Stealing the clothes off our back

‘The sense of inferiority in the act of imitation breeds resentment. The impulse of the imitators is to overcome the model they imitate.

ERIC HOFFER, The Ordeal of Change (1964)

The relevance of this quotation will eventually become clear – as will the title of the article. In the meantime, let us wallow in a little navel gazing about Permaculture, but please bear with me.

It’s always good to see Permaculture getting exposure to a wider audience. Thus an article on forest gardening in the Royal Horticultural Society1 membership magazine got the “P” word in front of a lot of gardeners (greater than 300,000) even if it didn’t make the point that gardening (and permanent agriculture) was only one aspect of Permaculture. Small advances I guess are welcome, and the author of the article was outside of the circle of Permaculture regulars - another good sign of broadening interest.

Sometimes, you just hope for more. We can all point to examples where Permaculture has made a contribution to urban ecology/design in situations where it has provided solutions that have not been readily available from elsewhere. That’s what Permaculture thinking and design skills can achieve, but it never seems to get the recognition that it merits. And there is still the stigma that says that Permaculture is just another form of gardening, and so leave it to the community developers to do the rest. Don’t we/can’t we build capacity in communities as well, and possibly a more widely based capacity at that?

On the front that many would characterise us with – agriculture – we do even less well, with only a handful of designers and practitioners even rippling the pool of recognition in that area, and then its often on a subsistence level. Its not for the want of desire either, its just that we Permaculturists are a financially poor bunch of people, and farmland (with a dwelling!) doesn’t come cheap nowadays. Its also because there is a confusion surrounding terminology and understanding – most Permaculturists end up describing their food production as organic. This implies a dearth of distinction/definition between the two, primarily resulting from our lack of experience in practising our skills in agricultural settings and because we fail to appreciate the deliberate advantages that we as Permaculturists can bring to the situation.

Last year, I wrote a response on behalf of the Permaculture Association to the consultation from the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. I set out to review the Government’s current action on farming while at the same time highlighting the synergies there were with Permaculture, and where Permaculture and its design methodology could make a valuable and positive contribution. This was more than just a don’t scare the horses approach to getting Permaculture into the national arena. I firmly believe that Permaculture thinking and design offers a solid framework within which much of agriculture and other rural land use could be helped to improve its performance, while at the same time reducing its ecological consequence. And it was important to me that the message was about farmers and land users working out their own solutions, once they had grasped the positive advantages of a whole system approach with deliberate design and action at its core.

It would have been nice to have given some farm examples in the response but, as we all bemoan, we are still some way off that critical mass. In fact, when people start to make lists, it inevitability ends up containing a few organic farms that have been tweaked at the edges. While I would dispute that there is such a thing as a Permaculture farm, I would say that an organic farm doesn’t get anywhere near what I would expect a Permaculture farm to be.

Nearer to Permaculture in terms of evidence-based, whole system thinking, and in its deliberate design and action, is Integrated Farm Management (IFM). The basis of IFM in the UK is a farm audit from which a whole farm plan is produced. The approach is to integrate beneficial natural processes into modern farming practices using current and advancing technology (including agroforestry). Its aim is to minimise environmental risks while conserving, enhancing and recreating natural habitats. This is definitional of IFM (and of Permaculture) – it is not the aspirational wish list that characterises much of organic farming. Thus I gave IFM as an example in the consultation response, secure in the knowledge that others who take responsibility for land – such as the National Trust – would have made a similar endorsement.

No prize for guessing that Permaculture didn’t make it into the Policy Commission report (the Curry report) but then IFM hardly featured in the report either. Moreover, the report failed to set out a coherent vision for the future of farming that held out any hope for an improved understanding and better use of rural land, its integration with social policy, and the future-proofing that that requires. What we got instead was an over-emphasis on the minutiae of processes, particularly on marketing and on the multiple tiering of agri-environment schemes. We also got a continuation of the fashionable trend of treating organic farming as a separate case while omitting to balance this with any other potential evolution in farming practice. It was therefore unsurprising that a member of the Policy Commission, shortly after the release of the report, spoke out about the hijacking of the report contents by the organic farming lobby. It is worthwhile to recount part of an article in which this allegation appeared2:

Mark Tinsley, a member of the [policy] commission, has claimed that conventional agriculture was heavily outnumbered on the commission and its influence diluted. Just one more commercial farmer member would have made a considerable difference and helped to scotch the organic myth, he told a Lloyds TSB sponsored conference at the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucestershire at the weekend.

"If I failed personally on one issue in the Curry report, it was on integrated farm management," he said. "We as an industry must reinforce the work of Linking Environment and Farming as IFM is the logical, efficient and intelligent way of farming sustainably. "I believe that the organic movement has yet to establish a case that commercial organic production is viable, and I include the environmental claims."

 Organic was just one of the myths which dogged the commission’s work and would damage all efforts to revitalise the outlook for agriculture, he continued, urging the industry to put more resources into dispelling such inaccuracies.

"UK farming must note how successful spinners work and outspin them. We have to gently but firmly work away at the inaccuracies which have been foisted on us... before they, and the perception of them, get out of hand."

Spin indeed, and it goes to the heart of the lack of challenge given to the claims of organic farming and to the clamour for its adoption as the panacea for UK agriculture. What is worse for me is the revisionism that seems to go hand in hand with this. Organic farming seems to be reinventing itself every time someone recognises that its just not cool to dwell on its fascist origins (the 1930’s were an interesting time for inherited landowners) or that it is fixated on mixed farming and the Norfolk rotation (which ends up with land being depleted of soil minerals and ripped apart) or that it is entrenched in a quasi-philosophy that has simplistic notions of least harm based on an Arcadian (and paternalistic) view of English agriculture from the 18th and 19th century.

I hear the spluttering that the foregoing may have provoked, and I understand the argument that we should be pleased that organic farming can move on. But lets take a look at some of this revisionism and re-invention so that we can make a judgement about its sincerity.

I’m signed up to an email discussion group on ecological agriculture that has the complacent stench about it that organic farming is the best (and only) thing since the invention of sliced bread. Every so often, this smugness is challenged by real discussion, and then some interesting things tend to spring out. Recently, in one of these melees, someone from the Scottish Agricultural College claimed that organic farming is:

a system of production based on a distinct set of ethical, biological, financial and social objectives”

Where did this come from? Just because you say this is so (wish it were so?) doesn’t suddenly make it definitional of organic farming - as it is in Permaculture with its ethical underpinning. It is also not the abiding memory I have from sitting around the table at Soil Association Council meetings and seeing the glazed-eye indifference there to anything to do with ethics, ecology or social issues. However, full marks for their venal interest in financial objectives.

In another part of this melee, two people (one from CSIRO and another from the Australian Conservation Foundation) questioned the applicability of organic farming to land conditions found in Australia. A key point from one was the inflexibility of organic farming in adapting in response to changing circumstances and knowledge. A quote from the other revealed:

Is organic farming really ecologically sustainable in the Australian context, or have we just imported another European-style farming system fundamentally unsuited to our unique ecosystems?

Such delicious irony from the homeland of Permaculture, and it was backed up by another who had experience of Australian conditions. But then he said something really strange –that the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) organic principles can be applied to Australian, and other very-non-European ecosystems and climates. I doubt if many of you have seen these 11 principles, and laudable as they are (in the way that we all love our mothers and apple pie) they are not in anyway elucidatory, as are the design principles that define the approach of Permaculture. Nor have I seen organic farmers falling over themselves to go on courses to explore what they mean or how to use them, or implement them.

For our next examples of revisionism and reinvention, we must turn to the Colloquium of Organic Researchers. A meeting in the early days of this group was about Participatory Action Research, which even I would have difficulty finding fault with as it is what most Permaculturists undertake during site design, and in ongoing development and maintenance. More recently, the COR held a conference on UK Organic Research and two papers caught my eye. One was about using mixed species cropping to manage pests and diseases. A quote for you from that paper:

In this paper, although we present the potential role of mixed species cropping in pest and disease management, we argue that it will only be when it’s full potential as a provider of a range of eco-services have been fully quantified and recognised that it will be widely adopted by growers in organic production systems.

By eco-services, they mean improvements in soil fertility management, prevention of erosion and improved water management, as well as suppression of pests and diseases. Maybe they should have just passed out copies of the Permaculture Designers Manual because from it they could learn about guilds and polyculture - and thus much of what they need to know about harnessing and maintainining eco-services. But this blind spot for anything that exists outside their own little world gets even worse.

Another paper talks about functional biodiversity as related to plant communities. The paper argues that a progression from monoculture to polyculture, “typified by the forest gardens of Java”, results in higher yields of biomass compared to plants growing independently, and breaks dependence on external inputs other than light, air and water. The author, associated with a well-known organic farm research centre, then makes the claim that their programme of moving towards higher levels of biodiversity in the cropping system is not present in any other current system of agriculture. Brave words - and what should make the author shamefaced is that he then goes on to describe his plans for a demonstration system of agroforestry that has perennial tree crops underplanted with intercropping, and run with free range chickens.

If Graham Bell, that authentic pioneer in British Permaculture, ever gets to read that paper, he has the offer of both my shoulders to cry on – for he set up just these types of agroforestry systems (and more) many years ago and has never been given the recognition that he deserved for it.

So now you know who is stealing the clothes right off our backs, and you may have observed recently that it is not just in agricultural organisations that revisionism and reinvention are becoming the thieves of Permaculture. These are gross imitations of Permaculture that are not flattering as they come without any form of recognition or reference. Their effect is to diminish Permaculture in return for their own self-aggrandisement. I reserve for it the worse determination I can ever make about anything – and that is that I think it is fundamentally unprincipled.

Mark Fisher, 25 June 2002

1. ‘Sustaining a Vision of Self-Sufficiency’, Allan Shepherd, The Garden: Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, Vol. 127, pg. 446, June 2002

2. The Scotsman newspaper, 26 February 2002