Bill Mollison, the Australian father of permaculture, died last week. For those not familiar with permaculture, I would define it as a form of sustainable agriculture that incorporates lessons learnt through observing nature’s complex interactions; not every organism other than the primary crop is regarded as the enemy to be decimated. Examples include inter-planting flowering plants to attract adult lacewings and hoverflies, whose larvae predate aphids; grazing sheep under apple trees to avoid the need for mowing or spraying while recycling nutrients and producing a secondary crop of lamb and wool; coffee benefiting from the shade of bananas or papaya. Even valuing a hedgerow for shade, shelter and biodiversity could be described as permacultural thinking.
Permaculture, along with related schools like agroecology, has attracted many devoted followers but, as yet, little commercial application. Despite my irritation with some starry eyed and impractical theorists, the concepts of permaculture run through my life and represent my highest aspirations for Riverford as a farm and a business. Understanding and harnessing the complexities of the world rather than steamrolling it with one-size-fits-all solutions is the aim, though I would be first to acknowledge we have a long way to go.
So why is there so little commercial application of Mollison’s principles? Firstly because it isn’t easy; understanding all those ecological interactions requires knowledge which is beyond many farmers, for whom the primary source of information since the 1960s has been an agro-supply industry with its own agenda. It’s also because a knowledge-intensive rather than chemical-, energy- or machinery-intensive system has to do its own R&D and PR because no-one is making money from supplying them. These are all surmountable issues, but it’s no surprise that, to date, the best examples of permaculture I’ve seen have been in low wage, largely subsistence economies like rural Uganda.
The most powerful concepts are the ones that become so deeply embedded that you cannot remember life before them; they become part of you. I reckon Mollison’s ideas live on in millions, many of whom have never heard of him.