the global system that ensures the diversity of supply will be weakened by economic collapse and decreased fossil fuel availability and the self-reliance approach will inevitably turn out to be more effective at achieving and sustaining food security. Even so, we will need to increase the resilience of local production to make up for the fact that surpluses from other areas may not be available in times of crisis.
A resilient system is one that is able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. While several factors contribute to making food production more resilient, nutrient and water availability are by far the most important. Water is a renewable resource, at least on a global level, and in many places its availability can be managed through careful conservation and use. Water is also very visible; we can see it flow and it is relatively easy to determine when there is too little or too much.
This paper will not focus on water directly, despite its importance, but will instead concentrate on nutrients as these are essentially invisible and do not regularly fall from the sky. Although there are natural processes that renew nutrient levels, they tend to be slow, working on long time-scales. We do not see nutrients flow through our systems, nor can we easily determine through casual observation which field or food is deficient in which nutrients, or where there is toxic excess. Yet without sustainable and balanced nutrient availability, a decline and eventual collapse of the food supply is inevitable. Moreover, it is far easier to develop resilient food systems if we start by establishing high and balanced fertility in the soil.
The global industrialised food production system is very poor at managing nutrients. It relies on energy-intensive processes to pull nitrogen from the air and to mine a few other nutrients, primarily phosphorus and potassium, from depleting geological reservoirs. These concentrated fertilisers are then dumped in excess on fields, causing ecological contamination, unbalanced growth and the depletion of other nutrients in the soil. Nutrient cycling, the process of returning nutrients to the land, is virtually impossible because of the great distances between the fields and consumer, and there is inevitable contamination of the waste streams as they pass through cities and communities.
Organic farming methods are much better at sourcing and managing nutrient resources but as most organic food is produced for distant markets, nutrient cycling is just as difficult. Local food systems are more capable of developing sustainable nutrient cycles, though very few of them have done so, especially in the developed world. Instead, the small scale of many of these systems permits a reliance on relatively abundant supplies of clean organic material, nutrient reserves in the soil or imported concentrated fertilisers. The supply of many of these resources will diminish as the number and scale of these systems increase to meet the challenges we face.
There are very few examples of holistic approaches to nutrient management that incorporate strategies for increasing and balancing nutrient levels as well as developing efficient nutrient cycling. Perhaps this is not surprising when dealing with something that is essentially invisible and which has no generally recognised name as a concept. I use the term nutritional resilience for an approach that extends from ecosystem resilience and productivity, to soil health, plant health and productivity, human health, resource management, community viability and systems resilience.
There are two strategies for developing nutritional resilience whether one is dealing with the global food system, a broader community, or a small garden plot. One is a transition strategy, the other a sustaining one. The transition strategy combines aspects of the globalised, industrial food systems with those of local, predominately organic food systems to build fertility where it is most useful. The sustaining strategy focuses on balancing and maintaining fertility through nutrient cycling and would develop as the transition was completed or after the decline or collapse of the global industrial system.
We rarely think of the origins of the components of the food we consume. The bulk of what we eat is energy in a variety of forms. It was created by plants using solar energy to extract carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms from carbon dioxide and water and then to recombine them into simple sugars. These simple sugars are then further combined into more complex carbohydrates (literally carbon and water) by plants, and the fungi, bacteria and animals that consume them, all of which contain C, H and O in a wide variety of structures. Fats, which are essentially another form of carbohydrate, contain C, H and O in different proportions and structures. So are alcohols. All of these forms of energy are relatively easy for an ecosystem to produce except where air, water or sunlight are lacking.
Proteins are created by combining amino acids, which are essentially nitrogen atoms mixed in with the carbohydrates, adding an N to the C, H and O mix. N is the most important nutrient that cannot be readily added to the mix that becomes our food. Despite its abundance in the atmosphere, it takes a significant amount of energy to “fix” it to oxygen or hydrogen atoms. This can be done by industrial processes using fossil fuels, by lightning or by special bacteria that are fed a lot of sugars by their host plants. Once fixed, nitrogen is a volatile, energetic and valuable nutrient that can easily become unfixed and escape back into the atmosphere. In many natural ecosystems, productivity is limited by the amount of available nitrogen.
All the other nutrients we need can be divided into two general groups — minerals and compounds. The minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur as well as numerous trace minerals including boron, copper, iodine, manganese, nickel, silicon, tin, zinc and many more. These nutrients are needed by our bodies as basic elements, though we rarely eat them in their pure form. Over 30 different minerals or elements are need in total  (and perhaps over 60 ), some in significant quantities, some in a few parts per billion, but all of them essential for healthy life. The compounds include vitamins and other complex molecules produced by plants and animals which we need to eat in their organic compound form. These compounds contain C, H, O, N as well as the diversity of other elements.
The old saying “you are what you eat” reminds us that our bodies are composed of the reconstituted pieces of what we eat, and, more subtly, that the quality of what we eat will be reflected in our bodies. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan takes this concept one step further with the statement that “you are what what you eat eats, too” , highlighting the fact that the quality of what an animal eats is reflected in the meat that we eat. The same can be said of plants. Although we generally don’t think of plants eating in the same way, plants are made up of what they ‘extract’ from the soil, water and air, and the quality of what they eat is reflected in the plant tissue that we consume directly or by eating the animals that eat the plants. We can trace this chain of consumption back to its origins and say that “we are what is in the soil or water that produced our food”.
Nutritionists and many other people working in the fields of food and health are very aware of the complexity of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and other organic compounds that we need to eat in order to stay healthy. All of the minerals needed by humans and other animals — either directly or in compound form — are also needed by plants to be healthy. Unfortunately, most farmers are unaware or unconcerned about most of the diversity of minerals that are needed, and are concerned only with supplying the major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Calcium and occasionally other minerals are added too but only when they show up as serious deficiencies. This is the most critical disconnect in our food systems. If these minerals are not in the soil or water, in a form that the plants can use, then they can’t be in the plant and thus can’t be in our food. Deficiencies progress up the food chain. In many ways deficiencies in our diet are more critical to our health than avoiding excess consumption of sugars, fats, etc. We are told to eat our vegetables to get essential nutrients and other compounds, but if the plant cannot extract the essential nutrients from the soil because they are not there, they cannot be in our food. A different way of thinking starts to form: “you are what you don’t eat” or “you are what what you eat can’t get.”
Most farmers assume that, beyond the major fertilisers, everything that a plant needs they can get from the soil. To understand why this is rarely the case, we must understand how soils form and the processes of mineralisation. Soil is essentially ground-up rock, which is nothing more than solid aggregates of minerals. As the rock is broken down, most of the minerals remain as essentially inert chunks of smaller and smaller pieces of rock; from gravel, to sand, to silt and finally to the smallest particles of clay. Some of the minerals dissolve in water and wash away. A wide range of minerals stays in the soil either as inert elements, or chemically bound to other minerals, perhaps clinging to particles of clay; or they can be absorbed into the cycle of growth and decomposition involving microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals. This cycle of life brings additional elements, particularly carbon and nitrogen, out of the air and into the soil. The decomposition of the carbon-based life forms adds an additional component to the soil in the form of humus which plays a role similar to clay by holding onto loose minerals and compounds in the soil, as well as holding onto water.
While many microbes can extract the mineral nutrients that they need from the rock particles and complex compounds within the soil, the higher plants, the ones we eat, need a more refined diet. They generally absorb nutrients that are dissolved in water, loosely held in the soil by clay and humus, or which are fed directly by symbiotic microorganisms. This bio-availability is a critical aspect of the extent to which soil can support life.
It is important to understand that C, H, O, N and sulphur can all be found in gases in the atmosphere. This allows them to be transported easily to any ecosystem. All the other nutrients can only be transported in a solid or liquid form , making them more difficult for an ecosystem to obtain.
Of course, the Earth is a very dynamic place, and the extent of soil building and mineralisation is not limited to what can be extracted from the bedrock in a particular place. There are many processes that move minerals and soil particles from one place to another. The most dramatic — and the slowest — process is the advance and retreat of glaciers which grind up rock from one place and transport it long distances to where it is washed away by the melt water to form alluvial plains. Another process is the wind blowing smaller particles across continents. This has created huge deep drifts of loess soil in places such as the fertile farmlands of China and the midwestern United States.
As water falls on land as rain and flows towards the sea, it washes away dissolved minerals and silt and deposits them on floodplains as both soil and fertility. Ancient Egypt was sustained for thousands of years by the annual transportation of soil from the uplands of Ethiopia to the lower floodplains of the Nile valley. Volcanic activity brings fresh nutrient supplies from the molten core of the Earth to be deposited in the form of ash on the surrounding land, sustaining fertile ecosystems and productive farming such as those that developed in Java and Bali. Most of the early large human settlements developed in areas with significant deposits of soil and minerals.
Animals are responsible for significant movements of nutrients from one place to another. Some species of salmon make a remarkable journey from the sea to spawn and then die in the smallest tributaries inland. Their journey transports the valuable nutrients that make up their bodies from the fertile sea to points high up in the mountain. This is a substantial annual flow of nutrients on which the entire ecosystem depends. Similarly, seabirds have created huge reservoirs of fertility under their nesting grounds, bats leave huge piles of guano in caves, and numerous other animals have deposited nutrients over wide areas along their migration routes. Humans have participated in this process throughout the ages, often for their own benefit through farming and, more recently, on a much more advanced, pervasive and damaging scale.
This movement of nutrients and soil leads to concentrations in some places and deficiencies in others. However, the basic reason for most mineral deficiencies is that not all bedrock contains the full spectrum of minerals in the proportions needed by plants and animals. In addition, when rain falls on the land, many of the minerals that are there dissolve in the water and either filter deep down into the soil, beyond the reach of plant roots, or flow downstream. Floodplains and other landforms do trap and hold some of the nutrients and silt but this is only a temporary pause on the inevitable path to the sea. Unfortunately, the water cycles that evaporate from the sea and deposit rain far inland do not bring back any of the nutrients. The increasing amount of nutrients dissolved in the sea and settled on the sea floor only gets back inland through the relatively small-scale actions of animals, the rising of the sea bed and the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains of new rock to be eroded into life.
Human activities over thousands of years have accelerated the natural nutrient loss through inappropriate land-management practices such as burning vegetation cover and ploughing the soil, both of which increase erosion. Humans have also removed large quantities of organic material to use as food, fodder, fuel, wood and other materials. All this organic material contained valuable nutrients that the ecosystem had worked hard to obtain, which were then concentrated in other areas or lost to the sea. Since the development of larger communities and broad-scale agriculture, this removal process has accelerated. Now, rather than removing a small portion of material from an ecosystem, agricultural processes generally remove much of the organic matter from the land, or at least the nutrient-dense fruit, vegetables, oils, protein and seeds. Even if the soil was very deep and fertile initially, nutrients are removed with every harvest, generally much faster than they are naturally replaced. It does not take long for deficiencies to develop and the only way to stop this depletion is to add nutrients to the soil either by recycling those that were extracted or importing new ones from elsewhere.
Agronomists are confident about which minerals are required, and in what proportions. As an example, most plants use a lot of calcium, but for every six to eight measures of calcium, they’ll also need one measure of magnesium, maybe a sixteenth measure of sulfur, and one ten-thousandth measure of boron. If they have heaps of calcium but are short of magnesium, then they won’t grow any more than the amount allowed by the quantity of magnesium they’ve got. If they have adequate calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, all in the right proportions for ideal growth, but are desperately short of boron, then they will grow as poorly as though they were short of calcium and magnesium and sulfur. 
This passage from Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When it Counts describes why mineral balance is critically important in soils. Plants will take up unbalanced proportions of minerals, if that is what they find in the soils, but their health and productivity suffer. Plants, like humans, will struggle on in less than optimal conditions.
A natural woodland, bush or grassland ecosystem, on reasonably good soils, will generally develop a balanced but low mineral fertility level in the soil. Minerals that are in excess won’t be absorbed by the plants and as a result are more likely to wash away or otherwise become unavailable. Minerals in short supply will be sought out. Once a reasonable balance is achieved, an increase in balanced fertility develops very slowly as more of the limiting nutrients are found. David Holmgren, in his book Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, describes what happens when humans move into this landscape, disrupt the ecological processes and transform the land for agriculture. In the first stage they degrade the soil and create imbalances, producing low and imbalanced soil fertility. The second stage sees the introduction of imported fertilisers. “However, imbalances typically remain or new imbalances have been created that are reflected in the poor quality of food and the increased rates of fertility loss,”  he writes. Most farmland and gardens remain stuck at this stage, requiring considerable effort and resource-input to maintain a high level of fertility, but persistent and serious imbalances remain. Very few farmers attain the “Holy Grail” of balanced but high fertility.
In view of this, perhaps we should assume that all soils throughout the world are deficient, that all food produced on that land is therefore deficient in minerals and has minimal nutritional value, and that it is consequently very difficult for people to have a nutritionally complete diet, even if they eat all their vegetables.
Fairly similar fertility-management practices using concentrated soluble fertilisers have been used on much of the world’s farmland over the past half-century. This will have produced common mineral imbalances — excess amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but general deficiencies in minerals such as magnesium and calcium. But the bedrock and mineral reserves in the soils vary widely. As most of the food grown on these soils is distributed through the globalised system, on any given day we could be eating food that had its origins on dozens of different fields spread all over the world. While general mineral imbalances may persist, and the overall nutritional quality may be low within this system, it is unlikely that specific trace minerals will be deficient in all the food we eat. If we had an industrialised farming system without the global distribution system, then local deficiencies would become much more apparent when clusters of illness and disease developed. Soil mineral deficiencies and the effects that they have on health are currently hidden by the global trade and distribution system.
As many families and communities begin the process of developing localised food systems, and get much more of their food from a single allotment plot, a few neighbouring fields, or a broader region with similar bedrock and soil conditions, deficiencies could begin to damage the people’s health. This is a fundamental flaw in local food initiatives and the grow-it-yourself movement. Growing your own food is a great idea, and is perceived as an easy thing to do, but most people growing food do not know how to produce healthy plants, or even what a really healthy plant looks like. While the freshness and the unforced quality of the produce will convince people that they are eating truly healthy food, especially when compared to what they buy in the supermarket, in many cases they won’t be. Unless there is a fortunate choice of growing sites and fertility management, people growing their own food or producing for a local community will need to focus on the nutritional balance and fertility level of the soils if the short-term benefits of local food systems are not to create long-term difficulties.
Health of plants, people and communities
What happens when a soil has achieved the Holy Grail of soil fertility — high, balanced levels of minerals? David Holmgren describes how, in following the work of William Albrecht and others in creating an ideal balanced soil, all crops grown on this soil will produce high yields of good-quality food, and that the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil will improve, as will the processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling within the soil. Holmgren suggests that:
…this represents the biological optimum soil in which all plants will thrive. Within the constraints of climate, this balanced soil will support the most productive biological systems in terms of total energy capture and storage. Thus balanced and fertile soil is nature’s integrated and self-reinforcing design solution for maximising power of terrestrial life. 
In this way, balanced fertility in the soil is the key to a productive garden, farm or natural ecosystem, allowing all of the ecological processes to work effectively in producing a greater yield of better food or material. This is the primary objective in developing nutritional resilience.
Many organic gardeners and farmers believe that the best way to minimise damage by pests and disease is to provide the conditions in order for the plant to be as healthy as possible, with the purpose of strengthening the plant’s immune system and defences. Elliot Coleman approaches the issue of pests in a more direct way:
There is a direct relationship between the growing conditions of plants and the susceptibility of those plants to pests. Problems in the garden are our fault through unsuccessful gardening practices rather than Nature’s fault through malicious intent. The way we approach pest problems in the garden is to correct the cause, not treat the symptoms. The cause of pest problems is inadequate growing conditions. 
Taking this idea further, Francis Chaboussou, author of Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, believes that “the relations between plant and parasite are above all nutritional in nature” and that “plants are made immune to the extent that they lack the nutritional factors that parasites require for their development. In short, what is involved is a deterrent effect not a toxic action.” A pest will essentially starve on a truly healthy plant, or at least will not be able to obtain the energy needed to reproduce or develop. The basis of this theory is that most pests and parasites depend on an abundant supply of amino acids — they are reliant on an easy source of nitrogen — but in a healthy plant amino acids are quickly used to synthesise proteins, and are therefore unavailable to the pests. A fertile, balanced soil is one of the key elements to plant health (together with adequate water availability, appropriate weather, etc.) and this leads to the possible elimination of the need for pest and disease control, both chemical and organic. Reducing the risk of disease and pests also significantly increases food security.
Food from plants grown on soil with balanced minerals should therefore be nutritionally complete, in that there will be no deficiencies, and yields should be greater as less is lost to pests and disease. But there is more to the story. The overall nutritional value of the food can also be substantially increased, so that it gives higher quantities of sugars, minerals, proteins, etc. per kilogramme. Wine producers have known this intuitively for centuries, and more recently have used simple optical refractors to measure the amount of sugars dissolved in the juice, picking or purchasing grapes only when they have a certain concentration. This concentration of sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones, and other solids dissolved within the juice is measured in BRIX (ratio of the mass of dissolved solids to water) and the same method can be used to determine the nutritional density of most foods, and the sap of plants. When plants are grown in soil with balanced and high fertility, the BRIX reading of the plant sap and juice of the produce is significantly higher than the same plant grown in less than ideal conditions. The BRIX reading of one carrot can be more than twice as high as that of another carrot grown in poor-quality soil, and therefore it will contain at least twice the amount of sugars, vitamins, minerals etc. Given that this is what we eat a carrot for, we can eat less than half a carrot to get the same nutrition as we can get from a whole poor-quality carrot of the same weight.
This higher nutritional value can drastically increase the real yield achieved by growing on high-quality soils. Not only is it possible to achieve a higher total yield in weight, but each kilogramme can provide more nutrition. The overall nutritional yield can easily be several times higher within a given area, providing good nutrition to more people from the same piece of land. There are other advantages to high nutritional density in plants and food. The additional solids in the plant sap act as a form of antifreeze, allowing plants to better withstand frosts and deeper cold spells. This extends the growing season in many regions, and helps the crop withstand abnormal and extreme weather conditions. While low-quality food tends to begin to decompose fairly quickly, requiring refrigeration, quick delivery, and processing, food with high nutritional density tends to last much longer and is more likely to dehydrate rather than rot. This allows a significant reduction in the amount of wasted food as well as the amount of resources, energy and infrastructure needed to store and preserve food that is produced locally. But, perhaps the greatest benefit is that nutritionally dense food tastes better — you can literally taste the greater density of sugars and minerals.
If we can produce nutrient-dense food, which people (especially children) will be more likely to want to eat because of the great taste, what does this mean for their health? Many diseases and health problems are caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, and the increasing prevalence of poor health over the past few decades seems to parallel the decline in mineral content in food over the same time period . How can people be healthy if their food is nutritionally deficient? Or, a more important question is: what will happen to peoples’ health if they consume food with high nutritional density and no mineral deficiencies? If poor-quality food decreases the health of the population, and food of moderate nutritional quality can sustain health, will the consumption of high-quality food make a person healthier and more resilient? Can it help heal a sick person? Beyond the personal and social benefits that come with good health, a community cannot be resilient without a population that is healthy and physically capable, or if a substantial portion of its resources is spent on health care.
Progress towards nutritional resilience
Nutritional resilience starts with mineral qualities of the soil and extends to plant health and productivity, nutritional density of food, human health and community viability, as well as incorporating sustainable resource management and the resilience of the entire food system. Nutritional resilience also extends to natural landscapes, through which we can assist ecosystems to become more resilient and productive with the benefits of greater biodiversity, ecosystem services, and carbon sequestration. Nutritional resilience is the foundation upon which broader resilience can be more easily built, and without it, the journey will be slower and much more difficult. Given the current economic context, the climate crisis, and the possibility of a systemic collapse in the near future, it is essential to prioritise anything that increases the speed and ease of transformations.
As I said earlier, there are two different strategies or processes for developing nutritional resilience. The transition strategy focuses on building and balancing fertility in key areas. The sustaining strategy focuses on developing effective nutrient cycles, fine-tuning mineral balance and expanding the areas of resilience. While these two strategies can in many ways progress simultaneously, it is important that sufficient attention is given to the first, as it is this aspect that will require most energy, resources and inputs, all of which may be of limited availability in the near future. Many local food initiatives and alternative farming projects currently fail to give the transition strategy enough priority.
The primary objectives of the transition strategy are to capture the existing material flow, to facilitate effective decomposition, to enable nutrient storage and to correct excessive mineral imbalances. The specific methods used will vary widely with each location, depending on the nature of the existing soils, as well as on existing infrastructure and cultural bias, but there are common approaches. There is a massive amount of organic material and fibre flowing through most settlements and capturing and using the nutrients available in this flow should be a key concern everywhere. All food and green ‘wastes’ are very valuable sources of nutrients and many trace minerals. Although the use of human ‘wastes’ are also important, it could be more appropriate to deal with the complexities of transforming the sewage system later in the process.
Paper, cardboard, a fair amount of other packaging and most waste wood are all valuable sources of carbon and some minerals and they should be processed and used locally. These materials are much more valuable as part of biological nutrient-management processes than they are as recycled fibre if the aim is to build local resilience. Much of this material combines well with the other, more nutrient-dense organic matter for composting, or can be used directly as mulch to facilitate the conversion and maintenance of lands, or as a substrate for beneficial fungi, or it can be converted to biochar. Through these processes, a lot of the original carbon is converted to humus, or to charcoal, which serves many of the same valuable functions as humus, but can last much longer. The processing and decomposition of this material should be done carefully to prevent the loss of minerals and carbon through leaching or off-gassing, as often happens at large municipal composting plants which treat the material as waste for disposal rather than as a resource to be valued.
This captured supply of nutrients and carbon should ideally be added to the local farmlands, fields and gardens that will be used for local food production. If the land is not available yet, then the processed material should be stored for later use in such a way that its quality can be maintained or improved over time. The lack of growing space and capacity should not prevent conversion of the easiest parts of the material flow and the building up of a store of fertility and humus. This build-up of raw material for future productivity is similar to the gradual collection of materials before you start to build a house.
The existing soil should be tested for major and trace mineral levels as well as for toxicity. Significant mineral imbalances should be corrected by importing organic or synthetic concentrated supplies. Many organic and natural farming methods emphasise more gradual processes for building fertility, primarily through composting local biomass, and tend to avoid importing concentrates as well as restricting anything synthetic. This may be the movement’s Achilles heel. Although concentrated nutrients can cause problems through inappropriate application, their continued deficiency in the soil is more detrimental in the long run. Trace mineral levels should be generally improved by incorporating rock dust, seaweed meal or sea solids, or through the use of concentrates to correct specific deficiencies (such as using borax to boost levels of boron). Nutrient accumulator plants can also be used to mine supplies of both trace and major minerals from the broader landscape and concentrate them in key areas, but this process would tend to exacerbate deficiencies and undermine the health and productivity of the surrounding ecosystem.
Excessive concentrations of some minerals can cause a detrimental imbalance in the soil and care must be taken to ensure that imported supplies do not contain significant amounts of these minerals, or the imbalances will continue or worsen. Some excessive concentrations can be reduced through the use of accumulator plants or dispersion of soils over a wider area. Toxic levels of nutrients, especially of lead and other metals, and contamination by industrial and chemical compounds, should be mitigated either through careful bioremediation or avoidance. The same testing should be done with the flow of decomposed organic matter so that it does not further disrupt the balance of nutrients or introduce contamination. Within this process, it is important to focus on key areas of productivity rather than on having a diluted impact on broader areas. It is also important to see the transition stage as a temporary process. There is little sense in developing substantial facilities to handle material flow which will not be available once this phase reaches its natural end, or is abruptly halted by collapsing economies.
The sustaining strategy can start fairly early, running in parallel to the transition phase, and would take over entirely when nutrient levels have reached a high and generally balanced level, or when economic conditions interrupt the easy flow of material or cheap energy is not available to process and transport nutrients from outside. The key focus of this strategy is to prevent the loss of nutrients through leaching, erosion, exporting products, and through sewage and waste water. Nutrient cycling systems need to be developed, including composting toilets and urine separation, as well as grey-water management systems to minimise loss of fertility and minerals. Trade restrictions may need to be put in place so that excessive amounts of minerals, especially those that are not in abundance in the local soil, do not leave the area in the form of food and material.
Land-management practices need to be developed to reduce the amount of nutrients and soil that washes away or leaches underground. Deep-rooting trees and plants should be used to pull leached nutrients and a fresh supply of trace elements from deep in the soil, and catchment basins should be established to intercept the nutrients that flow away during extreme weather events. As the overall ecosystem develops it will be important to continue to monitor and correct the mineral balance where possible, and to develop ways to increase the overall fertility levels gradually.
Once the key production sites have been adequately developed, it may be possible to gradually expand the land under management, either the adjacent fields, or the broader landscape. Focusing first on the key areas and then using these as a base for improving other areas, or for helping neighbouring communities, is a useful strategy for developing broader nutritional resilience in the uncertain future that we face.
In the future (perhaps within a hundred years), after the fossil fuel energy subsidy to agriculture has declined, the mineral fertility and balance of our farmlands and entire catchment landscapes will become one of the most important issues in resource management and economics, and yet the powerful means that are currently available to achieve this on a large scale will be very costly or simply unavailable. In this situation we will once again be dependent on the slower, low-energy processes of building and balancing fertility.
I fear that, when writing the above passage, David Holmgren may have significantly overestimated the amount of time that we have.
2. FAO, Rome Declaration on World Food Security,
3. Mineral Information Institute, The Role of Elements in Life Processes,
4. Folke Gunther, http://www.holon.se/folke/kurs/Distans/Ekofys/Recirk/Eng/phosphorus.shtm…
5. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Penguin Press, 2008
6. As  7. Steve Solomon, Gardening When It Counts, page 17-18, New Society Publishers, 2005
8. David Holmgren, Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, page 40, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
9. Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest, page 147, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999
10. Francis Chaboussou, Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, page 7, Jon Carpenter Publishing 2004
12. Anne-Marie Mayer, Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables,
British Food Journal, Volume 99, 1997