If the title of this blog post evokes images of hippies, eco warriors, Eastern philosophers or otherwordly New Age people then please keep reading because I want to dispel a few stereotypes and biases and have a conscientious, critical conversation about the idea of working with nature. A note about me: I have been labelled a hippy and treehugger but I am also a philosophy nerd with a masters degree in environmental science. I value the truth and question all around me, as much as is possible without driving myself loopy.
For the sake of keeping this post concise I will assume that my readers are familiar with Climate Change. I will allow you to debate among yourselves about whether it is human induced or a natural process. If you are clever you may have recognised that it is both. There is a wealth of scientific literature on Climate Change, much of which has been painstakingly gathered, analysed, synthesised and reported in the public domain by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The main changes we are observing in the Earth’s climate include global warming, glaciers melting, sea level rise, weather extremes becoming more frequent, depletion of aquifers and other water supplies, desertification and salinisation of croplands, species destruction and biodiversity loss. Lower agricultural yields are also predicted, compromising global food security – an area which I want to explore in this post.
Our overall food production system is currently biased towards a high intensity, monocultural system involving high levels of synthetic chemicals and fuel powered machinery which drastically alter the natural landscape (whether that be shrub, forest, wetlands, grasslands or desert) and require large amounts of energy to maintain these alterations. This system has given us high yields but to the detriment of the environment, animal and human health. If we continue to use this agricultural approach we will further accelerate the rate of climate change and the rate of desertification of croplands. The agricultural industry is not unaware of the threats posed to their livelihood and profitability and numerous innovations and technologies have been developed to improve efficiency, reduce the volume of pesticides used, conserve resources and protect topsoil. I hope to dedicate a blogpost to these technological advances in the near future but at the moment I’d like to highlight more of a grassroots approach to eco conscious farming.
Since the 1970s a movement has existed which advocates a systemic, “nature based” approach to agriculture. This approach is referred to as permaculture and is defined by one of the coiners of the term, David Homgren, on his website as: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs”. It promotes a “closed loop system” whereby all outputs of the system are used as either food, fodder, fertiliser or energy and become inputs to the system. There is no such thing as waste here and the aim is to create a self-reliant, self-maintaining system which requires minimal human intervention.
As already mentioned, a major component of permaculture involves mimicking the processes that occur in nature and incorporating those natural resources and elements (e.g. climatic conditions, physical landform features such as hills and ditches, native plants and animals and their configuration in an ecosystem etc.) which best promote food yield . A simple example is the construction of a swale (a ditch or depressed channel dug on a contour) to collect and conserve rainfall, allowing time for the moisture to soak into the soil. This is especially useful in areas which experience low rainfall levels and high levels of evaporation (the idea of contouring the land using swales for water management originates in Australia in the 1950s by inventor P.A. Yeomans). Another example is companion planting which involves grouping assorted plants together which sustain each other by sharing their nutrients and which protect each other from disease. Disease generally tends to spread in monocultural systems where it can hop to homogeneous plants. Not all plants are susceptible to the same type of disease. So, by introducing more variety and diversity of plants into the system you essentially place more obstacles in the path of disease and reduce its spread.
What appeals to me about permaculture is the awareness of the impacts of farming methods on the land and a consciousness of conserving resources. It involves understanding the ecology of the environment and working with nature to produce food and to protect and promote environmental quality. The health and fertility of the soil is the number one priority in permaculture and any techniques which damage it such as digging, ploughing and chemical spraying are avoided. It is much harder to recover that damaged soil later than it is to avoid damaging it in the first place.
Whether it is ever possible to have a permaculture farming industry on the scale of our current agricultural industry is a question worth exploring. There is a considerable lack of large scale, commercial permaculture farms at present and there seems to be a lack of credibility in the permaculture movement to create a meaningful change in how our food is produced. Permaculture has been criticised as “unscientific” due to the lack of controlled experiments conducted to measure the food productivity of the system. It would be great to see more scientific research into permaculture, especially from those involved in agricultural science. However, it is clear to me that the interests of the agricultural industry are mainly in the productivity and profitability of land and this is the major obstacle faced by the permaculture movement to have a real impact on a larger scale. It may be the case that “business as usual” farming can produce more food for the world than permaculture can and if that were the case it deals a major blow to the permaculture movement. Other considerations need to be taken into account such as environmental quality and ecosystem services (“the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being”), resilience and resistance to disease and pests. Moreover, if we were to study farm productivity on a longitudinal scale (over time), then we might find that permaculture trumps business as usual farming.
I could never really do justice to permaculture and what it’s all about in one short blog post so there are many ideas which I haven’t explored. This post was intended to give readers a taste of permaculture and to probe a little deeper into how feasible it is and why it’s important. I also wanted to highlight and celebrate a movement which has explored alternative solutions to our environmental and food security problems. The big picture, long-term vision of the permaculture movement is an inspiring and refreshing approach to agriculture and deserves our attention.
Don’t forget to check out more work by Alison on here blog uncertaintybravers