You can't Eat Money!


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    Hi folks,

    So what do you eat if you can’t eat money?

    “You can’t eat money” is a phrase attributed to Alanis Obomsawin and apparently first appeared in a book entitled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?”:

    From Quote Investigator:
    A chapter called “Conversations with North American Indians” contained comments made by Alanis Obomsawin who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles northeast of Montreal.” (The book uses the spelling Obomosawin.) Obomsawin employed a version of the saying while speaking with the chapter author Ted Poole. [AOTP]:

    Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

    Greenpeace popularised a version of the saying in the 1980s. However, aside from being a hippy slogan it also has critical reference when times get hard, and also in economic collapse scenarios as attested to by Dmity Orlov in his examination of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s:

    There is a lesson here: when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money. Access to actual physical resources and assets, as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships, quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash.
    Dmitri Orlov

    One of the mitigating factors in the demise of the old soviet union as Orlov points out, was the existence of small scale agriculture from kitchen gardens to small cultivated plots. He states that effectively 10% of the land was providing 90% of the food. This informal food supply is what kept many Russians going during the collapse of the old soviet union in the early nineties. However, perhaps the biggest example of the ‘food shock’ (the realisation that we all have to eat) and its consequence can be found in the remote soviet ally of Cuba. Popularised in the format of a film called the Power of Community, Cuba’s story shows how the Cuban economy went from being reliant on cash crops requiring large amounts of fertiliser and imports of food, to an organic sustainable self reliance when oil imports were cut by half and food imports cut by 80% in 1990. It was made primarily to show the effects of peak oil, and features leading lights of the peak oil debate such as Mathew Simmons, James Howard Kuntsler and Richard Heinburg amongst a cast of others. However, one of the main subjects of the film is the food supply and how this was turned around so that they now produce up to 80% of their own food. But they did not get there easily; they went through what they termed a ‘special period’, a period of transition that was effectively both a steep learning curve in terms of learning how to grow food organically, and a time of psychological and physical adaptation. I was privileged to meet Roberto Pérez one of the films stars when he visited these shores on his tour of the UK in 2008. He described the ‘special period’ and how people “lost a lot of weight”, from the reduced calorie intake and the increased exercise from riding bikes to get around (china shipped over a million ‘Chinese’ bikes to Cuba – heavy single speed beasts, not highly geared lightweight mountain bikes). He described how he measured the progress of improvement in food supply as he put on more weight helped by the arrival of the ‘camels’, articulated trailer buses capable of carrying three hundred people at a time. I asked him about things not mentioned in the film such as how did they keep the crops secure from theft and he answered frankly; they grew vegetative barbed wire around plots; spiky plants to deter thieves and posted guards if the problem was serious. And when asked about population figures he said the population went down, though due primarily from emigration to the US and reduced rates of childbirth. But the main point is though they were hungry, nobody starved to death. How much of this is down to their egalitarian socialised culture albeit under an effective dictatorship is an obvious point of discussion but not the point of this post. Suffice to say most of the population was already on or near the ‘ground floor’ as TAE might term it, so that when collapse came they didn’t have far to fall.

    Despite the at times near starvation diet, generally the population’s health actually improved. This was also seen in the UK during the rationing of the Second World War, where the high fat/sugar/starch diet was replaced with locally grown vegetables and strict rationing of said fats/sugars and starches. A curious thing happens with food shortages; the human body can survive very well with very little food if it is nutritious and healthy, but one can starve very quickly if it is just “empty calories”. This is one reason that many traditional native hunter gatherers are wiry and thin, but full of vitality and energy and very healthy, yet when they become settled and start to eat the ‘modern diet’ they start to suffer all the modern diseases of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Its not so much that the food causes these things directly but that a whole plethora of influences brings out these latent tendencies, as the five thousand year old ice man Ötzi shows; he had hardened arteries, heart disease, arthritis and Lyme disease; but despite all this he was still out climbing mountains!

    When the cheap imports of high sugar/starch content foodstuffs ceases, one is left with what one can obtain locally on the small scale. So what to do to survive on ‘local’ produce? The key thing here is knowing both what to eat and at what time of year it available and whereabouts to find it. Foraging is a perennial dietary option, and wild food foraging such as popularised by the likes of Richard Mabey has seen a small resurgence in recent times. However if the whole population went out and did it with limited knowledge we’d end up with a landscape that looked like Haiti and probably an epidemic of poisonings, ignorance being what it is.

    The other time honoured thing to do is to grow your own. But this is not as straight forward as it might seem as any keen gardener will tell you. There are many issues and potentially resources needed, not least knowledge and time. One of the biggest things is fertility of the soil. As the Cubans found out when having previously been reliant upon chemical fertilizers that disappeared almost overnight with the oil, they had to quickly develop other forms of fertiliser. Fortunately nature is very obliging and such things as composting and worm farms provided a sustainable source of recycled nutrients. Another result of the Cuban experiment was that farmers started getting paid a lot more in recognition of their real worth…

    The human body itself is a valuable source of plant nutrients, as well as the more familiar animal manure; it seems that animal waste in moderation is a perfect plant fertilizer – who’d have thought it!. Though the taboos around waste are understandable due to the link with diseases, these diseases are often caused by mismanagement of said waste and not the waste itself (talk about being scared of your own sh*t – what a weird species we are!). Nature on the other hand is highly adapted to regular inputs of animal ‘waste’; James Lovelock even suggests that the plants NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) requirements determined the evolution of mammals though I prefer the term symbiosis. For instance studies in the detrimental effects of desertification of grasslands have found that increasing cattle herds to what would have been ‘natural’ wild herd sizes and managing them in a specific way that mimics large numbers of wild animals closely herding together as protection against predators actually rejuvenates previously barren and desert lands due to the fertilizing and watering effect of all their dung, urine and saliva. As it happens, human urine contains most of the plant friendly nutrients excreted by the body, (80% of the nitrogen, and about 60% of the Phosphorus and Potassium) and is a sterile (from a healthy person!) freely available and plentiful fertiliser. The uses and application of urine as a fertilizer are espoused in the book Liquid Gold.

    It is used diluted from anywhere between three parts water to one part urine to eight parts water to one of urine depending upon the situation. It can also be used neat and fresh if one is in the garden and nature calls, though you might get some strange looks if seen by the neighbours! Also, having a salt free/low salt diet can help reduce the salt content, which can build up in more arid climes without much rainfall to flush it out. It is a tried and tested fertilizer having been used throughout history in many cultures and is again becoming recognised as a valuable nutrient source. Mixed with wood ash (if available) its even better. It also takes out about 70% of the nitrogen found in household waste water, along with 50% of the potassium and phosphorus, so its well worth doing on that account alone as it helps prevent eutrification. The only thing stopping its broader use seems to be one of acceptance.

    Also, if you recycle the grey water (waste water from the sinks, basins baths and showers) to irrigate the garden you get an extra boost from the extra phosphorus found in detergents. This can be done via a grey water ‘filter’ system where for instance a large watertight box is filled successively with gravel sand and soil, with a water permeable membrane between the layers. The grey water is then piped into the root zone about 2 to 4 inches (50-100mmm) below the soil surface where the root biosphere helps to decompose any organic matter before draining down through the sand and gravel layers to the out flow at the bottom. This basically mimics the natural cycle of ground water systems, producing clean-ish water that will keep for a week or more and is great for watering plants or washing the car, just don’t drink it as it still contains a high level of detergent compounds! Or the grey water can be fed directly onto the soil of the growing beds via long hoses. It is best to avoid watering it directly onto leaves or anything your going to eat for about a week to three weeks before harvesting depending upon how grey it is, and ensure you wash the produce thoroughly to be on the safe side. Also watch out for the first rinse cycle on the washing machine if that is connected to the same out flows, as that obviously contains the most detergent and beware that many washing powders/products also have high salt content, so remember to use only the organic biodegradable ones suitable for septic tanks. Sometimes diverting this first rinse to drain is advisable if your doing a heavy wash. Also monitor the local weather and the moisture content of your garden, if its getting too wet divert the grey water back to drain otherwise you will flood the garden and the plants you were trying to water! This is a good process though, as it starts to reconnect people with their ‘outside’ environment, instead of being stuck in some virtual bubble as can often be the case if you work in an office and watch a lot of TV or spend time on the home computer…

    Which brings us to another critical input, that of time. No dig gardening is a system in which a layer of compost is applied to the soil without the deep digging of traditional horticulture. This is both another way to keep up soil fertility and to reduce the time spent preparing areas for growing. It can work well for a smallish garden if you compost the garden waste, but for larger areas you will need to source compost-able materials such as straw, along with manure to add nitrogen to the pile to make it ‘hot’. This is the heat produced through the action of thermophilic bacteria as they decompose the organic matter, a key feature to help sterilise the pile in terms of weed seeds and diseases. Albert Guest, author of the no dig handbook ”Gardening Without Digging”, reckoned that this can save you forty percent of the labour involved when compared to traditional digging techniques. Human waste or ‘humanure’ can be used effectively too if animal waste is not available, and your feeling adventurous! This technique is described in the wonderfully titled ”Humanure Handbook” by Joe Jenkins.

    From my own experience no-dig gardening can save a whole lot more time than the 40% quoted above, especially if you utilise mulching techniques such as with green manures, reducing the need for compost. Here again nature obliges with the first flush of spring weeds; just harvest them and along with grass clippings apply evenly over the soil. Avid mulcher Ruth Stout went the whole hog and obviated the need for the composting stage, instead covering the soil directly with the straw and hay in copious amounts. This no-dig composting/mulching technique can also be used to convert grassed and weedy areas quickly to cultivation, by covering over winter with either cardboard or some other light excluding cover such as carpet or black plastic. Then in early spring remove the carpet or black plastic, leaving any cardboard down as it should already have started to rot and cover the area with a good 2 to 4 inch (50-100mm) of compost. Then plant out seedlings or at the right time of year when the soil has begun to warm, your seeds of choice. It really is that easy. Charles Dowding, a no-dig vegetable grower in the west country has done an experiment to prove the techniques worth and resilience with some mixed results, but generally the no-dig technique produced more than the dug beds, and often healthier produce too.

    The only draw back with these simple organic solutions however is that they need the extra input of the fertiliser. One solution to this problem is the perennial system of established self-maintaining plant symbiosis that is found in natural ecosystem such as forests. This is the basis for what might be called a forest garden. These exist all around the world in many different guises in many differing cultures, and there is some indication that a large part (difficult to say how large) of the rain forests of the Amazon and other ‘wild’ parts of both south and north America were and still are in a few remaining areas deliberately cultivated by humans, for instance as is found with the U’wa of Columbia. In more temperate climes the Englishman Robert Hart developed a forest garden on an eighth of an acre plot in Shropshire. This is good example of a true perennial forest garden that provides nutritious seasonal food and acts as a vital nutritional supplement to the diet. Robert referred to John Evelyn’s seventeenth century work which describes the healthy ‘Sallet’ diet of early modern England when people foraged in the hedgerows and forests and grew herbs and vegetables in small garden plots, a diet which pretty much included anything that was edible and green.

    Robert Hart’s system comprises of seven particular elements. The first is the tall canopy of fruit and nut trees; then the smaller fruit trees on dwarfing rootstock make up the lower canopy, then the currant and gooseberry bushes make up the third shrubby layer. Then come the vegetables and herbs constituting a fourth layer with ground covering herbs and plants making the fifth layer. The sixth layer constitutes the rooting vegetables, and the seventh layer the climbing plants such as vines and beans. This edible jungle if well planned and planted according to companion planting principles (e.g. apples love mint and chives, plums love currents, and pears love lemon balm) can provide some form of sustenance for some seven months at least if not all year round by using simple storage techniques and selecting late and early varieties. Also because of the shear diversity of plants pests and diseases are naturally limited, unlike the monoculture plantings of modern agriculture which are pest and disease havens.

    Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and soil scientist, studied carefully how nature worked and found that by doing less and less he arrived at a very productive system of agriculture that combined aspects of both no-dig mulching techniques and forest gardening. In his rice paddy, he would plant rice and wheat or winter barley at specific times using seed balls; that is specific seeds encased in clay soil. These then sprouted naturally when the conditions were right having been kept free from predation by birds and other pests. He used the straw residue from the grain crops as a mulch cover through which the new crops naturally grew, and along with an under crop of green manure clover controlled by flooding in early summer, produced two crops a year, one of rice in autumn, the other of wheat or barley harvested in late may, after which the field was flooded to encourage the young rice shoots. Meanwhile in his ‘orchards’, fruit and vegetables grew in an organic symbiotic abundance in a true forest garden environment. Here again he used his ‘seed ball’ technique to sow a variety of vegetables and plants, allowing them to find their own niche. Many of these self seeded and started to revert to a wilder form as they re-adapted to a more natural environment while still remaining edible and nutritious. While with his trees he allowed them to grow and develop their natural shape and found that they produced abundant harvests year on year without the added effort of pruning. His books “One Straw Revolution” and “The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy” (now out of print, but can be downloaded here) have become pillars of permaculture. Bill Mollison, who with David Holmgren developed the Australian Permaculture system in the 1970s had no idea how to grow grains in a ‘permacultural’ way until he came across Masanobu’s work.

    Another pioneer is the Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer. Born and raised on the family farm half way up an Austrian mountain, his early experiments with novel growing techniques and aquaculture have led to an amazingly productive forest farm ecosystem at elevations where most people would struggle to grow pine trees. His observations of how nature works and dogged persistence and battles against mindless bureaucracy are detailed in his book “Rebel Farmer”, while his “Permaculture” book describes the system in detail. (Note: IMHO Sepps ‘permaculture’ is quite different in many respects to the more academic Austalian permaculture of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren with its ‘zones’ and more systematised approach). He intermingles raised beds and terraces with fish ponds and rocks that reflect light and adsorb heat, all at 1500m above sea level.
    As for perennial grains, rebel farmer Sepp Holzer has has success growing what he calls “Russian corn”, an ancient form of Rye known as brandroggen traditionally grown in meadows in areas where rubbish had been burnt, hence the name brandroggen – it literally means ‘fire rye’. (p.73, Holzer Permaculture, 2010.) He also raises livestock, and game in his game reserves, using the abundant diverse forest that he has created to feed them.
    As regards livestock more generally, American Joe Salatin of Polyface Farms utilises a strict rotational system of cattle feeding on pasture mimicking is some ways the wild herd grassland management system mentioned above. After the cattle have grazed their salad bar that is the fresh new grass shoots that sprout up after after previous grazing, they are moved on quickly. After a few days all the cow pats that are left behind are colonised with larva from dung flies. Then chickens are let out to harvest these and in the process help by spreading the dung out, so allowing the grass underneath to recover while the chickens get to produce great eggs and meat. This process is moved on over the acres in a cyclical pattern, what he calls perennial prairie. Also all the dung and straw from the cattle sheds is piled into compost heaps and returned to the pastures creating a vigorous worm population which in turn adds to the health of the pasture. In more wooded and forested areas, pigs are allowed to roam free but again in a controlled way in their preferred environment, producing both tasty pork and well managed woodlands. He also raises rabbits. His general philosophy is one of allowing the plants and animals to express their physiological distinctiveness, something that feeds into the human side of the farm which has a focus on community and local food production.

    All these examples run counter to the current industrial monoculture model that is so reliant of large inputs of fossil fuels and capital. They do not require artificial fertilisers and pesticides, nor do they produce toxic run-off and lagoons of sceptic effluent, as found in the livestock factory farming methods. However as Sepp Holzer points out, to really understand ‘Permaculture’ techniques one has to practice them; its no good reading a few books and having an idea about it if you can’t put it into practice. This is the key to success.

    Here is a link to a presentation that shows grey water and no-dig in action in an urban environment:



    That was a really usefull, practical post gurusid. Thankyou.

    My wife and I have been working on our eighth acre inner city farm for nearly 20 years. We sarted out getting virtually no produce and killing most plants. In the last couple of years we have had extended periods of having to give food away to neighbours and freinds.

    We are very pleased with ourselves now that we can often say “Everthing in this meal was grown in our backyard”

    Our best producers are;

    Fish, eggs, tomatoes, corn, brocolli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, pasnip, capsicum, chilli, silverbeet, spinach, pasley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lemon, lime, mandarin, tangello, apple, plum, pear, chinese greens, cucumbers, zuchini, mulberry, mango, canteloupe, pumpkin, onion, beetroot, radish.

    They taste so much better than industrial produce also.


    Hi Glennjef,

    Thanks, glad you liked it. If you have any photos of your project it would be great to share them – if you can. I have put a little presentation on google docs which I think people should be able to access:

    It show what can be done in a very urban environment. Also I think its important for many people not to get too ambitious, though I couldn’t grow enough to be anywhere near self sufficient, what I did grow was very nutritious and would have been expensive to buy, such as the garlic. Also making preserves such as chutneys which did last me through the year also saved in money terms. But that is the key here, it not about money in so much as it is about reconnecting with your food supply that which nourishes us an allows us to even think about things like money in the first place! Sorry I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but hopefully if others not so converted read this they might be encouraged to give it a go.



    … its no good reading a few books and having an idea about it if you can’t put it into practice.


    Start somewhere.

    Keep a cactus alive.


    Hi Jal,

    Start somewhere.

    Keep a cactus alive

    Peyote by any chance?
    Perfect example of a once sacred plant used sustainably for thousands of years now being driven to extinction by idiots no doubt out to make a fast buck. :dry:




    I’ll put something together in the way of photos, vids and walkthroughs. It will take a few months as we are at the end of our extreme hot summer when everything (except the trees) are exhasted. I’ll document our Autumn planting and drop it here in a few.

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