Permaculture and Food Forests

Permaculture, (a word first coined by assembling the words ‘permanent agriculture’) is a system of ecological and environmental design that was developed by two Australian researchers, educators and writers, Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen. Permaculture is “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.” (Bill Mollison) It is an agricultural philosophy that allows us to use the resources that we have around us to their fullest potential. A totally integrated design system that’s modeled on nature, permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. By careful observation, we can learn how nature has adapted to the specific climate of our area; how nature replenishes its soil; how nature protects and conserves its water resources; how in nature, there is no such thing as waste; and lastly how perfectly sustainable and generous nature is when we work with it instead of against it.

Permaculture is rooted in the fact that no single problem or solution stands on its own. In recognition of this balance, it embraces four basic principles:

  1. Working with nature rather than against it
  2. Thoughtful observation rather than thoughtless labor
  3. Each element should perform many functions rather than one
  4. Everything is connected to everything else 

It is important to note that after the word was first coined, permaculture was expanded to stand also for “permanent culture,” since social aspects were essential to a truly sustainable system. Nowadays, permaculture is often used to describe a sustainable, holistic and ethical way of life that goes beyond agriculture, land-use and ecology. For more on this: 

Perhaps the only concern about the way permaculture is practiced nearly everywhere today is the ubiquitous use of domesticated animals as part of the food growing system. The most common animals introduced are chickens and particularly hens, who are exploited for their natural behaviors that are considered favorable to gardens, like scratching, pecking, hunting and eating insects, and manuring; for their eggs and finally for their flesh. Chickens, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, rabbits (and even fish): nearly every species of domesticated animals are found on most of the larger permaculture farms, used for their manure and their “labour” (to clear grass and weeds, consume insects, or “till” the land, for example), sold as commodities, exploited during their lives for their wool or their bodily functions (the eggs or milk they produce) and ultimately slaughtered for their flesh. 

This widespread use of domesticated animals in permaculture begs the question of their real necessity in a thriving, sustainable food growing system. For when we look into the matter, we clearly see that domesticated animals are not part of the natural ecosystems that permaculturists are eager to emulate. The natural forests – the ultimate guide to how to build healthy ecosystems – are not, and most have never been, reliant on domesticated animals for their foundation nor their maintenance.

This is where vegan permaculture comes into play. Like veganic farming, vegan permaculture (or plant-based permaculture) rejects the use of animals or any animal derived product through any type of exploitation within its design systems or thinking. Thus, vegan permaculture epitomizes the ethics of permaculture at a more genuine and profound level because the ethics of veganism becomes the driving force and foundation behind the permaculture ethics. And it goes one step further than veganic agriculture, for it exemplifies a system modeled toward integration and void of waste.

Vegan permaculture is far from animal-free, however. In vegan permaculture, the role of animals as part of the ecosystem and as part of the permaculture system is still considered and valued, though in the form of free-living (or wild) animals, not in the form of domesticated animals. Vegan permaculturists would never think of fencing out the earthworms that build the soil and maintain its fertility, or chasing away the bees that pollinate the fruit trees and vegetables, or the birds that feed off of insects. On the contrary, they actively design in features that are intended to attract wildlife, to ensure that habitats and food sources are available to animals that live naturally in the area, by adding water points, hedges, trees, piles of stones and logs for snakes, bird houses, and flowers for pollinators that can encourage the presence of wild animals. The majority of animal species are beneficial to food production, and establishing a diversified range of animal species tends to lead to greater overall balance and stability.

Food forests (also known as forest gardens or edible forest gardens) take permaculture to a whole new (though actually quite ancient) level! Similar to a permaculture approach, a food forest is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. But a food forest goes the extra mile by its three dimensional design, with life extending in all directions: up, down and out.

Food forests are low-maintenance, sustainable, plant-based food production systems, and are probably the world’s oldest form of land-use based on forest ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. A food forest is a perennial (most plants growing back every year without needing to be replanted) polyculture (many species growing together) of multi-purpose plants, each plant contributing to the success of the whole by fulfilling many functions.
Food forests originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon-prone regions and quickly became a method of securing food in those areas. We see this still today in Kerala, with its natural rich biodiversity, where the home garden is the most common form of land use, and traditionally combines coconut trees, black pepper vines, and banana and pineapple plants. An embodiment of polyculture, these forest gardens also conserve crop genetic diversity.

But one does not have to live in Kerala – or even in a monsoon-prone region for that matter – to design and plant food forests that will thrive and be a significant source of food security for local populations. Food forests are starting to spring up in and close to cities around the world as a response to climate change (by minimizing the distance food must be transported to reach consumers, food-related carbon emissions are reduced) and a growing disdain for agribusinesses disconnected with local communities. And even in arid regions, rural communities are planning and planting forests, with an eye on supplementing their food and nutrition security and as a source of perennial income.

Finally, let us not forget the vital role that forests play in our overall environmental health by, among other very important things, increasing biodiversity and sequestering carbon. Tree-based farming provides resilience against extreme weather events by mitigating the effects of climate change. And forests are a crucial habitat for key pollinators of many food crops that are not grown in forests. All of this adds up to the unique and crucial role that food forests have in nourishing both the planet and rural and often marginalized communities for a healthier and more just future for all. To know more about food forests in particular and reforestation in general, please visit the website of our partner, Sadhana Forest.

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