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When the world faces so many interconnected problems, a systems approach is needed. But to engage a lot of people we need to organise around something that touches all our lives – such as food. How can we connect our passion for food with a systems-based approach to changing the world? Permaculture claims to be one such way of doing it…

As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place.” And one thing we can always say about permaculture is that it thinks differently.

Definition and origins

Permaculture is an ecological design process that integrates landscape and people to provide their food, energy, water, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.

The concept brings together whole-systems thinking inspired by lessons from nature and creative design processes. A wide range of technologies and techniques are fed into specific designs as appropriate to individual projects. Starting from a mostly land-based focus, it is now being applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to architecture, from technology to education and even economics.

Permaculture started in the late 1970s and was initially adopted and tested by people at the margins of society – innovators, back-to-the-land smallholders, ecologists and radical development workers. It has spread rapidly ever since via grassroots education and a lot of practical implementation. From small beginnings in Australia, it is now a worldwide movement spanning 135 countries, with more than 250 national, regional and international organisations and many tens of thousands of local projects and practitioners.

Grassroots education

Permaculture has demonstrated that it can take people from all ages and backgrounds and turn them into eco-designers. Whether they are US school kids, illiterate villagers in Vietnam, or people on a council estate in Liverpool, permaculture has now trained tens of thousands of people globally (more than 6,000 in Britain alone). This grassroots education has led to an incredible diversity of projects inspired by nature.

Permaculture’s practical focus is an important factor in its growing success. In the global South permaculture projects are improving people’s everyday lives and are hugely popular, especially ones that promote low-cost, DIY solutions that aren’t dependent on governments and aid agencies. The work in Malawi to develop food forests that tackle chronic hunger and malnourishment is an excellent example of this. In industrialised countries, many people are disillusioned by politics and the empty promises of governments to look after the environment and tackle climate change. They want to be part of the solution, and permaculture offers a practical way to get involved in changing the world.

Diverse applications

From urban balcony window boxes to the design and reforestation of whole watersheds, permaculture principles are inspiring individuals and communities to make a positive difference. Examples include desert regeneration in Mexico that uses on-contour ditches known as ‘swales’ to increase water holding capacity, and the greening of Tucson, Arizona through the re-design of hard landscaping to harvest storm run-off into rain gardens. In education, thousands of children now receive permaculture training in Australia, East Timor and Zimbabwe, creating productive eco-schools and the next generation of green entrepreneurs.

Elsewhere, empowerment initiatives are helping to turn around lives. In Andhra Pradesh, India, 70,000 landless widows have gained land and livelihoods through farmer-to-farmer support and permaculture training. Businesses are also catching on, with Lush Cosmetics using permaculture to design new eco-factories and create sustainable supply chains through permaculture training and support for suppliers in Africa, Asia and South America. In Britain, dairies and cider companies use permaculture-designed wetland systems that mimic marshes to transform effluent into clean water. This biological, gravity-fed system with no moving parts is significantly cheaper than conventional water treatment approaches, with the additional benefit of creating biodiverse habitats and willow beds as an energy crop.

Principles work on multiple scales

Permaculture principles can be applied on multiple scales. For example, the principle of ‘cycle nutrients and resources’ can be applied at home – kitchen waste fed to compost, compost to veg beds, veg beds to kitchen, kitchen waste to compost… and repeat! But it can also be applied at a regional scale as illustrated by the ‘eco-industrial park’ in Kalundborg, Denmark, where the output of one factory becomes the input of another – ‘waste’ heat from the power station heats 3,500 homes and a nearby fish farm, whose sludge is then sold on as fertiliser. This is the basic idea that has inspired Dame Ellen MacArthur’s ‘Circular Economy’ initiative.

So, while most practitioners use it at garden, farm or neighbourhood scale, bigger plans are emerging. In India, the Hans Foundation is preparing to apply permaculture thinking to the entire Uttarakhand region of India – home to more than 11 million people. Each scale requires the application of different techniques and approaches, but the underlying design thinking and natural principles remain the same.

Contribution to farming

Permaculture practitioners working in horticulture and agriculture use many of the approaches and techniques found in agroecology (an agricultural approach that also seeks to work with nature), such as polycultural plantings (sowing mixed crops rather than monocultures), a greater emphasis on perennial plants, indigenous and heritage varieties and integrated pest management. The distinctive contribution of permaculture is the design thinking that places and connects different elements within the system, enhancing beneficial relationships and reducing the need for external inputs.

British smallholders and farmers are increasingly adopting the permaculture approach. In West Yorkshire, Pippa and James Chapman run a horticultural enterprise known as Those Plant People, which is one of more than 120 UK permaculture projects open to the public. The smallholding is a wonderful demonstration of applied permaculture design, producing a huge diversity of food as a result of integrating an orchard, soft fruits, annual vegetables, a plant nursery and chickens. The diversity increases resilience by acting as an insurance policy – if one crop fails, it doesn’t matter because others succeed. Diversity also increases niches for wildlife, and enables new ways to cycle nutrients through the system, adding to its overall fertility.

The Chapmans have been able to implement many changes to their land having learned their skills through some of the numerous courses and programmes available in Britain. Pippa took a local Permaculture Design Certificate course in 2011 and then went on to complete the Permaculture Association’s Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design.

A good example of permaculture being used in British agriculture is Rebecca Hoskins’ Village Farm in South Devon. She works with a holistic planned grazing method in which livestock – mainly sheep – are moved from one paddock to another according to an annual plan that seeks to maximise the health and productivity of the pasture. This technique is set within an overall permaculture design that aims to increase soil and wildlife as well as provide a living. A system of windbreaks is being planted that will provide fodder and habitat, and create a better microclimate. ‘Farming with nature’ is the Village Farm’s motto: thinking and designing like nature is its practice.

International conference

This year the 12th International Permaculture Conference is being hosted by the Permaculture Association (8–9th September, The Light, London), and provides a unique opportunity for people in Britain to learn, network and engage with practitioners from at least 50 countries.

With more than 100 presenters in 28 sessions, a diverse range of topics will be presented under the overall theme of ‘Designing the World We Want’. Within this, farmers, researchers and practitioners from across the globe will discuss the latest developments in sustainable farming, covering questions such as, what is a successful permaculture farm? How do we create the healthy, living soil that we want? And how can we design the farms we need?

Find out more about the conference and click here to book your place now. Use the discount code SFTIPCUK to receive £10 off the current Early Bird Price.

To learn more about permaculture visit the Permaculture Association’s website or one of the many LAND Centres.