Indian rice farmer looking across his fields

What is Syntropic Farming?

Sustained production and delivery of food where and when needed is essential to human survival. But how will it happen? Through innovations like this one.

Feeding everyone well is not just about the fundamental human right of every person “to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing” established internationally since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It is also about the survival of humanity. Without adequate food, society begins to unravel, law and order break down, people move en masse to find what they need, and chaos readily ensues.

It is this basic.

Predictions of a food supply catastrophe have little traction in mature economies.

Abundant food on the shelves of every supermarket lulls consumers. Few have any idea that supply chains are fragile and production fickle.

The good news is that there is an easy way to prevent or at least reduce the risk of food shortage chaos and that is to guarantee food security which requires three things: 

grow enough, distribute well, and waste little

sustainably FED

In this post, we focus on one of the many ideas to grow enough, specifically, the how part of food production.


Modern agriculture 

It sounds odd, but there are just two broad types of agriculture: subsistence and intensive.

Subsistence agriculture is generally small-scale, involves modest to no inputs and relies on the innate and regenerative capacity of soil to deliver nutrients to crops and livestock.

This method of farming is still the most common.

The FAO estimates that five of every six farms in the world consist of less than two hectares, with more than 608 million small family farms across the globe that use around 80% of the world’s farmland and produce 80% of the world’s food in value terms.

At least 2 billion people, one in four of the global population, in 500 million households survive as “smallholder” farmers, working less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land.

Intensive agriculture is input-driven, typically large scale and reliant on machinery. Inputs are energy, nutrients as fertiliser and chemicals as pesticides and herbicides. These intensive production systems often involve irrigation or significant infrastructure such as glasshouses, feedlots and rearing sheds. The energy subsidy to intensive agriculture is huge.

Most of the meat, dairy products, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets worldwide come from farms with intensive, high productivity systems. Efficiency defines intensive agriculture to create cheap food. Between 1930 and 2000, U.S. agricultural productivity rose by 2% annually, while the proportion of U.S. disposable income spent on food prepared at home decreased, from 22% in 1950 to 7% by 2000. 

Intensive agriculture feeds close to 6 billion people every day.

The problem with having just two broad types of agriculture is risk — a failure in either one is catastrophic. 

Alternatives at this coarse-scale would add diversity to production and reduce the risk of failure. Some of the existing options cover a range of systems, activities and philosophies that include 

  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Regenerative agriculture 
  • Holistic management 
  • Natural sequence farming 
  • Syntropic farming
  • Rewilding

Let’s take a look at one of them.


Syntropic farming

Syntropic farming is production that tends to be independent of inputs and irrigation and it delivers ecosystem services, especially soil formation, regulation of microclimate and promotion of the water cycle.

Creator, or should we say inventor of syntropic farming, Ernst Gotsch, advocates a change in the way we see, interpret and relate to nature. In his vision, holes become nests, seeds become genes, weeding becomes harvesting, any competition gives way to cooperation, and pests and diseases are seen as the “agents from the department of optimization of life processes”. 

Syntropic farming allows farmers to replicate and accelerate the natural processes of ecological succession and stratification. The idea is to give each plant the ideal conditions for its development to mimic what would happen in nature left to its own devices but with plants that humans find useful.


Ecological succession

Succession in ecology is like its namesake television drama. Plants follow each other and compete for future space, water and nutrients. Who wins the succession from the incumbents is less about patriarchal choice and more about plants’ ability to compete, which, in turn, is influenced by chance, especially when they arrive and where.

In the syntropic farming system, the farmer recognises the local succession and guides it with species and individual plants useful to long-term production. The guiding hand of the patriarch. 

As succession proceeds, so does the complexity. More species in multiple layers with greater numbers of interactions. Complexity tends to add ecological redundancy where more than one species supply processes so that if a key plant is lost another quickly takes over its functions. 

Logically this leads to resilience in many ecological processes but also to the productivity of the farm. If the carrots get hit by a frost, there are always the turnips.

Companion planting

Some plants compete but some are beneficial for each other. Planting a fruit tree next to a bean plant. 

Planting companion plants results in higher density of plants that optimizes the use of space, sunlight, nutrient cycle, and mycorrhiza.

Evergreen

Modern arable agriculture tends to be a single crop based on the soil prepared for that plant species. Weeds are bad, and tillage (ploughing and raking) are considered essential so that for part of the cropping cycle, the soil is bare.

Syntropic farming keeps permanent soil covered with plants or organic matter (from weeding, pruning or removing plants). This helps to maintain soil moisture, increases infiltration, reduces erosion risk and, most importantly, helps to sequester carbon into the soil. Soil carbon is the fuel for soil biology that, in turn, helps to mobilise plant nutrients.

Look, Listen – and Prune 

Understanding agroforestry means reconnecting to nature. And as Ernst continuously emphasises, this requires the human to observe, to learn and to understand that “the mistake was when humans thought they were the most intelligent species; but we are only part of an intelligent system.”

Pruning, cutting branches to rejuvenate maturing plants, accelerates the growth rate, increases the amount of sunlight for other plants, increases nutrient cycle, and directs the process of natural succession. 

This is perhaps the trickiest part of this system. 

The farmer needs to look and listen to know when a plant will benefit from pruning as a stimulant and where it mimics the natural grazing and browsing by herbivores that occur in natural ecosystems.

Trial and error

Farmers are not good with mistakes. An error or misstep in production can ruin a crop. This is not just a financial risk it can be evident to the neighbours. 

Farmers hate admitting that they stuffed up even though they are human like the rest of us. Mistakes happen.

Syntropic farming, like several alternative production systems, uses mistakes. Looking, listening and learning the pattern of succession benefits from mistakes, so long as the error is recognised and the consequences understood.  

Ernst Gotsch takes this further and advocates for trial and error to introduce some planned mistakes and careful observation of the consequences as a way to learn more about the farm’s ecology.

Sustainably FED agrees and would add that some basic knowledge of the scientific method would make trial and error super helpful.

Higher productivity

A farmer who learns the local succession, plants companions and prunes with care whilst maintaining ground cover and a diversity of crops and livestock should expect  higher productivity by accelerating the natural processes. The idea is for ecology to operate synergistically and optimally for the local conditions, a production system close to what nature would produce if there were no humans to interfere.

The reason for this is that nature is essentially super-efficient. Organisms are all striving to reproduce, and they come together in combinations that natural selection, through competition, determines as the most efficient.


Example of a syntropic farm

An example of growing annual crops through Syntropic Agroforestry


What sustainably FED suggests

Ecologically all of the advantages of syntropic farming make sense and are consistent with the settled science.

Carbon is essential for soil health, and moisture retention supports soil biology. Multi-species systems are more resilient and frequently more productive than monocultures, especially when they are manipulated to be structurally complex as well as biodiverse.

However, a human is essential to syntropic farming.

The farmer has to pay attention, become flexible and be attuned to the natural dynamics of the ecology in his soil and vegetation. 

Typically it also takes more hands-on work with fewer energy subsidies and no big combines to harvest vast fields because the farm fields are smaller and interspersed with trees.

This begs a critical question. 

Can enough farmers pay attention?


Hero image modified from photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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