The permaculture concept is a sustainable farming technique, that goes beyond how we use the land to include the way in which we build houses, use waste and produce energy. It is a way of life or “culture”, that aims to marry human activity with nature so that we can sustainably or “permanently” meet our needs without jeopardising the health of the environment. The word itself comes from the amalgamation of “permanent agriculture”, or more recently “permanent culture”.
The pioneer behind this practice – Bill Mollison (with David Holgrem) – brought together his philosophy after observing the natural trajectory of plant communities in the Australian rainforests and deserts. He has termed his realisation of how to apply ecology to agriculture as the “revelation” moment of his age, and wrote the first blueprint for the approach, ‘Permaculture One’, in 1978. [i] Since then, permaculture has become a revolutionary movement, with many “permie” communities or ecovillages being formed around the world. [ii]
It is hard to easily summarise what permaculture is – there are many definitions from many practitioners, by virtue of the fact that permaculture encompasses one’s way of living.
The Permaculture Association offer a summary of permaculture as “a design approach based on understandings of how nature works”. [iii] Encompassing this, the practice is grounded on three main ethics: [iv]
Earth care – preventing damage to the ecosystem
People care – looking after yourself, kin and community
Fair share – limiting consumption and fairly distributing resources
Through this ethical stance, permies take care of the land, the animals within it, and the people who care for it – ultimately fostering cultural change.
At Furrow, we are excited by the fact that these principles of permaculture farming have huge environmental benefits; it can reduce carbon footprint, increase carbon sequestration of the soil, and increase on-farm biodiversity. [v] But more on that later!
This is the fascinating bit – what are the practical applications of these principles? What’s the theory behind the pretty gardens? Let’s take a look at some of the basic approaches: [vi]
Closed system loops
Systems-based thinking is a key part of permaculture practise – a way of thinking about the whole system effect of an action rather than the individual outcome. Permaculturalists apply this thinking to avoid external inputs, such as fertiliser or soybean feed, and instead use their waste as a resource. For example, using manure as a replacement fertiliser and feeding their livestock with kitchen scraps.
Growing perennial crops (potatoes) is much less destructive than growing annual crops (wheat). In comparison to annual crops, perennial crops only need to be planted once and regrow after harvesting. They require less tilling of the soil, saving energy and avoiding disturbance to the soil and potential degradation of its quality. Agroforestry – planting edible tree crops with edible shade-tolerant crops – is a practical application of this.
Every structure and process within permaculture practise should play multiple functions – in doing so, reducing waste or unnecessary resource use. For example, using rain barrels not only for water irrigation and collection, but also for growing edible plants and fish.
Permaculturalists try to use every bit of naturally occurring water available – another no wastage principle - in order to avoid over-abstraction. Applying this, permaculture gardens can be grown on slopes where rainwater is collected in shallow ditches, known as swales, which then infiltrates through the soil and feeds into the plants.
Permaculture believes in letting nature, instead of humans, do the work. Mollison is particularly cynical of modern technological interventions in agriculture– terming it “witchcraft”. [i] Instead, permaculture uses the solutions already available in nature. For example, they use chickens instead of machinery or pesticides to clear an area of pests and weeds.
As mentioned above, there are several benefits to the practice of permaculture. If you would like to remind yourself about the current industrialised food system and its impact on the environment, take a look at our previous blog post on the matter. Permaculture is a stark difference to this approach, and solves many of the issues that the agricultural sector faces.
Low greenhouse gas emissions:
Industrial agriculture contributes around 12–15 % of GHG emissions. [iv] Permaculturalists reduce GHG emissions by avoiding fertiliser and pesticide use. This is due to the fact that both demand the burning of fossil fuels for production, and fertilisers release nitrous oxide (N2O) when applied to the soil. If they’re not used, these emissions are avoided.
If no chemical fertilisers or pesticides are used, fungi and bacteria are able to thrive in the soil again, gradually increasing its organic carbon content and the role of soil as a carbon sequester or sink. One estimate reports that 25 to 40% of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, probably originates from the destruction of soil as a carbon sink. Through the agroecological treatment of the soil, some researchers have calculated that 8233 kg of CO2 per hectare can be sequestered. [iv]
Biodiversity is promoted in different ways through the permaculture approach. As just mentioned, the avoidance of pesticide use mitigates the loss of soil diversity – since fungi, protozoa and bacteria are usually side-kills of pesticides.
Alongside this, diversity is increased through the polyculture approach of farming. Unlike monocultures, polycultures are the raising at the same time and place of more than one species of plant or animal. [viii] Permaculture gardens consist of guilds of companion plants, whose interactions with each other mutually benefit their growth. In turn, the diverse vegetation, from trees to flowers, encourage birds, bees and other fauna to habituate near the farm.
Water insecurity is a global crisis; 17 countries face extremely high water stress, which means >80% of water available in the country is abstracted annually. [ix] Water stress is in part caused by the current unsustainable practices of agriculture (e.g. monocultures grown on poor quality soil), resulting in the need for extensive irrigation.
Permaculture methods, however, reduce the need for huge water demand. High organic carbon content in soil increases water retention, agroforestry methods reduce evaporation, and the construction of swales for water collection all remove the need for extensive irrigation and exploitation of water. [iv]
Overall, we see permaculture as one of the many solutions to the unsustainable methods of industrial agriculture.
We want to support farms that follow this holistic approach – one that respects nature and its processes rather than disrupting and modifying them.