Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden- a Critical Analysis

I’ve been interested in the edible forest garden idea for over twenty years and have planted and designed several myself in Ireland in that time, and visited several others. But they have never lived up to my expectations and were largely unproductive, despite sourcing as many perennial vegetables and other interesting edible plants as I could. Here I review the claims made for them and what evidence there is to support the idea- and conclude that, as Permaculture founder Bill Mollison said in the first place, in temperate regions you are far better growing your fruit trees and vegetables separately.

Temperate permaculture– is this a passing fad, an idealist’s hobby or is there a case for wider promotion of the practice?

  • Introduction- Design By Nature: Permaculture and the Forest Garden Concept

 “Permaculture” – derived from permanent agriculture – is a concept of sustainable land use and design coined and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Mollison defined the concept as:

The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

 (Mollison 1988).

 Since then, permaculture has grown into a worldwide movement of activists and designers applying permaculture principles to the whole of society (Holmgren 2002). Permaculture is more an approach or philosophy than any specific technology, but where it has come under academic scrutiny, many of the kinds of practices frequently advocated have been found lacking in supporting evidence (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In this essay we shall focus on one of the best-known expressions of permaculture design, the edible forest garden or food forest for temperate regions, which are designed with the intention of mimicking the structure and functions of natural woodlands. Successful integration of trees with agriculture for multiple environmental and crop protection functions, nitrogen fixation and fodder is well established in traditional systems in many parts of Europe (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009), and is gaining renewed interest today as an essential part of agricultural sustainability. It is worth examining why, then, while forest gardens continue to be popular amongst the permaculture fraternity and the sustainable food movement, they have attracted little academic research, and very little uptake by farmers, orchardists or market gardeners. As we shall see, evidence to support the claims that forest gardens achieve both low inputs and high yields is lacking, and there are good theoretical reasons why the concept is unlikely to succeed in temperate zones.

Continue reading on theculturalwilderness

Permaculture and GMOs

UK’s leading Permaculture author Patrick Whitefield posted an interesting tweet the other day:

to which I replied:

It seems a strange argument- how does one define “need” in this case? A new technology that can save large losses from disease seems something certainly desirable- and ultimately we may well need it to make farming more efficient. Even if we do not currently “need” GE spuds, the technology has many other applications and developing countries where food security is not so, well, secure, really do need such improvements for their farmers.

One specific but quite different application of the technology is of course Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice. With hundreds of thousands of vitamin-A deficient children becoming blind each year, and half of them dying within a year, this rice would indisputably be meeting a very urgent need which other methods are clearly not meeting. To claim otherwise is “just noise.”

Genetic engineering does have significant advantages over traditional breeding methods- new blight resistant varieties can be turned around in just one growing season as opposed to 10-15 years, keeping ahead of the blight’s own evolution. Either way, we are on a tread-mill, always striving to keep at least one step ahead of Nature who would starve us as soon as look at us. Moreover, a wider choice of tools surely leads to more resilience- just as the permaculture principle of “multiple sources” would advise.

You may as well say we don’t “need” computers since the postal service does an admiral job, or we don’t need buses and trains since the humble horse can carry us to Tipperary just as well. On the face of it is just seems like an excuse to undermine a technology which is somewhat arbitrarily the subject of a vitriolic environmentalist campaign. The clue comes in the last paragraph of the linked article:

Ultimately, the array of techniques currently in practice among commercial growers to prevent potato blight makes the need for a GM solution appear redundant and potentially reckless, especially when considering the broader implications of resistance, pesticide-use, and corporate ownership of our food systems.

Ah yes, playing the “corporate ownership of the food system” card- which rather conveniently serves to cover up the absence of any actual argument against GMOs in the article, even if some growers do find Sarpos preferable.

I challenged Patrick that his opposition was ideological, and he didn’t really have any argument. He disputed this- “For me this is not a matter of ideology but of practicality, of weighing pros and cons.”- and went on to make a point:

Again, this seems an odd argument- as if a solution cannot be used if it works really well, because if it works too well it won’t work very well. If you get my drift… In my view, this is just a concealed concession to fears of Pandora’s Box: we should not trust technology. We are too clever for our own good. No good in fact will come of this, since we just shouldn’t be meddlin’ in what we don’t really understand. That is what I mean by ideology- the misanthropy that underpins much environmentalism, including permaculture, that basically would shake its head in dismay at the Knowing Ape and say: People just ain’t no good.

In the real world there are actual farmers who know about these things, and have well known techniques to help slow the evolution of pest resistance, for example by planting corn refuges. As with so many issues raised in objection to GMOs, this is a farm management issue, not a plant breeding issue.

In fact, although resistance is an inevitable result of any kind of pest control method- that ol’ treadmill again- the reality is far more interesting. It turns out that the unintended consequences of for example of Bt corn in the US are of the beneficial kind- is so successful that it can actually provide a refuge for non-transgenic varieties. The halo effect is best known in the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, credited with saving the Organic Papaya industry which was being devastated by ringspot virus- again, traditional methods had proved unable to solve the problem, so there an indisputable (but not undisputed) need:

In the case of the Hawaiian papaya, scientists planted an “island” of nontransgenic variety in an “ocean” of transgenic papaya as a means of securing the nontransgenic variety. The specially modified traits of GM crops helped to kill off pests, control water intake and provide a sort of refuge for non-modified crops in nearby acres.

Patrick responded to this:

Open-mindedness is a very welcome quality in this highly politicized and ideological issue. For Patrick Whitefield to even claim this is big bananas in permaculture world, since he is one of the top writers for the UK Permaculture Magazine, which has taken an overtly activist position against GMOs, and regularly fetes Indian ideologue Vandana Shiva .

(For an must-read in-depth look at what Vandana Shiva really stands for see this article by Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi.)

Most bizarrly though, Patrick ended the exchange by saying that it was me who is closed-minded!

I suggested to Patrick that he write an article on GMOs for the magazine, arguing for an open-minded approach. This I think would be rather a stretch- but one can live in hope.

Will the Genes Escape?

Patrick Whitefield has entered the discussion on genetic engineering over at the Small Farm Future blog.
Patrick is the UK’s leading permaculture teacher and author of The Earth Care Manual.

Patrick makes two main points: that he thinks there is evidence that GE can be as dangerous as some now-banned chemicals; and that with GE “The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.”

“To me” he says, “this is the clinching argument. No amount of short term trials can tell us how gm will behave in the biosphere in the long term. We’re just taking a punt on it all turning out OK.”

Here is my reply:

“The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.” I dont see why this is the “clinching argument” – surely also debatable at least?
There is no reason to think the risks of genes escaping and causing problems are a greater threat from GMOs than from other breeding methods, eg mutagenesis, of which there are thousands of varieties and these are accepted under organic standards. Even crop rotation has been known to put selection pressure on pests.

The whole 10,000 year-old project of farming has already changed the environment so much in ways that can never be undone, with or without GMOs. Nor does it seem reasonable to compare genetic engineering with dangerous chemicals, implying that they are all spawned of the same mindset- lets call it “Scientism” – and therefore must be equally bad. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that GE crops have reduced the use of pesticides, and allowed the substitution of dangerous chemicals with much more benign ones.

GE is a biological approach, in line with permaculture principles, and something Rachel Carson would have approved of, in line with organic principles of avoiding chemicals. Chemicals have also been unfairly demonized but this is much more understandable because as you say some were very dangerous – and have rightly been banned. I think we have to have some trust in the regulatory process- the anti-GE movement depends on a suspicion of science and flagrant scare-mongering.

GE is just another way of making new varieties and likely safer than more scatter-gun approaches including traditional breeding. It also has a lot of advantages over other methods and solves problems they cannot- eg with the Rainbow Papya.

Also, Patrick your attitude does not explain the blanket opposition to all GE crops including potatoes which could save many fungicide sprayings each year and has negligible chance of “escaping” into the wild, a risk that is negligible for other crops as well.

The issue of escaping genes ironically is something that could have been addressed with Gene Use Restriction Technology (GURT) aka Terminator- too bad Monsanto were compelled under activist pressure to shelve it. But since we so have GE crops being grown over a larger area each year, would you prefer Patrick to see it resurrected?

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that these risks are no greater for GE than other methods, most likely less; I dont like the analogy with climate science but I still think you have to explain why you dont accept the science on this.