Permaculture, a system of sustainable agriculture popularized in the 1980’s, is rapidly becoming a vital part of the solution to food security. In their 2016 report, the FAO recently explained that without significant changes to the way we produce our food, millions more people will be at risk of hunger.
We have all heard about carbon emissions from our energy industries. But you might not know that 1/5 of all global emissions come from agriculture. Additionally, decades of mono-culture crops, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, pesticide use and tillage have degraded our soils to such an extent that the FAO estimates that 25% of all land on earth is unusable.
And here is where permaculture comes in. The term refers to a system of sustainable agriculture that focuses on working with nature, rather than against it. In the last few years, an explosion of local food movements has brought permaculture to the front and center of sustainable living. The Permaculture Worldwide Network lists over 2300 projects on their website, spanning nearly every country and climate.
How does it work?
There is a gigantic wealth of information out there about permaculture principles and practices. The basic idea, is to create a self-sustaining system of food production by using the natural environment to your advantage.
In traditional gardening you dig up all the land, plant everything separately in nice neat rows and then spend the rest of your life battling against pests and nutrient-poor soils. In permaculture, crops are planted in “guilds” where each plant works together to improve the soil, increase the yield and encourage beneficial insects. Permaculture gardens also use a zero-waste, no till approach; and may include natural water catchment and distribution systems called “swales”.
“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests” (Permaculture Research Institute)
Who is doing it?
The majority of permaculture projects worldwide are rural, community or not-for-profit operations. But they come in many different flavors. Permaculture Paradise, Jacksonville, Florida, is a YouTube channel and network of small projects including community gardens, farm-to-table restaurants and residential food forests.
Finca Morpho, Costa Rica is an intentional community located on the remote Osa Peninsula, which hosts volunteers and workshops on their zero-waste farm. Greening the Desert is a famous and inspiring story of a non-profit project in the Jordan Valley, which got incredible results in an area which receives essentially no rain and experiences temperatures of 122F (50C). There are even smallhold commercial projects popping up such as The Food Forest in Adelaide, Australia.
What is the big deal?
Permaculture as a possible solution to global food security is a huge area of research. The main benefit of this sustainable living system is that soils and habitats are actually improved and regenerated instead of destroyed. Greening the Desert built a ten acre farm of productive crops including figs, pomegranates and guavas on completely dry sand.
Additionally, permaculture is able to yield more food, with a higher nutritional value and does not rely on mono-culture. Projects such as Limestone Permaculture Farm have produced enough food to feed 50 families on just one acre.
This method of food production also eliminates the need for pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, heavy farming equipment and even weeding. Not only is it good for the environment, but it’s a perfect system for the lazy gardener!
It remains to be seen how permaculture will fit into the future of commercial and global agriculture. However, it seems that it’s worth looking into especially when you consider that our food production must increase by 70% before 2050 if we are going to feed the world.