Agroecology and permaculture: addressing key ecological problems by rethinking and redesigning agricultural systems

Abstract

This paper explores how industrial agriculture is a key contributor to many ecological problems and how redesigning agricultural systems using agroecological principles and methods could address many of these problems. Agriculture uses 85 % of freshwater and, directly or indirectly, produces nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture accounts for a large proportion of these ecological costs and also depends on high energy use and toxic chemicals. Agroecology presents an alternative paradigm of production based on ecological principles such as recycling wastes, minimizing energy and water use, maximizing genetic diversity, regenerating soil and increasing its carbon content, integrating livestock and crops into a holistic system, and promoting other beneficial biological synergies. Moreover, agroecological methods have the potential to actually boost production and farm incomes, particularly in the global South. Permaculture, perhaps the most widely practiced form of agroecology, also provides an ethical framework and principles that serve as a basis for discerning actions that enable the design of diverse, sustainable systems suited to a wide variety of cultural and ecological contexts. Widespread adoption of agroecological methods and permaculture principles could significantly reduce energy, pesticide, and freshwater usage while simultaneously restoring degraded soil, sequestering large quantities of carbon, creating more biodiverse agricultural systems, and satisfying human needs for healthy, nutritious food. As well, engaging in ecological agriculture may encourage practitioners to develop genuinely ecological dispositions and worldviews that enable them to approach problems and discern actions from a perspective that systematically promotes sustainability and social justice.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    Not all organic methods (such as those using monocultures and external inputs), however, are agroecological. In contrast, agroecological approaches are generally organic—albeit generally less focused on formal organic certification (Altieri and Nicholls 2012).

  2. 2.

    Another US study (Liebhardt 2001) comparing organic and industrial agriculture concluded that organic farming yields averaged 95 % of those obtained with industrial methods, but with far less energy and external inputs. The same study noted, however, that only 1 % of agricultural research dollars were spent investigating organic methods, so that the potential to improve organic yields is potentially large.

References

  1. Altieri MA (1995) Agroecology: the science of sustainable agriculture, 2nd edn. Westview Press, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  2. Altieri MA (2009) Agroecology, small farms, and food sovereignty. Monthly Rev 61(3):102–113

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Altieri MA, Nicholls CI (2005) Agroecology and the search for a truly sustainable agriculture. United Nations Environmental Programme, Mexico

    Google Scholar 

  4. Altieri MA, Nicholls CI (2012) Agroecology scaling up for food sovereignty and resiliency. In: Lichtfouse E (ed) Sustainable agriculture reviews, vol 11. vol 2012. Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, pp 1–29. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5449-2

    Google Scholar 

  5. Altieri MA, Funes-Monzote FR, Petersen P (2012) Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty. Agron Sustain Dev 32(1):1–13

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bates AK (2010) The biochar solution: carbon farming and climate change. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island

    Google Scholar 

  7. Beaulieu MS (2004) Manure management in Canada. Stat Canada: Farm Environ Manag Canada 1(2):1–52

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bruges J (2010) The biochar debate: charcoal’s potential to reverse climate change and build soil fertility. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction

    Google Scholar 

  9. Butler D (2013) Fungus threatens top banana. Nat Middle East 504(7479):195–196

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Chapagain A, Hoekstra A (2004) Water footprints of nations. UNESCO-IHE, Delft

    Google Scholar 

  11. Coleman R (2004) The role of permaculture in attaining global food security. Issues 69(December 2004):45–48

    Google Scholar 

  12. De Schutter O (2010) Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. UN Hum Rights Counc, New York, NY. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf. Accessed 15 January 2011

  13. Döll P, Fiedler K, Zhang J (2009) Global-scale analysis of river flow alterations due to water withdrawals and reservoirs. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 13(12):2413–2432

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. ETC. Group (2009) Who will feed us? Questions for the food and climate crisis. ETC. Group Communiqué (102):1–31

  15. FAO (1998) Women: Users, preservers and managers of agro-biodiversity. Food and Agricultural Organisation. http://www.fao.org/sd/wpdirect/wpan0025.htm. Accessed 17 Febuary 2014

  16. Ferguson RS, Lovell ST (2013) Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. a review. Agron Sustain Dev 34(2):251–274. doi:10.1007/s13593-013-0181-6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Foley JA et al (2005) Global consequences of land use. Science 309(5734):570–574

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gomiero T, Paoletti MG, Pimentel D (2008) Energy and environmental issues in organic and conventional agriculture. Crit Revs Plant Sci 27(4):239–254

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. GRAIN (2011) Food and climate change: The forgotten link. GRAIN, Barcelona, Spain. http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4357-food-and-climate-change-the-forgotten-link.pdf. Accessed 15 October 2014

  20. Heller MC, Keoleian GA (2000) Life cycle-based sustainability indicators for assessment of the US food system. Cent for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.194.9814&rep=rep1&type=pdf. Accessed 15 February 2015 doi:10.1.1.194.9814

  21. Holmgren D (2002) Principles & pathways beyond sustanability. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn

    Google Scholar 

  22. Holmgren D (2007) Essence of permaculture. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Australia. http://holmgren.com.au/downloads/Essence_of_Pc_EN.pdf. Accessed 15 October 2014

  23. Kitsteiner J (2014) Temperate climate permaculture: Nine layers of the edible forest garden. http://tcpermaculture.com/site/2013/05/27/nine-layers-of-the-edible-forest-garden/. Accessed 31 July 2014

  24. Knorr DW, Watkins TR (1984) Alterations in food production. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York

    Google Scholar 

  25. La Via Campesina (2007) Declaration of Nyéléni. Via Campesina. http://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/main-issues-mainmenu-27/food-sovereignty-and-trade-mainmenu-38/262-declaration-of-nyi. Accessed 15 October 2014

  26. LeBlanc RJ, Matthews P, Richard RP (2009) Global atlas of excreta, wastewater sludge, and biosolids management: moving forward the sustainable and welcome uses of a global resource. UN-Habitat, Nairobi

    Google Scholar 

  27. Liebhardt W (2001) Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good. Organ Farm Res Found Inf Bull 10(1):4–5

    Google Scholar 

  28. Mann CC (2005) 1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Random House LLC, New York

    Google Scholar 

  29. Mazoyer M, Roudart L (2006) A history of world agriculture: from the neolithic age to the current crisis. Earthscan, London

    Google Scholar 

  30. McIntyre BD, Harren HR, Wakhungu J, Watson RT (eds) (2009) Agriculture at a crossroads: international assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development global report. Island Press, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  31. McKibben B (2013) Don’t imagine the future—it’s already here. Organization 20(5):745–747

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. McManus B (2010) An integral framework for permaculture. J Sustain Dev 3(3):162–174

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Mollison B (1979) Permaculture two: practical design for town and country in permanent agriculture. Tagari Community Books, Maryborough, Australia

    Google Scholar 

  34. Neff RA, Parker CL, Kirschenmann FL, Tinch J, Lawrence RS (2011) Peak oil, food systems, and public health. Am J Public Health 101(9):1587–1597. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300123

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Peeters B (2012) Permaculture as alternative agriculture. Kasarinlan: Phil J Third World Stud 26(1–2):422–434

    Google Scholar 

  36. Perelman MJ (1972) Farming with petroleum. Environ: Sci Policy Sustain Dev 14(8):8–13

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Pimbert M (2009) Towards food sovereignty: reclaiming autonomous food systems. CAFS IIED and RCC, London, UK and Munich, Germany

    Google Scholar 

  38. Pimentel D (1996) Green revolution agriculture and chemical hazards. Sci Total Environ 188(1):S86–S98

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Pimentel D (2011) Food for thought: a review of the role of energy in current and evolving agriculture. Crit Rev Plant Sci 30(1–2):35–44

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Pimentel D et al (1995) Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and conservation benefits. Science 267(5201):1117–1122

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Pimentel D, Williamson S, Alexander CE, Gonzalez-Pagan O, Kontak C, Mulkey SE (2008) Reducing energy inputs in the US food system. Hum Ecol 36(4):459–471

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Pollan M (2006) The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. The Penguin Press, New York, NY

  43. Rhodes CJ (2012) Feeding and healing the world: Through regenerative agriculture and permaculture. Sci Prog 95(4). doi:10.3184/003685012X13504990668392

  44. Rodale Institute (2014) Regenerative organic agriculture and climate change: A down-to-Earth solution to global warming. Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA. http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf

  45. Rosset PM, Machin Sosa B, Roque Jaime AM, Ávila Lozano DR (2011) The Campesino-to-Campesino agroecology movement of ANAP in Cuba: social process methodology in the construction of sustainable peasant agriculture and food sovereignty. J Peasant Stud 38(1):161–191

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Shiva V (1991) The green revolution in the Punjab. Ecologist 21(2):57–60

    Google Scholar 

  47. Shiva V (2008) Soil not oil: environmental justice in a time of climate crisis. South End Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  48. Sinha SK, Talati J (2007) Productivity impacts of the system of rice intensification (SRI): a case study in West Bengal, India. Agric Water Manag 87(1):55–60

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Smith P et al (2007) Chapter 8: agriculture. In: Metz B, Davidson OR, Bosch PR, Dave R, Meyer LA (eds) Climate change 2007: mitigation. Contribution of working group III to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 497–540

    Google Scholar 

  50. Suzuki DT, McConnell A, Mason A (2007) The sacred balance: rediscovering our place in nature. Allen & Urwin, Crows Nest

    Google Scholar 

  51. Swift RS (2001) Sequestration of carbon by soil. Soil Sci 166(11):858–871

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Telford R (2015) Permaculture principles poster. Permaculture Principles. http://permacultureprinciples.com/downloads/Pc_Principles_Poster_EN.pdf. Accessed 15 February 2015

  53. Tilman D (1999) Global environmental impacts of agricultural expansion: the need for sustainable and efficient practices. Proc Natl Acad Sci 96(11):5995–6000

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Tilman D, Cassman KG, Matson PA, Naylor R, Polasky S (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418(6898):671–677

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Uphoff NT (2002) Agroecological innovations: increasing food production with participatory development. Earthscan Publications, London

    Google Scholar 

  56. Vandermeer JH (2011) The ecology of agroecosystems. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury

    Google Scholar 

  57. Veteto JR, Lockyer J (2008) Environmental anthropology engaging permaculture: moving theory and practice toward sustainability. Culture Agric 30(1–2):47–58

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Wada Y, van Beek LP, Bierkens MFP (2012) Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: a global assessment. Water Res Res 48(6):1–18. doi:10.1029/2011WR010562

    Google Scholar 

  59. Worthington V (2001) Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Alternative Complem Med 7(2):161–173

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Xuereb M (2005) Food miles: Environmental implications of food imports to Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health, Waterloo, ON. http://chd.region.waterloo.on.ca/en/researchResourcesPublications/resources/FoodMiles_Report.pdf

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark D. Hathaway.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hathaway, M.D. Agroecology and permaculture: addressing key ecological problems by rethinking and redesigning agricultural systems. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 239–250 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0254-8

Download citation

Keywords

  • Industrial agriculture
  • Water
  • Greenhouse gasses
  • Food
  • Soil
  • Biodiversity
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Ecology
  • Agroecology
  • Permaculture