Permaculture and Biodiversity

Written by Dave
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Roundabout in Flanders Roundabout in Flanders Dave Meyer

Biodiversity is the hallmark of a healthy ecosystem.  The rain forests, the African savannahs - wherever there is a significant amount of biodiversity, you can be sure that the natural environment is running in top form and with little human interference.  However, where human settlement encroaches, things often change, with habitat destruction as the seemingly inevitable result, and plummeting biodiversity just behind. 


Permaculture, or permanent agriculture, is an attempt to resolve this conflict, and to allow people to live fulfilling lives without having to destroy the environment to do so.  To see just how, let's very briefly look at three different models for human interaction with the environment: industrial agriculture, large-scale organic agriculture, and permaculture.

In an industrial system - the system which dominates much of the world today - food is grown in vast monocultures, ranging into thousands of hectares in size.  The result for biodiversity is catastrophic. These fields are planted with one crop, using chemical fertilizer. And when insects or fungi or "weeds" come to the area which can feed on that single crop, the plants are sprayed with pesticides or fungicides or herbicides. Over time, the chemicals kill almost all insect and microbial life in the soil. Over a thousand hectare farm, biodiversity is essentially reduced to two species: the single (increasingly genetically modified) crop and the farmer who tends it.  

In a large-scale organic system, there is no use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.  That all is good news for our water and soil and so it's definitely a step in the right direction as far as biodiversity is concerned.  At the same time though, organic pesticides are used to control "pests" and a lot of weeding is required to keep out invasive "weeds."  The system is incredibly labor-intensive, and it operates with the same essential model as the industrial system: a row of a single crop with as little competing plants and insects as possible.   Biodiversity, in this case, is better than in an industrial system, but it is still far from the ideal ecosystems mentioned above.

As for the third model, permaculture, a little background is in order.  

Permaculture was founded in the seventies by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.  The two men were avid outdoorsmen and environmentalists, increasingly distraught at what they saw as the destruction of the natural world by human beings.  The fish they had fished as young men were starting to disappear, the same for the animals they had hunted; the stars they had looked up at night were blurred by pollution.

Mollison was walking in a forest in Tasmania when an alternative hit him.  The trees, the bushes, the vines, the insects and birds and mammals and microbes: this was the model that humans needed to follow, he realized.  The rainforest is the most densely-packed and productive ecosystem in the world, all of this because of its biodiversity. Forests don't need pesticides, fertilizers, or even compost, and they don't need laborious weeding either.  By modeling human agriculture and human habitats on the natural world rather than in opposition to it - by working with nature rather than against nature, humans and biodiversity could live side by side.  This is permanent agriculture: permaculture.

But still maybe this is all a bit abstract: how can a forest be a model for human agriculture?  Well, for starters, in a forest, plants grow vertically rather than horizontally - there are the long-lived canopy trees on top, then the shorter-lived understory below.  Up and down both levels grow vines, and then lower down are bushes and shrubs down to the leafy ground-cover.  More than that even: plants grow through different times too, with different plants providing fruit throughout the year as opposed to the traditional agriculture model of just one or two annual harvests per thousand hectares.  

Permaculture is the science of setting up just such a system but geared towards human consumption.  We plant edible trees and plants on these various levels, with some inedible plants included to nurture the soil or attract beneficial insects for pesticide-free pest control.  An abundance of slugs?  Add ducks.  Too many nettles?  Plant a different carbon-loving plant in the same space - or better yet, make nettle soup and nettle tea.  

The result is clear: greater productivity and greater biodiversity for less work.  With all the increasingly distressing environmental news, permaculture can offer a positive way to promote the sustainable health of the planet and all its inhabitants. 

By Dave Meyer 

For more information on permaculture there are heaps of sites available online. Here is a small sample:

Happy Gardening!

This artivle was originally published in the November 2011 edition of the Sunbeams Newsletter.

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