Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 4

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.

“Science and Permaculture”

By Theresa Kuhl

There is only one wrong view: To believe that your view is the only right one.” (Nagarjuna)

Permaculture is a holistic concept of sustainable agriculture developed by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgreen. It includes the essential principles of caring for the Earth, caring for people, limits to consumption and growth, and redistribution of surpluses.

The study of natural science, especially agricultural science, contrasts with the approach of permaculture. “Science” is often mentioned as the big “evil” compared to permaculture. But it is important to distinguish between different scientific disciplines. On the one hand, there is biotechnology, which tries to alter ecosystems to generate the highest possible yield by using genetic manipulation of plants and strong chemical toxins. For example, glyphosate is a potent herbicide that kills any plant that lacks genetically engineered resistance. On the other hand, the discipline  of environmental science also focuses on productivity of soils, but in a more sustainable way, because environmental scientists also know that permanent exploitation of soils has no future.

Garden of Simonette Schlattner and Sebastian Mezger. Photo by Ursula Münster.

Permaculture is much more connected to nature than research in a laboratory is, as was impressively demonstrated on the RCC students’ expedition weekend with Jochen Koller last May. In the laboratory, nature is investigated under sterile conditions to get comparable results, whereas permaculture feels closer to the original idea of nature. The concept of permaculture relies deeply on “old” knowledge, often orally transmitted, and also on long-lasting knowledge. Good examples of this are old Chinese gardens or Inca agriculture with maize, pumpkin, and beans. A more small-scale example is Tussilago farfara (coltsfoot), a powerful plant that was used in the treatment of bronchial ailments, which has now been removed from pharmacies because according to Commission E, the German scientific advisory board on the licensing of medical herbs, it has no obvious positive effect and the danger of intoxication is greater than its usefulness.

Another feature of permaculture is trust in unidentified power. For example, Alchemilla sp. (lady’s mantle) is a well-known medicine that has been used to treat PMS and menopause, or pregnancy problems, and yet its effects are not specific. A further example is the theory of the circle of living substance, where it is suggested that plants engulf other plant parts, such as chloroplasts or mitochondria, via endocytosis of the root hairs and integrate them into their own substance. In both cases, we believe in these substances and processes, although why both are helpful remains largely unknown.

Inca ancient agriculture test farm in Peru.Photo: McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Science in general follows different rules. The underlying concept for truth in science is the experiment. Scientific experiments always follow a concrete question and are designed to answer these questions—for instance, gene knock-out experiments aim to determine the function of specific genes—which shows that science is more inclined to believe in what it can see or what can be statistically proved. Statistical analysis and new technologies are becoming ever more important in this regard.

Another important aspect of experiments is the requirement of repeatability. Everyone who performs the experiment under the same conditions should get the same results. This contrasts with permaculture’s orally transmitted knowledge or reports of single events.

Permaculture and science might seem to be incompatible but there are some similarities: both concepts follow the common goal of growing food crops successfully. Permaculture does this by observing phenomena, whereas science aims to understand these phenomena and transfer the explanation to other areas. For example, a recommendation in permaculture is to prepare the soil with hay and dung to create humus for successful plant growth. Science asks what happens as a result of doing this. The natural compost contains many different organisms, including bacteria and fungi. In this soil community competition between the pathogens protects plants from becoming infected. Environmental science investigates those phenomena in detail and tries to produce specific organisms for this form of biocontrol. For example, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens fzb42 is used to control the plant-pathogenic fungi Rhizoctonia solani (further reading: Chowdhury S.P., Hartmann A., Gao X., and Borriss R. (2015). Biocontrol mechanism by root-associated Bacillus amyloliquefaciens FZB42—a review. Front. Microbiol. 6:780.doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.00780).

Western blot (a method for protein identification using antibodies) (left) and plant growth under experimental conditions (right). Photos: Theresa Kuhl.

I have also found that permaculture and science often observe the same phenomenon, but have different explanations for it, as illustrated by the growth of dandelions in an over-fertilized meadow. A permacultural explanation is that earth recruits the dandelion to purify itself. The scientific view would be that the dandelion has a selective and evolutionary advantage in soils with a high nitrate content.

A more critical point is the idea of the circle of living substance, where plants absorb living parts (as mentioned above) provided by mashed plant solutions. This is scientifically difficult to imagine, although the use of the solutions is successful. A scientific explanation for the phenomenon might be the interaction of plants with bacteria. Some bacteria live in plants as endosymbionts—i.e., inside the plant—and to get there, there needs to be a kind of communication between the plant and bacteria. The whole interaction enhances plant growth, which also hints at why healthy plants cannot grow with only an organic fertilizer.

An aquaponic system that involves tilapia or perch (up to 10,000 fish in the 5 ft deep tank), watercress and tomatoes. The water is drawn up through one pump and gravity fed through the potted plants (which remove the nitrogen from the fish waste) and back into the tank where it re-oxygenizes the tank water.Photo: Ryan Griffis from Urbana, USA (Growing Power, Milwaukee) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
There are already successful projects combining both permacultural and scientific concepts. One such example is the Tomatofish project, in which fish and tomatoes are produced in the same aquaculture and hydroponics facility, which builds a closed cycle for temperature, nutrients, humidity, and energy. As I see it, science and permaculture are different sides of the same coin, following different methods but having a similar goal: food production. Both sides should focus on this common goal and learn from each other. Additionally, while I don’t think permacultural concepts need to be fully explained if they continue to be successful and help to create innovative spaces, the question of the practicability of permaculture in large dimensions remains unknown.

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