Permaculture, Clean Production, and Food Security
Permaculture, often defined as sustainable agriculture, seeks to encourage better practices of use of natural resources, avoiding wasting and stimulating continuous innovation for world development. It seeks to satisfy the human need for nutrients, improve environmental preservation with an economy that uses resources, shrink utilization of nonrenewable resources, and stimulate integration of different ways of production. It is important for sustainable development since it seeks to end hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition, providing opportunities of development for several families.
Permaculture is a concept first mentioned and developed by Mollison and Holmgren (1978), two Australian scientists. They wished to create a life philosophy, which could be applied to all science branches, to support sustainable development. The word comes from the junction of “permanent,” “agriculture,” and later “culture,” to mean it is not limited to agriculture, but it is a worldview, which regards all aspects of human settlements (Ferguson and Lovell 2013; Ulut 2008). Early American and British literature on farming practices suggest the word “permanent” was used in that context with an equivalent value to what “sustainable” would mean currently (Ferguson and Lovell 2013). The early focus of the movement was to create a sustainable food production system (Haluza-DeLay and Berezan 2013).
The genesis of Permaculture may be connected to the wave of social movements in the United States in 1960, which were critical to racism, imperialism, and militarism, but also to the way nature was dealt with. The permaculturists were not supportive of the “anthropocentric” way society regarded nature and preferred a holistic, cooperative relation between nature and mankind (Morel et al. 2018). After the first ideas of the movement were created in Australia, they spread mostly to anglophone nations (mainly the United States and Great Britain), in a disorganized way (Ferguson and Lovell 2013). Mollison resigned from his work at the university and committed full-time to experimenting with Permaculture. He started teaching his techniques in the early 1980s, and Permaculture spread so personally that many can trace their “Permaculture genealogy” back until Mollison or Holmgren (Veteto and Lockyer 2008).
Millner (2017) exemplifies how personally Permaculture has spread in the world with an example from El Salvador. During the country’s civil war, Juan Rojas exiled to Australia and came back in the late 1990s, after participating in Permaculture courses abroad, as a “Permaculture missionary.” For spreading Permaculture, the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) was created, and different teachers gave slightly different emphasis on their courses. Methods were adapted from the original ones, centered in Australia’s climate to colder ones in Europe and North America. The system for spreading Permaculture has expanded to the Internet, with websites, blogs, and podcasts being used to spread their message (Cassel 2015).
The Permaculture Design Certificate is considered by the community as an “entrance point” to Permaculture. Between 100,000 and 500,000 people are estimated to have this certification, but it is impossible at this point to determine would many people practice Permaculture in the world, considering people might feel inspired to try it without this formal training (Morel et al. 2018). As the concept of Permaculture has evolved and changed throughout the years, their areas of concern grew wider. Holmgren (2013) recognizes that Permaculture’s principles and ethics, which will be examined further, relate to Land and Nature Stewardship, Land Tenure and Community, Finances and Economics, Health and Spiritual Well-Being, Culture and Education, Tools and Technology, and Built Environment.
Main Ideas of Permaculture
Sustainable agriculture can be considered an extremely important point to any project to reduce poverty or assure food security, especially in developing countries. According to the data from the World Bank, 86% of the poorest population of the world is in developing countries and survives through subsistence agriculture (Adenle et al. 2012). Authors like Gafsi et al. (2006) claim sustainable agriculture will resolve problems and obstacles brought by standard agriculture to the environment, the availability of resources for cultivation, the deterioration of human health that comes with the growing use of pesticides in food production, the desertification of certain areas, and the difficulties of small agricultural production to survive. Sustainable agriculture is considered to be important to promote developing in all countries, not just developing countries (Xu et al. 2006).
Moreover, the approach proposed by Permaculture regarding energy can be seen as alternatives to current use of oil, which is seen as harmful to environment and limited in time, meaning solutions for a post-oil world must be found. This approach is not new, since Holmgren and Molisson’s work was written in Australia in the context of an oil crisis in the 1970s (Aiken 2017). For sustainable agriculture effectuation to be possible, governments must participate by promoting education about this matter and extension projects, which may result in opportunities to increase skills and knowledge. By addressing product quality, the nutritional value should improve, and food security will become more possible, since food prices are likely to be kept in a standard (Veisi et al. 2016).
Veisi et al. (2016) point toward the importance of supporting local organizations and institutions so they will become stronger, provide better access to education, help a better utilization of key resources like water and energy, and allow food producers to know local needs as pathways to fight malnutrition. Food production in the world needs to grow to meet increasing population growth rates. The number of people suffering from malnutrition is increasing as well, and it is estimated that world population will grow to more than 10 billion people before the next century starts. For this population to be fed, food production would have to double or triple in a relatively short time (Campos et al. 2018).
This is not a new trend, since population numbers have been growing for the last 50 years. So far, food production has been keeping up with population, largely relying on pesticide use. Should the mentioned estimates be confirmed, food security will be harder to achieve, unless food production increases or population growth is limited (Carvalho 2006). Campos et al. (2018) and Chen et al. (2018) claim that without pesticide use, around 70% of food production would be lost, since a great number of microorganisms affect production. While pesticides have increased the productive capacity, its use in excess has caused several problems, such as water, air, and soil contamination, creation of toxic microorganisms, human intoxications caused by chemicals in food, and improved microorganism resistance to other chemicals.
Concepts for Permaculture and sustainable agriculture
Year of Publication
Rivett et al.
Journal of Environmental Management
Local scale water-food nexus: Use of borehole-garden Permaculture to realize the full potential of rural water supplies in Malawi
Permaculture encourages the best use of natural resources without waste and continues to be innovated upon globally
Options for sustainability in building and energy: A South African permaculture case study
Even though Permaculture was born as an agricultural movement, it is nowadays aimed at producing solutions to the broad range of challenges that face humanity on a planetary scale today
Mollison and Holmgren
International Tree Crop Institute USA
Permaculture one: a perennial agricultural system for human settlements
The word came from combination of terms “permanent” and “agriculture” and also “culture.” Permaculture involves family gardens and a specific design of humans interacting in balance with nature
Akhtar et al.
Journal of Environmental Management
Incorporating permaculture and strategic management for sustainable ecological resource management
Defines Permaculture as the idea of working together instead of against nature. Permaculture offers a holistic analysis to the environment, instead of dealing with each part of it as a separate entity. Their inspiration is that nature must follow its path, and human intervention should be minimal
Veteto and Lockyer
Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability
Permaculture is a global grassroots development philosophy and sustainability movement that encompasses a set of ethical principles and design guidelines and techniques for creating sustainable, permanent culture and agriculture
Trends in Biotechnology
Advanced agricultural biotechnologies and sustainable agriculture
Satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
Kanshanaroek and Aslam
Land Use Policy
Policy schemes for the transition to sustainable agriculture – farmer preferences and spatial heterogeneity in northern Thailand
Agricultural sustainability integrates natural processes such as nutrient recycling, soil regeneration, carbon storage, and pest control into food production processes in order to enhance the provision of ecosystem services provided by the agroecosystems
Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability
Ecological intensification of agriculture – sustainable by nature
Permaculture can be seen as a source of knowledge for the intensification, especially for the restoration of degraded in tropical dry lands
Sustainable agriculture overall is a complex system and requires a continuous process of policies and analysis to be effective (Metcalf and Wideneer 2011). Permaculture is seen as a possible sustainable solution to problems like malnutrition and food security. To improve food availability, it would be essential to have year-round access to water, which might not happen in lean season (Rivett et al. 2018). Permaculture is more common in developed countries, but is very useful to developing countries, where food security is less common and where pesticides are commonly more applied, partly because in these countries they are not under strict regulations (Carvalho 2006). The focus in developing countries is on increasing production and subsistence oriented (Pant 2016).
There is a general effort toward finding alternative solutions to provide food security in a sustainable way. Permaculture is a bottom-up perspective, based on the perceptions of enthusiast that government and society are more of a problem than a solution to sustainable development (Hannis 2011). The concept of Permaculture has changed and evolved since Mollison and Holmgren’s work, which was a foundation for the movement. Today, the concept is disputed, and Permaculture may be very hard to define. Two key features emerge, which will be dissected further, mimicking natural resources and reducing energy consumption (Brain and Thomas 2013). Permaculture can be perceived by low-income individuals as an alternative way of life. Living in a Permaculture community can be an affordable, cleaner, and even postmaterialist option for people who feel they have been through social exclusion in a high-consumption society (Hannis 2011).
The central goal of Permaculture is to mimic natural processes to reduce both the use of energy and chemicals in agricultural production. This can be produced by simple ecosystem mimicry or as an overall system optimization, which seeks to identify specific points in production where minimal human intervention would be beneficial (Morel et al. 2018). Ferguson and Lovell (2013) state that the main definition of Permaculture could be the harmonized use of the ecosystem’s resources. It can be used as an optimal way to promote sustainability in several organizational sectors (Jelinek 2017). Permaculturists also believe in learning from local or indigenous practices, for believing they dealt better with their environment than our culture does (Holmgren 2013) or that they have better knowledge about how “local nature works” (Morel et al. 2018).
Holmgren (2013) has set 12 principles that he believes universally apply to the development of sustainable use of resources. Those principles were not explicitly listed primarily but were developed over time. All of these principles are to be observed in the process of design decision-making in Permaculture communities (Kruger 2015).
The Ethics and Principles of Permaculture
Holmgren (2013) sets Ethics and Principles for Permaculture, in a system that he believes is comprehensive to all of permaculturists’ thinking. None of these was present in early Permaculture literature, but was developed as Permaculture Design Courses happened. Despite the general idea that Permaculture is a food production method, in its ethics and principles, it extends to social and economic realms (Evans 2015). The ethics of Permaculture are defined as (1) Care for the Earth; (2) Care for the People; and (3) Fair Share. All of these are obeyed and present in all of the Permaculture Design Principles, which are also meant to be universally applicable, but will differ in different specific environments (Holmgren 2013).
Holmgren (2013) highlights that these ethical principles were developed through time, which might explain some slight differences in different authors’ thinking. “Care for the Earth” reflects Permaculture’s concern with the planet, since no production or human settlement can occur in an unhealthy Earth. Similarly, “Care for the People” is the need of meeting people’s needs, ensuring they can develop in a sustainable way for the planet (Akhtar et al. 2016). “Fair Share” is a more disputed definition, but is seen as derived from the first two ones (Holmgren 2013). Kruger (2015) calls the third ethical principle “surplus share”; Haluza-DeLay and Berezan (2013) classify it as “sharing the surplus”; Brain and Thomas (2013) call it “there are limits to growth.”
The first principle is “Observe and interact.” This approach is essential to Permaculture, as it is important to understand natural processes to mimic them (Jelinek 2017). This process aims to find inspirations to harmonious relationships between nature and people, to consciously evolve better production systems (Holmgren 2013). Permaculturists may spend over a year observing the landscape before touching it (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). The second principle is “Catch and store energy.” While most of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, this is unsustainable. This might be connected from the wrong concept of wealth (Holmgren 2013). Nature has an ability to save resources today what might be needed in the future, and Permaculture want to replicate it, creating water storage system for later usage or using composting to keep nutrients in the soil (Jelinek 2017). Energy and its management should be a priority and should never be wasted. Alternative solutions are also recommended (Brain and Thomas 2013).
The third principle is “Obtain a yield.” Despite willingness to produce more sustainably, permaculturists recognize the need to produce nonetheless; despite not appreciating some models of productions, permaculturists believe that the more effective systems should prevail over the others (Holmgren 2013). The production system needs to be built in such a way that producers will benefit from what they are doing (Jelinek 2017). These yields are generally to be used for self-benefit, like producing their own food or harvesting the wood to build their houses (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). The fourth principle is “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.” The construction of effective systems that discourage inappropriate, environment-unfriendly practices, and promoting sustainable and functional systems, is seen as very important. So is the development of herbicides and other products that are less prejudicial to soil and human health (Jelinek 2017).
Fifth principle is “Use and value renewable resources and services.” The agricultural production systems must be able to identify efficient practices, so they will be deepened (Jelinek 2017). Permaculture values renewable resources, which stand for those resources that are renewed and created by natural processes; it is important to work alongside nature, because fighting against it is usually expensive, if possible (Holmgren 2013). The reutilization of resources is also promoted by turning food scraps and human waste into fertilizers, a practice which is also an “illustration” of Principle 6 (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). This practice can help limit consumption (Brain and Thomas 2013).
Sixth principle is “Produce no waste.” Regarding food production, permaculturists believe there should be no waste at all, since a waste for someone might mean someone else will miss their food. Tree leaves, for instance, while not useful to trees anymore, might still help keeping the soil fertile (Jelinek 2017). In other words, “the outputs for one are the inputs for another” (Holmgren 2013, p. 8). The production of waste must be minimal, and its recycling must be a part of the system, to the point where the concept of waste no longer exists (Morel et al. 2018). The seventh principle is “Design from patterns to details.” This principle means that careful observation must also be made in the big picture, for “the closer we get the less we are able to comprehend the larger picture” (Holmgren 2013, p. 9). An example is to look into some animal communities who work together to build their ecosystems, like bees, who work together so the hive can meet the needs of all of the group (Jelinek 2017).
A good example is the designing of buildings in a Permaculture community called “Earthaven” in North Carolina, in the United States. Each building is designed considering their position in the landscape relatively to the Sun’s position to provide heat and sunlight into them (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). Eighth principle is “Integrate rather than segregate.” Systems where different components complement and work together can be much more beneficial to the landscape than if these species interacted separately (Jelinek 2017). Mutualistic and symbiotic relations are preferable to predatorial ones (Holmgren 2013). The complex nature of nature interactions must be understood and use for our benefit (Brain and Thomas 2013).
The ninth principle is “Use small and slow solutions.” Solutions are not to be imposed into these systems and must not be implemented rapidly. Food production irrigation, for instance, can promote soil degradation and jeopardize production if applied too fast (Jelinek 2017). Some solutions to problems in small-scale may not apply to bigger landscapes; in this context, it is important to find slow solutions (Holmgren 2013). The aforementioned “Earthaven” community, for instance, took more than 15 years to have its basic infrastructure, a stark contrast to suburban construction and living (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). Tenth principle is “Use and value diversity.” The diversity between species is seen as a result of evolution, having different functions; different species can complement each other in their tasks (Jelinek 2017).
Monocultures, for instance, are much more vulnerable to pests and diseases, since they are unable to enjoy the species diversity, having smaller resistance toward pests as a result (Holmgren 2013). It is seen as important to deeply know the landscape and its biological diversity and to use it properly (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). Principle eleven is “Use edges and value the marginal.” The frontiers between two kinds of production must be incentivized, since they allow several advantages to food production. The edge between a forest and a field, for instance, might help cultivation of several products, since it benefits from the two kinds of vegetation, higher air quality and exposure to the sun, and better soil nutrition (Jelinek 2017).
Twelfth principle is “Creatively use and respond to change.” Organic systems are always changing. It is important to follow them and be prepared for their consequences, as well as analyzing how likely the changes are – not to stop them but to better use them for the farmer’s benefit (Jelinek 2017). Beyond the twelve principles, there are several other guidelines not on the “official” list to help permaculturists in creating sustainable practices in their own landscapes. Brain and Thomas (2013) suggest harvesting rainwater, stacking functions, and designing plant guilds and herb spirals as “basis for brainstormings” in Permaculture practices.
Permaculture and the Sustainable Development
The second Sustainable Development Goal is about ending world hunger, and it is very important to sustainable development overall. In 2010, some 925 million people lived with food insecurity and hunger, and by 2050 it is possible that the figures will be even worse (Huang and Wang 2014). Permaculture shares several concerns with sustainable development debates, such as the idea that human use of natural resources is above the level the planet can sustain and the catastrophic consequences this behavior might have. In this context, Permaculture is always focusing on finding alternatives to the utilization of fossil fuels (Kruger 2015).
Enough food is produced daily to feed today’s world population, but people still live with food insecurity because too much food is produced in places as Europe and the United States (Prosekov and Ivanova 2018) while the regions with the largest number of starving people are Africa and South Asia (Carvalho 2006). Permaculture could be a sustainable solution to problems such as malnutrition, poverty, and food insecurity, especially in countries where these problems are larger, such as sub-Saharan countries (Rivett et al. 2018). One of the focuses is in solar energy and how it can be captured and stored. In this context, observation and mimicry of natural processes, which play an important role in Permaculture, become even more important as the energy changes in the natural environment are constant (Kruger 2015).
There is a small yet growing interest in using Permaculture to achieve sustainable development. The ethics of Permaculture – Care for the Earth, Care for the People, and “Fair Share” – resemble environmental protection, economic growth, and social justice, the base for achieving sustainable development (Akhtar et al. 2016). The answer to the challenges met by the sustainable development agenda, for Permaculturists, would not be to find alternative sources of energy to meet the demands but to alter human lifestyle and energy consumption toward a more sustainable one (Zhang et al. 2016) say that assuring food security based on a sustainable production model is essential.
Food production methods of today rely heavily in the use of pesticides, which is harmful to the environment and diminishes food quality. New ways of productions, free of pesticides, are required (Carvalho 2006). Permaculture shares many similarities with agroforestry, agroecology, or organic farming, all of which seek and offer pesticide-free pathways for food production (Morel et al. 2018). Permaculture has not been subject to an extensive amount of academic work, but it has spread worldwide as an idea, possibly because of its simple, optimistic, and positive set of ideas (Ferguson and Lovell 2013). Permaculture spreads generally through organizations, such as the Permaculture Association in the United Kingdom (Ingram 2018). In a similar way, Permaculture is present in more than 120 countries or 2500 projects overall (Morel et al. 2018).
Some specific cases provide ways to understand how this would happen. A study proposed about water availability in Malawi concludes that Permaculture might be helpful in providing better water quality, which would be consequently helpful to both food and water security. There is potential to broader use, still unexplored in research and in practical terms (Rivett et al. 2018). Another one of these projects takes place in El Salvador, where a civil conflict has taken place for more than 12 years. Permaculture projects use land that previously belonged to guerrillas and helps a generation of adults whose education has been compromised by the conflict. El Salvador has 32% to 25% of their population living below the poverty threshold and 12% in undernourishment, numbers which Permaculture seeks to help resolving, working in close cooperation with local, traditional projects (Millner 2017).
Tanzania, just like most of the African continent, has an agricultural model based on small-scale production that runs the local market. Despite being responsible for employing 65% of the country’s workforce, it yields only 30% of Tanzania’s gross domestic product (GDP). Permaculture could be very helpful in this region, since several of the causes would be tackled, like lack of nutrients in the soil. In this manner, economic growth would be incentivized, and more opportunities would be provided (Kassie et al. 2013). Mancebo and Val (2016) analyze a biosphere reserve in Argentina called “Laguna Oca,” which they classified as unsustainable in its living conditions. They suggest applying Permaculture on these communities could improve life conditions or at least applying Permaculture principles even if the population does not understand the theories behind it, as Principle 6, “Produce no waste.”
China is home to 22% of the world’s population and 7% of the world’s cultivated area. Being the world’s most populated country, China has a demand for food that is unmatched and expected to grow by 70% until 2050. Unsustainable food production practices result in food insecurity around the country (Deng and Gibson 2018; Wu and Haasis 2018). Another very populated country, India, could benefit from Permaculture. Despite having 17,5% of the world’s population, India possesses only 4% of the world’s hydric resources. As a result, production systems that demand a lot of irrigation are unable to adapt into this local reality (Li et al. 2018).
In the Western Cape province in South Africa, another project to implement Permaculture is focused on housing and use of energy. Some residents have built their houses themselves, in a cleaner way and leaving a smaller carbon footprint. This meant a better use of materials and maximization of using natural resources such as water and sun, in adapting their building techniques to local specificities (Kruger 2015). In Moab, Utah, in the United States, a nonprofit housing company, Community Rebuilds, has an environment-focused house designing program to build straw bale houses for low-income people, taking into account smart use of water (as harvesting rainwater), sunlight, and earth removed from excavation of the homesite itself (Brain and Thomas 2013).
In Portugal, the high rates of pesticide use have caused production to eventually decrease due to high contamination levels on the water, which caused food insecurity in the Vouga River, which constitutes an important maritime region. In response, the government had to take measures to shrink agriculture in the region to save water quality. Ever since, Portuguese government has pushed for sustainable production system, using less pesticides. The aim was to resolve both faces of the problem: for the Vouga River not to be contaminated with pesticides and for food production still to be possible, providing food security for the surroundings (Rocha et al. 2015).
In the United States, some regions have created their own Permaculture programs. In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Avenue Program was founded in 1992 as an answer to a wave of violence in the region. Its goal was to stimulate local food commerce as a way of guaranteeing access to quality food, income, and an education about sustainability (Metcalf and Wideneer 2011). Some other projects and ideas which do not classify themselves as permaculturists use ideas and insights from Permaculture and its authors. Movements such as ecovillages, bioregionalization, and transition movement use Permaculture principles to design social systems. At the same time, “permaculturists” might not see themselves as such a group, since they come from various groups and backgrounds (Aiken 2017).
Cong and Termasen (2016) believe that a change is needed in the way the human species eats, in a substitution of animal protein consumption in our diet to crops and vegetables. For that to happen, a more sustainable way of production should be in place, and Permaculture would be helpful since it respects the particularities of each region. Lyson (2002) states that using genetically modified products might help construct a more sustainable agriculture, since it represents all spheres in sustainable development, be it environmental, social, or economic. Permaculture could also work as a tool for pest control, since it promotes the utilization of biopesticides in lieu of traditional pesticides. In that way, it helps with problems like soil and water contamination.
Microorganisms would be repealed, and the development of agriculture-based communities would be kept, and food insecurity would be avoided, for less people would be contaminated by chemicals in their food (Singh et al. 2011; Zhang et al. 2016). The larger use of practices toward sustainability in agriculture, like Permaculture, might also contribute to lessen environmental pollution considerably, with their innovation, production, and profitability, if used efficiently. It could in this sense be a way for several people to leave poverty threshold (Adnan et al. 2017).
Data presented in this paper shows a dilemma between the ever-growing need of increasing food production, providing food security to billions of people, and the need of finding new, sustainable ways of food production to make sure our planet can sustain the levels of production we need (Carvalho 2006). Permaculture offers a pathway for finding new ways of production. Its set of ideas is new and unique, and the alternative food production system it proposes can provide cleaner and safer food, since higher food production would not solve the food security problem if quality was lost (Millner 2017). Permaculture cares for several things other than food production as well. Their ideas have a holistic approach to problems and solutions alike, and their interaction with landscapes and waste and energy production can provide important insights into solving several humanity problems enhancing the ability of future generations to continue providing food security in the long run (Holmgren 2013).
The holistic approach of Permaculture might help in achieving several goals and targets from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Agenda (United Nations 2018). In this entry, it is understood that Sustainable Development Goal 2, “Zero Hunger,” which seeks to provide safe and affordable food for all, is the one Permaculture is closest in helping to achieve. Permaculture can also help achieve Goal 3, Good Health, since it is able to provide cleaner, pesticide-free food; Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, for it provides safer, cleaner water; Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, since it focuses on alternative energy-producing systems; Goal 13, Climate Action, since it has a cleaner way of production with no greenhouse gas emissions; and Goal 15, Life in Land, since it proposes food production without changing or destroying landscapes.
This study was conducted by the Centre for Sustainable Development (Greens) (Greens), from the University of Southern Santa Catarina (Unisul), in the contextof the project BRIDGE - Building Resilience in a Dynamic Global Economy:Complexity across scales in the Brazilian Food-Water-Energy Nexus; funded by the Newton Fund, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa e Inovação do Estado de Santa Catarina, Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível superior (CAPES), National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Research Councils United Kingdom (RCUK).
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