Permaculture and Agroecology

Fascinating post by Andrew Kniss on Redefining Agroecology:

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

The point is that agroecology has lost its origins as a science and become co-opted by the “alternative farming” movement which not surprisingly annoys Kniss:

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!“

In the comments, Karl Haro von Mogel suggests in order to reclaim agroecology as a science that embraces technology, another term should be found to encompass the political movement.

I think I know what that term might be: Permaculture. After all, in response to my critique of permaculture, some have claimed I ignore the close association with agroecology.

But while Kniss shows that agroecology is really a science that holds no ideological commitment- as a science it merely investigates the ecological interactions in the context of agriculture, with the purpose of benefiting both- permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.

All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.
They ignore the fact that industrial agriculture has been spectacularly successful in feeding modern populations, and in equal measure ignore the short-comings of the proposed alternatives, including less efficient land-use.
The biggest problem though is their rejection of technologies such as GMOs which can make farming more efficient, precisely because they are ideological movements and not science.

Can we reclaim the word agroecology as a science? Probably not, but it is worth thinking about replacing it with the word permaculture when you see it used as a movement, if only because it helps spotlight permaculture for what it really is.

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4 thoughts on “Permaculture and Agroecology

  1. “All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
    and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.”

    This is an ideological statement. Lamenting how much “evil” corporations have control over the food supply chain shows they bias and their ideology. Do they have any solid evidence of widespread malfeasance? They almost always go to their favorite whipping boy, Monsanto, as some example of an evil company. Yet, how “evil” is Monsanto? They claim that Monsanto sues farmers for accidental cross contamination and they’ll site Percy Schmeiser. It’s completely obvious that their argument is ideological because the actual fact of his case contradict their claims. Schmeiser purposely planted GM canola, it’s right there in the court documents!

    And you are correct, they promote their simple, brainless one-size-fits-all ideas because they really don’t have a clue about modern agriculture. The whole idea that one simple thing can “fix” whatever they think is wrong about Ag is evidence enough that they don’t understand the complex workings of the Ag market/economy.

    I hope you had a chance to read that thread on FB I gave you the link to before I left Facebook. That guy has a masters in Agriculture and thinks that large farms won’t be able to handle increasing input costs without “evil” government subsidies. Yet he thinks that small farms could? WTF? This is the kind of mindset we are dealing with. Pure ideological nonsense, completely devoid of any actual evidence at all. Science is Consequentionalist. Ideology and Religion are Deontological.

  2. I have noticed that vast amount of those pushing the permaculture idea on sites like FB have little or no experience in anything larger than a small backyard garden. A couple of folks I have recently dealt with are excellent examples. One is from NYC, he is involved in a food growing coop, that is in it’s first year and it has not yet had a harvest. In spite of that, he has positioned himself as an expert and is traveling to other cites to promote his idea.

    Another one is ground keeper on an English estate, in charge of decorative plants. He will argue long and loud that permaculture is superior to conventional farming.

    Both of them are idealists and not realists

    • All too typical I’m afraid Cairenn. I have students who have never grown a carrot and would be unable to identify an oak tree telling me on their very first week in college that GMOs are toxic and seed regulations only exist to restrict freedoms and make profit. The permaculture world is full of people who are self-appointed “experts” yet have no experience of farming at all.

  3. During WWII Permaculture was conceived by the Rand Group and advanced in Mexico by the U.S. Government as a way of insuring against a peasant invasion from South of the Border in the event of food shortages or an openly hostile Mexican government. All Allied nations learned from the success of the Mexican program. Later, Peace Corps and other fifth column groups supported by agencies such as the CIA have used Permaculture as a way of keeping tabs on and/or pacifying disenfranchised peoples throughout the world. Permaculture is a democratizing process that builds communities organized to achieve self-sufficiency. By planting trees and perennials that take years to mature, the permaculturalist is investing in a long horizon goal that pacifies the soul, and that, my friends, is the realpolitik objective of the permaculture organizer.

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