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Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview by Rafter Sass Ferguson  RSS feed

 
Neil Layton
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Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. A review by Rafter Sass Ferguson and Sarah Taylor Lovell

Open access journal article in Agronomy for Sustainable Development April 2014, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 251-274, DOI: 10.1007/s13593-013-0181-6

This should be a permalink: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13593-013-0181-6
 
Neil Layton
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I give this paper 8.5 out of 10 acorns.

I would give it more, but recognise it's not for everybody. It's definitely worth a read if you want to understand the limitations of permaculture, especially if you want to help to address them.

I'm participating in a read-through of Eric Toensmeier's new book The Carbon Farming Solution http://www.permies.com/t/55829//Read-Carbon-Farming-Solution-Eric. This volume has the potential, if he's right and can back it up, to rewrite the rules of the entire agriculture game, and permaculture may be ahead in playing by a version of the new rules. In order to ascertain whether he's right and can back it up, someone needs to check his references. I can't check all of them, but I am checking many of those that interest me, either because they have the potential to influence my own plans and practice, or because they have the potential to support or undermine practices which may be less than sustainable.

One of Toensmeier's strengths is that he goes out of his way to cite his sources, and is good at acknowledging when he doesn't have one. Some of those sources are weak. That's not – usually – Toensmeier's fault, but it comes back to a simple matter of scientific method. When a scientist makes a statement as a scientist, as distinct from expressing an opinion, other scientists will expect her to cite her evidence. This is not a demand to “prove it”, but an expectation that it's possible to read and explore the reasons for her conclusions. That's what I'm trying to do in my read-through, but some of the papers merit closer inspection. I think this is one of them.

I'm aware that many readers on this site lack a scientific background, so I'm going to give a quick introduction to assessing scientific papers for validity. You can skip this bit if you already know this.

In assessing the validity of a scientific paper a few quick questions need to be asked. The first is about possible sources of bias: at its simplest, who are the authors and who pays them. Are they being funded by a vested interest? Most academic journals expect authors to make such declarations. This journal appears to be weak on this (this can be a red flag – it's not necessarily a problem, but usually warrants further digging, just in case). Sarah Lovell is an Associate Professor of Landscape Agroecology at The Multifunctional Landscape Analysis and Design Lab at the University of Illinois, which studies “the research and development of sustainable solutions for our working lands.” Rafter Ferguson is one of her graduate students but, with his name first on the paper, it seems likely that he wrote it under supervision from Lovell: this is a common arrangement for PhD graduate students. There is nothing immediately obvious that suggests that there might be any conflicts of interest, although it's not immediately clear who might be funding the lab, but it's probably directly funded by the university, with Ferguson paying his own fees, one way or another. This means it's unlikely to have an industry agenda and is unlikely to be biased by them. This is a good sign.

The second question is whether the article has been peer-reviewed. There are issues with the peer-review process, and it can be tricky to ascertain whether this has been compromised but, with the authors not apparently funded by industry, there are good odds that peer-review in this paper is probably solid. If the reviewers have done their jobs they will have checked methods, references and conclusions.

Lastly, we need to know whether it's been published in a respectable journal. There are journals out there willing to publish any old crap for a sufficient fee (this journal is not one of them) and consequently have a low impact on other research. This journal “has a 2014 impact factor of 3.992, ranking it 2nd out of 81 journals in the category "Agronomy"”. That's a very good sign. The paper has been cited by 22 other publications, which isn't bad in a niche field of study.

This is probably a good paper with reliable conclusions.

We also need to know whether it supports the assertion made by the person who referred us to the paper. I'll come back to that.

As one would expect, the authors do not bother to stint on their polysyllabic vocabulary: this is not a document to be read without some grounding in both agroecology and review methods. They treat permaculture as a branch of agroecology, with some justification, although we might debate this. They note that permaculture and agroecology have much to learn from each other, but that the scientific grounding for permaculture is lacking, although this is changing, and that there has been a problem with oversimplified claims and a lack of a clear definition: I dispute none of this and have made the same observations, as have others.

The paper contains a useful description of what permaculture is and where it emerged from. Perhaps the most interesting aspect, at least to me, is the influence of the ecologist H. T. Odum, who developed the concept of systems ecology, with which permaculture practitioners will be familiar as a result of their understanding of energy flow and transformation described by, among others, Holmgren and Mollison. I still consider this a useful, if oversimplified, model. Odum was also influential in the development of ecological engineering, in which he proposed that organisms can be interchanged in a novel ecosystem without regard to their place of origin. I now consider this naïve, and potentially harmful to existing ecosystems, and directly contradicts Mollison's dicta about preserving such ecosystems. The biologist and ecologist E. O. Wilson has compared Odum's viewpoint to phrenology. Unfortunately, part of Toensmeier's approach is clearly influenced by Odum, with the potential problems this implies and the impact on design considerations when applying his work in both The Carbon Farming Solution and in Edible Forest Gardens. This article lacks a critical analysis of Odum's work, but this would have been beyond its remit, although such criticisms would be familiar to many readers of this paper.

That said, this has enabled permaculture to develop a distinctive approach, especially to the design and configuration of ecosystems, that is not found in the scientific literature, and the authors suggest this suggests some promising lines of inquiry, given that the principles and fields involved in permaculture “largely complement and even extend principles and topics found in the agroecological literature.”

There are reasons why permaculture has lacked proper attention in the scientific literature, and my own experience suggests many of its practitioners are either ignorant about or deeply suspicious of the scientific method, in part as a result of its failings, but I am of the view that this is a loss to both permaculture and to the broader field of agroecology, and indeed to society as a whole, and this is something I am keen to help to address. We have largely failed to learn from those scientific disciplines that could best inform good practice, whether from successes and failures elsewhere and from pure research. The main objective of this paper is “to evaluate the actual and potential contributions of permaculture to agroecological transition.”

The authors note, however, the large number of books on the subject of permaculture, relatively few academic papers, and total absence of experimental design and statistical analysis, criticisms I've been aware of for some time and am specifically keen to engage with. Most of the peer-reviewed research is not linked even to the life sciences, never mind agroecology as such, and there was precious little of it.

Much of the article discussed what these articles were about, and how they related to concepts within permaculture. At a qualitative level, it's clear that many principles and practices within permaculture have corollaries in agroecology, and cross-fertilisation between the two could benefit both – provided both sides are willing to engage and permaculturalists are willing to address the benefits of scientific findings and methods.

Interestingly, the authors consider permaculture to be a method for evaluating and adopting other people's practices, rather than a bundle of techniques, and this is borne out by just how many ideas (just about all of them) we've borrowed from elsewhere. This suggests to me that the practice of permaculture might benefit from better understanding and development of these methods, thus reducing the error rate for ineffective or unsustainable practices. For example, in the criterion of ecosystem mimicry, clarity over just what it is we are attempting to mimic might help in the effective design of forest gardens or examine the extent (or not!) to which “improved” pasture mimics meadow or prairie habitats, which would have implications for both production and ecosystem function.

Many of our design practices are consistent with the scientific literature, but the authors are clear that we need to be very careful about inflated claims over productivity and labour: some of this might be addressed through improved function stacking, and this looks like a promising area of investigation. It's also likely we could learn much from that literature, some of which is referenced here.

I think it's worth me flagging up a warning here. While permaculture emphasises the use of water retention in the landscape, these authors point out the infrequency of quantitative planning of earthworks, and of the absence of discussion of the risks posed by dispersive soils for catastrophic dam failure. For example, Paul Wheaton's DVD on “world domination gardening” shows the construction of an impoundment dam, but these subjects are not discussed adequately for me to feel confident in safely constructing such a feature. This reflects similar issues when it comes to other safe structures and the dangers inherent in “crusty architecture”, although this isn't covered here.

A few paragraphs reflect some recent heated discussions here on the involvement of non-native plants in permaculture ecosystems, seeming to converge on my view that non-native species are not inherently bad, but that each introduction should be carefully considered and monitored for its dispersive potential and potential threat to other species and local ecosystems.

I found the review of the dissemination of knowledge about permaculture interesting. The ability of a few high-profile individuals to fly to teach courses, coupled with local organisations dispersing knowledge often less formally has been a strength, but we lack the big centralised organisations like La Via Campesina, making co-ordination difficult. That said, permaculture has been focused on the global North, with other branches of agroecology focused on the global South, but with both suffering from a problem of a “coloniality of knowledge”, with research from both developed and developing countries published in the former, but not vice versa. I have no idea how we might address this.

The problem of colonialism is also reflected in one of my own ongoing problems with permaculture, in that while permaculture is about humans in a habitat, I'm also aware of a fundamental conflict between perceived human needs and the rest of Nature – one I still fail to resolve. I see a pretence from many within permaculture that our relationships with the rest of Nature are not characterised by a harmful domination or, where it is recognised, it's seen as normative.

I've been aware for some time of many of the problems faced by permaculture, and in particular some of the overreaching claims made by some practitioners, often reflecting an inadequate grasp of ecological principles. The conflation of net primary productivity with the production of edible tissue has concerned me for some time. Understandings of edge effects, as these authors note and as I've tried to explain on several occasions, often show an incomplete grasp of the science underpinning some teaching of this subject (although, to be fair, one of Toensmeier's earlier books advances this).

The authors make specific criticisms of permaculture's failure to ground itself in science, especially where this would benefit permaculture practices, and this is specifically why much of my own more recent reading has led me in the direction of other branches of agroecology, where I do not face the sometimes almost pathological rejection of science and a preference of being seen as “goofballs”, which seems to me to undermine the movement and alienates many who would prefer a more reasoned approach. The authors note that permaculture has been labelled a pseudoscience, and this is a charge I find hard to refute, to the point where I've considered repudiating permaculture entirely.

It is then clear to me that permaculture has much to offer the scientific community and others in the broader agroecology movement – provided we are willing to engage with it – and also a great deal to learn. This paper discusses some of the barriers to this process. Some of these benefits are practical in the sense of agronomy; others are social. I think we should neglect neither.

More importantly, this paper opens the door to a potentially extensive research programme, perhaps at multiple scales, and I would hope to engage with the scientific community as my own plans develop towards fruition.

I would leave it there, but one question remains to be answered. Does this paper support Toensmeier's assertion in The Carbon Farming Solution? He writes:

The permaculture movement as a whole has not acknowledged its debt to the tropical homegarden, and could greatly benefit from studying the design and management of this ancient practice.


This is ambiguous. This paper does not directly support the assertion, although it might be taken to do so indirectly. This paper does not address the question of the tropical homegarden or of scientific studies of it. It does address the study of agroecological systems, of which the tropical homegarden is one, in relation to permaculture. As this paper makes clear, permaculture could greatly benefit from studying a range of comparable agroecological systems in the global South, as well as a more general engagement with both scientists and other agroecological practitioners.

Let me know if you fancy a study tour! I think there is much to be gained.
 
David Livingston
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One of the things I like about Permaculture is the accessibility of the ideas and the writing, one of the things I hate about modern academia is the impenetrable writing style and language used . This review illustrated for me the latter point .
If they are trying to make the point that ideas need to be tested then fine if they are trying to use long words to justify their grant and to say they need further research ( ie grant ) then why dont they say so .
David
 
Neil Layton
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David Livingston wrote:One of the things I like about Permaculture is the accessibility of the ideas and the writing, one of the things I hate about modern academia is the impenetrable writing style and language used . This review illustrated for me the latter point .
If they are trying to make the point that ideas need to be tested then fine if they are trying to use long words to justify their grant and to say they need further research ( ie grant ) then why dont they say so .
David


I think they are using long words to express their ideas. I didn't find it impenetrable at all, and indeed less dry than Mollison, who strikes me an an insomnia cure. There is a case for more accessible language, but many scientific ideas can't be expressed using monosyllables and, for the moment at least, even trying won't get you published. Personally, I'd rather permaculture addressed its credibility problem.

There is nothing wrong with doing the research and then expressing it in a way comprehensible by everyone. I think there is a problem with making it up as you go along and making inflated, even dangerous, claims.
 
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Neil
I accept what you say about various practices needing to be qualified quantified and tested in muliple areas ( guilds - having nitrogen fixers sharing N compounds - dynamic accumulators I could name many more etc etc ) but Permaculture is more than just a dry set of academic papers . Its a human approach to try to ameliorate issues affecting this planet today . Encouraging and getting ordinary folks to do stuff off their own bat . It is in effect a social movement people led , not an academic movement and only political with a small p in many ways . How many folks are there studing Agroecology ? How many folks will do a PDC this year ? So yes its not perfect and will be replaced by something that works better one day and yes there are those folks with there own axes to grind but at least they are making efforts in many places , encouraging others rather than sitting at home watching TV .
Look at Permies , we try to encourge change , people need support as its a big bad world out there and getting worse . Until Permaculture is replaced by something better I dont see any other movement actually getting something done I can join in with support and be supported by . I dont stand by myself and in a way neither do you .

David
 
Neil Layton
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I would observe that agroecology more broadly has been addressing these criticisms for years. It is a social movement, with a human approach as well as an agronomic one. Permaculturalists wonder where all the women and non-Caucasians are: the answer is agroecology.

I don't have a problem with people going out and doing things: I'd encourage it. The point is that in order to achieve broader adoption someone needs to science the shit out of all of it.

I'm reading Toensmeier's Carbon Farming Solution, and one thing that's becoming clear is that one of the barriers to adoption of many of the ideas coming out of permaculture is that we don't actually know what works, and what doesn't, and what the numbers are to enable us to demonstrate that these things work, because permaculturalists have concentrated on the doing and not on the understanding. The failure to properly understand may have set broader adoption back years, if not decades.

I think that's irresponsible.
 
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Neil Layton wrote:
I think that's irresponsible.


How can those of us who are not scientists encourage scientific investigation into permaculture claims? What can we do to improve the situation?
 
Neil Layton
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Tyler Ludens wrote:
Neil Layton wrote:
I think that's irresponsible.


How can those of us who are not scientists encourage scientific investigation into permaculture claims? What can we do to improve the situation?


What I think many people who have not trained formally in one of the sciences don't understand is that it's a process, not a state of being, and one of several methods for understanding the world. Sometimes you need another method but, for some aspects of human experience, science is better than others (and for other aspects you need different methods: I wouldn't pick a partner on the basis of science, but I might use it as one tool for understanding a relationship).

That tool is useful, and one worth having in the shed, and I think it would help if more people understood that.

Anyone can learn the process. Learning the language is harder, and sometimes it pays to team up with someone who speaks the language - even this paper used a tool I wasn't familiar with and had to look up.

It's not that you are a scientist (although you could argue this point) but that you do science.

I think it's important to understand that for some things science is a useful tool, one we've been remiss in using, just as we've assumed there is nothing new to learn. Here's the same author on some of the other tools we haven't been using: http://liberationecology.org/2016/03/30/permaculture-dogma-problem/ Learning from indigenous peoples (and vice versa, when they ask for it) is another tool: it's not a scientific tool, but it's still valid, and prevents us from reinventing the wheel.

I also think it's important to understand what at least some things mean. I touched on one above: "citation needed" does not equal "prove it", but "let's discuss your source for that". I'm looking at Toensmeier's sources not because I expect him to "prove" anything, but because I want to look at the strength of his evidence. There is a whole issue about whether science ever proves anything - much of it is based on probabilities, not certainties, and the more lines of evidence you have towards one conclusion the more likely it becomes (climate change being a case in point: there are many lines of evidence pointing towards it being caused by humans and being a serious problem, but how serious depends on a large range of factors, including our ability to sequester carbon in soils and the rate at which we actually get on with it; at the other end of the scale work on, say dynamic accumulators is pretty weak; work on mob stocking isn't much better for a range of reasons, including the range of variables involved and the range of results from multiple - often poorly conducted - studies).

There are cases where a sufficient number of studies or a better theory can shut something down. Darwin shut down Lamarckism. Several large studies now show that vaccines are mostly safe, mostly effective and do not cause frakking autism! There is a lot still to be done on carbon sequestration.

A lot of people not trained in one science or another don't seem to understand this, partly because they know of plenty of examples where science has been misused or used to mislead. That's why I tried to give a quick introduction to spotting a bad paper, of which there are plenty. Without that understanding you get this almost pathological response to science from some people.

None of this should stop anyone from doing science. It's not something you can only do in a university.

Some studies are easier to conduct than others, and the field is wide open for amateurs, including in our understanding of how our ecosystems function, which is why I reviewed this: http://www.permies.com/t/55688/books/Studying-Invertebrates-Philip-Wheater-Penny Anyone with a modicum of intelligence, which you clearly have no lack of, can understand and apply the material in this book and others like it. In other cases there is scope for partnership with university departments, many of whom have undergraduates, postgraduates and members of staff keen to find constructive opportunities. There are studies I could conduct on my own. Others would require skills and/or equipment I lack, and that's about seeking the right partnerships. I'm sure there are studies you could conduct in your habitat with the right reading and possibly (possibly not) the right partnerships with people who are more experienced or who have relevant training.
 
David Livingston
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Actually Neil I don't think these writers are expressing scientific ideas at all . It's social science ideas a different kettle of fish

David Livingston B.Sc
 
Tyler Ludens
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I can't, I don't have the right kind of mind.

 
Neil Layton
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David Livingston wrote:Actually Neil I don't think these writers are expressing scientific ideas at all . It's social science ideas a different kettle of fish

David Livingston B.Sc


That's a different, longer (although valid) discussion, but not one I'm up to engaging in at this time of night.
 
David Livingston
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Tyler
You do science everyday . Every seed you plant is an experiment . Will it grow ? What's that insect eating it ?
If I plant it over there will it thrive ? Why didn't it thrive ? Maybe if I plant it some where else where it's wetter dryer better soil etc .
You just don't call it science , ok if you have a white coat maybe other folks will take your results more seriously and maybe if you use longer words . But you are still doing science every day .
 
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I disagree, David. Mere observation is not science, in my opinion. Science is a particular kind of observation, not just any observation. It is methodical, systematic, not haphazard. Well, it might sometimes be haphazard but that is what's known as "bad science." I don't think Neil is encouraging folks to do bad science. I am not at all methodical - I can barely concentrate for more than about 15 minutes at a time any more. I would make a crappy doer of science. It would be bad, bad science!
 
David Livingston
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Science is firstly about observation . If Fleming had not noticed a mould growing on a slide would we have had penicillin ? you seem to notice what going on around you
The second bit is asking the right questionsand coming up with a testable theory . I have noticed you are good at asking questions
And thirdly reproducing the same results , Proving your validate your theory
Don't be put of by long words or by not wearing a white coat.

David
 
Neil Layton
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There must be something out there that will teach just about anyone how to conduct a scientific investigation, along with the essentials of experiments and surveys. It's not rocket science. This book teaches the basics, and it's aimed at amateurs: http://www.permies.com/t/55688/books/Studying-Invertebrates-Philip-Wheater-Penny

If you can be methodical and systematic you're pretty much sorted for the kinds of things most of us would be doing on our own. For anything more complicated you probably need to partner with an institution anyway.
 
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I was thinking what is agroecology . I noted that in Cassies new publication they have something about regenerative agroecology in Mexico. Oh thought I but thats not Permaculture or is it ? I had better find out what agroecology is and as everyone knows google is my friend I gave it a go.
First of all I came across this site http://www.agroecology.org/ which appears to be an academical based site in the USA and also agroEcology based in France .I read through a number of definitions . Clarity there was none, opinions many and maybe that is the problem . I see confusion between academics writing stuff like you have linked above , different countries having different definitions social movements local in many countries all different . Maybe that is the real issue . I cannot see academics enthusing people to switch to Agroecology not matter how wonderful the science behind it is when they write such stuff as you have linked to above . I found this useful http://agreste.agriculture.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/analyse591307anglais.pdf
You ask where are the women where are those from the south how can we bridge this colonial gap . Firstly there are folks out there doing stuff big names like Sepp H and Lawton in Kazakhstan ( I think ) and Jordan . Plus there are folks posting on this very web site from around the world . Who need to be encouraged . Secondly there are more than a token number of women using this very site . Maybe that says something .

David
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