Lecture Notes for SOCA306.
What is Permaculture?
Defined in the first book by Mollison and Holmgren as permanent agriculture - i.e. to mean a sustainable agriculture, with also the implication that a social and cultural continuity could be achieved by adopting this kind of agriculture.
An emphasis on perennials because of less soil erosion - no annual ploughing and also because of less labour required in the somewhat boring job of annual planting of cereal crops.
A polyculture of plants of mixed sizes and types grown in proximity. In terms of biodiversity, sustainable yield through mixed inputs. In other words, if one type of plant succumbs to pests or disease it does not wipe out most of the productivity of the site as a whole. In terms of the idea that there are beneficial plant leagues - "companion planting" - in which one plant provides good conditions for the growth of another plant species. In terms of the idea that weeds and pests are reduced as a problem. Plants are grown together in a polyculture so that there is no space for weed species or they are allowed to grow and mulched as part of the normal routine. With insect pests and the like, the idea is that plants of the same species may be separated by barriers created by other plants in the polyculture, making it hard for insects to find and destroy all the plants of a species they prefer.
Local production for local consumption = less transport; less greenhouse effect. More effective political control of agriculture by the community of producers and consumers.
Use of local water through earthworks such as dams and swales = more plant variety can be grown on a given site; less use of resources through pipes, mega dams and the like; less possibility of centralised political control through control of the water supply.
Integration of plants and animals - animals for food are grown locally, in mixed agriculture with plants. Produces protein from surpluses of plant produce - e.g. grasses or fodder branches can be feed for animals or mulch, an oversupply of fruit is converted to eggs or fish and so on. Small animals are used to help plants to flourish e.g. through manure, through weed control by geese, through control of fruit fly by chooks or snails by ducks.
Small animals are preferred - less problem of compaction or erosion of soils through overgrazing.
Reduced dependence on the state or the global capitalist class for inputs to agriculture and food consumption - e.g. chemical fertilisers, irrigation, patented seed varieties, non-reproducing hybrids, chemical herbicides and pesticides, loans, food imports from other countries or areas.
The Lack of Sociological Specificity of Permaculture
In "Permaculture One" the applicability of permaculture to socially specific contexts is not addressed. In other words, what is presented is a set of technological solutions to problems like land degradation, the over-use of fossil fuels, along with a set of ideas about how these agricultural solutions may also lead to local empowerment in various ways. While the social location for these improvements is sometimes suggested, it is often implied that these solutions are applicable in any context. Under the heading "Self-Sufficiency" the following rave is presented which suggests a wholesale replacement of current industrial society which is quite global in scope:
.... reduction of dependence on the wider industrial system can be taken a long way, reducing the need for people to work in the industrial society and to consume its products ... When people have established themselves in an area, a complex network of resources, skills and needs, with some specialization, should evolve ... In a developing permaculture, it will soon become apparent that local centres for processing oil, flour, medicinal products, soap and so on will develop, and regions should in this way evolve unique product patterns. (Mollison & Holmgren, 1978, p. 12).
What this seems to suggest is that alternativists will begin by buying up small farms with the goal of self sufficiency and that this movement will eventually starve the "industrial system" as people desert to bring together their resources in regional networks of permaculturists, who eventually replace all the necessities of life from within a permaculture production system. This vision fitted some of the utopian strategies of the counterculture movement. However, what we can ask at the present time is how permaculture might actually fit into particular existing social contexts and what its specific problems are in specific contexts, for example:
- In the context of commercial cash cropping and farming - as a technological alternative to unsustainable farming practices.
- In the context of alternative life styles on hobby farms in rich countries.
- In the context of suburban households with wage earning as the main source of income.
- In the developing countries as a form of subsistence agriculture.
- In the context of a new mode of production - such as a gift economy, LETS barter system etc.
For Commercial Farmers in Developed Countries:
- Hard to mechanize planting of a polyculture = labour costs of permaculture establishment.
- Hard to arrange distribution for a wide and unpredictable variety of crops each grown in small quantities.
- The harvesting of a perennial based polyculture is labour intensive compared to monocultures which can often be machine harvested.
- Hard to transport many crops which may be ideal from an environmental point of view in requiring little attention to do well - e.g. mulberries.
- Organic farming without chemical fertilisers, pesticides etc. can be unpredictable in outcomes - i.e. there is always plenty to eat but to forecast a crop and arrange marketing may be more difficult. Chemical farming is an attempt to control outcomes.
- Edible but marked crops are no readily sold to first world consumers. In other words, using organic techniques you may get pest damage down to the point where it does not affect the eating quality of the crop, but to get a perfect look may be easier with chemical controls.
- Consumer demands are for beef, lamb, cereals etc. None of these crops are particularly easy to grow in Australia without damage to soils - e.g. salination from irrigation or clearing; soil compaction from big grazing animals and so on. Permaculture alternatives are not easily marketed as a replacement - e.g. kangaroo meat; vegetarian diets, fruit and nut carbohydrates.
- Natural fertilisers and mulching can be be labour intensive to produce.
A common permaculture saying is that you should look at solutions, not problems. In this case, there are various solutions to these problems which organic agriculturalists are working on. Changes in consumer preference could be one area. Growing a small range of crops integrated to fit together - not a full complex polyculture - can be a solution to marketing and labour problems identified above. Niche marketing may be a solution for some farmers - e.g. organic beef; biodynamic wheat; bamboo shoots; cut native flowers etc.
- Insufficient land to replace much subsistence unless use is made of waste ground, parks, road edges, railway edges etc.
- Suburbanites tend to arrange their yards in terms of aesthetic preferences and according to status considerations of respectability, neatness, beauty as conventionally established etc. Decorative lawns, tidiness, flower beds are usually preferred to untidy polycultures of food crops, messy hens, compost beds etc.
- For families with dual incomes, time is a real problem. For example a seemingly reasonable goal might be self sufficiency in vegetables and fruit through organic gardening - i.e. all cereals and meat are still bought as well as other grocery items. This fruit and veggie self sufficiency takes between one and two hours a day of work. It takes at least five years to get most fruit and nut trees to produce much.
As in the section on commercial farmers, we can look at the solutions implied by these problems. Suburbanites could change their aesthetic preferences. An easy permaculture in terms of time constraints is to plant easy do-er fruit and nut trees (e.g. no stone fruit in NSW!!!). Eventually shade out the lawn and replace it with shade loving ground covers. Supply some easily grown herbs such as parsley and oregano. This is probably closer to 15 minutes a day and would produce quite a lot of food value over a ten year period. Voluntary simplicity is the strategy of cutting work hours and living on less money - this could free up time for gardening. Political work and community organising can often get bits of land from councils for community gardens - there is a whole network organised to do this. All these strategies are actually attacks on the commodity capitalist economy in the sense that they replace alienated labour with meaningful self directed work; they replace commodities with gifts or self provisioning subsistence. Their other effect is to put someone else out of a job!
The Developing Countries:
- Land is in the hands of a small minority in many countries. For example in Brazil there is a conflict between Indians and Rubber Tappers on the one hand and Ranchers and Timber Companies on the other hand. The Indians and Rubber Tappers want to preserve the rainforest as "extractive reserves", i.e. to combine preservation of trees with extraction of useful products and subsistence agriculture on small plots planted to useful trees and carbohydrate crops. The ranchers and timber companies want to cut down everything for cattle grazing which makes the most money in the short term and for timber export. The latter tend to have the most money and can buy large pieces of the jungle. They have been supported by the government.
A different situation obtains in some developing countries where traditional land rights still apply - e.g. much of Africa; the Solomons, Papua New Guinea. Here permaculture is a useful western input into traditional systems of agricultural practice.
- International debt makes the use of commercial cash crops to get foreign exchange seem like a sensible policy for governments in most developing countries. A subsistence polyculture producing for the local market seems like a very silly way to use productive land for these local national elites.
- If permaculture means replacement of cereal monocultures with mixed cropping and perennials for carbohydrate production, then this project goes against the cultural norms of many people in developing countries. For example, in Indonesia, it has been explained to me that local people are "rice minded" and grow rice in preference to crops like sweet potatoes, bananas and cassava which are less prone to cause soil erosion. Sometimes this is even against their economic interests as the same area can produce more profit if turned over to non-rice crops. Partly, rice is seen as a storeable surplus of wealth and partly rice is preferred as "real" food.
- Most people in developing countries aspire to access to consumer goods produced in industrial countries or at any rate only obtainable through cash. For these reasons, a cash economy use of land is a necessity for rural people to gain access to these goods, even if it sometimes goes against environmental sustainability - for example in logging local forests to create a cash income.
Solutions here are probably more difficult politically, in so far as land redistribution is a necessity for many people to gain reasonable access to subsistence farming or even reasonable security against extreme poverty. Various kinds of sustainable alternatives to mainstream agricultural practices are available for people who own and control land but usually only at the expense of profits. Sometimes there are viable alternatives that create cash - i.e. niche markets - for example ecotourism and white water rafting as an alternative to cash cropping old growth forests. As per in the rich countries, such niches are most available if few other producers have entered the market - i.e. there is not an unlimited supply of wealthy western consumers of white water rafting who want to go to developing countries. NGO money from wealthy countries can help the development of subsistence sustainable agriculture, as can microcredit schemes like the Grameen Bank - i.e. offering small loans to poor people, especially women. Also collectives of women, the poor, getting advice on agriculture from local or international NGOs.