Pondering permaculture

I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.


I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.

We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.

As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.


Chris Smaje


8 thoughts on “Pondering permaculture

  1. Well I could hardly agree more. You sir, are sucking the wind out of a quibbler’s sails. When offered a framing wherein disputants argue natural vs unnatural, or speak of nature mimicry as though what we Homo sapiens occupy ourselves with tends to not be natural in the first place – well for those assumptions I want to push back. But I don’t see this as you directly engaging those framings, more reporting that they exits (as they do). Its all niche construction, and we’re very accomplished at it.

    What can be accomplished by plant breeding is pretty remarkable. But I will also accede that when a long entrenched ecological system comes into existence it will likely take herculean efforts to be overcome. So your assessment of perennial grains is only a tiny bit less optimistic than my own.

    Practicality. Making the choices that work. Hard to ague against from where I stand.

  2. Thanks for those comments, gents. A harsh question, Michael, but not a wholly unfair one. And thanks for the link to Jahi Chappell, a much valued contributor to this blog, and much of value too in his thoughts there. If you’re reading this Jahi, an advance welcome to England – do get in touch with me when you’re here! Clem, yes agreed on the problematic concept of ‘the natural’. I think there may still be some mileage in the term, but it’s a knotty one philosophically. The Land Institute’s ‘natural systems agriculture’ doesn’t quite cut it for me.

  3. Maybe its special version of isolationism is permaculture’s “original sin” – being very open towards non-native species (its version of gentrified multiculturalism), yet highly suspicious of any form of fertilizer.
    The stuff that has to be designed out of the system.
    The stuff that reeks of trade, of having to negotiate with vendors of unclean raw materials.

    (I just read ‘Growing Green’. You could almost miss the part where they state that their non-fertilizer comes from non-organic (let alone non-vegan) straw.)

  4. Hmm interesting.
    But maybe we could look at this grain-thing from a very different angle; the consumers.
    As it turns out there is more and more research and/or evidence pointing out that grain really is not fit for human consumption and that is one of the factors causing or contributing to our current deluge of modern diseases. I find it more likely that, as more of this information reaches the mainstream population, the demand for grain and the products based on that, might decline. Maybe even so much so that development of a perennial grainspecies will no longer be needed.

  5. Chris,

    The obvious point surely is that if we were to eat less meat, and in particular not feed grain to animals then many of the issues about grain monoculture would disappear

  6. @Michael – interesting comments, as always. Hmmm, the issue of trade vs autonomy. I need to address that another time. I think my argument there would be towards the middle ground – you can have too much trade, and you can have too little.

    @Ron – that may well be true. The interesting question then is how (and whether) we can provide for human needs without grain-based agricultures. That would be a profound change indeed.

    @John – that also may well be true. I’ll have to look at the figures more closely. Though even feeding the 7+ billion without the intermediary of livestock poses some interesting problems.

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