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Harald Jezek

Owner, Nuada beauty+wellness

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Is permaculture a feasible alternative to traditional agriculture?

Australians Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton created (or re-created) the concept of permaculture as alternative to traditional agriculture, but goes much beyond only agriculture. According to them "permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the stability, diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems." The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather against nature. It appears that systems based on permaculture can offer the same or even better yield than traditional production.

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  • Mar 6 2011: YES!!!
  • Feb 16 2011: To be perfectly honest: I cannot say for certain, since I'm not a farmer, biologist, or anything even remotely related to the required areas of expertise (I don't even have a garden). However, from what I've seen of and read about it, it seems to be the more sensible alternative in all possible ways.

    The starting assumption is long term planning, and looking at things holistically, instead of zooming in on one aspect and optimising it in the short term at the expense of everything else. It also realises how dependent we are on nature and what it provides, and that in order to improve our lives, we probably should improve nature first. Simply assuming those frames of reference makes it superiour in every way, in my opinion, because when mistakes are made, I expect you'd much sooner find the correct answer with that attitude, if only because you are more likely to find the real issues.

    PS: You should include Willie Smits' talk as well, his way of restoring the rainforest is very similar to permaculture in it's setup and mindset (with the latter probably following the first)
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/willie_smits_restores_a_rainforest.html
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      Feb 16 2011: Exactly, Job. "Holistic" is the key word. Unfortunately we more often than not try to optimize systems for the best short term results. A holistic approach, maybe takes longer to implement, but at the end will result in more resilient systems.
      • Feb 17 2011: There's a very good explanation for that short-term, disassociated view of the world, relating to the left hemisphere of the brain becoming more dominant over the right hemisphere throughout the ages:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbUHxC4wiWk

        I keep bringing this up (McGilchrist and his book), but I honestly think it's filled with some the most profound insights relating to... just about ANYTHING humans do right now. Including agriculture.

        Especially agriculture, actually, because it explains our ability to accept all the horrors of the modern bioindustry, our exploitation-oriented mindset involving nature, our tendency to decontextualise to the point of making things meaningless, and the denial mindset.
  • Feb 12 2011: Thanks Harald for brining up this discussion. This is a very important topic given rising worldwide food prices that usually lead to economic and social problems in developing countries.

    Recently I saw what indoor farms in The Land Pavilion at Disney Epcot managed to do using scientific techniques like hydroponics and aquaculture. It was fascinating to see how much food they could produce from a small area.

    I think it is then the combination of various innovations such as permaculture, hydroponics and aquaculture that will lead to the most productive and environmentally safe farming?
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      Feb 16 2011: Yes, indeed, it's amazing what can be done. There is a permaculture farmer in Austria, Sepp Holzer, who even grows lemons and cherries high up in the Alps.
      The question is, why is permaculture not used more widely ? Is it a question of poor marketing so people aren't aware of the concept ?
      From all I saw so far, permaculture, once the system is established is actually less work intensive and more productive than traditional monocultures, beside, land used based on the permaculture principles is also more attractive for the eyes than endless monoculture plantations.
      • Feb 17 2011: I think, for this country anyway, one of the main reasons farmers stick with the monoculture method is that that is how their fathers and their grandfathers did it. It is safety in familiarality. They are a very stubborn breed.
        I grow my own permaculture style food forest here on my small suburban block (640 m Square), It probably only supplies an eighth of my food intake, but it is increasing yearly (it is now 2.5 yrs old). In one small garden I have avocados, figs, mangos, custard apples, tamarillos, bananas, papaya, cassava, rasberry, mulberry, grape, yam, taro, tomato, potato, sweet potato (at least 100 diferent species of edible plants) , ( the larger fruit trees such as avocado will not fruit for another 5 years at least).
        It has been a lot of work to build, and I am still working on it, but once parts are established, there is little work, nowhere near as much as a traditional vege garden. I think food plants (native and non-native) should be planted in parks, railway edges, roadverges and all vacant spaces.
        Why not get unemployed people to do this for there welfare? I sure would when I'm not working.
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    Feb 26 2011: From my point of view, the reason why we did not see Permaculture spread as much as one would hope are its requirements for the farmers:
    (a) after switching to Permaculture I assume it is a slow process of adaption of both the farm and the farmer until benefits exceed costs. This means significant risk for a family that has invested most of its assets in their farm.
    (b) Switching to Permaculture means leaving the system of clear instructed and science based agriculture and starting to learn individually how to work together with nature.

    I conclude that a government program could probably help a lot to start the transformation by reducing the risk for the individual farmer.

    PS. A great book on Permaculture (and also its founding document) is "The One Straw Revolution" by Masanobu Fukuoka
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    Feb 19 2011: Absolutely. Four books that support your view are these (summary reviews):

    Review: Priority One–Together We Can Beat Global Warming
    http://www.phibetaiota.net/2007/03/priority-one-together-we-can-beat-global-warming/

    Review: Permaculture–Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
    http://www.phibetaiota.net/2007/08/permaculture-principles-and-pathways-beyond-sustainability/

    Review: 1491–New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
    http://www.phibetaiota.net/2008/01/1491-new-revelations-of-the-americas-before-columbus/

    Review: Acts of God–The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America
    http://www.phibetaiota.net/2008/04/acts-of-god-the-unnatural-history-of-natural-disaster-in-america/

    WATER is going to drive the world toward permaculture and prime design of our interactions with environment. Here is a reference to various reviews of books I read for a UNESCO water project.

    Reference: WATER–Soul of the Earth, Mirror of Our Collective Souls
    http://www.phibetaiota.net/2011/01/reference-water-soul-of-the-earth-mirror-of-our-collective-souls/

    I am especially impressed by the knowledge that ancient indigenous cultures developed on permaculture including within the Amazon, that's one of the things that got me interested in harvesting all that knowledge before the modern world kills their cultural heritage.
  • Feb 19 2011: Permaculture would work if there were not so many mouths to feed, a number that keeps growing.
  • Feb 18 2011: Why is your question an "either or?" All sorts of principles of permaculture as I've experienced can be incorporated into traditional agriculture, whatever that is ("prevailing wisdom" or overall "practices"?). To me the more important aspect of your question is how to learn and grow, then apply with greater consciousness and respect such principles in agriculture, which I think can be viewed additionally as just a component of our ecosystems. "Natural" seems to me sort of like the wall that we have erected between Mexico and the US. My bees seem to "love" some of the (unnatural ) ways we've given them a more expressive playing field.
    • Feb 18 2011: I suspect that Harald meant industrial agriculture, as is the norm these days, not the old traditional agriculture we used to have before that. Mind you, slash and burn could also be considered traditional, but it's hardly sustainable.


      " "Natural" seems to me sort of like the wall that we have erected between Mexico and the US."

      Not being from the US or Mexico, and not having paid any attention to the subject, I'm not sure I'm following what you're trying to say here. Actually, I'm pretty sure I'm not following at all :D. Is this a physical wall you're talking about? A cultural wall? The way the US deals with illegal immigrants? I'm probably missing something obvious that would link it to permaculture, could you please explain?
  • Feb 17 2011: Another thing worth discussing (or involving in the discussion) is that regular agriculture is very dependent on oil. Which will run out in our lifetime, and sooner than most people think.

    Permaculture strives not to be, but is it the only alternative we have?

    A documentary to watch considering that subject: A Farm For The Future.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xShCEKL-mQ8
    "BBC documentary on the precient global farming and food crisis, filmed in the UK.
    Featuring Martin Crawford (Agroforestry Research Trust), Fordhall Farm, Richard Heinberg and others. Topics covered are the influence of oil on the food production, peak-oil, food security, carbon emissions, sustainability and permaculture."
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    Feb 15 2011: It took ages for me to find the "natural-organic" tomato seeds even in Turkey, a country that used to be the wonder of agriculture. Therefore, Mark, I get the point in your comment very well. Still, I could not make it in my balcony, the sun was my problem, I assume.

    Lately I was in Tanzania, and to my surprise the tomatoes and the onions we bought went bad so quickly. When I asked, they told me the villagers cannot afford to pay for the scientific agricultural methods that are used nowadays to help them keep their vegetables fresh. To be honest, their taste took me back to my childhood. So delicious!! I could not have enough!

    Dear Harald, after reading your comment I remembered and went back to Dan Barber's lovely talk; "How I fell in love with a fish" http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_barber_how_i_fell_in_love_with_a_fish.html

    Re-watching the talk, I realised the minor points I missed during the talk; Miguel, Dan Barber's hero, was from Tanzania and he started his career in Mikumi National Park, and that is where he had his inspiration. And That was exactly where my Tanzanian tomatoes were coming from. From a small village 30 mins away from the park. A funny and sweet coincidence.

    I believe we need more scientists whom are also experts on relationships just like Miguel!...
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      Feb 16 2011: Hi Ayse ! Good to see you again ;-) True, a balcony is a limited environment for planting your stuff, but even there you can plant a lo. You would be amazed how much you can grow on just 1 m2. The key to success is knowing the demands of the plants you like to grow and plan/adjust accordingly. As to tomatoes: they actually like it hot and sunny, But they also need sufficient water and a good soil. Maybe that was the problem in your case.
      I think growing your own stuff is not only convenient, but it provides you with fresher and tastier food for much less money and it also provides you with satisfaction (at least it does for me) when you go out at the garden and just pick whatever you want, whenever you want. ;-)
      But permaculture is much more than that. It's a way of integrating with nature instead of just abusing it.
      For anybody interested, check out Bill Mollison's "global gardener" video clips. You can probably find them on youTube. Or for somebody with deeper interest, Bill Mollison's "Permaculture design manual" which goes into detail about philosophy and design principles of permaculture.
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        Feb 20 2011: The documentary "Power Of Community - How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" shows how the city of Havana has become an Urban Garden, growing on rooftops and balcony's all over the city. Although in crisis and forced to make these changes, the Cubans were forced to respond to doing something about lack of food and transportation. This is a great documentary and can be seen online in its entirety.
    • Feb 17 2011: Ayse, the 'scientific method' that agriculture uses today to keep their produce fresh is to pick the fruit (tomato) at an immature green stage, then to transport/store for long periods, then to ripen when convenient for them, by using a gas that stimulates the plant to ripen. So the plant isn't really 'ripe', like if it was ripened naturally in the sun- which is why the ones you ate taste so good- but they are artificially stimulated, and still under-ripe, and almost flavourless.