Policy Commission on the Future of Food and Farming - A Consultation Response

1. As citizens, consumers and taxpayers what should we expect of the countryside, farming and the food sector?


2. Against that background, what is good about farming (as land manager and food producer) and the food sector at present that we should try to preserve, and what are the problems?

3. What factors are driving these good and bad aspects and how?







4. What can be done to make things better:

a. in the short-term

b. in the medium to long-term

This is a response on behalf of the Permaculture Association to the consultation from the Policy Commission for the Future of Farming and Food.


Recent global satellite mapping of the relative areas of human modification of land and of remaining natural ecology shows the UK as having been almost entirely transformed through agriculture and, to a lesser extent, by settlement (Atlas of Population and Environment, American Association for Advancement of Science, 2001). Our lack of any significant areas of undisturbed, natural ecology places a primary duty on land users in the UK to minimise the ecological consequence of their activities. Without this endeavour, we run the risk that we will be unable to maintain or will lose elements of the natural, self-regulating systems that have supported life throughout history.

Farming is estimated to use about three-quarters of our total land area and thus its contribution to the maintenance of natural systems is potentially the greatest. Human food production, which is unlikely to be carried out without ecological consequence, will therefore need continuing review with the aim of systematically reducing and minimising its impact. At the same time, this transforming agriculture should be assessed against meeting the nutritional needs of the populace and for the socio-economic viability of its production.

There is not necessarily a panacea for this transformation of agriculture. We believe, however, that Permaculture (defined below) has much to offer in this transformation because its central tenet is the crucial importance of natural self-regulating systems. We have identified a number of current Government themes in rural development that we believe are complimentary with Permaculture and which could benefit from its involvement. And we seek to identify the support that Permaculture Design can provide to rural land users seeking change and who may do this through existing strategies and programmes.


Permaculture is an evidence-based earth science arising from protracted observation of natural, self-regulating systems. People trained in an understanding of Permaculture aim to provide sustainable design solutions for living systems, whether people, animal or plant. An ethical framework underpins Permaculture and it strengthens the potential for success in achieving this aim. The framework is very similar to but predates the values espoused by the Bruntland Commission to define sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) and which were explored in detail in Agenda 21 delivered at the first Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development, 1992). Thus the design process looks at the whole system and seeks to integrate the effective working of all of its components while minimising external inputs and closing the cycles of resource use. People and their social structures are fully represented components in the whole-system design as the ethical framework ensures that Permaculture actively seeks co-operation and participation in the design process and in the design solution.

The Permaculture Design system combines key design principles and developed design methodologies emerging from the earth science, with traditional macro design processes that would be familiar in engineering and landscape architecture. Its land use application is sometimes described as ecological engineering or cultivated ecology. Permaculture Design was developed as recently as the 1970's and as such has had little time to create an impact. Where it has been successful, it is mainly in rural areas often undergoing climatic or interventionary stress, or where indigenous populations seek to make better use of their land resources. In some regions of the world, it has taken its place alongside other extension services provided through external funding.

In England, with its predominantly urban population, the use of Permaculture Design is seen most in community initiated urban land use projects that have a significant element of people involvement. The adoption of Local Agenda 21 processes in many local authority areas has been a fertile ground for its development. Its adoption in rural areas has been much less, reflecting possibly the conservative nature of our rural land use, but also the continuing immobility of rural land between current users and would-be new users.


Our answer to this question will mainly be covered alongside the driving factors asked for in Question 3.

The Permaculture Association considers the immobility of rural land to be a significant restraint on one potential driver for rural change. Farming properties change ownership or tenancy infrequently and the entry price to farming is often a barrier. Examples, however, do exist where a new breed of rural artisan has created high and varied productivity in small-scale enterprises through specialising and through value-added products. This stimulus to local food and craft economies is restrained by a planning system that has a presumption against allowing new low impact building in open countryside. We believe the condition of habitation is often an essential requirement in the running of these agricultural and forestry activities and will also act as an inducement for the potential artisans to commit to this entrepreneurial path. Along with others, the Permaculture Association is developing recommendations for the reform of PPG7 that will form the basis of discussions with Government.


It is not necessary to invoke another crisis in livestock farming to appreciate a continuing need for appraisal of land use in the English Countryside. The report from the Policy and Innovation Unit - Rural Economies (1999) - signalled the Government's intention to set in train a review of the constraints on business use of rural land. The Rural White Paper that followed - Our Countryside: The Future (2000) - began the process of identifying legislation in need of reform and in signalling Government action on both farming and the countryside. The White Paper built on the Government's New Direction for Agriculture (1999) and the Action Plan for Farming (2000), and shows the link between the medium-term future of our countryside and the new funding streams developed through the EC Rural Development Regulation - the second pillar of support of the Common Agricultural Policy. Government has thus targeted 1.6 billion of this funding over the next seven years, through the English Rural Development Programme (ERDP) for initiatives that will enable rural enterprise to better meet the needs of consumers, increase the ability to adapt and diversify, and to ensure that development and enterprise is carried out in an environmentally responsible way.


In introducing the ERDP in October 2000, Nick Brown, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, highlighted the need for change in rural areas. He explained that the ERDP takes a broad view of the needs of rural areas and that the programme offers an integrated set of schemes that emphasise regional and local issues and which encourage the development of ideas at grassroots level. Mr Brown sought the continued involvement of the partnerships formed in putting the programme together and called for all others with an interest to play their part.

The Permaculture Association agrees with the need for change in rural areas and supports the broad-view approach adopted in the ERDP. It is our belief that the application of Permaculture through its well-established design methodology can help in producing many of the outcomes sought in the ERDP and in other strategies developed by the Government, such as in the draft Soil Strategy for England (2001); Towards Sustainable Agriculture: A Pilot Set of Indicators (2000); exploration of non-food crops in the Food Chain and Crops for Industry Panel initiative of the Foresight programme (2000) and the setting up of the Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops; and the forestry strategy in A New Focus for England's Woodlands (1998).

While farming for food is the predominant land use in the English Countryside, the thrust of the ERDP is to support in addition the development of non-food land uses such as forestry, energy crops and crops for industry. In a broader sense, the programmes to promote environmental management are also a land use since they emphasise biodiversity. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme in particular, targets the conservation and enhancement of English landscapes, its features and habitats such as chalk and limestone grassland, lowland heath, watersides, coasts, uplands, historic landscapes, traditional orchards, old meadows and pastures, the countryside around towns including Community Forests, traditional field boundaries and the margins of arable fields. Thus farming takes on a much wider role in the landscape and we believe this role could be exemplified by a descriptive term that has increasing currency - Integrated Farming Systems.


IFS arose from the growing concern over the impact that the heavy use of chemical inputs in agricultural production might have on the ecology of rural areas. Chemical inputs present a dilemma for both farmers and society because these inputs seem to have positive effects on the quantity and quality of farm products, while at the same time imposing costs on farmers, as well as on society. For instance, the use of synthetic pesticides in crop protection programs around the world has resulted in ecological disturbance, pest resurgence and resistance to pesticides, and sometimes lethal effects on non-target organisms. This has led to the development of a range of evidence-based farm management systems that provide an alternative to that mainstream. Farming systems that use Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Control and which consider the farm on a whole-system basis are using a wide range of approaches to integrate natural processes into agricultural production. An exemplar of this is the demonstration farms network of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farmers) a charity based at the National Agricultural Centre. LEAF promotes IFS through its audit procedure that provides a structured way for farmers to monitor their farming systems, help determine their priorities and set targets for action to adopt a fully integrated farming approach. We understand the Government supports the need for development of IFS and we welcome this.

The aims through this whole-system approach are conserving resources, minimising external inputs through a greater reliance on craft and management skills combined with contemporary and timely information, and of minimal cultivation techniques where appropriate. These aims are entirely consistent with the principles and practice of Permaculture. The reduction in use of synthetic external inputs that results creates a continuum of improving farming practice. We believe that IFS will have the greatest chance of overall acceptance by the farming community, and thus this continuum has the potential to deliver a significant beneficial impact across the whole of the English countryside. The Association is joined in this support for IFS by the National Trust in their recent document Farming Forward (2001); by the Countryside Agency in their document A strategy for sustainable land management (2001); and by the Fabian Society in their document New Farming for Britain - Towards a National Plan for Reconstruction (2001).

Permaculture has as a principle the creation and maintenance of biodiversity through enhancement or creation of habitats and regeneration of landscapes. This is an important contribution to IFS in that it can provide the refuges for beneficial pest predators that substitute for the use of synthetic pesticides. These planned habitats may also make a contribution to overall farm productivity by the choice of plant and tree species that can provide additional yields.


Agricultural soils are subject to continuous extractive processes through farming, but they can be managed to make a significant contribution to biodiversity. We welcome the drafting of the first strategy for soil in England. In that strategy, it is recognised that the agri-environment schemes of the ERDP (ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE AREAS SCHEME, the COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP SCHEME and the ORGANIC FARMING SCHEME) play their part by focussing on sympathetic land management and particularly through requiring farmers to adhere to the Soil Code (The Code of Good Agricultural Practice for the Protection of Soil, 1998).

The reduction and more careful use of artificial fertilisers and the better management of landspreading of organic manures are key elements of good soil management. Permaculture however places a greater emphasis on strategies that obviate the need for external inputs and which allow long-term sustainable land use. The goal is to make effective use of all the soil's resources in a location rather than just those contained and externally replaced in topsoil. Physical mixing of soil horizons is not effective and, traditionally, remineralising of topsoil has been carried out by growing suitably deep rooting plants and the use of legumes. Deciduous trees through their leaf litter are able to cycle minerals between subsoil and topsoil. In addition to trees, Permaculture practitioners use deep rooting herbaceous perennials and monocarpic plants (as well as the legumes) to achieve this in a deliberate and demonstrable way. Thus it is not reliant on the philosophic assumption of other farming systems that depend on rotations and the return of crop residues, livestock and manuring, all processes that seem to recycle or horizontally redistribute only topsoil nutrient.

We welcome the WOODLAND GRANT SCHEME and the FARM WOODLAND PROTECTION SCHEME as being drivers to increase woodland coverage in the English Countryside, and obtain the recognised benefits of trees. It needs to be explored whether these schemes can be utilised to broaden the use of trees in farming in the form of agroforestry, and thus promote, in addition, long-term sustainable land use (and see Agroforestry for Soil Management, Anthony Young, CAB International/ICRAF, 1997). One form of agroforestry is a combination of grazing underneath productive trees planted at a low density. Traditionally, this would have been called wood pasture. The contemporary term agroforestry, however, stresses the varied and productive potential of both elements such that the ground cover could be arable or market garden crops instead of pasture, and the trees could provide fruit, wood and timber (and see Temperate Agroforestry Systems, Andrew Gordon & Steven Newman, CAB International, 1997).


The ENERGY CROPS SCHEME of the ERDP is to be welcomed as evidence of the Government's recognition that an increasing number of non-food plant substitutes will be needed for many of the non-renewable resources that society consumes today. They will certainly be a new commercial opportunity for farmers and it is important that applications to the scheme are to be subjected to environmental checks to ensure that ecological impact is minimised. We would draw attention to the farm research entitled Combined Food and Energy Systems for more Efficient Land Use and Sustainable Production carried out by Institute of Arable Crops Research. The general objectives of the research are to evaluate the potential for developing farming systems which provide nutritious food in conjunction with valuable non-food renewable energy biomass crops, as a financially viable alternative to the set-a-side option. It is also examining the feasibility, environmental benefits and economic viability of alternative arable systems of production that integrate renewable energy (biomass) crops with food crops and perennial vegetation. Permaculture favours a more perennial landscape for the reduction in ecological disturbance that it provides and for its benefits for soil management, more diverse yields, habitat (refuge) creation and pest control.

As the Forestry Commission has demonstrated, suitable location and design are significant factors in developing short rotation coppice in the landscape. This task would be familiar work for a Permaculture Designer who seeks always to successfully match plants and trees to the various conditions found in the landscape, allowing quite often a considerably greater diversity than previously existed. It is probably for this reason that a recent report on Crops for Sustainable Enterprise (2000) produced for The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, concluded that Permaculture Design provided one of the ideal routes for realising sustainable non-food crop production. The Permaculture Association maintains a register of experienced and professionally qualified Permaculture Designers who can provide their services to land users. Alternatively, the land users themselves can be trained in Permaculture Design.


Last year, we noted the consultation on training that will assist with the modernisation and improvement of agricultural and forestry holdings (Consultation on England Rural Development Plan: proposals for a training scheme, May 2000). We welcome the VOCATIONAL TRAINING SCHEME (VTS) that has arisen from it. The emphasis on a "needs based" and vocational approach to the training, delivered "in location" makes this scheme another powerful driver for rural change. It has similarities with the delivery of Permaculture education, as will be described below, and we will be exploring the potential for the VTS to enable Permaculture training in rural areas.

Finally, while it must obviously be right to build up diverse skills as the VTS can do, there is also a need for a general improvement in enterprise and marketing skills, and support given for all the creative and imaginative ideas that can bring about rural regeneration. Permaculture has a strong emphasis on placement, locality and diversity of yield, as is reflected in its support for the concept and principles of bioregionalism. (Bioregionalism identifies areas by hydrological, ecological and cultural characteristics rather than administrative boundaries.) The design imperatives of keeping energy cycling locally by encouraging diverse production and consumption within the same locality, and the efforts to open up alternative economic opportunities locally through direct marketing, investment harvesting and exchange (such as LETS - Local Exchange Trading Schemes) are defining of the contribution that Permaculture can make.

We also recognise that the RURAL ENTERPRISE SCHEME (RES) aims to do this as it provides assistance for projects that help to develop more sustainable, diversified and enterprising rural economies and communities. Its coverage is wide-ranging but the primary aim is to help farmers and rural communities to adapt to changing markets and develop new business opportunities. Here are some of the areas it will be funding and to which Permaculture Design may also make a contribution: setting up of farm relief and farm management services; marketing of quality agricultural products; renovation and development of villages and protection and conservation of the rural heritage; diversification of agricultural activities and activities close to agriculture to provide multiple activities or alternative incomes; agricultural water resources management; development and improvement of infrastructure connected with the development of agriculture; encouragement for tourist and craft activities; and protection of the environment in connection with agriculture, forestry and landscape conservation as well as with the improvement of animal welfare.


Permaculture education has a Design Course at its centre. This course delivers a developed system of design principles and tools, and a body of core knowledge that enables the designer to tackle many settings, whether urban or rural, people or place. Much of our understanding of Permaculture relies on seeing the whole picture. Thus training in Permaculture Design follows the same pattern where learners are immersed in a comprehensive and concerted programme of a 72-hour course for the Certificate of Permaculture Design. It is unlikely to be understood or well learnt in a piecemeal fashion. Additional topics in the course, outside of the core subjects, relate either to the local conditions of where the course is taking place or to the particular strengths and experience of the teachers. The Permaculture Association supports Permaculture teachers and development of the Certificate course through its education programme.

Permaculture Design teachers are used to a peripatetic delivery of their service as they are often responding to the self-identified demand in communities and their locations for Permaculture education. Most teachers are also experienced working Permaculture Designers, who have continued their professional development by attaining the Diploma of Permaculture Design after a minimum period of two years of applying Permaculture Design. The Diploma is awarded by peer review through the Permaculture Academy (Britain) and it entitles the holders to represent themselves as professionals in Permaculture Design enterprises and public services. Permaculture is a word whose copyright is vested by its originator Bill Mollinson in national Permaculture organisations and their graduate associations. This was recognised as a means to safeguard consistency in Permaculture education and in the representation of Permaculture services. It thus serves a similar function to produce assurance schemes, but certifies the person rather than the process or product, as is the case in most professions.




An interim review of the effectiveness of the ERDP is shortly to be carried out by DEFRA. We would encourage this review to consider extending the current period of seven years and to allocate more funding to it, up to the limit allowed in the RDR. We would also encourage Government to continue with creating a UK identity for agricultural policy in distinction to, but contributing to, a European Union policy.

A new funding area in the ERDP should be set up which provides overt support for whole farm audits, planning and management in relation to integrated farming systems. We note that Derbyshire County Council has recently advertised a contract that offers example for this, as does LEAF. The contract is for the production of Whole Farm Environmental Action Plans for devising conservation action programmes. And, in addition, the production of Farm Analysis reports -issues to include farm activity and resources, geography, climate, land use, conservation features and values, tourism opportunities, planning and development, and appraisals for action.

We encourage Government and the agricultural community to restore and maintain confidence in food production by better communication to increase understanding and reduce uncertainty, and to promote the positive policies, funding opportunities (particularly through the Rural Development Service) and good examples that exist at present and that continue to be developed.

Dr Mark Fisher 22 October 2001

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk