Permaculture

Permaculture ethics and principles “flower” CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia commons

The term ‘permaculture’ is cited variously as a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’, and in later years, simply ‘culture (to encompass a wider societal view taken by some practitioners). Coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, the idea emerged during the ‘green revolution’ and the rise of chemical inputs in farming, as an alternative agricultural system based on working with, not against, the principles of nature. Holmgren, (2002) presented an expanded concept of permaculture as a “design system for living” while still centring its focus on agriculture and “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.

The founders and early adopters of permaculture rejected a worldview centred on the human, and reductionist utilitarian understandings of the natural world in favour of values in agreement with ecological thought (Morel et al., 2019) and indeed Indigenous practices worldwide. Permaculture presents a set of guiding “principles” that are universally general in nature, so the expression and understanding intentionally varies between places and situations. Encompassing these, the “ethics of permaculture” provide overarching moral maxims that guide outcomes through the use and understanding of permaculture. Permaculture takes shape as a movement of many individuals and organisations who loosely affiliate, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Permaculture projects take on a wide range of specific functions, including community gardens, restoration and greening initiatives, farms, home gardens, communities, educational efforts, demonstration and research sites, and publications.

The ethics of Permaculture are (Holmgren, 2002):

  • Care of the earth: rebuild nature’s capital.
  • Care for people: Care of self, kin, and community.
  • Fair share: Set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.

Within and across these the principles of Permaculture are:

  • Observe and interact
  • Catch and store energy
  • Obtain a yield
  • Apply self regulation and accept feedback
  • Use and value renewable resources
  • Produce no waste
  • Design from patterns to details
  • Integrate rather than segregate
  • Use small and slow solutions
  • Use and value diversity
  • Use edges and value the marginal
  • Creatively use and respond to change

Further to these two key frameworks, many permaculture teachers use the concept of ‘zones and sectors’ to promote efficient use of and relationships between time, space, and energy. In a home garden agriculture context, as zones increase, so might the required maintenance and cultivation occurring in that area (Zone 0 being the person or house, Zone 1 being its immediate surrounds, Zone 2 being the garden, and so on).

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Name of NbS

Permaculture

Type of NbS

Created or constructed living ecosystems

Location

  • Urban
  • Periurban
  • Rural

Permaculture is a nature-based design framework that can occur on many scales. From landscape scale, design of entire farm/landscape systems and beyond in a rural context, to a home garden scale in urban and peri-urban ones.

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Aerial image of the farm shop, buildings, tunnel hoses, garden beds, surrounding food forest and pasture in the background. (Provided by Kelmarna Community Farm)

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Specific techniques used in permaculture settings are rarely unique to the movement itself (Morel et al., 2019). It is clear that in inspiration permaculture draws from a vast global pool of indigenous knowledge and has increasingly come under criticism for the failure to recognise or acknowledge this. Many examples of multi-layered gardens as a form of agroforestry are referred to within Permaculture as ‘food forests’, but Morel et al. (2009) suggest permaculture literature rarely references the home garden agroforestry that is practiced throughout Te Moananui Oceania, that form the conceptual basis for these practices and the widest range of examples. Some critical studies argue that some of the ways Indigenous knowledge has been used in Permaculture could be considered cultural appropriation (Conrad, 2014). Nevertheless, in many places Indigenous communities facing economic and social constraint have adopted permaculture as a way to assert authority of and the value of Indigenous knowledge and reclaim sovereignty over land and food through hybrid and locally adapted practices incorporating elements of permaculture into Indigenous practices (Morel et al., 2019). 

Climate change benefits
  • Changes in phenology (life cycle timing changes in plants and animals)
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Desertification
  • Drought
  • Loss of food production
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Soil erosion
  • Increased incidence / distribution of disease
  • Increased pests or spread of weeds

Climate change is mitigated through implementation of permaculture in diverse ways and is dependent on context. Some principles translate directly into climate change benefits – for example, the principle “creatively use and respond to change” (Holmgren, 2002) immediately translates into observing and understanding changes in phenology, to be able to harness them in useful ways. This is equally true about other environmental change, such as changes in rainfall. Permaculture consistently relies on the assumption that more biodiverse systems are naturally more resilient, which is an ongoing area of academic controversy, with more recent research acknowledging that while true, the relationship between biodiversity and stability is complex and involves many factors (Morel et al., 2019). The use and value of diversity is the effect of natural positive effects, such as improved pollination and ecological pest control. There are examples of Permaculture projects arguably reversing the adverse effects of climate change, such as the “Greening the Desert Project” successfully reversing desertification and proving resilient against drought (What Is the Greening the Desert Project?, n.d.).

Food production, alongside other ecosystem services are improved in integrated systems which provide many, diverse yields. (Krebs & Bach, 2018). Erosion and degradation of landscapes is avoided in a permaculture context, often focusing on maintaining and improving ecosystem services rather than undermining them, as ever-growing research on the damaging effects of modern arable farming systems suggests (Olsson et al., 2023).

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Economic and social development
  • Energy security
  • Food security and quality
  • Human physical health and wellbeing

Societal benefits of permaculture generally come through ecological and biodiversity ones (Krebs & Bach, 2018). Permaculture principles provide a generally guiding framework toward numerous benefits, including biodiversity health and conservation through diversity, climate change adaption through integrated solutions, economic and social development, particularly in building community, and promoting circular, local economies. Energy security is provided by “capturing and storing energy” in many forms (Holmgren, 2002). Food security and quality largely comes through improving soils. Techniques such as mulch, keyline design, food-forests (agroforestry) and swales or other water capture and natural nutrient cycling are promoted, leading more resilient, nutrient dense food production that therefore also supports human health and wellbeing (Krebs & Bach, 2018).

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Biological control (regulation of pests and disease)
  • Climate regulation
  • Creation of a sense of place
  • Cultural diversity and history
  • Decomposition
  • Disturbance prevention (erosion, storm damage, flooding etc.)
  • Education and knowledge
  • Fixation of solar energy
  • Food production (for humans)
  • Fresh water
  • Production of fuel / energy
  • Genetic resources (diversity)
  • Habitat provision
  • Medicinal resources
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Pollination
  • Provision of raw materials
  • Soil building
  • Species maintenance
  • Social justice and equity

Permaculture generates various ecological and biodiversity benefits, and specifically ecosystem services, because of the breadth of implementation of the practice globally. Krebs & Bach (2018) provide a review of evidence that each Permaculture principle has scientific grounding. Listed here, benefits are not exhaustive and may vary from place to place and through varying methods of implementation. Biological interactions, supported in permaculture through the principle of “integrate rather than separate” strengthen productivity and stability through synergistic effects (Holmgren, 2002; Lockyer & Veteto, 2013). An example of this is the introduction of chickens or fowl in an orchard system for pest control effect (Krebs & Bach, 2018). Permaculture supports appropriate systems in climates that are conducive to them. Through designing from patterns to details, projects can be appropriately designed within the macro (large-scale) factors that define an environmental context. However, the effect of many techniques used within permaculture are to regulate climate, for both humans and other living things. Permaculture “food forests” create microclimates, mirroring that of a natural forest, allowing various species with specific environmental preferences to be cultivated (Jacke & Toensmeier, 2005). A more human centric example of climate regulation is found in Holmgren’s (2020) book Retro suburbia, where using deciduous plants grown over trellis on the sunward side of a house to mitigate solar gain in summer (with shade generated by foliage) and allow the effect in winter when the plant has lost its leaves. The principle of “catch and store energy” can be widely applied to ecosystem and biodiversity benefits, including preserving and increasing biomass (Krebs & Bach, 2018), freshwater storage in containers and the landscape using techniques such as “swales” (Schwarzer, 2021), fixation of solar energy in a biological sense through photosynthesis in plants, as well as through promotion of appropriate technologies such as photovoltaics, and production of fuel in woodlots or promoting sustainable harvesting of other energy sources (Holmgren, 2002).

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Technical requirements

Permaculture requires the immediate understanding of a complex framework, usually provided through intensive ‘permaculture design certificates’, an independent certification usually underwritten by a national body, such as Permaculture in Aotearoa New Zealand. Often requiring a fee, and only provided by small, independent groups or organisations, this kind of training is unlikely available to much of Te Moananui Oceania. 


Planning tools and information can be incredibly useful when working with permaculture to design agricultural and living systems. Aerial photographs, surveys, topographic and GIS mapping are often used today to facilitate planning process through a permaculture lens.

Issues and Barriers

There are criticisms of Permaculture in relation to ecological science, in that many claims made by permaculture and permaculture practitioners overreach or are oversimplified. This is “encapsulated in the notion that humanity already possesses all the knowledge necessary to replace current land use with permaculture systems, across all social and ecological contexts, and that the process of redesigning is itself straightforward” (Morel et al., 2019). Case studies often provide only very specific examples but are used to make extensive claims about the application of ecological principles, and many permaculture texts do not refer to contemporary scientific research. This has led to “idiosyncratic or misleading terminology, and the potential for influence of pseudo-scientific theories” (Morel et al., 2019) in permaculture literature and teaching .

Often reliant on external funding, permaculture projects that adapt to the contexts of Te Moananui Oceania might be limited by their ability to conclusively argue their value in relation to other alternative land-practices or agro-ecological techniques with greater scientific heft.

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Opportunities

Permaculture is an enduring concept and has proved variously successful across scales, locations, and cultures. Precedents in long standing and enduring, improving upon productivity, and contributing toward food security. The practice of permaculture has the potential to further contribute to food sovereignty, often promoting appropriately scaled, diverse solutions that herald a return to small scale farming and oppose industrial, homogenised agriculture (Millner, 2017) . There is an opportunity for further reinvigoration of Indigenous knowledge through permaculture, especially in practices promoted by permaculture that have their foundations in indigenous ones, and to allow a resurfacing and reclaiming of these knowledges through empowered practice. In Oceania specifically, permaculture presents a holistic design framework adjacent to many existing local practices, in which both might be employed simultaneously in a synergistic way.

Financial case

A case study by Morel et al. (2016), discussed the cost benefit of permaculture on a small productive farm scale in economic terms and found the farm economically viable. Permaculture naturally promotes work toward self-sufficiency or circular economies, where value is circulated as locally as possible. The very varied nature of projects makes cost and income estimates difficult to quantify.

References
  • Conrad, A. (2014). We are farmers: Agriculture, food security and adaptive capacity among permaculture and conventional farmers in central Malawi [American University]. https://doi.org/10.17606/kk5w-5v87
  • Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Melliodora Publishing.
  • Holmgren, D. (2020). Retro suburbia: The downshifters guide to a resilient future. Melliodora Publishing.
  • Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible forest gardens. Chelsea Green Pub. Co.
  • Krebs, J., & Bach, S. (2018). Permaculture—Scientific evidence of principles for the agroecological design of farming systems. Sustainability, 10(9), 3218. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10093218
  • Lockyer, J., & Veteto, J. R. (Eds.). (2013). Environmental anthropology engaging ecotopia: Bioregionalism, permaculture, and ecovillages. Berghahn Books.
  • Millner, N. (Ed.). (2017). Food sovereignty, permaculture and the postcolonial politics of knowledge in El Salvador. In Postcolonialism, indigeneity and struggles for food sovereignty: Alternative food networks in the subaltern spaces (pp. 81–105). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Morel, K., Guégan, C., & Léger, F. G. (2016). Can an organic market garden based on holistic thinking be viable without motorization? The case of a permaculture farm. Acta Horticulturae, 1137, 343–346. https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.2016.1137.47
  • Morel, K., Léger, F., & Ferguson, R. S. (2019). Permaculture. In Encyclopedia of Ecology (pp. 559–567). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-409548-9.10598-6
  • Olsson, L., Cotrufo, F., Crews, T., Franklin, J., King, A., Mirzabaev, A., Scown, M., Tengberg, A., Villarino, S., & Wang, Y. (2023). The state of the world’s arable land. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 48(1), 451–475. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-112320-113741
  • Schwarzer, S. (2021). Working with plants, soils and water to cool the climate and rehydrate Earth’s landscapes. UN Environment Programme. https://www.unep.org/resources/emerging-issues/working-plants-soils-and-water-cool-climate-and-rehydrate-earthsWhat is the greening the desert project? (n.d.). Greening the Desert Project. https://www.greeningthedesertproject.org/about-us/

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