A necessary transition from industrial agriculture to permaculture.

Global human population growth increased rapidly with the industrial revolution (Figure 1), and with it came the need for an increase in food and resource production. As agricultural production skyrocketed, so has the use of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, animal foodstuffs and heavy machinery [1]. Although these may facilitate production, they also have negative impacts on the environment. These methods and products, particularly pesticides, cause damage to the land, local flora and fauna, fisheries, human health and increase the virulence of many agricultural pests [2]. Due to the large land area and manipulation of that land, industrial agriculture has been deemed one of the largest contributors to loss of global biodiversity [3].

World population

Figure 1: A graph showing human population growth from 200A.D. with an exponential growth beginning in 1900 with the industrial revolution. Source <>

A shift towards permaculture

With all of these negatives it is hard to believe that we are still producing food in this way. Yet, there seems to be a shift from agriculture to agroecology, with a growing global following for permaculture. Now if I am to be completely honest…this is a relatively new term for me which Belinda Bean, Macquarie University’s Sustainability Officer, did a fantastic job of passionately explaining.
Permaculture is a design system, mimicking patterns and relationships in nature through direct observation, to produce an abundance of food and resources for human benefit in a sustainable way [4]. Ms Bean explained that it involves designing landscapes with the needs, products and intrinsic factors in mind so as to best make use of the land. This means that the land is split into zones, where the first zone closest to the centre contains what you access most often, such as compost. As you move outwards, the zones become larger, encompassing the food forest, water bodies and animals etc. The fifth and largest zone is a wild system with natural vegetation, with a wild corridor crossing through all of the zones to the centre (Figure 2).


Figure 2: The 5 zones of permaculture. Image by Felix Müller – own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, <>

Permaculture is built upon a set of ethics and principles, which give the movement another element; it is not only a way of increasing yield, but it is also a lifestyle, enhancing unity and community participation. Ms. Bean spoke of the three core ethics; care of the earth – rebuilding the top soil and using soil as a measure of environmental wellbeing; care of people – self, kin and the community; and fair share – setting limits and redistributing the surplice (Figure 3). Being a girl who has spent her entire life in the northern suburbs of Sydney, with barely the ability to name my neighbours, this concept pulls at me. It paints a beautiful picture of people working together for the benefit of our personal health and the health of our environment.

permaculture ethics

Figure 3: The three ethics; earth care, people care and fair share. Source <>

There were two more particular things about permaculture that really stuck with me. It involves crop rotation, where different crops are planted in succession with different harvesting dates. This is a great, biological way to reduce the likelihood of disease wiping out an entire crop, or a single weed species or pest from dominating [3]. It also embodies the idea that weeds are not weeds, just extremely hard working immigrants. Ms Bean explained that if there are weeds in your garden, use that as an indicator of the health of your soil, and replace the weed with a native or beneficial plant with the same function.

So what is stopping the spread of permaculture?

Unfortunately when the founders, Mollison and Holmgren, first published about permaculture in 1978, there was a largely negative response from the academic world [5]. The holistic view, encompassing agriculture, design, architecture, animal husbandry, forestry and biology, was seen as a joke and not readily accepted [5]. This has led to a lack of coordination between scientists and permaculture practitioners, preventing the spread of permaculture.
Fortunately people like Ms. Bean are spreading the word and getting scientists involved, so as to bridge the gap in permaculture and scientific literature. Ms. Bean has even created a permaculture garden at the Sustainability Cottage on campus at Macquarie University which you can book in for a guided tour.

5 ways to help you begin your permaculture journey:

  1. Now is the perfect time to begin your adventure as this Sunday 6th May 2016 is Permaculture Day, and there are a tonne of events around NSW to learn about this wonderful movement.
  2. There are many courses and events run around Australia. Macquarie University also runs lots of workshops from the Sustainability Cottage.
  3. Start your own garden. It doesn’t matter if you have a tiny balcony; you can apply permaculture to any space. If this guy can do it with this space, you can too.
  4. Buy a book! There are so many great books, short and long, dedicated to introducing you to permaculture.
  5. If you really don’t have the space at  home, join a community garden. This is a fantastic way to meet other like-minded people. If you’re living in Australia you can find a garden near you by clicking here.


[1] Pretty, J. N. (1995) Participatory learning for sustainable agriculture. World Development. 23(8): 1247-1263.
[2] Wilson, C & Tisdell, C. (2001) Why farmers continue to use pesticides despite environmental, health and sustainability costs. Ecological Economics. 39: 449-462.
[3] McLaughlin, A., & Mineau, P. (1995) The impact of agricultural practices on biodiversity. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 55: 201-212.
[4] Ferguson, R.S., & Lovell, S. T. (2014) Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice and worldview. A review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 34: 251-274.
[5] Veveto, J. R., & Lockyer, J. (2008) Environmental anthropology engaging permaculture: moving theory and practice towards sustainability. Culture & Agriculture. 30(1&2): 47-58.

Feature image: Vegetable Garden by Kristine Paulus

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