Permaculture, Agroecology, and Agroforestry

9 min read

Introduction

Farming-associated activities are a leading cause of environmental degradation. From the use of agrichemicals, and clearing of forests to make way for cropland, to the degradation of soil due to unhealthy farming practices, agriculture has so far grossly failed to operate within the limits of available environmental resources in a way that can guarantee long-term survival of vital ecosystems.

At the same time, there exist various strategies and efforts whose primary objective is to ensure optimal food production without environmental degradation also Some farmers have actively sought and found, ways of lessening dependence on agrichemicals, regenerating soil that was polluted by toxic chemicals, and using the available land to meet current and future food demand. These approaches are collectively the focus of permaculture.

Forest makes way for a palm tree plantation in Peru.

Ultimately, farmers will need a means through which they can successfully feed the world while limiting their footprint on the environment, and where possible, making the environment thrive as a direct consequence of their activities. The utilization of less land to produce more food has been tried before. For instance, the Green Revolution was triggered by the Haber-Bosch((Haber predicted that harvesting nitrogen from the atmosphere was just a starting point, and that much was not known about how the environment regenerated. He was right; since then nitrous oxide has emerged as a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas, while fertilizers have extensively polluted water systems.)) process of synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.

It was further powered by the exploits of Norman Borlaug, a researcher who developed the first semi-dwarf, high-yield wheat varieties. Borlaug is credited with helping save 1 billion people from starvation through his work, which has since expanded to other food crops.

A hectare of land, which used to support 1.9 people in 1908, now supports more than 4.3 people.((In this 100-year interval, the world’s population increased by 5 billion people, as a consequence of abundant food and medical advances.))

Borlaug in Mexico with semi-dwarf wheat varieties.

Haber and Borlaug’s scientific achievements enabled the world to feed more people on existing land, but they also led to a population explosion on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, an overreliance on nitrogen and phosphate-based fertilizers and pesticides has led to the degradation of arable land, to an extent where huge swathes of land can no longer support crops without intense nutrient addition. As we will see, monoculture farming, a brainchild of Borlaug, and enabled by the Haber-Bosch process, has laid waste to entire ecosystems, and greatly jeopardized the planet’s ability to feed itself into the future.((Many experts view monoculture farming as an environmental disaster, which has increased disease and pest outbreaks and continually sucks all essential elements from the soil with no organic respite. Monoculture farming tends to distant markets – making it possible for only a small portion of the population to be involved in food production.))

It is safe to conclude that, while the world has managed to produce more food to support close to 8 billion people, it has done so at a great cost to the environment. Surface water eutrophication, groundwater pollution, and the production of poor-quality food are some of the results of business-focused agriculture. It is essential to initiate and propagate sustainable agricultural practices that are in harmony with the environment. In this article, we will discuss permaculture, and to a lesser extent, agroforestry and agroecology as two such practices, which have shown significant potential for improving the environment, and the quantity and quality of food produced.

Permaculture

Principles and definition

One of the most disturbing features of modern agriculture and other human activities is that we take more from the environment than we give – meaning that ecological systems cannot survive for long, since they cannot replenish the elements that are removed.

The famed Australian biologist, Bruce Mollison identified the need for humans to inhabit systems that were biologically functional, meaning that they could control all life optimally. He developed the first principles of permaculture, informed by the fact that humans were not bubbles or islands in the ecosystem, but rather, equal and active participants.

A garden farmed using permaculture.

According to Mollison, permaculture is a whole-system approach, in which all aspects of an ecosystem – plants, animals, insects, microbial life, humans, the soil, water, and any other element that plays a decisive role – are integrated.

Humans obtain food and other basic needs from their ecosystems, sometimes deriving too much, or employing tactics that enhance the production of favored species, usually to the detriment of others (for instance, intensive farming depleting water and soil quality). Permaculture demands that humans establish and sustain the right relationship with all consumed resources, in a way that will ensure continued exploitation will be sustainable.

Waste and overuse point to a flaw in the design of a system. Permaculture is dedicated to the optimization of all resources to only take what is needed, and produce only what is needed and beneficial.((Permaculture, as a system, views waste as a flaw. Ideally, everything produced on a farm should either be consumed or have a use within the ecosystem. This further stresses the importance of cooperation within an ecosystem to meet common goals.))

There are three widely cited principles of permaculture:

  • Care of the earth
  • Care of people.
  • Ethics((Mollison popularized his approach with the mantra, Think Globally, Act Locally. As farmers grow their food using personal resources, they must cooperate with neighbors who occupy the same ecosystem on things that will be mutually beneficial. Responsible use of water, and avoiding harmful use of agrochemicals, are some of the areas of cooperation.))

In any endeavor, we must carefully consider the environmental impact of our actions, and ensure that the actions will at least not harm the earth, and ideally, will bring a benefit. Since people must be incentivized to work, the work they do must bring forth a yield, in the form of food or other materials that they can use.

Finally, we must be cognizant of the saying that, “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the seventh generation”, to means that our actions today will impact future generations.((For instance, it takes 100 years for an inch of topsoil to form. Losing topsoil today will impact several generations to come, and they will only regenerate the soil if they have the expertise and patience to do so.)) We must therefore be ready to bequeath a world where they will thrive.

In fulfillment of these principles, some practices have been encouraged. One of them includes utilizing rainwater for most of our needs, especially in areas that have sufficient of it, before resorting to other sources. This is closely tied to another need: the elimination of waste.

A conscious drive to ensure that we only produce what we need, and any waste can easily be redeployed or recycled for further production. Soil is a living ecosystem that supports most, if not all, living things. It must be protected at all costs for permaculture to work. Over-tilling of the land strips the soil of cover and leaves it vulnerable to erosion and the sun.

Monoculture continually removes the same nutrients from the soil, without the means to naturally replace them. Crop rotation, and allowing the land to lay fallow between planting seasons are essential to enabling soil regeneration.

Carrots and onions are planted side by side; each crop keeps off its counterpart’s pests.

Permaculture in action

One of the most important aspects of permaculture is polyculture. Biodiversity is a great way of ensuring a healthy ecosystem, in which all organisms have something to give and take to thrive and support the ecosystem’s health.

A polyculture farm will have some disadvantages – mechanization may be difficult, as is the administration of artificial nutrients, which may be good for one crop but not beneficial to another. However, the plants benefit in several other ways that justify their planting together.

Corn and beans are grown together, with mutual benefit to both crops.

Polyculture saves land.((This point might be controversial when intensive farming is considered. For smaller plots, however, polyculture helps the farmer derive more value from the land. It also works to the farmer’s advantage to produce food more cheaply due to agrochemicals’ savings and gives the community a greater variety of food to choose from.)) Instead of separating crops, they can all be planted together on a field, and result in more yield per unit, despite the inability to do intensive farming. Some plants have a synergic relationship with each other. Legumes cultivate nitrogen-fixing bacteria as they grow.

The transformation of atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants such as corn helps the corn to a natural source of the nutrient. Beans, especially the pole varieties, use corn stalks to climb as they seek to access more sunlight before they mature.

When farmers headed west to seek more farmland, they plowed the land, uprooting the prairie grass species that were better adapted to the land. This in due course caused the environmental disaster that would follow. However, it would have been unable to avoid this outcome, had the farmers not tilled the land as aggressively as they did.

Today, some farmers are trying out this idea, which is especially useful in sandy soils that are easily eroded. Using special equipment known as agriculture drills, farmers can make furrows on land, immediately place seeds, and cover them, without too much disturbance to the surrounding soil cover. Conventional farmers may find it difficult to adopt this method since they have traditionally viewed most cover plants as weeds.

To remedy this dilemma, mulching is used, denying weeds the much-needed sunlight without killing grass, and preserving moisture while protecting crop roots from the sun. However, the effectiveness of grass in developing and protecting topsoil takes precedence.        

Permaculture does not have a one size fits all answer to the diverse issues that face farmers working on land in different circumstances around the globe.

However, it does provide a framework that, if used well, could make farming more sustainable, ensuring that the ecosystem on which we rely to grow food continues to thrive and support our needs for generations to come.

Agroecology

Agroecology has been present in scientific discourse for at least 100 years, where scientists and farmers have been considering the best ways of understanding and optimizing the relationships between humans, animals, plants, and the agricultural environment within which all groups coexist. As with permaculture, agroecology is holistic.

It is a multidisciplinary approach that seeks to tap into agronomy, ecology, sociology, economics, and natural history.

Map of agroecology showing the links between agriculture, environment, society, and the economy in food production.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO)((According to FAO, agriculture and food production should not be the preserve of a few, but something to be done by as high a proportion of the population as possible. The organization sees agroecology as meeting several sustainable development goals (SDGs), including food security, and poverty alleviation by suppressing rural hunger, biodiversity, and youth engagement in food production.)) The organization defines agroecology as an agricultural approach that combines ecological and social principles in the management of sustainable agricultural and food systems. It does this by optimizing interactions between the different aspects of an agricultural ecosystem while addressing the significance of socially equitable food, which can give people genuine choices over what they can eat. The choice takes into account the nature of the food, and what/ how it was produced.

 FAO has identified some principles that may exemplify agroecology. All ecological zones have a set of principles that should be applied uniformly, including efficiency in resource utilization, recycling of waste, co-creation, and sharing of knowledge, which is likely to differ from one region to another based on circumstances.

Human and social values determine food production, land use, and interaction with the environment, and social values speak more to the context and appreciate the central role that human interactions with the environment play in food production and environmental conservation. Agroecology cannot succeed without institutional support.

Towards this, FAO identifies an enabling environment (market access, and agricultural extension services for instance), and responsible governance and regulation as essential. All the principles are interdependent.

Agroforestry

In agroforestry, farmers farm among trees, on the fringes of forests, or use trees as the primary crop. Small-scale farmers in Central America and East Africa farm the shrubs alongside other crops.((Growing coffee amongst shade trees and crops helps shelter the plant beneath. It also helps prevent erosion and enables trees and coffee shrubs to benefit from special attributes possessed by crops – such as nitrogen-fixing in legumes.)) This approach gives the plants the shade they need from the hot sun while supplying the coffee shrubs with nitrogen and other nutrients. In Japan, farmers are given concessions to farm in artificial forests. The trees may be harvested from time to time. The trees provide shade and firmness to the soil, while they benefit from the close tending that farmers usually give food crops.

Agroforestry is not all good news. For instance, constant tilling of the land ensures that no undergrowth can develop. Undergrowth is an essential part of forests, so the lack of it severely impacts the forest’s ability to act as a natural forest ecosystem should.

It is difficult to practice mechanized farming in forests, while the resources used – especially water, cannot be applied efficiently. It however helps free up large swathes of land for a farming approach that is in many ways, sustainable.

Shiitake mushroom farm in Japan; trees are essential for shade and water retention.

Conclusion

All three approaches to sustainable agriculture strive to ensure that farmers work with nature, not against it, as they endeavor to produce for more than 10 billion people by 2050.

The approaches call for more human involvement in food production, and the devising of region-specific solutions that will not only boost food quality and quantity but will also support the ecosystem’s capacity to support farming into the future.

The processes take time, and farmers, who are focused on making a profit while producing food, may trade off the future for the present – a Faustian bargain that will have dire consequences in years to come. 

Author
Mbau Tim