What to Eat when the Stores are Empty
Simple, Localized Approaches to Food Systems Resilience and Food Security in Southeast Asia
Part One: Creating a Food Jungle – What Nature can teach us
Please note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which we explore possible solutions to our current predicament. Click here to read the previous chapter Part Zero: Introduction – What’s the Problem?
To visit the index page for an overview of all chapters, click here.
Conventional agriculture’s biggest mistake (and a main source of its weakness and inherent unsustainability) is working against – not with – Mother Nature. If we want more food for less work, we have to find a way to team up with Nature and work together for a common goal.
But what exactly does Nature want? We can easily find this out with a little thought experiment.
Imagine there’s a plot of unused land that has recently been cleared and tilled. Now we prohibit all further human intervention and just watch what happens: first you’ll find herbs and grasses sprouting that quickly cover the soil (cooling it down, preserving moisture and preventing erosion and runoff). Then fast-growing pioneers – softwood trees and vines (some of them legumes which add nitrogen to the soil) – sprout, spending even more shadow (thus supplanting the grasses and creating the microclimate required by the species of the next stage), breaking up the hard soil with their roots, creating habitat for insects (who soften up and aerate the soil and break down organic matter), birds, rodents and other wildlife (who bring seeds from further away), and producing biomass (dead plant parts like leaves and twigs fall to the ground, decompose, and increase soil fertility). Once the soil has improved enough, the next stage of plants starts appearing: larger trees, some of which will form the canopy of the forest that slowly emerges – this process is called ecological succession.
Conventional grain agriculture arrests this process forcibly every year, through tilling the soil and resetting the natural succession to Point Zero. Rice is an annual grass (as is maize) which requires the earliest stage of ecological succession to succeed and cannot be grown in later stages with more shadow and competition.
In our tropical climate, and with adequate rainfall provided, Nature always strives to create forests. This is what Nature wants, and this is what we should do as well. If we aid Nature in this process, we have a powerful ally helping us do the basic work of feeding ourselves. “But you can’t eat the trees,” you might object, and it’s true: what we have in mind is not just any jungle, it’s a Food Jungle – an assortment of all kinds of plants – large canopy trees, smaller understory trees, shrubs, palms, bamboo, vines, herbs, rhizomes – that looks and works like a jungle, while containing a high density of diverse edible plants and crops (see Fig.1.2). To have any long-term success with growing food in the tropics, it is best to imitate the Rainforest.
We can aid ecological succession and speed up the process of recovery from conventional agriculture, creating stable ecosystems that supply diverse foods year-round.
As we’ve established before (see Introduction), extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and storms are set to increase steadily from now on, and such events can easily be devastating for monocultures. The first thing to decrease in productivity as the climate destabilizes will be grain agriculture, and basically everything else that is grown in monocultures. Monocropping is not even sustainable in temperate moist climates (and without the use of heavy machinery), but it turns out to be a complete catastrophe in the tropics. Mechanized monocultural systems have proven disastrous on fragile tropical soils prone to erosion during the rainy season and sterilizing heat in the dry season. The ground always has to be covered and protected from direct sunlight, just like in the forest – otherwise irreplaceable and invaluable topsoil washes away with heavy monsoon showers, and UV radiation and heat kills all life (mycorrhizal fungi, worms, beetles, microorganisms, bacteria) in the topsoil layer. John Gowdy writes in the paper we’ve quoted in the Introduction:
Increasing temperatures will have a devastating effect on agricultural productivity, especially given the sensitivity of grains to
temperature extremes. It is estimated that 60 % of the calories consumed by humans come from just three grains, maize, rice and wheat.
As long as we rely so much on just three plants to feed us, any reduction in yields will have dire consequences. Let’s imagine a food system that supplies the majority of calories we eat not from three but from ten plants (or more), and none of them grains. Even if there is a reduction in the yield of, say, three species, there is still seven more species that can make up for the losses.
If a whole rice field floods for long enough, the harvest utterly fails and no food at all is produced from the plot in question (and the same is true for a severe drought or storm). Famines were a regular occurrence in earlier states in the region, which all relied heavily on rice as the single staple. Yet a diverse, multi-strata food forest ecosystem modeled on the rainforest can withstand even days of flooding, months of drought, and severe storms, and while some plants will surely suffer (and some even die), others will survive (or even thrive).
As a general rule, tree crops are much safer than annual grasses like rice:
- They have much longer roots and thus can reach water that’s deeper in the soil
- They don’t blow over as easily in a storm (especially if they are anchored in a dense network of roots from other nearby trees)
- They are still above the water in case of flooding
- They require only a minimal work effort for planting, maintenance, and harvest (compared to grains)
- They steadily increase output over the years without a concomitant increase in labor requirements (other than processing foods)
- They store large quantities of atmospheric carbon in their bodies, hence mitigating climate change
- They spend shadow and thus create a cooler microclimate
- They replenish cloud formation processes through evapotranspiration and thus aid rainfall further inland
- They provide food and habitat for a large variety of non-human animals
- They provide a host of other useful materials and products (such as firewood, resin, latex, oil, bark, fiber, herbal medicines, fodder, biomass, and, ultimately, timber)
What is needed to keep everyone fed in Southeast Asia (and in other tropical regions with a similar climate) is a drastic reduction of the dependence on rice and other annual grain crops, and instead a diversification of staple foods consisting of tree crops (or crops that can be grown in a forest environment; from now on we will refer to those as ‘forest crops’) that are easy to cultivate, highly productive, perennial, resilient in extreme weather situations, nutritious, high in caloric value, easy to process and/or store, and (optionally) delicious.
To be clear: we don’t want you to stop eating rice, we just recommend that it is safer in the long term to slowly reduce the dependence on rice and replace it with forest crops. The heavy reliance on rice in Southeast Asia is the product of ancient (and outdated) political and cultural forces, not of a careful assessment of work required vs. output yielded/calories spent vs. calories gained, let alone of measures such as nutritional quality, biodiversity, sustainability or resilience.
So, what do we eat if not rice? The answer is simple, but first we have to let go of deeply ingrained biases that make us crave the grain and make it the center of each and every meal, and in fact our entire food culture. The reason why rice is the main staple today is an economic one, not a culinary one. Rice doesn’t make you “fuller” than other carbohydrate staples, nor is it especially nutritious compared to other foods. Furthermore, rice farming requires much more work than other staple crops. All this begs the question: why did people start eating only rice anyway? The answer might surprise you: taxes.
In the past, taxes were often collected in grain, since grain ripens simultaneously and thus can be easily assessed before harvest: the tax collector could visit a given village during any stage of the ripening process and could estimate how much would be harvested and when the harvest would happen. Furthermore, grains are easily divided, stored, and transported – and they allow for standing armies, which can be fed easily with reserves of rice that they can take with them on military expeditions. This is why all early states in Southeast Asia were so-called “grain states” – they encouraged and even enforced rice cultivation for precisely the reasons listed above – and why there has never been a “cassava state” or a “breadfruit state”.
Breadfruit (see Part Two) spoils easily and can therefore not be stored or even transported over longer distances. The trees fruit irregularly, making it difficult to assess any harvest beforehand. Cassava (see Part Three) also spoils easily, and can be planted and harvested any time of the year, doesn’t have a pronounced harvest season (but is dug up as needed), can easily be concealed by breaking off the aboveground part, and can be left in the ground for up to three years – a tax collector’s nightmare!
James C. Scott, who has written extensively on the subject in his book The Art of Not Being Governed – An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, gives an example:
Land grants in ninth- and tenth-century Java, for which we have inscriptional evidence, were made on the understanding that the recipients would clear the forest and convert shifting, swidden plots into permanent irrigated rice fields (sawah). The logic, as Jan Wisseman Christie notes, is that “sawah . . . had the effect of anchoring populations and increasing their visibility, and making the size of the crop relatively stable and easy to calculate.”
In fact, earlier states resorted to smear campaigns to associate cassava, sweet potatoes, maize and yams with uncivilized, backwards savages, and rice with clean, civilized city dwellers. Those prejudices hold true even today, and eating cassava instead of rice is still considered a sign of poverty and low status (if it is considered at all!) in most parts of Thailand.
To the padi [rice paddy] state, whether precolonial or colonial, such easily accessible and labor-saving subsistence crops, though valued in a pinch as famine foods, were a threat to state-making. The state’s interests were best served by maximizing padi land or, failing that, other important cash, export crops such as cotton, indigo, sugar cane, and rubber, often using servile labor. […] Colonial officials tended to stigmatize cassava and maize as crops of lazy natives whose main aim was to shirk work.
Here Scott hints at something very important: forest crops were (and are) often so-called “famine foods” – things you can eat when the rice harvest fails. If there are variations in weather patterns (like those we experience from climate change), those crops still produce yields – so it makes sense to rely more on those crops as the weather becomes more erratic. And since nobody today still pays their taxes in rice, there is no rational reason to rely entirely on one grain to feed us.
We always joke that it’s impossible to starve in the tropics as long as you have even the most basic foraging skills, since food is literally everywhere. And with a little effort, we can easily ensure a steady, year-round food supply grown right next to our house. If we want to know how people survived without wet rice cultivation, we only have to look at how the many indigenous societies in the region eat. The original, pre-agricultural inhabitants of Southeast Asia ate a very diverse diet, comparable to that of modern-day hilltribes and hunter-gatherers. This is both healthier and requires less physical work, so we can learn some important lessons from them.
We have to make clear that we are not suggesting that everyone becomes a hunter-gatherer or moves to the hills! The carrying capacity of the land is much lower than it used to be in most regions, and there’s simply too many humans and too little healthy forests left to allow for even a small percentage of the population to spontaneously abandon city life and pick up hunting and gathering. What we suggest is that we merely examine why the indigenous lifestyle worked (and continues to work) – even in times of erratic fluctuations in climate that caused famine among rice-cultivating states.
Hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators need a lot of land to practice their subsistence mode, but it is easy to concentrate the useful species they rely upon in a relatively compact, dense patch of vegetation, and with the right techniques (such as Permaculture) those Food Jungles thrive and become ever more productive as they mature and move through the stages of ecological succession.
Maybe it is easier to illustrate what we mean when we are talking about how indigenous wisdom can inspire us with an example. Charles M. Peters, professor of tropical ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, wrote in his book Managing the Wild:
The Kenya [an indigenous, horticultural (swiddening) people in Malaysia] are simultaneously managing 125 tree species per hectare in a forest orchard— an unprecedented feat of silvicultural prowess. In my opinion, based on what I have seen, studied, and measured over the past thirty years, these villagers are the most gifted foresters in the world.
In the chapter about the Dayak (another indigenous group of Malaysia), he talks about how he visited the forest behind an old Dayak man’s house, just to discover that what he took to be a beautiful, relatively undisturbed piece of mixed Dipterocarp forest, was actually a fruit orchard, tended for centuries (if not longer) by the local Dayak community. He writes:
The forest was relatively open, yet multistoried, with numerous palms and climbers. Many of the canopy trees were heavily buttressed and over a meter in diameter. […] I was shown five species of mango trees, seven species of breadfruit, six species of rambutan, eleven species of rattan, and three beehives. I counted forty-six [!!] large durian trees, sixteen sugar palms (Arenga pinnata), and several dozen canopy trees that produce milky latex or other exudates of value.
This is what we are talking about when we use the term Food Jungle!
So far we’ve learned what the Natural Way of farming entails, and why it is better, safer and easier to plant trees and other forest crops than to plant rice. But the question remains: how do we go about the business of planting a Food Jungle, and what aspects are important to consider?
As should be clear by now, a Food Jungle looks much different than, say, a commercial fruit orchard. Planting trees has become a geometrical exercise, informed by mathematics rather than by the needs of the plants. Yes, they allow for the help of machines and hence less people are required to cultivate larger areas, but the techniques used (like the heavy reliance on mechanized watering) are ultimately unsustainable and will become ever more inefficient as the climate changes. In fact, while commercial orchards are “easy” to manage, they are in fact terribly unsustainable (the main reasons being soil erosion, soil degradation, landscape toxification and biodiversity loss) and inefficient in terms of any measure of output other than raw quantity (they yield a single harvest per year, and provide a very limited set of nutrients). Let us explain a few key differences between a commercial tree plantation, such as a Durian orchard, and a Food Jungle.
One of the most obvious differences between conventional plantations and the forest is diversity. Diversity is a key concept to which we will return again and again. Diversity means stability, and just as a diverse portfolio is a safer way to invest money (if you’re into that) than to put all your savings into, for instance, Bitcoin, diverse plant communities are a much safer way to cultivate trees than to plant only Monthong Durian. Diversity (not, as commonly assumed, complexity) is the ultimate goal of evolution itself, and it is the main reason why Life has thrived for billions of years on this planet. Diversification means doing Nature’s work!
If you plant only one species of plants, they will take up only one set of nutrients, which quickly becomes depleted – this creates the need for artificial fertilizers. If you plant many different species of plants together, the needs for key nutrients will be more balanced, since some species supply what others need: some plants will require more Nitrogen, for instance, while others (like many legumes) can actively fix atmospheric Nitrogen in the soil and make it available to other plants.
Another big difference between plantations and forests is tree density: in plantations (see Fig.1.3), plants are all the same height, are spaced far apart and nothing is grown in between – in fact, all grasses and shrubs that try to establish themselves among the target crop are swiftly killed, either by regular cutting or by applications of highly toxic herbicides. The bare ground in between crops quickly dries out in the sun, making irrigation a necessity. Trees blow over easier during storms, since their roots don’t interlock enough to keep them firmly anchored in the ground. No further biomass is added to the soil by other plants, so fertilizing becomes necessary. Less birds, insects and other wildlife inhabits such monocultures (who would otherwise supply additional natural fertilizer in the form of manure and droppings), reducing pollination success and creating ecological imbalances that lead to infestations of certain kinds of insects that prey exclusively on the target crop (and who would otherwise be kept in check by predators).
Densely planting diverse species together creates an ecosystem that is much more stable and resilient. All ground is covered by vegetation (reducing evaporation and soil temperature), and some species (such as Bananas or Kapok) release water into the ground and make it available for other plants. Space is used more efficiently, since different trees fill different layers of the Food Jungle – instead of having just one productive layer, you can have five or more (Emergent, Canopy, Understory, Forest Floor, Subterranean; see Fig.1.4). A higher soil carbon content created through the more efficient net productivity of forest-like microecosystems (see Part Seven and Eight) allows for more water to be stored for longer periods of time. During the El Niño of 2016, dozens of fruit trees in the village died from heat-related stress or lack of water – yet when we took a walk through the forest, we discovered that not a single tree had died as the result of the drought.
Food Jungles modelled on natural ecosystems should tend to include wild (rather than highly domesticated) species and cultivars of plants, since they are both more hardy and more nutritious. The weakest food plants are the highly domesticated crops that make up the modern diet. Those plants are the first ones whose cultivation will become first difficult and then impossible as climate change progresses. We will come back to the importance of wild foods in Part Six of this series.
Needless to say, Food Jungles should be grown organically (using Permaculture Principles), without the application of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. And if plant species are allowed to grow together in diverse communities (called microecosystems), there is really no need for fertilizer or poisons. Nobody fertilizes trees in the jungle, yet they are the highest and strongest trees around. No one sprays chemicals in the forest, yet there is a delicate balance of insect and other animal species who eat each other, so that no harmful insect population ever become rampant.
One last aspect to consider is the geopolitical and economic one. Even small shocks to a food system this globalized and uniform can have widespread consequences: if there’s any trouble on the horizon in terms of food prices or reduced harvests, wealthier countries like, for instance, China immediately panic-buy grain to ensure enough food for their massive populations. Because crops are grown, harvested, transported, sold and purchased in bulk, even regions and countries that produce enough food for themselves can end up experiencing food shortages, because richer countries simply pay higher prices for their crops than the locals are able to afford, and rich countries can easily pressure smaller countries to sell them whatever they require, threatening economic or even military sanctions.
This neocolonialist exploitation by powerful nations is much less a concern if you grow a variety of seasonal staple foods that are easily perishable after harvest, like cassava, breadfruit or jackfruit seeds. Crops like this are much less attractive for international trade (they may require constant cooling, which dramatically increases the price of transport and makes it economically unfeasible) and are thus not subject to appropriation by economically stronger competitors.
If the currently observed trend of political protectionism continues, localizing and diversifying the food supply (and, by extension, all other vital parts of the economy) is the safest bet to ensure food security.
But where do you even start? We will talk in greater detail about a few “very important plants” (VIPs) in the following Parts, but if you want a bit of inspiration: a good start is always planting Bananas (as many individuals and cultivars as possible, to increase biomass, shade, and have the first crops ready within a year), Beans (grow well with bananas, fix nitrogen, see Part Four), Jackfruit (as a staple, see Part Two), at least two varieties of Bamboo (one large, one small, for materials and bamboo shoots), tree legumes (like Leucaena, for fixing nitrogen, adding biomass through chop-and-drop, and as trellis for vines), a few larger forest trees (Dipterocarps or legumes, to increase soil fertility, add dimension, spend shadow, and invite mycorrhizal fungi), Cassava (to have the first staple ready in as little in six months, see Part Three), Sweet Potatoes (as ground cover, see Part Three), and as many different Yams as you can find (to climb non-food trees, also Part Three). In between you can plant hardy vegetables like Wild Eggplant (Turkey Berry, much stronger and more nutritious than eggplants), Wild Bitter Gourd (Ma-ra Khee Nok, much more nutritious than regular Bitter Gourd), Pigeon Pea (for fixing nitrogen, and as a fastgrowing protein crop), Chaya (Brazilian tree spinach), and a few kitchen herbs like holy basil, coriander, turmeric, fingerroot, galangal, curry leaf, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, etc.
Digging a body of water (such as a pond, even a small one) is also very important, as it stores water (obviously!), effectively recharges the groundwater supply, adds dimension to the ecosystem, creates more habitat, and allows for the cultivation of fast-growing aquatic vegetables such as morning glory and water mimosa, as well as fish, snails, clams, crabs, frogs, eels, and freshwater shrimp. You also might want to get a breeding pair of semi-wild chickens (Ayam Kampong) to feed any leftovers to. You see, all this is nothing new – it is pretty similar to how many of our own parents and grandparents used to live! Why look for new solutions if the old ways prove to be an effective measure?
But more about specific techniques later!