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Permaculture is a low impact method which aims to use perennial cultivation practices to produce food crops following the way it happens in nature.
The term Permaculture was first used by the Australian pair, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, who used it to describe a means of sustainable food production where there is no need for industrialised techniques, with minimal inputs and there is no damage to the environment. It comes from 'permanent agriculture' which appeared in the title of a book on far eastern agriculture published in 1911. The term is now thought of as a shortening of 'permanent culture' since it is a wider concept of everyday living within a sustainable environment.
Another, and perhaps more descriptive term for this type of cultivation is a 'forest garden' which is perhaps the oldest form of cultivation used by early humans to provide food. The ideal situation is a forested area with small clearings for the lower storeys of plants. Robert Hart used the term to describe the methods he developed in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
This way of looking at the earth is in tune with the Gaia hypothesis, first postulated by James Lovelock in the 1960s. This expanded on work started by Charles Darwin who explained the interdependence of plants and animals. Gaia theory considers the whole earth as a large ecosystem with many interdependent systems which work together (Gaia was the Greek goddess of the Earth). The atmosphere, oceans, soil and flora and fauna all operate with feedback mechanisms to maintain an equilibrium. Unfortunately our meddling has disrupted this delicate balance, resulting in the current problems of environmental damage such as climate change and loss of many species which have to be addressed before it accelerates to a disastrous end. Lovelock has recently concluded that if population growth continues at the present rate, the pressures placed on the global ecosystem could lead to terminal decline by the end of this century.
As life evolved on this planet all of the flora and fauna worked together as interdependent entities growing and recycling the basic elements of existence. One species developed to a greater degree than all of the rest, learning to manipulate its surroundings to its own advantage and to the detriment of others. The rate of this development has accelerated exponentially and over the last two centuries the so-called Industrial Revolution has moved our species from this co-existence to a point where some people never see where food is produced, simply buying it off the shelf.
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Most of the world's population now lives in urban areas having abandoned subsistence living for what they believe is a better life. This process is occuring at present in China where land is left unused and those people who remain are changing the food they grow to provide crops and meat which can be sold to urban dwellers - just as it happened during the industrialisation of the western economies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Most people no longer grow any food and it has to be brought in from the surrounding land, or more usually shipped from afar. It is grown in a monoculture system which causes great harm to the land, extracting nutrients which are replaced with artificial fertilizers, and most of the natural flora and fauna are removed or displaced. These single crops attract pests and diseases, and often require irrigation as well.
The potato famine in Ireland occurred because the Blight disease spread rapidly through the single varitey of potato called Lumper, which was being grown at the time and the poorer population had depended on them as their main food source. The potato had replaced many of the cereal crops grown by earlier generations as it produced about four times the food value per acre and was less affected by variable weather conditions.
Intensive cultivation leads to a reduction in productivity and can result in desertification, as has happened in areas where the rainforest was cleared for palm oil production or grazing for beef production. The latest trend towards the production of 'biofuels' is increasing the amount of land dedicated to growing monoculture crops, including rainforest destruction, so it is not the 'green' solution it pretends to be - also food crops are being diverted to this use and has increased prices.
This method of food production is almost totally dependent on fossil fuels which have a finite future, indeed some analysts think that we may not be far from what is termed 'peak oil', ie. the point where the total oil available is at its highest level of discovery and will decline at a rate which will depend on how it is used. The mass production of food uses oil for cultivating, processing and transport as well as being the basis for fertilizers and pesticides.
Although it is impossible to expect a return to a subsistence society where everybody lives in their own self-sustained niche, there are plenty of ways to reduce our dependence on fossil-fuelled excesses. There are now individuals and groups of people who are attempting to live "off-grid" without using the utilities taken for granted by everybody in the developed world - some go even further and try to escape the ever increasing grip of the database culture keeping track of daily life.
Some experts in permaculture growing estimate that it is possible to sustain 6 to 10 people per acre, which is greater than the number of people currently fed per acre with our cereal-based food economy. Of course this would be in ideal conditions with dedicated growers prepared to completely change their way of life and their diet - it might take a generation or two to enthuse the couch-potato/X-box types!
Cereal crops are not compatible with this method of production and our modern diet is very dependent on them for carbohydrates - eg. in bread and pasta, and for animal feeds.
Mollison and Holmgren set about designing living spaces which were in complete harmony with their surroundings. They are perennial agricultural systems which capture water and are planted with a diversity of species to provide food for all. Housing is built using sustainable materials sourced locally. The movement is now considered to follow two main strands.
Original Permaculture which attempts to set up a system closely following nature to create a Forest Garden where plants and animals live harmoniously.
Design Permaculture which uses natural processes to create an ecosystem following ecological principles in a more structured way and can be used in the more restrictive confines of a city.
When creating a permaculture garden it is usually a designed setup where the plants are grown organically and are irrigated by rain water. There is minimal cultivation with organic matter applied to the surface. The plants used tend to be perennials which provide leaves, roots and fruit for harvesting. The upper storey of trees give shelter and can be chosen to provide fruit or nuts, the foliage may be eaten or provide fodder for animals - lime leaves make a lettuce substitute. Where space allows, animals such as pigs and chickens can be included; bees will pollinate flowers and provide honey. The plants are grown in such density that they crowd out most of the weed plants which are not required. Due to the diversity of plants the number of pests are kept to a minimum and are reduced further by predators.
A similar technique has been used successfully to improve the productivity for growers in Ethiopia and Malawi, by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which is chaired by Koffi Annan. In Ethiopia, which has poor soil and rainfall, they have used plants which grow together at three levels, all of which can be harvested for food. The upper canopy provides shelter to conserve moisture by creating a microclimate - the roots grow at different depths, so are not competing directly. The people using these methods have been able to grow enough food to feed themselves, and some were able to sell surplus produce.
In Cuba when the financial support from the Soviet Union ceased at the end of the 1980s, the artificial fertilizers, pesticides and fuel for intensive farming were no longer available and the crops which had been exported to pay for importing about 75% of their food could not be grown. The lack of fuel also meant that crops grown in the rural areas could not be transported to the cities, so the people have turned to urban farming using permaculture techniques. Any small spaces and rooftops areas have been turned into growing areas.
Bill Mollison is still actively promoting this way of living and travels the world teaching his methods. You can view a series of clips of a documentary by Bill Mollison on YouTube by following these links:-
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 1
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 2
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 3
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 4
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 5
"The Permaculture Concept" - Part 6
This is a video clip of a gardener in Oregon who set up a less permanent growing system in a back garden (yard):-
"An Experiment in Back Yard Sustainability"
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