Permaculture: The Best Farming System to Feed the World - Dr. Axe

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The Many Benefits of Permaculture (And Why We Need it to Feed the World)


Permaculture - Dr. Axe

Permaculture has been called “a science of observation,” as it relies upon biomimicry: observing nature and then designing a system in a way that allows nature to do much of the work for you. The principles of permaculture can be applied to any space designed by humans. Regenerative permaculture systems, which are helping to shape the farms of the future, are capable of being created in every habitable part of the world, benefitting not only humans, but many different plant and animal species in the process.

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture is “the development of agricultural ecosystems that are intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” In other words, permaculture is design driven by nature and intended to support future generations. The name permaculture represents what the term means: the creation of a permanent culture. Proponents of permaculture view the world as an “interconnected whole” and create spaces that allow for plants, animals and humans to form symbiotic relationships. And while it has some similarities to organic farming, it’s much different (and better) in many ways, too.

A primary goal of permaculture is leaving the planet in even better condition than how it was found. The first pioneers to establish and practice permaculture design voiced concerned about the high cost conventional agricultural had on the planet and its species. They observed how industrial agriculture revolved around maximizing production while destroying biodiversity and soil health. Permaculture supporters worried about the impacts of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and using very large amounts of water — all hallmarks of conventional agriculture.

This type of conventional farming or agriculture is neither sustainable nor respectful of the planet and its diversity. Permaculture is viewed as one inclusive, holistic solution to this problem, since it both benefits the environment while helping to maintain valuable, and often scarce, resources.

Permaculture is very different than conventional agricultural systems, which contribute to problems such as: (1)

  • depleted topsoil
  • drought
  • contamination of ground water via human sludge
  • endangerment of plant and animal species
  • deforestation
  • increased pesticide resistance
  • poor social/economic conditions in certain parts of the world that are impacted
  • and growing concerns over climate change/global warming

Because permaculture mimics ecosystems, working with nature instead of against it, it limits the need for outside influencers, such as synthetic chemicals and use of sprinkler systems. In response to the conventional agricultural concerns mentioned above, pioneers established permaculture systems to help with causes such as:

  • Recycling, renewing and repairing resources/materials in order to limit waste
  • Replenishing soil content
  • Holding water on a landscape to help with hydration and cut down on water use
  • Maintaining diversity of species
  • Creating resiliency so a system can withstand changes in the environment
  • And adapting to change
Permaculture - Dr. Axe

There are three core tenets of permaculture (along with 12 design principles, explained below). These tenets include: (2)

  • Caring for the earth (including its diverse species and resources)
  • Caring for the people who inhabit the earth
  • Returning/reinvesting surplus of resources and energy back into the system

Permaculture can be used by just about everyone and helps to create a sustainable future for all of us. Even if they don’t necessarily realize that they are using permaculture techniques, the following groups of people commonly incorporate one or more permaculture principles into the planning of their homes and/or gardens: those who purchase eco-friendly products, environmentalists, conservationists, organic gardeners or farmers, land-use planners, urban activists or farmers, recyclers and indigenous peoples.

If you’re not a farmer or permaculture enthusiast, what are some common examples of how you can still put permaculture into practice in real-life?

Ways to incorporate permaculture into your lifestyle include: growing your own food in a space that’s designed based on permaculture principles (including in your own backyard or an urban environment); building a home that is eco-friendly due to its ability to renew resources; using heat from the earth’s surface to control the temperature in a greenhouse or indoors; catching rain water to be used as drinking water; recycling and reusing water that’s utilized in your home for things like laundry or washing dishes; and repairing damaged land with depleted soils by rotating crops and incorporating animal grazing.

Organic Gardening vs. Permaculture 

Permaculture and organic gardening (or landscaping) have some similarities, but there are also some key differences between the two. Permaculture design is about much more than simply creating a space that looks appealing or produces edible crops/yields; it’s also about acting responsibly to protect the ecosystem, long-term sustainability, giving back to nature and benefitting the environment as a whole.

Many choose to apply the principles of permaculture at home, usually when gardening but also when rebuilding/remodeling their homes. It’s possible to create a garden at home that is both organic and also based on permaculture principles.

Organic and conventional gardening may or may not follow permaculture principles, depending on how resources are used and renewed. While it takes a bit more work and thoughtful planning to establish a permaculture system compared to a typical organic garden, this planning ensures careful use of natural resources and respect for the planet.

As the Permaculture Visions website puts it, “The Permaculture garden is a lot more than an organic garden. Intelligent design uses free, sustainable energies and resources. It is energy-wise and collaborative to minimize the impact of a site on the surrounding environment.” (3)

What are the ethics of permaculture, and how does it differ from organic gardening? Examples of permaculture ethics include:

  • Creating no waste — To use the waste from one part of the landscape to benefit another part. Examples include creating compost and allowing for rain runoff to irrigate other plants or provide drinking water for animals.
  • Integrating parts of your system — Building resilience in your system by forming relationships between different parts.
  • Diversity — Conserving diverse, native habitats. Diversity is important for building long-term resilience, because if one part of the system fails then another can step in to take its place. Diversity is also beneficial for topsoil and for preventing unintended consequences.
  • Playing “the long game”— Building a system that produces small, sustainable yields with benefits that unfold over time.
  • Locally sourcing resources and renewing them.
  • Responding positively to changes in the system and environment

Even though the use of many synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited on organic farms, organic farming still doesn’t always take these permaculture principles into account. However, to be clear, organic gardening and farming is definitely superior to nonorganic when it comes to supporting the ecosystem and also producing better crops.

Nonorganic farms typically utilize synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers to stimulate plant growth, including those made with nitrogen salts and certain types of phosphorus and potassium. When it comes to sustaining nutrient-dense soil, this is far from helpful. Crops grown in depleted soils have a lower nutritive value, which is why there are growing concerns over the low nutrient-availability in the modern food supply. Chemical fertilizers are also blamed for increasing runoff and flooding, and for creating massive dead zones in our water bodies, making it difficult for aquatic life to survive.

What is urban permaculture?

Urban permaculture uses the principles of permaculture to create sustainable systems within smaller spaces. Sustainable spaces can be created in small gardens, on roof tops, on patios or on balconies. (4) Each permaculture design is site-specific and depends on the available resources and natural flow of energy (such as light or water) within the space. The goal is to provide an eco-friendly environment, usually one that produces crops, even in a busy, crowded, urban space.

Permaculture Design Principles (Including Twelve Design)

Permaculture design is all about maximizing connections between different elements/components within the same system so that all elements support and benefit one another. Mollison and Holmgren are both responsible for coining the term permaculture and establishing the movement.

David Holmgren laid out what he calls “The Twelve Design Principles” in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Below is an overview of these over-arching permaculture design principles: (6)

1. Observe and interact — Considers the layout and design of a system, aiming to work with nature and to have the needs of some elements naturally filled by the outputs of others. In order to choose a design and location, an analysis investigating the natural behaviors needs, and intrinsic characteristics of different elements in the space is needed.

2. Catch and store energy — Gather energy coming from offsite and moving past the system so it can convert to energy that can be used or stored as it cycles through. Take into account light from the sun, wind, water flow and the natural placement, slope and terrain to help maximize the use of energy and resources.

3. Obtain a yield — Each element should be designed to help obtain a yield, which can include shelter, water, food, herbs or medicine.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback — Some captured energy is required for maintenance, some is fed-back to maintain lower-order providers and some is contributed upward to better the system.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services — Renewable resources ensure that energy returned is greater than energy invested. Make changes based on if replacement time is less than degeneration time.

6. Produce no waste — Aim to rethink, reduce, repair, reuse and recycle.

7. Design from patterns to details — Get the big picture of the system before planning details. Pay attention to patterns that affect the system including seasons, time, space, light, sounds, temperature, branching, meandering, spiraling, growth and decay.

8. Integrate elements rather than segregating — Each element that is included in the system should be able to perform as many functions as possible, given its location.

9. Use small and slow solutions —  Use time as an element and advantage, allowing species to slowly integrate with each other and mature at their own speed.

10. Use and value diversity — Needs should be met in various ways, and elements should work together to support the needs of the system.  Needs include water, food, shade or sun and fire protection. To ensure that the space is resilient, these needs should be served in two or more ways. Redundancy helps to ensure survival as it provides multiple methods of reproduction.

11. Use edges and value the marginal — Pay attention to the important species that emerge in the margins between two systems, and changes that take place around the edges of the system.  Many species (deer, rabbits, birds, and so on) are edge species, preferring to live at the margin between forest and clearing.

12. Creatively use and respond to change — Aim for flexibility and durability; be prepared to respond to changes that cannot be planned for.

Similarly, Bill Mollison mentioned 11 permaculture principles in his book, Introduction to Permaculture: (05)

1. Relative Location

2. Multiple Functions

3. Multiple Elements

4. Energy Efficient Planning

5. Using Biological Resources

6. Energy Cycling — Put more energy back into the system then is taken out

7. Small Scale Intensive

8. Accelerating Succession

9. Diversity

10. Edge Awareness

11. Attitudinal Principles

Related: Victory Gardens Benefit Your Health, Wallet and the Environment

Food Forest Layers

Food forests (forest gardening) serve as an important aspect of permaculture. It involves designing gardens in a way to mimic natural forests. Food forests are sometimes referred to as “edible forest gardens” because they are capable of growing crops for people, supporting the natural habitats of wildlife and contributing to ecosystem functions like carbon sequestering, renewal of water and natural soil building all at the same time. (7)

Permaculture - Dr. Axe

Food forests are biodiverse systems that produce a number of different crops and other yields, while simultaneously benefitting the system itself as it matures over time. This model is the stark opposite of industrial monocrop agriculture, or growing the same crop on the same land year after year. When crops are not diversified and rotated, pests and insects have a better chance of becoming genetically-resistant to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are used over and over again as the years go by.

Here’s an overview of how food forest layers work:

  • Food forests have a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem because they build “natural capital” (resources) and help with replenishing soil, promoting biodiversity of plant/animal species and supporting the hydrological cycle. Food forests rely on space and time stacking, which help to create a cycle where energy flows from one area to another.
  • A variety of plant and crop “layers” are included in a food forest so that harvesting takes place at different times. Plants also benefit one another in a variety of ways, including providing nutrients, pest control, shelter and shade. There is also less competition among plants for nutrients and space when they mature at different times.
  • It’s common for food forests to include between three to seven “layers,” a concept coined by Robert Hart. These layers include: Canopy, Sub Canopy, Shrub, Herbaceous, Rhizominous, Groundcover, Roots and Vine. Some choose to add an additional 2 layers, Bush and Grass. “Simple homestead gardens” typically include about 3 layers, while more complex systems might include up to 7 to 9 layers.
  • Here is an example of how these layers can work together: A canopy layer created by planting trees (like fruit or nut-bearing trees) provide shade for plants/shrubs, such as smaller fruit bushes that thrive in the shade. Another layer is added, which includes climbers, like vines, that climb up and thrive on taller trees in order to receive more light. Another layer created low to the ground ground, such as crops like leafy greens or berries. Root crops may also be planted below the surface of the ground, such as potatoes or carrots.
  • In order to create a functioning food forest, the following principles need to be considered: design of the space (for example, paths, access, water flow and spacing), layering of different plants, establishment (including a water system and soil-building) and ongoing management (includes chopping and dropping, rotation and pruning).

Permaculture - Dr. AxeAgroforestry is considered to be one integrated approach of permaculture that utilizes trees and shrubs to form a beneficial relationship with crops and/or livestock in the same system. Therefore, agroforestry is a combination of agricultural and forestry techniques. Food forests and agroforestry have many things in common and usually result in similar designs. Agroforestry has the same principles/goals as permaculture in general, including: creating diversity, giving back and remaining resilient.

Regenerative Agriculture with Grazing 

According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture has the goal of “rebuilding organic soil matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” (8)  This is done using specific farming and grazing practices that actually improve the land, rebuilding soil that is essential for the growth of nutrient-dense crops and also the sustainability of the whole planet. Regenerative practices also support a holistic food system that can be one key driver of mitigating food scarcity and climate change.

Regenerative agriculture practices include:

  • Aquaculture
  • Agroecology
  • Agroforestry
  • Biochar
  • Composting
  • Holistic Planned Grazing
  • No-Till
  • Pasture Cropping
  • Perennial Crops
  • Silvopasture

The Importance of Soil Regeneration:

Experts estimate that we are losing about 1 percent of our topsoil every year to erosion and the destruction tied to modern agriculture. Topsoil is an extremely important living organism that is essential for the growth of plants (including those we eat), as it’s home to trillions of beneficial microorganisms (one reason why I recommend we all regularly “eat dirt“!). Considering topsoil, the “thin brown line” on the top of fields, is responsible for helping to grow our food, it’s very disturbing to know that it’s steadily disappearing from the earth.

Jordan Rubin— owner of Heal the Planet Farm, part of the larger Beyond Organic Ranch— is someone who’s very interested in creating a permanent agricultural system for future generations. His mission is to do his part in helping to sustain life. Beyond Organic Ranch produces grass-fed beef and other pasture-raised sources of food, but this is far from the team’s only passion.

As Jordan explains, “What we are doing at Heal the Planet Farm is regenerative agriculture, but we are using permaculture principles and design. The number one goal I have with the space is to create soil fertility. That’s our inheritance and our only currency. I really believe the planet and all of its species can only continue living to the extent that we can replenish topsoil. A polyculture system is the ideal way to build topsoil and transform dead dirt into living soil.”

Jordan points out that regenerative agriculture has several key focuses:

  • Improving soil organic manner
  • Improving topsoil depth
  • And improving water holding capacity

An emphasis is placed on growing perennial plants (which return year after year), as this helps to establish guilds. Perennials become more productive as time goes on, and they produce higher yields with less work. This is a much different process than planting annual plants each year, which use up scarce resources before they die and don’t return.

In Jordan’s opinion, the only way that regenerative agriculture can really be effective is through practicing multi-species, impact, holistic grazing. His team is building a system that can be replicated in every city, state and nation on the planet, and this is one major step towards feeding a growing human population nutrient-dense foods.

  • Restoring humus is one key to rebuilding topsoil. Humus refers to the organic matter that has fallen into soil and decomposed over time. It includes leaves, worm casings, tree branches, tree limbs and dead animals, which together provides food for the soil’s beneficial bacteria and helps to retain moisture.
  • To maintain healthy humus and topsoil, fields must lie fallow every few years, crops must be rotated, composting must be kept up, and measures must be taken to shelter animals and prevent water and wind erosion.
  • Grazing is also important for helping to prepare the ground for planting and contributing to the well-being of animals. Managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a system of grazing that uses ruminant and non-ruminant herds and/or flocks to help foster forage growth.
  • Animals that are used in regenerative grazing initially damage the land, but then help it to renew. These animals can include cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, geese, turkeys and ducks. Grazing contributes to “ecological succession,” or the process of change in an ecological community over time following a natural disturbance.

Permaculture Farming Techniques

  • Guilds — Guilds rely on certain composition and placement of different species in a way allows them to benefit each other. Species become interconnected and help each other by reducing root competition, providing each other with physical shelter/light/shade, providing nutrients for soil, pollinating and assisting in pest control. Guild arrangement helps determine how plants are layered. For example, you first choose an “anchor species,” such as your canopy and sub-canopy species, and then add in layers of support species that help to fertilize and irrigate the land. Certain plants species help to pull nitrogen out of the air and fix it into a form that other plants can use. Large and small lower level plants can act as nitrogen-fixing species, since they tend to grow quickly and can be pruned to generate mulch and compost.
  • Keyline Design —  This is a technique that’s used for maximizing use of water resources. “Holding water” has to do with how plants stay hydrated. One of the primary goals of keyline design is controlling rainfall runoff and enabling fast flood irrigation.It’s possible to build or utilize a series of swales or ditches in a permaculture system in order to help contours or ponds fill up with rainwater and slowly soak the surrounding soil or provide water for cattle/other animals.
  • Rotational Grazing— There are two basic types of livestock grazing systems: Continuous and rotational grazing. Grazing utilizes animals because they are the main driver in rebuilding soil. Rotating grazing systems work by dividing pasture into two or more cells called “paddocks.” Livestock graze in one paddock before being moved to a new pasture, which allows for soil to be trampled and manure from the livestock to be deposited. “Intensive Rotational Grazing” utilizes more than 7 paddocks and has faster grazing periods consisting of between less than one week and half a day, which prevents overgrazing. Grazing works because livestock eat certain species down to a minimum, their hooves help to upturn flora in the soil while they stamp depressions in the ground and they deposit heavy amounts of urine and manure onto the ground, which is rich is nutrients. Manure is a great source of  nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium and helps to return organic matter to soil, including calcium, magnesium and sulfur.

History and Pioneers of Permaculture

Who started permaculture? Permaculture began in the 1970s, created by an Australian ecologist and University of Tasmania professor named Bill Mollison. Mollison spent a great deal of time observing the natural cycles and relationships formed in various ecosystems, but was disappointed by how much environmental destruction he saw taking place due to human interference. (9) Mollison also worked with David Holmgren, who helped coin the term “permaculture” and write the team’s first publication in 1978 called Permaculture One.

Prior to the 1970s, a number of individuals helped pave the way for the permaculture movement. One was an Australian man named P.A. Yeomans, who wrote a book called Water for Every Farm in 1964; he introduced Keyline Design. Another was Joseph Russell Smith, who wrote about his experiments creating interconnected, mixed systems of trees, crops, animals and plants.

Today some of the leading permaculture pioneers include:

  • Bill Mollison — Mollison went on to refine his ideas about permaculture, build hundreds of different systems and sites, and publish several more books, including Permaculture: A Designers Manual. He is also responsible in many ways for spreading the ideas of permaculture to a much wider audience, as he lectured in more than 80 countries and taught a two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to thousands of students who have gone on to spread the word.
  • Geoff Lawton — As a permaculture consultant, designer, developer, teacher and speaker, Geoff works with many private individuals, groups, communities, governments and  aid organizations to implement permaculture principles. Geoff has taught thousands of students about permaculture, and in October 1997 after Bill Mollison retired, Geoff began directing the Permaculture Research Institute. Today. he directs and manages the Permaculture Research Institute Australia and the Permaculture Research Institute USA.
  • Jordan Rubin— Jordan (mentioned above) is the author of The Maker’s Diet and owner of the 350-acre Heal the Planet Farm, an Organic Permaculture Farm and Regenerative Retreat Center, which is located in southern Missouri within the larger 4,000-acre Beyond Organic Ranch. Jordan has many plans for the future of his system, including spending the next 7 years rebuilding soil, and 7 more years establishing a mature orchid. He is also concerned about finding ways to help feed the planet as the population grows, and at the same time more land becomes destroyed.

What does the  future of permaculture and regenerative agriculture look like?

A 2014 report published in Agronomy for Sustainable Development describes the permaculture movement as “mobilizing diverse forms of social support for sustainability, in geographically diverse locations.” (10) Several causes that permaculture and regenerative agriculture can greatly contribute to in the future include reducing fossil fuels and mitigating climate change, building topsoil and improving availability of nutrient-dense foods for generations to come.

Jordan Rubin has been interested in determining whether it’s mathematically possible to use permaculture/regenerative agriculture design to feed the world, given the growing population. He calls his mission: “Year 2100: America can feed the world.” According to his calculations, 1 billion organic acres designed as permaculture systems/orchids can feed the estimated 11.2 billion people that will be living on the planet in the year 2100 (as of 2017, the world’s population is around 7.5 billion people, but this number keeps growing by more than 56 million people per year).

One billion permaculture-designed acres would provide about 1,500 nutrient-dense calories per day per person. Today, 914 million acres in the U.S are already used for farming and agriculture combined (livestock and crop production). That means that America has nearly enough farm land today to feed the entire planet, but the land is being misused. If put under the proper management, the land that’s already available for farming would be able to produce far more healthy food, all while reducing use of fossil fuels and building topsoil. The answer is creating a sustainable, localized food system, free from centralized production, but that produces very healthy foods.

It’s also essential that more and more people keep learning about the benefits of permaculture and regenerative principles. Many permaculture courses are now available to the public, whether online or in-person on actual farms.

If you’re interested in learning more and participating  in a course, check out organizations like Midwest Permaculture, the Permaculture Institute, or Permaculture Magazine North America

Final Thoughts on Permaculture

  • Permaculture is “the development of agricultural ecosystems that are intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” Permaculture is design driven by nature and intended to support future generations through sustainability, diversity and reinvesting in the planet.
  • Some of the issues that permaculture aims to address include: soil depletion, climate change, contaminated water, deforestation, low nutrient levels in crops and endangerment of plant and animal species.
  • Regenerative agriculture is one branch of permaculture that, through techniques like grazing and crop rotation, helps to rebuild organic soil matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improvements in the water cycle.

Read Next: Regenerative Agriculture: Principles, Pioneers + Does It Really Work?

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