Posted by & filed under Food Forests, Food Plants - Annual, Food Plants - Perennial, Food Shortages, Land, Plant Systems, Soil Biology, Soil Composition, Soil Conservation, Soil Erosion & Contamination, Soil Rehabilitation, Soil Salination, Water Conservation, Water Contaminaton & Loss.


Rhubarb

Currently, approximately 80% of the food crops grown in the world are annual plants, and it’s been this way for quite some time. Perennial plant food crops are pretty much in the minority in terms of how the human race derives its nutrition.

Permaculture strongly emphasises the importance of using perennial plants in our food production systems. When we consider the permanent agriculture aspect of permaculture, it should be apparent that we would need to utilise perennial plants to construct a permanent system,  rather than using  annual crops to create temporary systems, which are there one season, and return to bare earth the next.

The preference for perennial plants is stated explicitly in the seventh permaculture design principle — Small Scale Intensive Systems. It describes the use of perennial plants instead of annual plants as one of the features that differentiates permaculture small scale intensive systems from either conventional commercial or peasant farming systems.

To many people, the reason we use perennial plants is simply because they don’t need to be replanted each year, and don’t die down each year, saving us a lot of effort digging, sowing seeds, and cleaning up at the end of the season — and then they simply leave their understanding at that.

There are in fact far more profound ecological and environmental reasons for using perennials rather than annuals in our food production systems, which we will explore in this article.

Before we can understand the larger scale impacts of using these two broad categories of plants, it is important that we first understand their biology, so that we can comprehend precisely how they function in a living ecosystem.

Annual vs. Perennial Plants

All living organisms evolve a unique strategy for survival and reproduction, and they adapt themselves to best function in their specific environments. When we examine the biology of annual and perennial plants, we observe that they have evolved two very distinct survival strategies, and as a result, they occupy very different ecological niches.

Annual plants are short lived plants, living only for a year. They flower, produce seed at the end of this cycle, and then die down. This group includes ‘weeds’, vegetables and many flowers — both wild and cultivated.

Their survival/reproduction strategy can best be described as “live fast and die young”. Annuals reproduce from seed, and grow very quickly compared to perennials. To do this, they require very large amounts of available soil nutrients to support their rapid growth rates.

The reason they are in such a hurry is because they need to mature as fast as possible and produce large quantities of seed within the same year, before they die down. Producing large quantities of seed is a specific survival strategy, it increases the chances of seeds germinating and producing new plants. This very fast growth pattern does not allow the plant much time to establish itself. It is an all out effort to get to the seeding stage before their growing season ends.

In fitting with this growth strategy, annual plants have very shallow roots. Annual vegetables usually have the majority of their root mass in the first 6” (15cm) of soil. A few longer unbranched roots will extend deeper, up to 3-4 feet (90-120cm) but these only form a tiny percentage of the overall root mass. This is why you can grow almost any annual vegetables in fairly shallow garden beds and containers around 40-50cm deep.

The important points to note with annuals are as follows:

  • When these shallow rooted annuals are watered, as the water seeps deeper into the soil, they are unable to access it.
  • Any nutrients that lie deeper in the soil are inaccessible to them because their roots do not reach deep enough.
  • Annuals do not form permanent ecosystems because they are temporary plants, once they reach the end of their growing season, they produce seed, and then die down leaving bare soil.
  • Since they are short lived, their root networks can only temporarily stabilise the soil to prevent soil erosion.

If you look at a backyard vegetable garden or a commercial farm covering hundreds of acres of land, annual food production works exactly the same way. Seeds or seedlings are planted, they grow very fast after being given huge amounts of fertiliser, they are harvested, the soil becomes bare again, then next year they are replanted once again, and the cycle runs indefinitely. To prevent localised nutrient deficiencies and plant-specific diseases, the practice of crop rotation is used, where a specific type of plant, say carrots, are planted in a different garden bed each year, and a different vegetable is planted where the carrots once were, for example.

Perennial plants on the other hand have a very different survival and reproduction strategy. They are long-lived plants, and can live from many years to many centuries, depending on the species. This group includes herbaceous plants (which have green stems with no wood in them, such as many herbs) and woody plants (such as woody shrubs, vines and trees). These plants can reproduce from various types of offshoots from a parent plant, or they can reproduce from seed just like annuals, or in both ways, once again depending on the species.

Perennials grow quite slowly in comparison to annuals, as they take their time to establish themselves, putting out extensive root systems very deep into the soil, which allows them to access water and nutrients that cannot be reached by annual plants. They create a permanent network of roots that help stabilise the soil and prevent erosion.

Perennial plants have very deep roots. Perennial vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus have roots that extend much deeper than 4 feet (120cm), far deeper than annual vegetables, and tree roots can run as deep as the height of the tree itself. The deepest recorded depth that tree roots can run is 60m. The advantage that perennials have with such deep running roots is that they can access water and nutrients that are beyond the range and reach of annual plants, making them far better adapted to extreme conditions. The very long perennial root systems are also excellent at stabilising steep slopes and river banks, which shallow rooted plants are unable to do.

Growing relatively slowly, perennials do not need large quantities of nutrients like annuals do to grow. They use a small amount of nutrients from the soil over a longer period of time, and as such are much better adapted than annuals to grow in low nutrient environments. In warmer climates, perennials can grow continually, while in colder climates they become dormant in winter and stop growing, then resume growth when the winter passes. So, they are able to commence growth earlier than annuals can, because they are an already fully established plant, whereas an annual has to start from scratch as a tiny seedling.

The important points to note with perennials are as follows:

  • In Nature, most of the plants on the planet are perennials! The majority of all terrestrial (land based) and freshwater aquatic plants are perennial plants.
  • Being long lived plants, perennial plants create stable ecosystems such as forests, which can provide a food source and a home for a diverse range of flora and fauna. Forests are home to approximately 50-90% of all the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Tropical forests alone are estimated to contain between 10-50 million species — over 50% of species on the planet. Annual farmlands are only a temporary home to pest insects, nothing else.
  • Perennial plants don’t need to be replanted every year, so the arduous, energy intensive and equally energy inefficient seasonal task of ploughing, digging and sowing seed that is carried out for annual crops is no longer a concern.
  • Deep roots and a slow growth habit means that less fertiliser and water are required to grow perennial plants, and they are on the whole a lot more productive than annuals.
  • Growing perennial food plants is a far more sustainable and energy efficient, and requires much less work overall.

Now that we have looked at the unique attributes of annual and perennial plants, we can now examine the larger scale impacts of using each of these as our predominant plant group in our food production systems.

The Problem with Annual Food Production Systems

As mentioned in the introduction, in agriculture on a world-scale, over 80% of all crops farmed are annuals, whereas in Nature, over 90% of plants are perennials. From this simple fact it is clearly evident that our conventional farming systems are very far removed from how Nature prefers to grow plants. Most people are unaware that annual food production systems are very unnatural and unsustainable systems — annual monocultures even more so! They are human concepts, and yet we wonder why they don’t really work properly…..

One of the big problems with annual crop agriculture is that the annual plants are heavy feeders, and need large amounts of fertiliser, often during the growing season. Being shallow rooted, they need frequent irrigation too, to stop them drying out. Shortly after they are irrigated, the water naturally seeps downwards into the soil, out of range of their shallow roots, so they can no longer access it. This water gradually percolates deeper into the soil, carrying all the dissolved nutrients with it, permanently out of reach of the annual plants.

Without any deep roots of perennial plants to intercept this excess water and take it up, it will end up in waterways or the water table.

Contamination of Waterways

Water always flows to the lowest point, and if this nutrient-rich water eventually reaches waterways such as lakes, creeks or rivers, the massive dose of nutrients (usually mixed with synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, but that’s another story) causes destruction of these ecosystems by eutrophication — the excessive nutrients create a massive increase in the growth of algae in the water, which consumes all the oxygen and suffocates all the aerobic life in the ecosystem. On top of this we have the pesticide and herbicide washed off in surface runoff from farms which compounds the problem, causing both acute and cumulative poisoning of the whole aquatic ecosystem and surrounding environment.


Algal bloom in village river, Sichuan, China – Felix Andrews

Increased Water Table Levels

The other path for this nutrient laced irrigation water is straight down, into the water table beneath the ground, where it causes the level of the water table to rise. As the water table levels rise up into the soil, they bring up dissolved salts, causing salinity in the soil. When salt rises in the soil, the ground is destroyed, laid barren, and nothing can grow there. When perennials with their deep roots are present, especially trees, they can draw water from deep below the surface, and transpire it into the air, keeping the water table down. When the trees are all felled and cleared, to create a field — which is where the word comes from — there are no plants in an annual farmland that are capable of reversing the rising of the water table and remediating the situation, so all is lost.


Salt-affected soils in Colorado – public domain image.

Once the soil succumbs to salinity, all plant life is killed off, and then the soil is subject to erosion. The top soil is blown away by wind and washed away by rain, leaving a barren, sterile, salty wasteland. One of the solutions employed in restoring this damaged land is to plant salt-tolerant trees to reduce the water table levels. Other solutions are centred around costly engineering solutions to ensure that rural water catchments such as dams and irrigation channels don’t ‘leak’ water in ways which mobilises salt.

Even without irrigation, the removal of native vegetation alone to clear space for annual crops is enough to cause another form of soil salinity, dryland salinity.

Dryland Salinity

In non-irrigated land, where there is only rainfall supplying water, dryland salinity is caused by by clearing deep rooted perennial vegetation and replacing it with shallow rooted annual plants. This causes the water table to rise, because rainfall not used by plants either simply runs off the soil surface, or infiltrates beyond the root zone of the shallow rooted annuals, and accumulates as groundwater to create the problem.

There are no secrets about the cause here either, to cite the Australian Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities web site on the topic of “Salinity”:

Increasing salinity is one of the most significant environmental problems facing Australia. While salt is naturally present in many of our landscapes, European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures have caused a marked increase in the expression of salinity in our land and water resources.

Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the ground for millennia. Salt is being transported to the root-zones of remnant vegetation, crops, pastures, and directly into our wetlands, streams and river systems. The rising water tables are also affecting our rural infrastructure including buildings, roads, pipes and underground cables. Salinity and rising water tables incur significant and costly impacts. — Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

So, how big a problem is this?

  • According to a 2000 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the total global area of salt-affected soils was 8.31 million square kilometres, affecting  every continent except Antarctica.
  • It is estimated that about 15% of the total land area of the world has been degraded by soil erosion and physical and chemical degradation, including soil salinization (Wild A. 2003. Soils, land and food: managing the land during the twenty-first century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Decreasing productive land and an increasing population is a sure recipe for food shortages.

In a continent such as Australia, where salinity is a major threat, some scientists are trying to deflect the blame on traditional agricultural practices by insisting that removal of trees is a secondary cause, not a primary one, and that the primary cause was a 100 year cycle of increased rainfall — which ended in 2000, that caused salinity issues in the 70s and 80s. This in my opinion is a nonsensical argument as Nature is self-regulating and the landscape will support more plants and trees during long term cycles of increased rainfall, which would naturally reduce the water table level, and prevent any salinity problems. If it were not the case, we would have a recorded history of salinity in virgin bushland every one hundred years, which is not the case. The removal of perennials to create annual crop food production systems is the cause of salinity, it is a man-made problem, as confirmed in the quote by the Australian government itself.

In Summary

Through the extensive use of annual crop-based agriculture, we are systematically destroying living ecosystems which support many living organisms, flora and fauna, and replacing them with artificial systems composed solely of annuals, which cannot exist naturally in this state without excessive inputs of energy. The end result is that we are also destroying the soil as a consequence, losing it to salinity and erosion, at a time when the planet’s demand for arable soil for food production is increasing due to population growth. By decreasing the usable land and increasing food production, we are exponentially increasing the demands on the planet, pushing it to breaking point at an ever increasing rate.

And all because we want to farm annuals exclusively….

That, in a nutshell, is why we prefer to use perennial plants in permaculture systems rather than annuals.

73 Responses to “Perennial Plants and Permaculture”

  1. Jason Gerhardt

    I highly recommend Eric Toensmeier’s book Perennial Vegetables. This is a widely applicable book that lists the majority of the most promising perennial vegetable species.

    Angelo, nice article!!!

    Reply
  2. Scott Reimers

    ok… I have to admit confusion here. I had understood that one of the biggest problems we are facing is a lack of water infiltrating (due to human designed accelerated drainage systems) coupled with excessive groundwater discharge leading to lower water tables. The Swaling on contour is designed to intentionally give water time to leech into the ground, increase groundwater and potentially increase the local water table.

    Your article implies this will cause soil salinization?

    What am I misunderstanding?

    Reply
  3. Marty Miller-Crispe

    Scott, salinity from rising water tables is usually a result of two things, flood irrigation (which is the least effecient but lowest cost way to irrigate and most used method in Australia) and clearing of land so there is no vegetation to take up the water keeping the water table in check.
    When we use swales we do so where they are needed, that is on sloping land where we want to slow down water flow and stop erosion, and we plant on the swales to take up that water that we are hydrating the land with.

    Reply
  4. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Scott,
    It’s quite simple when we go back to our Permaculture design principles. Lack of infiltration of water into the ground is a problem in cities predominantly comprised of impervious surfaces (concrete, asphalt) or in natural areas where the soil has been eroded, such as a sloping hillside that has been deforested. In areas where rain naturally gathers, such as a valley or depression in the landscape, you either have a situation where the water soaks into the soil, or you end up with a pond or lake.

    Water soaking into the ground is not the issue, that’s what it does naturally as part of the water cycle ecologically, and that’s why most plants put their roots down into the soil to access it. The point is that naturally, water does not directly soak straight through uninterrupted into the water table – it is intercepted on its downward journey by both short rooted annual and long rooted perennial plants and transpired into the air.

    When we build swales, remember the reason why we are building them. They are not structures imbued with any inherently magical properties of their own – many people forget that swales are only one element of a larger system, and like all Permaculture systems, they resemble ecological systems. In these systems, many elements interact with each other, and only through the relationships of one to another do they actually produce an ecologically beneficial outcome.

    A swale is just a level ditch which serves no purpose other than to slow the natural progress of water to its lowest point. It only becomes useful when we capture the water and utilise it for a purpose. The sixth Permaculture Design principle of ‘Energy Cycling’ is what we are looking at here in our discussion of swales – this design principle is concerned with the recycling of energy by capturing, storing and using energy on site.

    For what purpose do we bother to slow the flow of water down on our site? Why do we dig swales in the first place?

    We construct swales to enable us to grow plants where none could grow before. The dirt removed from the trench is banked up on the downhill side to create a swale mound or embankment, called a berm. The berm is usually planted up with ground cover plants and nitrogen fixing plants. When these plants are established, the fertility of the soil is improved, and then a row of trees (usually food producing) is planted there. As the water moves down the slope through the depths of the soil, it passes across the deep tree roots where it is utilised by the trees, allowing them to grow. With a water source, and a microclimate, the area can now support a host of plant species to create a living ecosystem.

    The perennial plants are the critical element here to achieve our purpose. The swale just slows the flow of water long enough for them to be able to make the best use of it. None of this would be achievable if we only grew annuals such as lettuce on the berm of our swale.

    The biggest problem in cities is a net loss of fresh water and a reduction in rainfall because we are mindlessly sealing all natural surfaces making them impervious to water, and capturing all the water from these surfaces and running it down our stormwater drains into streams and rivers which ultimately flow into the sea.

    In rural areas, where the food for our cities is grown, the problem is quite the opposite, a lot of water, too much in fact, is utilised (wasted) to irrigate annual crops in poor soils that are simply not moisture retentive. The water soon moves past the shallow annual plant roots, straight into the water table, causing it to rise, causing salinity.

    As you can see here, we are looking at two vastly different models here – the Permaculture model is a perennial plant system which utilises swales to obtain maximum benefit from the naturally occurring rainfall. It uses the water very efficiently, capturing all natural energies coming from outside of the system, and harnessing them onsite, which is very energy efficient, sustainable and builds ecosystem.

    On the other hand, the conventional agricultural model is annual plant based system, and requires external sources of energy to supply enormous quantities of water obtained at a cost, both financial and ecological, most of which is wasted due to gross inefficiencies in the system. In the process, ecosystems are destroyed, along with the soil.

    By keeping these distinctions in mind and understanding you are looking at whole systems rather than just elements, it should be much clearer.

    Hope this helps.

    Regards

    Reply
  5. wmthake

    The main problem I find to switching whole-heartedly to perennials is that in my temperate climate, good, dependable, edible perennials are few. Or at least I’m not finding them very easily. We need more permaculture nurseries to start the things we need to grow and make them much more widely available. A huge gap in the market, if anyone’s interested.

    Reply
  6. Lloyd Zimmerman

    Great Article, I will give a speech today in my Log Jammers Toastmasters Club using this information and then give samples of my Perennial Pie, made of Rhubarb , Cranberry and Peach…Food for Thought from the Pacific Northwest. Cheers

    Reply
  7. fred

    We have read Eric’s book on perennials and learned a great deal. The problem we have is that many vegetables besides Rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes do not grow well in our area, ie sea kale for example. Wish there were more choices in terms of the veggies.

    Reply
  8. Jason Gerhardt

    On perennial vegetables: Eric’s book is certainly one of the best resources we have to date, and I’m pretty sure he would be the first to admit it is the tip of the iceberg. In cold-temperate regions there are less options for sure, but there are still plenty. Many are wetland plants. In the tropics to sub-tropics, there are nearly endless options it seems.

    Though most of us won’t be eating 100% perennials any time soon, we have to start somewhere, so let’s start small and build from there. Every region has many, many, many perennial vegetables growing in the wild and it is our job to get out there, find them, and bring the best ones into the garden.

    When we start to consider tree crops the field widens significantly. Even fruit crops, for example Juneberries have 5 times more protein than blueberries. If we stopped breeding out the seeds from our plants we would be able to get a more rounded nutrition from them.

    The other day Eric walked me through a ‘tended’ wild food forest and both of us were able to point out edible plants the other hadn’t known. When we start to combine all of our collective knowledge the field really widens.

    Perennial agriculture can be a reality now, and will be even better in 10, 20, 30+ years!

    For those interested in learning more about, and posting their own knowledge of, perennial polycultures I highly recommend joining Apios Institute wiki. It is mostly useful for those in temperate climates. http://www.apiosinstitute.org

    Reply
  9. Angelo Eliades

    As mentioned in the comments on my previous article – “Food Forests and Earth Stewardship”, there are many perennials which can be grown in temperate climates.

    I grow the following perennial vegetables (total of 24) in Melbourne, Australia:

    Arrowroot, Asparagus, Chicory, Chives, Edible Canna, French Sorrel, Garlic, Globe Artichoke, Jerusalem Artichoke, Perpetual Spinach, Perennial Leeks, Potato, Potato Onion, Rocoto Tree Chilli, Rhubarb, Taro, Seven Year Beans, Thai Chilli, Watercress, Walking Onions, Welsh Bunching Onions, Yacon. Also, aquatics such as Water Chestnuts and Duck Potato (Arrowhead or Sagittaria. Warrigal Greens (NZ Spinach) also grows down here, and there are many more you can choose from.

    Remember, the point is not to completely change your diet to perennials, as we do depend heavily on annuals in our modern societies, and such a transition is not that easy. Meanwhile, a lot of work is being carried out on developing perennial staple crops such as perennial grains. Even the agribusiness sector can see the productivity benefits of perennial staple crops – less labour, less inputs, higher yields.

    Eric Toensmeier wrote an article “Perennial Staple Crops of the World” for PRI earlier this year, it’s a great read – see here: http://permaculturenews.org/2012/02/25/perennial-staple-crops-of-the-world/

    If we replace some annuals with perennials, then we save ourselves work and create more energy efficient and sustainable designs. We can also extend the range of what we produce by adding perennials, including ones which are not vegetables, such as fruit and berries. By having greater biodiversity, we create more resilient food production systems.

    More importantly, if we design our food production systems so they are not single levels of annuals alone, but include multiple levels of plants – shrubs, climbers, ground covers and trees, then we create a perennial permanent system which also grows annual food crops.

    So in summary, we shouldn’t be designing ‘mini agribusiness farms’ – rows and rows of single level annuals on any scale, without adding perennials in their many varied shapes, sizes and functions to bring the design closer to a natural system, otherwise we aren’t modelling Nature and aren’t creating sustainable systems!

    Reply
  10. Sarah

    I don’t think its always necessary to do away with all annual edibles. These are also an important part of an ecosystem and with the right rotation, diversity and perennials to support in the surrounding ecosystem they can be incredibly productive without causing degradation. Take one silver beet plant for example- usually bi-annual but it can so productive and a lot easier to eat in a diversity of ways than rhubarb for example. A small area of annuals, mixed with some perennials e.g. herbs, can easily feed a family, and if they self seed are little work also. Rotation systems using chickens for example also prevent degradation.

    I think the problems, well outlined in the article, are more monoculture and modern farming practices. Old varieties also usually need less irrigation such as spelt or korasan instead of wheat.

    Plus most people are more familiar with eating some annuals, and have a culture of cuisine surrounding these, making permaculture designs with includes some annual plantings, more accessible to a wide range of people.

    Reply
  11. gene

    Good luck finding perennial edibles in sufficient quantities when you live in Minnesota.

    Reply
  12. Angelo Eliades

    Gene, you don’t need luck, just some know-how to grow fruit trees and berries in Minnesota.

    Here’s an link to an article “Selecting Fruit Trees for Minnesota” – http://www.springgardennursery.com/uploads/files/fruit_trees.pdf

    There’s also a lot of good information from the University of Minnesota Extension, see articles listed below:

    “Apples and Pears in Minnesota Home Gardens” – http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/M1157.html

    Stone Fruits for Minnesota Gardens – http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG1125.html

    You can also grow all kinds of berries there, such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

    I’m sure if you do some research you can possibly find some perennial vegetables to grow there too!

    You have a harsh climate, but there’s worse out there! If Geoff Lawton can green a desert, you can grow perennials in your climate!

    Reply
  13. Jason Gerhardt

    Since there have been a few comments of cold climates not being appropriate for perennials I will list a quick dozen or so.

    Perennial Vegetables/Fruits for Northern Cold Temperate Climates

    Roots:
    Jerusalem Artichoke
    Groundnut
    Mint Root
    Skirret
    Sweet Cicely

    Shoots:
    Asparagus
    Ramps
    Rhubarb
    Walking Onion
    Potato Onion
    Garlic Chive
    Chive

    Leaf Crops:
    French Sorrel
    Lovage
    Salad Burnett
    Hablitzia
    Linden

    Aquatics:
    Watercress
    Arrowhead
    Wild Rice
    Water Celery
    Lotus

    Fruit Crops:
    Raspberry
    Blackberry
    Blueberry
    Juneberry
    Mulberry
    Strawberry
    Gooseberry
    Currant
    Nanking Cherry
    Apple
    Pear
    Peach
    Cherry
    Plum

    Nut Crops:
    Black Walnut
    Hazel
    Hardy Pecan
    Buartnut
    Heartnut
    Sweet Bur Oak
    Hickory

    And these are only the fairly well known ones. As you can see the list quickly begins to provide hearty nutrition. In cold, short season climates perennials make even more sense if you ask me because you don’t have to start from scratch each season. First thing in the spring you get food to eat right out of the garden instead of waiting for seeds to germinate and build their tissue to actually produce something. The above list is nowhere near exhaustive. I’ve grown the majority of the above list at 8,300 feet in the Rocky Mountains with an average 70 day frost free period, so I guarantee it is possible.

    Reply
  14. Adam T

    While I love my perennials and orchard/coppice trees, there is a need for annuals. Agriculture is not a place for extremes between annual or perennial. The survival and progression of our species has been dependent on our adaptability and broad utilisation of the natural world. Hence I can only assume that this article wishes to highlight the merits of permanent species without discrediting the use of annuals. These are considerations for every land owner out there before they fervently plant.

    Perennial cons:
    - Will take time to establish, many years before full production especially for nut trees (usually at least decade, 30-40 years for Monkey Puzzle)
    - May shade out valuable understory crops, or cause allelopathic inhibition (walnut juglone toxin)
    - Is the yield per unit area comparable to a mixed annual/perennial system? Trees will tend to have rest years, biennial production is common to many fruits and nuts.

    Great examples of annuals and perennials together:
    - Successful cropping using annuals and perennials has been done before, but noticeably where annuals have had no tree competition. Masanobu Fukuoka, had clover perennials cropped year in year out with barley and rice. Sepp Holzer also relies heavily on cereals and annual root crops. Their successes mean an intensive mixed system works fine without compromising yield or the environment.
    - We need to know that annuals are vital sources of fast, reliable carbohydrates (extensive fields of sweet potato cover Zaytuna farm too). And as evident in the new 10 year video, although sweet potato can be perennial it is cropped as an annual in Zaytuna fields (hard to tell from the video if it’s a monoculture).
    - Food forests are great but even on Permaculture farms, intensive broad field cropping is required because humans cannot produce enough food to power the population with just forest power. Living on fruits and nuts alone is very difficult, so annuals such as wheat, rice, potatoes etc are still a vital part of sustainable agriculture. Masanobu and Sepp have given us good examples, time we followed them.

    Reply
  15. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Adam,

    Not sure if you understood the main gist of my article, permaculture designers promote the “modelling Nature” concept as underpinning the basis of their design discipline. Yet the annuals systems, which, dare I say, so many still cling to, are so far removed from Nature in an ecological sense, that a dependency on annuals not only fails to model Nature, therefore being sub-optimal in terms of energy efficiency, but this system of food production is actually are destructive to the very planet that sustains our life.

    If we remember that permaculture designs are meant to be about energy efficient, no waste, carbon-positive systems, as is Nature, then that puts any comments about annuals in the proper context – sub-optimal, inefficient and largely unsustainable systems. Nature creates the most efficient food production systems through mixed perennial-annual plantings in the correct ratios, and that’s where our solutions lie.

    What you may not have considered is that even broadacre farmers, their representative bodies, and government bodies supporting these farmers are already in agreement that perennial staple crop systems are far superior to ones dependent on annuals, providing the same yields for far less labour, resources, and expense, or producing way more for the same inputs. They may not be ecologically driven, but in their world, money talks, and they see huge profits in producing the same yields for less inputs!

    The argument is not about living on fruits, berries and nuts, it is about reverting back to perennial grains and other staples, like many cultures lived off in the past with the wild perennial relatives of our cultivated annual crops. If you do any research into the current interest in perennial rice, perennial grains, and you’ll see what I mean.

    There’s no point for us tp cling to a past that is a path of certain failure, because “that’s what we’ve always done…”. Fact is we’ve done differently before, and we will do so again. Recall that Permaculture is revolutionary, not evolutionary – we’re about creating sustainable systems based on sound science, whatever they may be, not to blindly follow tradition and only try to change an inherently flawed, corrupted, and unscientific system around the edges to make it more palatable. With the issues of climate change, peak oil and food security looming on the horizon, I assure you we won’t have the luxury of a choice.

    Your example of perennial cons are very limited selective exaamples which don’t really support an argument against perennials as they aren’t representative of the 99% of perenial species we do use.

    The only reason why intensive broad field cropping is required is because we in the cities, who consume the bulk of the food, “outsource” our food production to the rural producers, the farmers, disconnecting ourselves from the source of food, the way it is produced, and the responsibility for producing it. We have removed local production of food from small, close-knit self-sufficient communities, and have created a disconnected, alienated, de-skilled, homogenised and miserable mass of “consumers” who don’t have the ability to keep themselves alive, shackled to the juggernaut of consumerism by helpless dependency. It has absolutely nothing to do with the efficiency of forest systems, which are more productive as small-scale intensive systems built locally within the communities that they feed. I recommend revisiting the seventh Permaculture Design principle ‘Small Scale Intensive Systems’ for further clarification on this point.

    I seriously wonder where all these doubts about Permaculture come from in the Permaculture community. Maybe that’s another topic for a good article! Socrates once said “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, perhaps a bit of self-reflection within the Permaculture movement might unearth some surprises lurking beneath the surface!

    I appreciate your comments, you have given me the opportunity to further clarify the salient points in my article and expand on them, hope this helps, thanks.

    Reply
  16. Angelo Eliades

    Thanks Jason for your “Perennial Vegetables/Fruits for Northern Cold Temperate Climates” list. In your list I just spotted another three perennial greens that I grow and forgot to include in my list – Lovage, Salad Burnett and Water Celery, so I’m actually growing 27 perennial vegetables – well, these three might be herbs technically but they’re edible greens!

    Your justification for perennials is excellent, couldn’t agree more.

    I hope people understand that there is no sound ecological argument for not growing perennials, what else can I say!

    Reply
  17. Melanie Williams

    Wild annuals have some great attributes. As an example, we’ve got acres and acres of lamb’s quarters and orache here. In winter they do not leave bare ground, rather the dried stalks (and roots) remain all winter and into the next summer, holding the soil. The roots slowly break down and feed the soil micro-organisms and the above-ground parts decay back into the soil, returning nutrients. Copious seed production ensures there will be continuous ground cover and the annual growing and decaying of roots helps keep the soil loose. Perennials can’t provide those services very well.

    When we garden with annuals we are not mimicking Mother Nature very well because we harvest all (or much) of the aerial parts and pull out the roots before winter, leaving bare ground (or replanting with cover crops). If we were to garden our annuals more naturally we would allow the crops to reseed and create permanent stands, and allow the bulk of the crop to rot back into the soil (harvesting only a small percentage of total crop).

    One thing I’ve noticed is that these wild stands of lamb’s quarters and orache are not bothered much by pests, whereas close relatives in my garden (spinach, beets, and swiss chard) are seriously under attack at the moment by flea beetles. I suspect that if I were to grow these garden plants for generations and allow them to reseed and create permanent stands, they would eventually adapt to the local conditions and stresses and become as pest resistant as their wild cousins.

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  18. Angelo Eliades

    Wild annuals are very important indeed, they’re the first step in the ecological process of forest succession. They serve as pioneer plants, the first line of Nature’s regeneration process that stabilise disturbed ground to prevent erosion and further damage, creating a suitable environment for the establishment of the next stage of plant life in the forest succession process. It’s a pity we commonly refer to them as weeds.

    Reply
  19. Adam

    - Very nice points Melanie, if only we used annuals more efficiently. Some of my best soils come from sowing barley, oats, vetch and poppies into an old chicken run in the autumn. Then I rotate the chickens back in midspring briefly before i plant tomatoes, pumpkins or other summer crops into the flatten mulch. Poppies flower beautifully with the cereals.

    - Hi Angelo,

    While I appreciate the merits of perennials, at the same time I see the great potential of annual cropping in combination of perennials. I don’t think you are a person of absolutes. Using both plant genres and increasing diversification, a tenant of Permaculture, naturally appeals to logic because it reduces total crop failure and insures success. I am not a Permaculturalist admittedly, but I have a great respect for many techniques used by the movement which are innovative, productive and sustainable. A student in Natural sequence farming, with a strong appreciation for Permaculture is probably the best way to describe myself.

    To be frank any human activity is ‘far removed from Nature in an ecological sense’. The varied ecosystems of this planet can attest that annuals and perennials coexist, being mindful that there are places where one group predominates. So why shouldn’t humanity use both groups to our advantage? Both have a place in our gardens and farms.

    Annuals are important too, they are vital to many systems because in some localities the window for favourable conditions is so short, perennials have a harder time existing (prime examples being arid conditions with infrequent but soaking rains, or seasonal flooding). I am just trying to highlight all plants have a place in our systems, annual or perennial depending on the environment and the conditions human are presented. This planet has few absolutes.

    Masanobu and Sepp are the great pioneers and successes of Permaculture, yet their systems have a reliance on annuals. Masanobu’s annuals consisting of barley and rice, root vegetables and marrows were not only good cropping, they actively contributed to the fertility of his system. Sepp has a very similar model, but his cereals differ. The Krameterhof’s winter snows means annuals are vital for his system and income. It would be interesting to see what percentage of his crops and harvests are annual.

    In conclusion annuals are definitely labour intensive, but this is mitigated by the other portion of any effective system (the high-ground orchard forest/mixed coppice) which is comparatively lower maintenance. Nature exists as a melange of species, fauna and flora, so humanity should use everything to our advantage without undermining our existence and environment. New research in perennial grain crops would be a great addition to our resources and I welcome any advancement to our broad evidence based practices if it means a more productive, sustainable planet.

    Reply
  20. Angelo Eliades

    Thanks for the reply Adam, I do agree that human activities are usually quite removed from Nature, but they don’t have to be, it’s a matter of degrees, the closer our food production system designs are to Nature, the more sustainable the systems, better to lean towards the more energy efficient ones.

    The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a natural balance that exists in ecosystems, an equilibrium point if you will, and the further we push a system out of equilibrium, the more energy we need to expend (usually non-renewable fossil fuels), and the less sustainable the system. While we do have the luxury to waste energy curently, the landscape is changing so to speak, and we won’t be able to carry on, business as usual, for too long.

    By understanding the science, we can come to terms with the innate inefficiencies of annual systems, and be able to make intelligent and informed decisions about what we grow and how we grow it, rather than blindly following tradition and doing what our predecessors did without knowing why.

    I’m definitely not a person of absolutes, but I’m definitely absolute about my science, that’s my background. Just in the same way that the laws of physics apply equally to everyone, and are non-negotiable, so are the principles of ecology. Nature works in a specific way, whether we like it or not. If we wish to change that, we need to expend energy to push the system in the opposite direction to which it flows. While it may be patently foolish to swim against the current of a flowing river, it’s people’s choice. As long as they understand the nature of annual plants, their place in the ecosystem, and their limitations, then it’s up to them if they see it logical burning up the planet’s finite resources in an attempt to push Nature in a direction it doesn’t go, to compete with it when it has the limitless energy source, the sun in the sky.

    If we choose to produce our food with systems that flow against the tide of Nature rather than with it, we need to ask ourselves how long can we keep on burning fossil fuels to make Nature try to conform to our will, what state will the planet be left in when we’ve consumed all the on-renewable resources, what will we do after they are all used up, what else more constructive could we have done with all this energy, and was it all worth it in the end? Just a few big picture questions for people to ponder as they leave behind a resource-depleted, polluted and overpopulated world behind for their children…

    Reply
  21. Max Kennedy

    Though dividing perennials into rough groupings based on climate it would be very helpful if those that know these crops could assign hardiness zones to them. Cold climate could be anything from zone 4 to zone 1 and something hardy in zone 4 would be an annual in zone 1. Thanks.

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  22. Angelo Eliades

    Hi C,

    I must disagree with you, the basics of botany are quite straightforward, please reread my article. The bulk of the root mass of most annuals sits in the first 6″ of soil, there may be a small number of unbranched roots that reach deeper, but their ability to access any significant quantities of water and nutrient are negligible, otherwise we wouldn’t have the problem of salinity caused by short roots in annual plantings, would we?

    The reference you cite is from 1927, you can get information on this topic from a more up-to-date source, check out the University of California Cooperative Extension – “Vegetable Root Depth – To Gauge Watering Depth” – http://celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/files/121762.pdf

    The figures you cite greatly overestimate the root length of annuals, here are the correct figures for the plants you mentioned from this source, which is 85 years more recent than the one you refernced:

    Beans – medium depth 24-36”
    Carrots – medium depth 18-24”
    Lettuce – shallow depth 18″

    Now, the descriptions of “medium” or “shallow” depth above are only in respect to vegetables. Even compared to a perennial vegetable, such as an artichoke, which has a deep root of length of 48″+, these annual vegetables you mention have short roots.

    Looking at some other perennials, do you realise that horseradish roots will go to 15 feet, vetiver grass roots reach 7m (21 feet) into the ground, and recall that the deepest recorded tree roots were measured to a depth of 60m (over 180 feet)!

    What’s so hard to accept about the fact that mainstream agriculture utilising annual only plantings is destroying the soil, the government bodies who advise farmers freely admit this, it’s common knowledge.

    Reply
  23. Jason Gerhardt

    C, while I wouldn’t suggest annual plants have shallow roots, the context behind this is more important than the statement. The point is annual plants take practically all season to grow their roots that deep, where perennials start the season with roots that deep and in many cases much deeper than annual plants. The benefits here are fairly obvious in drought resistance, nutrient scavenging, resistance to disturbance, biomass production, etc.

    You are right in that it pays to be careful with the way we word things, and to not make simple generalizations. Context is everything.

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  24. Nikola

    85 years negative selection and making an idiot plants, with artificial fertilizers has led to a drastic reduction in root mass. So, unfortunately, both of information is correct.

    Reply
  25. C

    Nikola, most permies probably grow heritage varieties of annual vegetables. So the older figures would hold true for us.

    Angelo, citrus trees are extremely shallow rooted. So are olives. The ancient Greeks destroyed the soil on their mountains by planting them with olive trees.

    Annual vs Perennial is far too simplistic.

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  26. Angelo Eliades

    C, you’ve actually got it backwards, those trees are actually adapted to grow in places where there is little soil, steep rocky mountains characteristic to such areas hold soil in cracks , crevices and other shallow depressions, and trees such as figs do well being root bound in a limited amount of soil. There is no water table on the steep side of a mountain! Olive trees grow there naturally, they are native to the eastern Mediterranean Basin, and fossilized olive leaves have been found in Greece dating back 37,000 years. Please keep comments sensible. Thanks.

    Annual vs perennial root length is basic botany, no need to get too analytical about it all. Nikola, it’s the irrigation practice of frequent shallow watering that concentrates plant roots at the surface, which is why it is best to give your plants less frequent but deep watering. Still, the modern figures are correct. Modern practices may reduce the overall size of the root system, but they won’t change the overall length. The growing characteristics of annuals and the resulting consequences of their exclusive use are recognised and documented, there is no debate here.

    Jason summed it up perfectly, “The point is annual plants take practically all season to grow their roots that deep, where perennials start the season with roots that deep and in many cases much deeper than annual plants. The benefits here are fairly obvious in drought resistance, nutrient scavenging, resistance to disturbance, biomass production, etc.” Add to the list of benefits energy efficiency, greater yields, no destruction of the soil through salinity and you’ve got a good list of reasons why we grow perennials. There’s also one important ecological reason, to repeat myself one more time – forest succession. This is what Nature is trying to do, establish a forest system comprised predominately of perennials, you’re either working with Nature or wasting energy fighting it, you choose…

    Reply
  27. C

    No Angelo, you’ve got it backwards. The Mediterranean Basin was lush dense rainforest only 10,000 years ago. It was the clearing of mountain land and replacing the deep rooted trees with olives that led to erosion and the bare mountains we see today in Greece. The Olive trees couldn’t hold the soil together so it inevitably got washed out to sea.

    Now compare and contrast that with the terraced rice paddies of Asia which have only become more fertile as time has passed.

    Permaculture is about appropriate solutions. Sometimes annuals are more appropriate than perennials. It’s not a black/white argument is all I’m saying.

    Reply
  28. Chris Smaje

    Interesting debate – but I think there may be some underlying ecological reasons why perennial vegetables are less promising for a high yield agriculture. I’ve set them out here: http://vegboxpeasant.com/?p=132 and would be interested in anyone’s comments.

    I’d also question the scorn being directed at our annual-cultivating ancestors in some of the posts here. Until we’ve developed productive perennial polycultures that enable us to dispense with annuals – which we haven’t yet – I think it behoves us to treat them with more respect and think about why they made the choices they did. Honouring indigenous agricultures isn’t a bad place to begin as a permaculturist.

    Reply
  29. Mick

    Quite interesting reading the discussion points in regards to the article I must say. The key point here is to make the soil as productive as possible. Soil type, aspect and climate conditions will determine what species whether annual or perennial are most suited or capable of being grown – hence why there is such biodiversity in the natural world.. We certainly need to develop better land (read soil) management practices, particularly in Australia with our ancient soils. Glad to see many people interested in the subject :-)

    Reply
  30. Angelo Eliades

    Firstly, C, I hope you are joking! Not sure where you get your information from but the fossil record does not support your claims. Secondly, your point is off topic in regards to the article, so I won’t entertain this line of discussion any further.

    Chris, I read your article and looked into J. Philip Grime’s C-S-R Triangle theory of plant survival strategies. I think you’ve made a few incorrect assumptions in your article when you infer from the C-S-R theory that:

    “It’s easy to see where agriculture fits into this picture. Farming peoples want palatable and highly productive plants, and the way they’re most likely to get them is by interfering in succession and replicating ruderal/competitor situations of high disturbance and high nutrition by tilling and fertilising. The result is an agriculture based around prolific, tasty, leafy and/or seedy, mostly ruderal and mostly annual plants.”

    This theory has nothing to do with the reasons why agriculture chooses annuals. I think the facts do not support your assertion. If you look into the history of food, you will be surprised to find that both the annuals we use in agriculture, and the perennials we take for granted today weren’t always in the form we’re familiar with. It’s too simple for people to take a culturally short sighted perspective, similar to how teenagers think everyone has always has mobile phones because that is the world they are familiar with, so they can’t imagine it any other way.

    All of the plants we have today have been cultivated and selected over very long periods of time to taste they way they do. Ancient Rome had apples, but they were only nasty tasting little crab apples, centuries of cultivation have gone into creating the tasty varieties we know today. Carrots – “Over thousands of years it moved from being a small, tough, bitter and spindly root to a fleshy, sweet, pigmented unbranched edible root.” – http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history.html . Lettuce started off as the bitter wild lettuce, Latuca Serriola (Prickly Lettuce). Mango once tasted like turpentine! I can systematically run through every edible species and most likely find the same history.

    I think the greatest danger for humanity is to take an anthropocentric perspective and assume that plants are made for us. There’s a great BBC documentary “How To Grow A Planet” which explores how plants have driven the evolution of animals, as hard as that may be for some people to acknowledge. Basic biology, the plant world came first, animals adapted to the plant life that could support them. Annuals have never been palatable or tasty any more than perennials. Food only tastes the way it does through lots of selective cultivation, selecting those varieties, annual or perennial, that we as humans find most pleasant to eat, a process that has taken centuries of human effort. This is clearly evident with Australian “bush foods” – Australian Aboriginal people were not farmers, they were nomadic people, who moved from place to place harvesting what Nature offered. They did not cultivate plants and therefore did not breed plants to change their natural taste. What we have today is what they had at the beginning, unchanged. For anyone who has the courage to be honest enough, the majority of these bush foods taste terrible compared to our selectively cultivated annuals and perennials which we have developed over centuries. The Australian native people did not grow annuals, the bulk of their diet was comprised on plants, and perennial plants at that, since the majority of plants in Nature are perennials.

    The problem with humanity is arrogance and a lack of perspective, that is why we really plant annuals only. To imply that we must live off annuals is to imply that the planet cannot support us in the way it naturally is, in its ecological balanced state, and that we must twist it to conform to our will otherwise we cannot survive. Now I’ll explain why this perspective is so sadly mistaken.

    1. The planet consists mostly of perennials
    2. Humanity (modern man) has existed for 200,000 years on this planet.
    3. Agriculture is only 10,000 years old
    4. Humanity has lived off what Nature provides freely, mainly perennials, for 190,000 years, 95% of our existence!

    The reason why I mention the trait of arrogance is because modern man in modern society somehow thinks they hold a privileged position in respect to their ancestors simply because they exists after them chronologically, and that what they have is automatically superior to anything that has existed beforehand. History tells us that our industrialised society is an unproven experiment characterised by failure after failure, and this litany of disasters we have created is threatening our species, and all life on this planet. Yet, we don’t want to believe there can be any other way, we’ll continue planting annuals till we starve to death, great idea.

    To think that the only way to grow food is the way that Western European cultures have, depending on non-perishable grains, is an extremely ethnocentric perspective and reeks of cultural superiority. And this is simply a position of arrogance. Societies apart from our own exist that rely on perishable non-grain staples that are usually perennial, but it’s very convenient for us to pretend that they don’t exist or don’t matter because our society is somehow better than theirs. This article put out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations “The ego-cultural nature of societies dependent on perishable staple foods” should prove interesting – http://www.fao.org/docrep/x5045e/x5045E05.htm . Incidentally, they also have an article that list “The major tropical perishable staple foods” – http://www.fao.org/docrep/x5045e/x5045E03.htm#Chapter 2 The major tropical perishable staple foods

    In respect to your article, the response from Paul Hillman answers most of your questions, so I won’t repeat them here, and you do concede that perennial staples are used in tropical environments, but wonder whether that is the case in cooler climates. Here are a few points to your response to Paul. Firstly, sugar does not need any processing beyond crushing, the refining process actually removes all the valuable vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, which are separated off as molasses and used for animal feed, while the dangerously unnatural isolated sucrose is fed to our unsuspecting masses as a sickly sweet poison.

    Secondly, cassava needs to be processed before it can be consumed, so what? Unless you are a raw food vegan, this shouldn’t be an issue, for the majority of food is processed in one way or another in the modern western world.

    Perennials utilised for their roots and tubers are still perennial, stating that they are treated like annuals does not change their ecological activity or their plant physiology, so all the benefits of using annuals remain unchanged. What grows more strongly, a tuber or a seed, the answer should be obvious…

    I must take issue with your statement “Fruit is a case in point – the more we select for high yield and good taste, the less perennial and the less stress-tolerant fruit trees seem to become.” Where did you get that idea from? I think you’re talking about supermarket agribusiness produce which tastes awful because it is bred for shipping, but no such compromise exists. There is no such thing as “less perennial” – plants only exist as annuals, biennials, or perennials. These are binary states, not a sliding scale! Not sure what temperate fruit trees you grow, but it’s basic botany that perennials are more hardy and can survive in more extreme conditions with less nutrients than annuals.

    I’m honestly surprised how we can be insisting that we want to grow monocultures of annuals in straight lines in fields cleared of perennials, while ignoring all the ecological facts. What part of unsustainable is not understood? So what part of this is Permaculture I ask?

    Reply
  31. Chris Smaje

    Dear Angelo

    1. Yes, humans have been on the planet for 200,000 years, probably living mostly off perennial plants (and meat). But for about 98% of that time the global population barely exceeded 10 million, so it’s not really relevant to the current situation. If we want to advocate perennial polycultures – as I certainly do – we need to figure out how they’re going to feed a population of 7 billion and rising. And we haven’t done that yet.

    2. Yes, plants have been made more palatable over time through selective breeding, both annuals and perennials. I said as much in my post. But I think CSR theory may be able to show why, generally speaking, annuals have been more amenable to human preferences than perennials (for yields as well as taste). The FAO reference you gave is interesting, but the most relevant dimension it identifies is garden vs farm, not perennial vs annual.

    3. ‘Sugar does not need any processing beyond crushing’ – sure, but it needs some serious crushing, which is why it was regarded as a luxury spice in Europe until industrial slave plantations began to make it more freely available in the eighteenth century (‘freely’ for the consumers, that is). These things matter because (a) if you have to process or detoxify your nutrients it requires labour and energy, so you need to do a proper input/output analysis in order to assess the relative availability of different nutrient sources, and (b) if you still have to detoxify something like cassava after years of human breeding, then perhaps it suggests that there may be morphological limits to human plant breeding efforts after all.

    4. Annual, biennial and perennial are not binary states – they’re largely labels for the convenience of humans, which plants don’t need. ‘Perennial’ basically just means ‘lives a long time’. Therefore an oak tree is more perennial than a dandelion.

    5. ‘So all the benefits of using annuals remain unchanged.’ I’m not sure what you mean here. Sure, potatoes are perennial – but if you can only feasibly cultivate them through annual tillage and heavy fertilisation then the benefits of perenniality are lost. Lots of perennial plants – including tropical ones like plantain – are grown as if they’re annuals, because it’s hard to get feasible yield/labour ratios any other way. That’s why I wrote “Everything points to perennial agriculture working best in low population, dispersed, intensive food gathering situations – in other words barely resembling agriculture at all, so much as the preagricultural situation from which our early farming forebears emerged.” If – as I hope – we can figure out perennial polyculture systems that work agriculturally and can feed the world, then that would truly be something to celebrate. But we’re not even close to that at the moment.

    6. “It’s basic botany that perennials are more hardy and can survive in more extreme conditions with less nutrients than annuals.” Yes, and it’s also basic botany that they then give us less of what we want. I got my idea about fruit trees from observing the crab apples in my local woodland and the amount of work that goes into fertilising them and protecting them from disease, and then comparing that with the dessert apples in the orchard.

    7. The planet is not in an ‘ecological balanced state’ unless you choose to call by definition the state that it is in at any particular moment a ‘balance’.

    8. Your comments about plants not being made for us, human arrogance, presumed cultural superiority etc etc I mostly agree with, although they’re not relevant to anything I’ve written. But there does seem to me to be an element of cultural arrogance in your assumption that the many annual-based farming cultures throughout human history made their choices out of ‘arrogance and lack of perspective’.

    Chris

    Reply
  32. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to all the points raised, this is good to get all the ideas out and discussed in a forum such as this.

    I agree that the population has increased, but the annual grain mentality is still an ethnocentric European cultural superiority model, which has no basis in fact about it being necessary to feed a larger population, perishable perennials form the staple of the equatorial and tropical climates, that was the main point of the FAO. If the science tells us that the perennials are more sustainable and productive, guess where our solution lies?

    If we look at the basic botany, perennials are accepted by both horticulturalists and agriculturalists to be more productive, more hardy, more profitable, and less labour intensive. We wouldn’t have all the current research into perennial grains if it wasn’t more productive and profitable for agribusiness. Look up some of the current research and you’ll see them gloat about promise of greater yields for the same inputs. They couldn’t care less about sustainability, it’s all about a financial profit, and if the potential wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be giving the idea a second thought! These mainstream agriculture people are choosing grains because that’s the square they can’t see outside, and they will grow perennial monocultures once they breed these plant varieties.

    Again, with the CSR theory, I can’t see how you jump from evolutionary strategy of plants to culturally-biased plant selection. You’re still thinking within a European-centric model and ignoring what the reset of the planet has chosen for their staple foods. The choice of annuals as staples is not universal, so your theory of associating staple crop with the CSR model is not justifiable from the evidence of what a lot of other cultures outside of ours grow.

    In regards to sugar cane, sounds like you don’t have any experience of what is involved in extraction, we have people in our mainstream food harvest festivals juice sugar cane with simple presses in a market type stall all day so people can drink the juice, which, incidentally, is not sugary sweet. It’s no more complicated than juicing wheatgrass. With cassava, it’s part of the food preparation in those cultures in the same way that we cook food. I get the feeling you look at things from a western-culture focus, an instant food perspective, where we simply don’t account for all the labour that goes into our food because we simply don’t see it. I think you forget what extensive preparation it takes to harvest wheat (a much more complicated, fiddly and time consuming process than simply digging out a cassava tuber), and then milling it into flour before it can be used. Keep in mind that people who use cassava as a staple will prepare it on a daily basis, and it is not prohibitively labour intensive. Yet compare this to how many urban (or even rural) westerners mill their own wheat seeds into flour as part of their daily meal preparation. Is it any wonder that a miller was a full time occupation in our culture and society?

    In regards to annual, biennials and perennials I recommend that you get a good book on horticulture principles and study it, the science is very clear here, annuals only live one year, biennials two, and perennials more than that. There are short-lived perennials and long-lived perennials but they are all equally perennials. This classification is not a human label, please reread my article, I explained at some length the distinct biological differences that support different survival strategies – biologically they are very different plants. The different length of life gives the label short or long lived, that’s all. Incidentally, dandelions are clearly annuals, oaks long lived perennials, and neither is more of anything than the other, they are two distinct categories of plants. Apologies for being so specific, but science is science.

    With point 5 that’s my typo, I tried to correct it but had submitted the reply, it’s meant to read ‘So all the benefits of using perennials remain unchanged.’ You instantly think that because potatoes are a mainstream crop, we have to employ mainstream practices to grow them, that’s not true. You also assume the only solution for urban food production is broadacre agribusiness. Have a look at Ted Trainer’s ideas (http://permaculturenews.org/2012/06/05/ted-trainer-and-the-simpler-way/) or Michael Reynold’s earthship concepts as a sample. There are many ways if we choose to get creative. Your statement is interesting ““Everything points to perennial agriculture working best in low population, dispersed, intensive food gathering situations – in other words barely resembling agriculture at all, so much as the preagricultural situation from which our early farming forebears emerged.” If – as I hope – we can figure out perennial polyculture systems that work agriculturally and can feed the world, then that would truly be something to celebrate. But we’re not even close to that at the moment.” How do we know that perennial agriculture doesn’t work in high population systems? Where is the evidence. If we have only seen annual systems because we only create annual systems, because there are a lot of vested financial interests in our culture in maintaining annual systems (roundup resistant Monsanto terminator seeds, anyone?), how can we make such a conclusion objectively? Ecological evidence would indicate that the only way to feed a large population in the long term is with perennials, basic evolutionary biology, we area adapted and evolved to feed on the plant species that supported the rise of our species, perennials, so how has that biological fact changed. The evolutionary recent cultural decision of SOME PARTS of the human species to depend on annuals does not change the ecology of the planet and our unique niche we have evolved to occupy. The fact is that we on a purely biological level are just another animal species trying to commit evolutionary suicide by living outside of the niche we have evolved into, and our cultural preferences are petty nuances that don’t count for peanuts. We can either accept the basic ecology, and the way the planet operates, or we can cease to exist out of sheer-minded stubbornness and stupidity, it’s that simple. Humans have no privilege in the web of life, and ecological systems support all life equally, and the rules for our species are the same as for any other species, it’s all a matter of knowing our place.

    Again, not sure what trees you grow, but it’s common knowledge that perennials take less work, and food forest systems have minimal labour inputs once they establish themselves. There’s an article on PRI documenting this. Extensive work fertilising apple trees? Are we talking mainstream monoculture orchards here? You’re obviously not talking about food forests. In Permaculture, we build the soil, the plants and trees take care of themselves, unless you’re growing annuals!

    The planet is most definitely a balanced system that maintains an equilibrium, it has extensive homeostatic mechanisms to achieve this state, as described by the science of ecology. To familiarise yourself with this concept, here is the link to the wiki article on homeostasis – read the sections entitled “ecological” and “biosphere” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeostasis#Ecological .When you understand systems like this exist, hence my description of the ecological process of forest succession in this article, you realise how natural systems operate, and how to take advantage of these processes to produce food without damaging the planet. Currently if we ran our cars like we grow food, we would be mixing dirt into our fuel and running more pressure in our fuel pumps to keep it all working, quickly destroying the engine in the process, simply because we either don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, or just don’t want to.

    I should have explained the human cultural arrogance aspect more clearly, my apologies. Firstly, nature has a very definite way in which it operates to grow plants, just like a finely tuned machine, and it’s been perfecting it in a way that’s evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and for anyone who’s studied the botany, ecology or plant biochemistry, these natural systems are truly remarkable. Now the “new kid on the block” species latecomer of modern man appears on the scene, ignorantly assumes that they are on top of the biological hierarchy – a nonsense concept because we exist in a web of life, similar to a mesh network, not a pyramid. We, out of sheer ignorance, devise an abstract mental concept of how Nature should operate in our minds, out of sheer ignorance without understanding the first thing about how Nature works, and ecided to expend untold amounts of energy to make it such – welcome to the birth of agriculture. Now, this perspective is especially peculiar to our European, first world culture. We arrogantly assume that our way as dominator of Nature, driven by a deep faith in human reasoning, but acting completely irrationally, and exploiting our life support systems for an abstract humen concept called “money” is the only way. We are completely ignorant of other cultures who have a more harmonious relationship to the planet, embrace a different world view, we discount them as simple and unintelligent form a position of arrogance, and pursue our destructive path drunken with pride. As a result, the way we grow food is the only way in our minds, what other way is there? Surely there can be nothing better than what our western first world technologically advanced world is practising now? No way! Wait till they solve all the worlds food and resource problems by genetically engineering staples that provide ALL of our food needs from one plant. The messiahs in the white lab coats have spoken, your fishes and loaves will be GM grains!!! The arguments you have presented are drawn from this European western ethnocentric perspective that cannot see beyond its cultural boundaries and confines. The reason our culture uses annuals is cultural and financial, not horticultural or ecological. The science is in fact stacked against us, but if we assume we’re the dominant culture of humanity and the dominant species of the planet, and that our meagre two centuries of western industrialised, technological, profit driven thinking soundly beats thousands of years of harmonious coexistence with Nature of many native cultures, and is more advanced than 300 million years of plant evolution, then frankly, we’re doomed, and dare I say, deservedly so, it’s simple biology once again, natural selection. Those species which cannot adapt to their environment and conditions (we’re trying to adapt Nature to our expectations) eventually perish, replaced by species better able to adapt. When unsustainable population growth happens in an ecological system due to large inputs of energy into a system (like a large amount of nutrient, or a large amount of fossil fuel?) the population grows uncontrollably and then collapses, with massive die-off, leaving a sustainable population afterwards that can survive on the normally available inputs to the system. The point being we are not above our biology, and our cultural preferences mean nothing in this scheme of things, so if we arrogantly assume that we can have our way rather than play by the rules of the planet, because we foolishly believe we are above them, and above other human cultures doing it differently, then we will merrily continue our unsustainable practices and the outcome is very predictable as just described, because we are not exempt from the laws of Nature! As Dr Suzuki once said, he was driving to a shopping centre, and saw a sign at the entrance saying “no animals allowed”, so he turned his car around and drove back home! There is an ancient saying, “pride proceedeth the fall”, and currently we’re revelling in it here in the west! On that note, considering this is nearly a 2,000 word reply at this point, I’d best leave it at that and hope that this lengthy response answers your question.

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  33. Jason Gerhardt

    This is all very interesting. I don’t really have an interest in arguing any of the points made. I think it is pretty clear that the current human population cannot be supported by perennial food plants at this point in time, but it is nevertheless an important task to at the very least increase the amount of perennials that we do rely on for food. This was the essence I was left with after reading this article.

    I think it might be constructive to think on smaller scales and in slower solutions if we want to make a lasting contribution to the perennialization of agriculture. The situations we face are dire, and annual commercial agriculture is unarguably one of those dire situations, but unfortunately the grand scale thinking that got us to this point is not going get us out of it. If you want to go far, go slow and steady. One application of this can be that we all start to experiment with perennial polycultures in our own fields, ponds, and gardens, increasing the exposure of friends, family, neighbors, teachers, and students to perennial foods, and probably best to use the path of culinary delectability to do so. Since food is such a large part of culture we need to make sure these foods will fit for the particular culture they are intended for. I know as a privileged sugar-loving kid raised on industrial food the thing that got me into perennial foods, and still does today, is fruit. Sugar is the pattern for me, whether I like it or not, that is my native food stuff. I know my neighbors are much more excited when I offer them a fig versus a lovage leaflet too.

    A lot of the work in re-perennializing diets is in uncovering historically important perennial food crops, appropriate uses of those crops, and reintroducing them as food species once again. This is probably best started within ones own diet, and spreading out from there.

    Groups like the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, USA are also particularly hopeful, as a converse to the slow and steady approach I advocate above, though patience is equally important for their efforts as well.

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  34. erin

    thankyou for the article angelo. very nice photos.
    i see just from the length of your spirited replies to comments that you have a good knowledge base. i just wanted to bring to attention something i think C may have hinted towards, and that is that Permaculture is a design science for HUMAN habitation. That is to say, besides benefiting all lifeforms, soils and anything else in the vicinity, permaculture is first and foremost a system for the benefit of humans, as potentially the most effective stewards of the wonderful earth we live on. so in saying that i think happiness, enjoyment and fun are not spin benefits of design but essential factors. while i wholeheartedly agree the tremendous importance perennials play in any decent design, i have seen plenty of highly regenerative systems that employ annuals as PART of the whole design. personally i think a garden or broad-acre farm without an abundance of perennials is a boring place, but i also love growing old strains of wheat, ox blood tomatoes and a lots of cucumbers, to name a few, i love them so the extra work involved is a joy. and i think thats the key point here….joy. its not just an outdated hippy term and its embarrassingly simple to experience in a garden, without any facts or figures.
    great article, great info. love the diversity of minds.
    all the best.

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  35. Chris Smaje

    Dear Angelo

    There are a lot of people around who think that they have the solutions to all of the world’s problems, that these solutions are perfectly simple, and that the only reason these solutions don’t get implemented is because people who disagree with them are either stupid or have a hidden agenda, or both. The permaculture movement has more than its fair share of them, and they do it a disservice. You seem to be of them.

    You make some interesting points, you make some mistakes, you assert various opinions and interpretations as incontrovertible facts, and you make a lot of strange assumptions about my perspective which aren’t grounded in what I’ve said or what I do. So although I’d be interested in debating the underlying issues further, I can’t see the point unless you quit with the patronising, come down off your high horse and start trying to see a few shades of grey in the world instead of just black and white. One thing I’d really urge you not to do, though, is to try to silence other people’s perspectives by invoking a superior scientific warrant for your claims. It’s what corporate food apologists do the whole time, and it’s very unscientific.

    I suspect that the stridency of your claims stems from the fact that deep down you’re not convinced that you’re right. Just relax – most of us are wrong most of the time about most things.

    Anyway, I’ve learned a few useful things from your posts, so thanks for that.

    Chris

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  36. mick

    Very serious discussion going on and i have no real interest in trying to prove any points as i think it is purely an intellectual argument. But a couple of small things

    Angelo, dandelions are clearly perennial – perhaps this is what you meant to write?
    And not all perennials are more hardy than annuals – plants are niche specific, and that is a little too generalised statement.

    Small things…:-)

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  37. Mick

    Chris, well said, echoed my thoughts very eloquently, particularly the last part about being wrong more often than not, I’ve certainly learnt that over the years!

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  38. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Chris, sorry if you interpreted my tone in that way and missed the point of my article, so I’ll take the time to summarise it in a few points:

    1. Annual and perennial plants have a distinctly different biology which is related to distinctly different plant survival strategies.
    2. Living ecosystems are comprised primarily of perennials.
    3. Nature turns bare earth into forests through the ecological process of forest succession.
    4. The place of annuals is in the pioneer stage of forest succession, after which they are mostly replaced by perennials.
    5. Removing perennials from the landscape and planting only annuals is a leading cause in soil salinity.
    6. Due to their biology, perennials are more hardy and productive than annuals, and require less energy and effort to grow.
    7. Food production systems comprised primarily of annuals are unsustainable and damaging to the planet.

    That’s the executive summary if you will, it is basic, non-controversial textbook science, so there’s no ground for argument, yet people find some point of contention when the status quo is questioned with the way we grow food. It may be a surprise to many people, but mainstream agriculture is very problematic on many levels. They say in Permaculture you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, and insisting we stick to what’s failing is in no way helpful.

    You’re statement about my character hints that you might be emotionalizing a topic that is simply dry concrete science because you don’t agree with it, or its implications. I can’t help you there, the science is there if you want to research any of it. You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m definitely not silencing anyone’s opinion, but I won’t hesitate to correct scientific facts that are misunderstood or misrepresented, isn’t that what we’re all meant to be about in Permaculture, sharing knowledge, skill and experience? Since Permaculture is an applied science, we are not invoking “superior science” to score points in one-upmanship, the whole point of Permaculture is collaboration, we spend the time to write these articles to share our knowledge, skills and experience, so others can benefit. I read other writers articles on PRI and learn from them. If I question something that I don’t understand or disagree with, and they can reply with sound facts, then I recognise the opportunity to expand my knowledge for free.

    I didn’t invent any of these scientific facts, principles or concepts presented in this article, I’m presenting accepted facts from the sources I’ve researched, but I don’t subscribe to the idea of cultural relativism that puts mere opinion on par with scientific fact, sorry. We need to keep the science in Permaculture, and not slip into subjectivity on objective matters. I hope you can appreciate that.

    I can assure you that I’m pretty sure of what I’m writing about, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it. It’s not about being right or wrong, the position of science is more flexible than that. Science takes the position that with the information currently available, a certain concept is true to the best of our understanding, based on observation and/or reproducible results from experimentation. Science updates its position as new information becomes available, it’s not set in stone thankfully. If the facts aren’t all there, the scientifically honest position is to say “I don’t know”. I’m from a biological sciences background, so I hope you understand why I employ this approach.

    Glad to hear the post was helpful in some way, and thank you for raising the questions that many others possibly had in the back of their minds but didn’t ask. Hope you understand that this is an educational article based on accepted facts and not a polemic.

    Regards

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  39. Angelo Eliades

    Thanks Mick, yes, that’s correct, dandelions are indeed perennials, trying to address that many points in a hurry at such length inevitably leads to some mistakes!

    Of course not every perennial is hardier than every annual, but it generally the case that they are, there are always exceptions, but we’re interested in the norm, the general attributes which clearly distinguish them from another. Yes, if I was writing a treatise on the nature of plants then I could detail all the specific nuances of each plant species, but practically speaking, this short article is an introduction to plant biology and how it affects the environment in regards to food production systems, so this level of detail is adequate relative to the length and context of the overall article.

    Unfortunately the discussion has derailed into an intellectual argument on a series of trivial issues because people are choosing to take issue with the basics of ecology and botany. I would hate to see the replies in an article on a more subjective and controversial topic like politics! ;)

    Cheers

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  40. Chris Smaje

    OK Angelo, I can’t resist one final foray into this debate.

    I largely agree with your numbered list of points, except point 6 in relation to productivity where there’s a clear gradient of declining productivity from ruderals to competitors to stress-tolerators. Stress-tolerators (ie long-lived perennials) are adapted to low nutrient situations and have slow tissue turnover – where do you think they’d be getting their extra productivity from? Most food crops are on the ruderal-competitor part of the spectrum – they could be annual or perennial, but generally their lifespan is short and their nutrient demand is high, and the more that we try to push their productivity the more we’ll end up in situations akin to annual monocultures. What we want from the plant is not the same as what the plant is trying to achieve for itself. This, as you are fond of saying, is all basic botany. And it’s very far from being trivial.

    I largely agree with your point 7 though it’s less true of some places than others, and it depends on the system.

    Take a look at your comments on the scientific basis of your claims again. It’s a piece of rhetoric in which you attempt to buttress your claims by associating them with incontrovertible truth. There’s nothing scientific there.

    All this stuff you’re directing towards me about cultural relativism, support for mainstream agriculture and so on is very perplexing. Is there some other Chris Smaje appearing on your computer, my evil virtual alter ego perhaps, who is espousing it?

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  41. Angelo Eliades

    “Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty.”

    - John Finley

    The discussion for this article has been very interesting, it has shed some light on the broad spectrum of attitudes out there in the Permaculture world. Some fascinating insights into the community in general.

    Here are a few thoughts I’d like to share after reflecting on my observations:

    So, we’re uncertain about what we replace our faulty annual agribusiness with? Only when we have the courage to let go of the status quo and step into the space of uncertainty do we open ourselves up to creative solutions. If we cling to the past mistakes for the sake of security and certainty, we stagnate and perish.

    To quote Bill Mollison’s “introduction to Permaculture”, specifically the eleventh Permaculture design principle – “Attitudinal Principles” – Permaculture is not capital or labour intensive, it is information and imagination intensive.

    I seriously hope all permies out there challenge and question the state of the world rather than accept it, spend time in observation, do the research, and come to understand the enduring underlying patterns and processes of Nature, to distinguish them from the man-made temporary systems we have come to accept as a given. Only then is the ground fertile for creative solutions, for thinking outside the square, for real progress. Only when we challenge our accepted thoughts and ideas can we subject them to sufficient scrutiny to determine if they are sound. I hope I have provided a challenge of this nature in this article and discussion.

    On a closing note, how we apply our efforts is ultimately our choice, we can choose to waste our time debating irrelevant minutiae over facts we can simply look up to verify for ourselves in a textbook, or we can spend the time to apply what we’ve learned in our Permaculture education out in the real world to prove the theory to ourselves and expand our knowledge on a practical level.

    Permaculture is an applied science, meaning it’s meant to be applied! It’s not a theoretical science, so idle speculation is not what it’s about. If people want to know what works and what doesn’t, they can prove it to themselves by going out there and trying it out, it’s surprising how much one can learn from practical experience, much more valuable than internet debates, but that shouldn’t be too hard to imagine.

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  42. Lorax99

    Many apologies for going so off topic here. I just can’t stand by and see diligent permies delude themselves any longer. The problem with Permaculture is not so much in the concepts. These are reasonable, if over generalized and a bit dogmatic; they are however for the most part not new. Permaculture is a nice compendium of practices and ideas that have been around in some cases since prehistory. The problem is with the packaging, “jargonification,” and merchandising.

    Ostensibly a collection of very good ideas, Permaculture is also something of a brand name with its own culture, obsessed with ownership, purity, and an almost Catholic obsession with tracing one’s ordination back to Bill Mollison “himself” (“I took the class from so and so, who studied under so and so, who…”)

    I find the books informative, but even a brief dip into, say, an online forum like this one, reveals that the majority of practitioners seem focused on either purchasing large amounts of undeveloped land and “improving” it for themselves, their nuclear families, or their top-dollar landscaping businesses, or else evangelizing “the poor,” who are certainly never invited to cohabit the same “demonstration projects” as the designers.

    Permaculture culture, and the “eco-village” condominiums that best employ it, seem to be creatures of the ownership society, and the Permaculture label itself denotes conspicuous consumption rather than social reform.

    Perennial polyculture has been practiced by the indigenous peoples of South America for thousands of years, however, even if we adopt those best practices worldwide now, we won’t stop the desertification of 80% of the world by 2100. Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic also won’t deliver the massive die-off that needs to occur to achieve a sustainable (perennial) system of approx one billion souls. Run Lemmings Run! Also, in any case, if you want to save the world you’ll have to overthrow the plutocracy first. Good luck with that!

    I’m writing this from a cohousing community in Northern California. The solar panels are caked with dust. The landscape is overgrown anywhere it’s not underwatered. The meetings generally are run with the social mores of junior high school; never mind everybody has at least a masters degree. The fruit trees get stripped in the middle of the night. I could go on.

    Modern people have NO IDEA of the kind of social organization that it takes to operate on a subsistence farming level. A huge part of it involves gritting your teeth and working with people who annoy you and/or staying married to a nutcase. The reason Mexican dishwashers look relaxed is because they know they get two days off per week; an unthinkable luxury on a farm.

    Permaculture teachers (is there any other kind?) will immediately show you computer presentations of swales cut with graders and drip irrigation systems. Graders? Drip? If they were really working farmers they would be comparing hoe styles, kama vs. machete and talking about fencing. Try producing 80 yards of mulch with a machete and you’ll see why they need a rethink.

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  43. Chris Smaje

    As a struggling small-scale farmer, I’d have to agree with most of what Lorax99 says. But even though perennial polyculture has long been practiced it doesn’t prevent the need for fertility building and succession prevention (burning, ploughing, mulching etc) which draws you back into many agricultural problems. I’d urge people not to succumb to the ‘perennials good, annuals bad’ delusion, but to notice that both agricultural annuals and agricultural perennials are at the ruderal-competitor end of the plant spectrum, which has consequences for the kind of inputs they require. Or to put it another way, modern permaculture doesn’t have magic solutions that farming peoples (including peoples who farm annuals) haven’t previously thought of.

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  44. Carolyn Payne

    Goodness me, this has all turned rather feral, 46 comments and counting and it’s just an article about perennials! Wow just imagine if it was a really serious subject like, I don’t know…saving the world.
    No wonder Lorax99 doesn’t use their real name, how rude, why are you even on here, ever thought of trying to aerobically compost some of that toxic, twisted bitterness.
    Carolyn Payne -Mudlark Permaculture

    Reply
  45. erin

    Ha! You right carolyn. But seriously lorax. Go and take a course b4 u judge a science by a minority, ie your, or anyone elses opinion. Angelo, chill out dude. Permaculture needs more people that focus on connecting PEOPLE not just proving to us that nature is better without us and the best solution hinted at is to return to a state like b4 we MESSED it up. That is not permaculture. Open scientific scruntiny. OPEN. Open mind. And that means to all opinions. No science is absolute and very few facts can be said to be objective. If permaculture didn’t teach u that you missed the point. There is truth between the lines too my friend. May you only grow in health, happiness and wisdom. Always. All the best.

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  46. Angelo Eliades

    Thankfully my writing style is more passionate than my actual demeanour, appearances can be deceptive! The discussion is interesting, I think there are a lot of underlying concerns in the Permaculture community that are reflected in the comments when I read between the lines. I’ll briefly address some of these issues to hopefully clear the waters.

    It appears that my pointing out what is wrong with annual agriculture systems in respect to the laws of ecology and how natural systems work has struck a raw nerve and prompted what appears to be some kind of attempted defence of annual systems. This technical article is concerned with foundation principles, this is not controversial. The implications are simply design-oriented, about saving energy and resources, as well as minimising negative outcomes. If people want to extrapolate the implications to western human societies and population growth issues, then were moving into speculation, belief, and opinion, outside the scope of the article. I’ve explained the resource dependent population growth model of ecology, which equally applies to fish in a pond and humans on a planet, which is as objective as we can get without getting into opinions.

    The basic premise of this article centres around the core design principles, and I’m restating from the main article here – “the seventh Permaculture design principle — Small Scale Intensive Systems. It describes the use of perennial plants instead of annual plants as one of the features that differentiates Permaculture small scale intensive systems from either conventional commercial or peasant farming systems”. So, do people agree with the basic Permaculture design principles? If not, well, sorry, we’re not here to debate the philosophy of Permaculture in this article anyway.

    Now, to the skeletons in the closet – the Permaculture world evidently does contain a small pocket of people who can be described as “ye of little faith”, those who are part of the community but whose only contribution is to complain that Permaculture doesn’t work in one way or another – doubt, or to constantly remind us why they can’t do this or that – excuses for inaction. You can see this in comments across various articles. Not sure if this is the result of varying standards of Permaculture education, a lack of confidence in one’s skills, or a reluctance of people to leave what’s comfortable and step into unfamiliar ground. Regrettably, this attitude is seldom constructive. Recall the eleventh Permaculture design principle – Attitudinal Principles, “Everything works both ways” and “Permaculture is information and imagination intensive”. Apparent ‘problems’ can be viewed as parts of a solution, and if we utilize imaginative solutions, the ‘problem’ can be something we can use to our advantage! If we’re simply giving up in despair rather than trying to design our way out of a potential challenge, then firstly, we technically aren’t practicing Permaculture, and more importantly, we totally eliminate of any chance of succeeding.

    To politely address your concerns Chris, even though they are completely off topic, I ponder why you’re so dismissive of Permaculture and please don’t take this as a criticism, if you’re a struggling farmer, ask yourself what have you done, and what have you tried doing differently? Have you actually studied a PDC with a reputable teacher, learned the principles, and applied them? Do you have sound horticultural skills to translate the Permaculture principles into practical design solutions? What solutions did you attempt and what were your outcomes? Did you take the collaborative approach we use and share your problems with the Permaculture community to tap into the experience and knowledge available? Have you tried different food production systems and techniques, such a food forest systems, and if so, which ones, and what went wrong? Have you looked even further at other systems which are also successfully demonstrated such as Peter Andrew’s Natural Sequence Farming, Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Farming, Rudolph Steiner’s Biodynamic Farming, etc? I don’t want you to answer these questions, especially here, just points to consider, especially in respect to your feelings about Permaculture. I’m sure if you wrote an article about the issues you’re experiencing, and the solutions you’ve attempted, many Permaculture farmers would be able to share their solutions, the Permaculture world really is a supportive place, if we care to ask.

    People’s responses to the promotion of Permaculture can be quite varied, but the “Permaculture is not a solution to the world’s problems…” is one which amuses me, it shows a clear misunderstanding of what Permaculture actually is. Too many people look into Permaculture expecting a magical solution or magical technique to achieve a specific practical task, and are disappointed when they find a fairly detailed and technical design system that requires some degree personal effort and responsibility, one that will be as productive as the effort you place into understanding it, and a bring-your-own practical skill set requirement. Many a new permie is shocked to find that they need sound horticulture knowledge to create sound food production systems! Permaculture is only a framework, which employs many techniques and systems, all of which work apart from Permaculture. With Permaculture, we “frame” them in a holistic design system. If we are designing a sustainable house, we are employing the techniques of architecture in the greater context of a Permaculture perspective. To suggest that architecture can’t deliver a housing solution is absurd, it’s the only system that can by any other name, and if it does it in a Permaculture framework, then even better, it will do it in the most sustainable way in a holistic relationship to the surrounding environment. Same with food production, it’s horticulture of some sort that delivers the solution as a tool within Permaculture.

    In the ancient world, antiquity was valued, not novelty, and to once again challenge more of that limited ethnocentric and peculiarly modern perspective and mindset we mistakenly take for granted as “the way things have always been”, the “new is better” fallacy is a fairly modern concept. Permaculture’s underlying principles are ones derived from Nature, way older than the human race… No, there’s nothing new in Permaculture’s underlying principles, they exist as an objective reality apart from the human race, the new part is simply the part for humans – the human system for modelling, conceptualising, communicating, teaching and expressing it all.

    Hope all this extra commentary helps with providing a better perspective on the topic, and the nature of Permaculture itself. I think my next article will come with a disclaimer, just to ease people’s minds that I just write technical educational articles and not solutions to the world’s problems [grin]!

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  47. Lorax99

    Hi Caroyln, Funny you mention “saving the world”. When i registered for the first PDC course 5 years ago that’s specifically what i had in mind. For a while (at least a few months) I was convinced permaculture may indeed be our saving grace and I intended to be a good poster child for it, diligent and integral. More specifically, i was convinced by the time i received a PDC teaching certificate, that Perennial Polycultures (of all kinds) were the bedrock of PC and would prove to be the essence of it as a primary solution, feeding the masses and allowing us to truly thrive and survive on spaceship earth.

    I have chosen to spend the past five years (on a kind of sabbatical) looking at human history, our current condition and potential futures from as many perspectives as I could find. While realizing I’m personally in recovery from western civilization, I can’t help but wonder what is the most expedient way to transition into the next paradigm? What will this renaissance look like? In an attempt to formulate the right questions, I have read hundreds of books and watched almost as many documentary films. I’ve engaged and queried people from all walks of life in order to ascertain how and why humanity finds itself in this current predicament.

    My ever evolving questions (and a few answers) have been informed by the sustained focus on ideas generated by scholars working at the leading edge of almost every major academic discipline: anthropologists, historians, religious and spiritual leaders, philosophers, biologists, quantum physicists, and many more. Contrasting, synthesizing, distilling and cross pollinating as much from these ideas as I can, has been an interesting endeavor, to say the least.

    In my view, an absolutely necessary condition for us to experience an extraordinary paradigm shift in consciousness entails awakening from the pervasive, illusory sense of separateness that humans experience almost universally.

    Most commonly, the miniscule minority of humankind who successfully attain liberation from this prison of limited ego-hood do so only through highly dedicated and intense spiritual practice for many years or decades. The other side of this coin is that the vast majority of humanity continues to operate primarily out of self-cherishing ego-hood. The tragic consequences of this have included epidemic hatred, endless wars, divisiveness of all kinds, and—perhaps worst of all—massive destruction of the biosphere upon which we crucially depend for our ongoing existence on this planet.

    The multiple global crises that we now face as a result of this massive blindness to the obvious fact that we are all one seamlessly interdependent body of life on earth have become increasingly urgent. Unless a large majority of humankind rapidly awakens to this reality and takes strong collective and corrective action, we will inevitably suffer some very major eco-catastrophes entailing the extinction of millions of species; and it is entirely possible that homo sapiens would be included in such a mass extinction.

    While there are many hopeful signs that a massive awakening of humanity has started to occur, I see a continuing huge need for a highly creative breakthrough to accelerate this movement as fully as possible. Accordingly, I have been actively searching over the past years for a proven, cutting-edge spiritual technology that might facilitate this kind of highly accelerated awakening.

    Now that I’ve digressed wildly, back to permaculture. Einstein wisely noted, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” For a glaring case in point, take “Financial Permaculture” Best as I can decipher, Financial Permaculture is a lot of thick obfuscating jargon that pretty much just means “developing a sustainable local economy.” I believe by including the word “financial” that we have specifically committing to ensuring the continuation of money and finance indefinitely in the post-peak-oil world; I guess we intend to maintain something more sophisticated, erudite, and classy than that icky old stuff like “barter” and “trade for work.” Surely we have progressed beyond those old worn out concepts! (sarcasm intended)

    This is when I began to see the intractability of our predicament. Even Permacultures principles and jargon are thoroughly rooted in late 20th century American market capitalism. Now, after four years of full time studying; how we came to find ourselves in our collective predicament and potential methodologies for transitioning to the next paradigm, I am indeed Cynical. My cynicism is not only due to observing the massive blinders civilization wears as it runs closer to the cliff, or even in my doubt in humanities ability to get out from under the boot of the corporatocracy. Our predicament is mostly so dire because time is simply running out faster that we can change. We humans seem to be just too damn clever to be wise.

    The burning of fossil fuels functions and exacerbates global warming on a 30 year delay. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, worldwide, we’d sail easily past 450PPM in just a few years and would be projected to top 1000ppm by 2050. If that’s not enough bad news, scientists report that at the present rate of ocean acidification, plankton won’t be capable of forming their protective calcium carbonate shells by 2050. Anyone who’s taken a high school ecology class knows that when the bottom of the food chain dies the rest of the worlds ecosystems can’t be far behind.

    Initially i was just as enamored by the idealism at the core of perm principles as every aspiring permie should be. However, IMHO, i now believe we need to acknowledge the need to forego our interest in eating and divert the energy and talent of future permie candidates to the front-lines of the political, psychological and spiritual revolution.

    However that alone won’t even scratch the surface of the real problem. The perennial problem exists as a problem of perception (or specifically lack thereof). Warning: This rapidly begins to look like a spiritual, philosophical and psychological problem. Kant postulated that we can never accurately ascertain “the thing itself” the “Noumenon”. All we can ever really hope to strive for is to be thoroughly cognitive and mindful that the severe limitations of our “knowledge” rests within the restricting valve at top of our grey matter, Huxleys’s “doors of perception”. This valve not only limits our ability to function as good stewards of ecosystems it conditions and informs our entire cultural existence. Since I’m beginning to ramble and get tangentially so far off topic by now i may as well just skip dinner and serve dessert.

    With the caveat that everyone has to find their own way through the rapids; at the end of the day, after the distillation of years of study into how we might save the world my permacultured solution is; since few of us have 50 years to meditate on a mountain top, in order to “Wake Up”, the next best methodology of quickly transcending our cultural (and personal) pathological alienated, egoical sense of self-hood is to ingest all manner of entheogens, especially Psilocybin, DMT and the Ayahuasca.

    However, to receive the essence and efficacy they offer freely to unveil our ignorance, they must be revered as the sacramental vegetals prehistory and contemporary indigenous peoples understand them to be. These are not the recreational drugs the westerners have occasionally dabbled with and sampled.

    As civilization appears to be in the final act of ecocide (Terra-cide?); anything less than a massive awakening (at this late stage in the game) is piecemeal, and should be regarded similarly to fluorescent light-bulb replacements, corn ethanol and carbon credits.

    Only an awakening from the dream (nightmare) along the lines described well by Timothy Freke in “The Mystery Experience” will cultivate a cultural collective state of mind that could pave the way for the total paradigm transition necessary to save the blue jewel. In any case, and at the very least, the ego death one usually experiences (at least temporarily)under the tutelage of the psychedelics will prepare one for the afterlife that is inevitable anyhow.

    If you prefer a more pragmatic approach to what the future may hold, my favorite blogger, Ran Prieur, summarizes my idea of Utopia better than anyone;

    “Go ahead and participate in the system, but your strategic goal is no longer to turn the system around and save everyone. Rather, it is to guide the system through its collapse, so that people who are determined to avoid industrial toxins, to grow their own food, to move outside the money economy, to take responsibility for their own health and safety and comfort are able to do so.

    When the levees break, and the water rushes through the town, you don’t run for the hills; you get in your ark. Where did Noah build the ark? On the future floodplain. How did Noah build the ark? With materials and resources from that place. And when did Noah build the ark? Before the flood.

    We have to prepare for a non-industrial future while we still have some resources with which to do it. If we marshal the resources, stockpile the materials that will be of most use, and harness the heirloom technologies that can be sustained without an industrial base, then we can stretch out the transition far into the future, giving us time to adapt.

    I think there have always been warlike tribes, and there always will be. A society that turns its energy to war and conquest will always defeat a society that lives in peace, because it can fight better; but then, a peaceful and cooperative social order will always defeat a violent and repressive social order, because it’s a better way to live. These two systems have existed in balance since the beginning of time, the violent systems sweeping through the peaceful systems and burning out like fires.

    Only when grain agriculture released the energy of topsoil, and industry released the energy of oil, did the fire of the violent tribes rise to engulf the world. Now that the fuel is running out, we are entering a new age. In a world like this, it will be impossible to build any kind of enduring large system. Our path, instead, will be to continually break down the repressive systems, dodge the conquering systems, and rebuild good systems through the cracks, forever. Actually I think that will be more fun than Utopia.”

    While designing and building your “Ark” consider the following observations as they apply as well to the future as the past.

    1. Human survival is dependent on healthy, diverse ecosystems.

    2. Industrial civilization is undermining every living system on the planet.

    3. Most injustices are systematic and deliberate.

    4. Social and environmental injustices both stem from domination culture.

    5. The rights of life trump the perceived rights of commerce.

    6. Technological innovation will not prevent the systematic degradation of our planet.

    7. This culture will not make a voluntary change to a sustainable lifestyle.

    8. Protective use of force is justified in defending our landbase.

    9. Our current civilization needs to be replaced by thousands of cultures that are fully integrated into their local ecosystems.

    10. In order to defend what remains of our landbases and communities, coordinated resistance is necessary.

    Interestingly, the Mayan calender speculates that Dec 21st 2012 is the end (not of all time, simply one 5012 year era) of the rein of the “Seven Macaw” which is coincidentally fairly clearly metaphorical with the vast collective ego death (hopefully) of this civilization. For the quintessential unity experience please investigate for yourself; the entheogens. It may be well to start by reading up on what some of there students have to say; Terence Mckenna, Daniel Pinchbeck, James Oroc, Jeremy Narby, Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner, Roger Walsh, Ken Wilbur among many others. To read what the preeminent elder psychonautical adventurers have to say, please read, “Higher Wisdom” edited by Roger Walsh.

    Finally a big THANK YOU to all the Permies that are/were headed in the right direction. Cheers to all of you! This world does indeed still need you and appreciates you desperately. Please choose your way carefully and good luck.

    PS. Since Caroline was offended I didn’t leave my real name, it is Bianca Salome. NAMASTE!

    Reply
  48. Chris S Smaje

    Angelo, I wrote a response to your comments with a number of questions of my own for you, but it seems to have got lost in cyberspace. I don’t suppose it matters much.

    My closing brief comment is that permaculture at its best is a process of learning, in which we try to improve how we observe the world, try to ask better questions about it, try to engage in constructive debate and dialogue, and try not to make assumptions about the world or other people that aren’t warranted by the evidence before us.

    Permaculture at its worst is about dogmatically parroting any number of ready-made solutions handed down by one’s permaculture teachers, defining what is or isn’t permaculture and who is or isn’t a permaculturist according to some bullet-pointed list, mistaking critical debate for nay saying or justification of the status quo, and engaging in egotistical acts of petty one-upmanship.

    As this debate has gone on, I think your posts have increasingly exemplified permaculture at its worst. A pity, because it’s a very important debate – a debate that’s absolutely about ‘saving the world’ – but on this forum your ego and your dogmatism has killed it.

    Reply
  49. Angelo Eliades

    Sorry but I’ll agree to strongly disagree with you Chris, the article is simply a technical piece, it’s not a controversial or debatable topic – what you choose to read into it is purely your choice. How the commentary has been twisted into an attack on the Permaculture community or the discipline itself really surprises me.

    It looks like you have had some unfavourable experience with Permaculture and youre projecting this on the community. Your argument is not technical and topic specific, there are bigger issues burdening you I think. I’m seriously trying to help here – you’re mistaking the integrity of the syllabus for dogma, it’s not. Permaculture is clearly defined as an applied science, defined by the founders, the schools they founded. Its methodology of observation is clearly what defines it as an empirical science, not a speculative philosophy.

    This is old ground, you missed the big debate a few months back, please see the PRI article by the site’s editor Craig – “Permaculture and Metaphysics” and my article “Permaculture and Philosophy” if this is what you want to concern yourself with. It’s inapproprate to raise the issue in an off-topic article.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to get out of Permaculture, but there is no debate on the topic of this article, it’s a component of one of the design principles. If you don’t like the structure of Permaculture, it’s methodology and it’s underpinnings in science, I cannot help you there at all.

    Perspective is a very scary thing, especially for complacent westerners. In my communications with overseas permaculturists from countries where food is an issue, and space is a luxury, they all seem pretty ecstatic about Permaculture, they want to learn as much as they can, and they are busy successfully applying the teachings and feeding themselves. They have no choice but to make it work, or they don’t eat. You questioned why I brought up ethnocentrism – well, the people I just mentioned don’t sit there complaining that they can’t do this and that, they don’t get into abstract academic debates questioning this and that aspect of Permaculture. They are learning by doing it for themselves.

    Dare I say it without being rude, it seems like it is only overfed westerners who have access to lots of cheap food at the poorer nation’s expense who can afford to spend their time philosophising about abstractions rather than practising anything practical, and here you are talking about debates about ‘saving the world”. That’s exactly the problem Chris, sorry, but your not going to save the world by discussing philosophy, there’s enough idle talk in the world that amounts to nothing, adding more won’t make any difference. Go out and take action, plant a tree, work with your local community, that’s where the solution lies. Talk is cheap, action speaks volumes – look at the recent PRI post full of before and after pictures of successful Permaculture demonstrations here – Hope for a New Era: Before/After Examples of Permaculture Earth Restoration – Solving Our Problems From the Ground Up: http://permaculturenews.org/2012/06/28/hope-for-a-new-era-before-after-examples-of-permaculture-earth-restoration-solving-our-problems-from-the-ground-up/

    As the author elegantly states – – “Don’t say it can’t be done. As you’ll see below, it is being done”

    Perspective, it’s all about perspective. There are much more important issue out ther Chris…

    Reply
  50. Chris S Smaje

    Good to see your true colours – technical issues that aren’t debatable, schools defined by the founders etc etc. That’s the language of religious sectarianism, not science. My general experience of the permaculture movement has been very positive – the only problem I have is with your own wilful obtuseness. My concerns are practical. I’m a grower – I’m interested in figuring out sustainable farming systems that actually work. I earn my living by growing food and selling it in my local community, which I very much doubt you do, otherwise you’d have a more rounded appreciation of the role of both annuals and perennials in horticulture. But you didn’t even know that dandelions are perennials…and then you tell me to learn my basic botany! Oh wait, I get it…you’ve just been winding me up all along haven’t you? You don’t actually believe all this self-important nonsense you’ve been spouting at all, do you? And I fell for it! Well done, you win, you completely drew me in! Very good.

    Reply
  51. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    Everyone knows I don’t like to get heavy handed with moderating, but guys, please stay on topic, and play nice… We all mean the best, even with differing views. Don’t forget that, please.

    Reply
  52. Angelo Eliades

    Thanks Craig, I will steer this discussion back on topic, and attempt to clear things up for people.

    Back to square one – Permaculture prefers the use of perennials, we are all told that in our PDCs, there is no debate here, if you think this is contentious, go back and read your notes/textbooks!

    This article was written to explore the reasons why we do this, and I explored the ecological reasons, the botanical reasons, and the consequences of ignoring these reasons, such as salinity. These reasons are drawn from the accepted body of knowledge outside of Permaculture itself. Once again, this demonstrates that observed, accepted, proven, verifiable facts support the way we work in permaculture.

    If we were to say “we prefer to use perennials, end of story, case closed”, then people would not understand why, and that would be dogma or religion. The fact that permaculture is underpinned by soild science means that I can write such an article, which gives people learning permaculture an understanding from basic scientific principles why we do what we do, without resorting to dogma. It can be researched, validated from other peoples experience, and more importantly, the facts are testable, repeatable, and verifiable. You can go out into your garden or paddock with a ruler, dig up your annual and perennial vegies and measure the roots, then try it with a tree if you can dig deep enough!

    So far, it’s all sweet, we’re just expanding our knowledge of permaculture’s principles and better understanding what we do, and that’s where article’s focus is.

    Now, if you come along Chris and challenge (undermine) a basic premise of permaculture, either all of permaculture/ecology/horticulture has got it wrong, and must be revised to incorporate some groundbreaking new information that you’ve discovered that actually shows that annual systems are far more productive, sustainable and energy efficient than perennial systems, or you might be mistaken and you might need to do further research to better understand the permaculture principles for yourself if my explanations in the article were insufficient. If you can’t come up with hard scientific evidence which is verifiable, then you will get a predictable expected firm fixed response restating the commonly accepted scientific position of what it really is, not to correct you, but to clarify the question for other readers so they can better understand the basic permaculture principles.

    It’s no different from any other education dealing with objective facts, you can’t disagree with your maths teacher about multiplication, or similarly with more complicated scientific concepts like forest succession in ecology. If you can, and are able to support your position with evidence, then the whole world would be interested to know about it! You need to be able to differentiate between subjective truths, personal opinions in other words, and objective facts. With objective facts, things that exist irrespective of your awareness, your opinion is irrelevant in regards to these matters, facts such as water existing in three phases, solid, liquid and gas, it’s non-negotiable, the onus is on you to prove otherwise if you disagree. Hope you can now understand why you received such a firm response in regards to your personal theory which you proposed which contradicts accepted facts, and the very premise of this article which is just an elaboration of accepted Permaculture principles…

    I’m not interested in personalising a technical article, and if you’re growing using conventional farming methods, and I might have identified your practices and the way you earn your livelihood as part of the problem, then that is your moral dilemma which is beyond the scope of this discussion. It is a criticism of the technique, not a personal attack against you, you have the choice of what you do, and how to practice right livelihood.

    If you want to know what works, and it sounds like you do, my friendly suggestion is that you might have better success if you actually apply the permaculture design principles rather than question them. I would direct the same skepticism towards conventional methods personally, since we all know they are problematic, and look for a solution beyond them. The link to the other article with the “before and after” photos shows how it works when you do apply the permaculture principles, which should provide inspiration to give it a go. If you do have your doubts, then articles such as this should help you understand the real reasons why we do what we do, the principles aren’t just theories or something someone made up off the top of their heads, it’s all sound science, and it works.

    If you’re questioning the basic principles, then it’s unlikely you’re applying them, and if you’re not applying them, what are you actually practising, and what are you drawing your conclusions about permaculture from?

    There’s no point arguing the permaculture basic principles with me, its not a subjective opinion-based topic for debate, you’re seriously wasting your time, banging your head against a brick wall. Unless I doubted it all, I won’t concede to your opinion, unless you can disprove the science with evidence, which would then necessitate a rewriting of the permaculture principles, and some major rethinking in the field of ecology. I’m a permaculture educator with a science background, so when it comes to permaculture, I only believe what has firm science and evidence supporting it, what is verifiable and practise what I teach, so I know it works from firsthand experience.

    Since you want to know what works, and you want to make a profit from food production, I’ll try to leave you with something useful and inspiring that might be helpful for you to look into further.

    Joel Salatin, a successful farmer and respected author, grosses 2 million dollars a year on only 1400 acres using this system of mixed farming. http://permaculturenews.org/2012/05/16/swales-the-permaculture-element-that-really-holds-water/

    Here’s another random internet cut ‘n paste:

    Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in the United States. Joel has developed a pasture base farming system and forestry system which produces an income of 3,000 dollars per acre for a grand total of 1.5 million dollars(U.S.) a year. The family farm is PROFITABLE. Polyface Farms have not sprayed a chemical, used hormones or antibiotics on animals, or planted a seed in over 50 years. His pasture has an average of 400 cow days per acre, over 4 times the average farm. Their farm takes NO government subsidies. If farms across the U.S. adopted his system we could sequester all the Carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution by the U.S. in less than 10 years

    Food for thought…

    It’s important to understand the reasons behind our Permaculture principles rather than to take them in faith, and I hope this article explains to readers why we do indeed prefer perennial systems in Permaculture.

    Hopefully that brings the discussion back on track to the topic itself, I don’t enjoy the discussion detours any more than the next person.

    We started off in the right place, and we’ve detoured, derailed and rerouted through almost every conceivable topic in this discussion, and we’re finally back to the topic of “the technical reasons why we prefer perennial systems in permaculture”. I personally don’t enjoy having to write these long-winded responses to reaffirm basic non-debatable permaculture principles that are in your textbooks anyway.

    Let’s keep the discussion on the topic folks, and save our unrelated grievances for another place, time and topic where they are relevant. The whole point discussion on an article is to share knowledge so we all benefit, let’s keep it that way, let’s keep it constructive and on topic!

    Thanks everyone, cheers!

    Reply
  53. Chris S Smaje

    Thanks Craig, I’ll also try to keep to topic – I keep getting drawn back to it because it’s so important if only we could actually talk about the underlying biological issues. So I’ll attempt one last time to try to set out what they are.

    The majority of the macronutrients that have sustained the majority of people who have ever lived on this planet have come from annual cereals. It’s pretty clear that the way we now farm annual cereals isn’t going to be sustainable, so we need other models. Perennial polycultures are one (or several) such models, but the only precedents we have here are the small number of cultures historically whose agriculture has been based around them – mostly forest-dwelling swidden cultivators of low population density, often cultivating annually – plus some modern permaculturists. I have no doubt whatsoever that we need to be developing and experimenting will perennial polycultures – but will we be able to feed everyone on the planet with them sustainably into the future? Nobody knows. The fact that there are some great permaculture forest gardens around doesn’t mean that they will prove to be the global solution long-term, any more than a few field trials of transgenic crops proves that this technology has the answers. Not even somebody like Wes Jackson, who’s done more than anyone else to further perennial polyculture, claims it’s a simple matter to develop perennial staples and that they’ll be able to feed the world. The fact that nobody knows whether it’ll succeed doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. It does mean that we should ask tough questions of all experiments in perennial polyculture, or of any kind of agriculture for that matter, and that’s all that I’ve been trying to do.

    It’s curious that most wild floras are perennial whereas most human agricultures historically have been based on annuals. I think it’s extremely unwise to believe that this is because most people historically were arrogant, stupid or blinkered, and it’s worth considering whether there might be a biological explanation for it that would have consequences for how we develop a sustainable agriculture of the future. It seems to me that Grime’s CSR framework may be able to provide this explanation because it helps to explain why most (though not all) perennials are not very amenable to domestication, except sometimes as nutritionally fairly unimportant garnishes to our diet. And I’d emphasise that CSR theory isn’t my pet theory but one developed by a professional plant ecologist on the basis of a deep grounding in the ecological literature – take a look at his book. Staple crops (mostly annual and biennial, but some perennial) are ruderals or competitors, and they require us to provide high nutrient input and to prevent ecological succession. This poses important difficulties for farming practice which we need to figure out how to solve. I think it also means that the annual-perennial distinction is less important than the RC/S distinctions. Personally I don’t think that that overturns the core principles of permaculture very much, but if it does so be it. Thinking changes.

    The logic that Angelo has offered is that there is planetary homeostasis, so that means all ecosystems are in natural balance, so that means we should model agricultural systems after natural systems, so that means all agricultural systems should be perennial. Each step of that argument is logically and scientifically flawed. It’s a bad application of permaculture principles. If we expect people to take permaculture seriously as a way of solving the many problems we face, we’ll need to show that our solutions are better grounded than that. And we need to be experimenting with all kinds of crops – perennial, annual, whatever – to try to develop better agricultural solutions.

    If you’d like to show me that any of what I’ve said above is wrong I’d welcome that because that’s how knowledge gets developed and refined. But if you do so please SHOW me how I’m wrong by addressing the biological basis of my arguments. Please don’t merely assert I’m wrong, or infer I’m wrong because what I’m saying is at variance with what you were taught on your permaculture course.

    Thanks for the Joel Salatin link. I think he’s great, but what you obviously don’t know is that he buys in his chicken and pig feed as concentrates – soya and cereals, those pesky annuals again. If you’re genuinely interested in my farming methods I’d be happy to tell you about them – or you can have a look here http://www.vallisveg.co.uk/aboutvallisveg.html – though I haven’t updated this for a long time. I think any farmer worth his salt will readily admit that he could be a better farmer and I certainly do, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make all sorts of assumptions about how bad I am at it when you don’t actually know anything at all about what I do. I’d also recommend that urban permaculturists and design course graduates spend a couple of years of self-employed work in farming – and I mean farming, not writing about farming, or teaching farming, or running a campsite or whatever – before they give any lectures about how easy it is to make money from sustainable farming.

    Reply
  54. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Chris,
    As you have requested, I’ll show you where you have misunderstood the science, but I’ll do it in the proper scientific way, I’ll cite references from those more eminently qualified than myself, and let them argue the science.

    First, can you please stop derailing the subject with your pet theories and misrepresenting the theories of others. John Philip Grime’s C-S-R Triangle theory is an ecological theory of plant survival strategies. He does not relate his theory to staple crop production or preferences in any way, and the idea why we use staple crops in respect to the CSR theory is YOUR own personal theory, not his. Can you please cite a reference in his works, title and page, of where Grime’s supports what you claim?
    I have a copy of the journal – Grime JP. (1977). Evidence for the existence of three primary strategies in plants and its relevance to ecological and evolutionary theory. The American Naturalist 111:1169–1194. You can find it here – http://www.geobotany.uaf.edu/teaching/biol474/journals/grime1977amnat_v111p1169-150.pdf He doesn’t mention staple crops, agriculture, farming, human food production or any such topic!

    If you are genuinely interested in the real scientific reason why society has become dependent on annuals, and it has nothing to do with the innate biology of the plants (CSR), but human cultivation, please read the article Dr. Stan Cox “Ending 10 000 Years of Conflict between Agriculture and Nature” – http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Ending10000YearsOfConflict.php Dr. Stan Cox is Senior Research Scientist at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, USA .
    Here you’ll also find the reasons why perennials can produce higher yields than annuals with the same resources, or the same with with less, here’s a quote from this reference:
    “Global data for maize, rice, and wheat indicate that only 18 to 49 percent of nitrogen applied as fertilizer is taken up by crops; the remainder is lost to runoff, leaching, or volatilisation [10]. That occurs with or without tillage. Nitrogen losses from annual crops may be 30 to 50 times higher than those from perennial crops [9]. Organic farming with annual crops solves the problem of chemical contamination, but except in rare circumstances, requires as much or more tillage than conventional agriculture. And the inadequate root systems of annual species handle water and nutrients inefficiently even when crops are grown organically.”

    Yes, you are right, we need to develop our perennial systems, even the mainstream scientists see that annual farming is a real problem and is destroying the planet. See Glover, J. D., Reganold, J. P., Bell, L. W., Borevitz, J., Brummer, E. C., Buckler, E. S., . . . Xu, Y. (2010). Increased food and ecosystem security via perennial grains. Science, 328(5986), 1638. You can see the abstract to this jourmnal here – http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1638.summary

    Where did you get the idea that perennials aren’t more productive than annuals? You’re probably mixing up the figures for new experimental perennial grains which don’t have as high yields as the annual varieties because they don’t have 10,000 years of cultivation behind them. Overall, perennials are way more productive than annuals, see references below. Please re-check your sources!

    Australian Society of Agronomy, “Breeding for the perennial cropping systems of the future” – http://www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2008/plenary/agronomy-landscape/5775_coxs.htm

    Quote: “Chacteristics of perennial plants differentiate them from annual plants and provide them with extra resources that, through selection, can be re-allocated to grain production:
    - Better access to resources and a longer growing season (Scheaffer et al., 2000),
    - More conservative use of nutrients (Cox et al., 2006),
    - Generally higher biomass production (Piper and Kulakow, 1994), and
    - Sustainable production on marginal lands (Cassman et al., 2003)”

    Here’s some information from the Australian Govenement’s Department of Primary Industries, they put out materials to educate farmers, this information is in respect to pastures:
    “Perennials
    Perennial plants live for more than two years. They have a greater potential for year-round growth and their deep root system binds the soil to reduce dust, soil structure decline and erosion. Perennials can reduce the rate of environmental degradation (soil salinisation and acidification). Perennial species require moisture in summer to survive. The severity of summer determines if and what perennial species can be grown in a region.

    Annuals
    Annual plants survive for only one year. They must set seed in spring and germinate from seed the following autumn. Annual plants survive summer as dormant seeds and this enables them to grow in environments with harsher summers than perennials. In autumn, germinating annuals are frequently at a competitive disadvantage as perennials already have an established root system to use the available moisture and nutrients. In contrast, the annual must first grow roots before it can access moisture and nutrients. This is why perennials are frequently more productive than annuals in autumn and winter.”
    “http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/farming-management/hobby-small-business-farming/getting-to-know-your-pastures”

    Here’s more from a reknown Permaculture author:
    Toby Hemenway, “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”
    “And for productivity you can’t beat trees. An acre wheat provides a mere one to two tons of grain, while an acre of chestnut trees yields up to three tins of nuts and an acre of honey-locust trees explodes with fifteen tons protein-rich pods — without annual replanting. Apple and other fruit tree yields can reach seven tons per acre, although much of this is water weight. But even dried apple yields can match those of dry wheat. Compared to grains and other annuals, the vastly greater expanse of energy-harvesting greenery of trees gives them an unbeatable advantage.”

    It’s not just Permaculture that prefers perennials, Permaculture was just the first ones there, they were visionary enough to foresee the benefits several decades before the mainstream science community did. The big thrust in agricultural research currently is to revert to mainly perennial systems, everyone agrees this is the way to go, you’re stuck in yesterday’s thinking, but at least you’re honest enough to confess that you have a vested financial interest in annual farming, that’s how you make you’re living, so I can respect that.

    Here’s where commercial agriculture and agribusiness is going currently:
    ScienceDaily (June 24, 2010), Agriculture’s Next Revolution — Perennial Grain — Within Sight – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100624144111.htm
    Quote: “”Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” said Reganold.
    Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center. Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.”

    Robert Kunzig , National Geographic – Perennial Solution:
    “Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today—wheat, rice, corn, and so on—come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. “The whole world is mostly perennials,” says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. “So why did we domesticate annuals?” Not because annuals were better, he says, but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better—enlarging their seeds, for instance, by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials didn’t benefit from that kind of selective breeding, because they don’t need to be replanted. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.

    Today an enthusiastic band of scientists has gone back to that fork in the road: They’re trying to breed perennial wheat, rice, and other grains. Wes Jackson, co-founder and president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has promoted the idea for decades. It has never had much money behind it. But plant breeders in Salina and elsewhere are now crossing modern grains with wild perennial relatives; they’re also trying to domesticate the wild plants directly. Either way the goal is crops that would tap the main advantage of perennials—the deep, dense root systems that fuel the plants’ rebirth each spring and that make them so resilient and resource efficient—without sacrificing too much of the grain yield that millennia of selection have bred into annuals.

    We pay a steep price for our reliance on high yields and shallow roots, says soil scientist—and National Geographic emerging explorer—Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. Because annual root crops mostly tap into only the top foot or so of soil, that layer gets depleted, forcing farmers to rely on large amounts of fertilizers to maintain high yields. Often less than half the fertilizer in the Midwest gets taken up by crops; much of it washes into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes algae blooms that cause a vast dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi. Annuals also promote heavy use of pesticides or tillage because they leave the ground bare much of the year. That allows weeds to invade.”
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/big-idea/perennial-grains-text

    The implications are much bigger than you suspect, here is some startling information – The Land Institute “A 50-year farm bill” (2009).
    The Land Institute, a United States non-profit group devoted to sustainable agriculture, offers a plan for efficiently and effectively converting annual plantings to perennials in the United States. The Land Institute’s plan is a 50 year farm bill that aims to convert U.S. farmlands to 70 percent perennial crops from their current state of 25 percent perennials within 50 years. Their approach is two-fold. The first aspect is the development of desirable perennial strains. The Land Institute estimates that the work of 80 plant breeders and geneticists coupled with 30 agricultural and economic scientists would be sufficient to develop the necessary strains and agricultural practices.

    The information is out there for anyone who cares to research it, I can cite references indefinitely on this topic, but I trust that what I have provided should provide sufficient reading material to validate my claims.

    As you can see from the cited material, the world’s scientists and agriculturalists are in total agreement that annual farming is a 10,000 year old mistake, and that perennial farming is the future, emulating the proportions of perennials to annuals that exists in Nature. Permaculture can look back, and say, “I told you so”.

    What we should be more concerned about is that they way agribusiness and mainstream science intends to correct our mistake of choosing annuals cereals and grains as food staples in cool and temperate climates and cultivating them for maximum seed production over 10,000 years. In some cases they are simply looking to cross-breed perennial species of cereals and grains to cultivate and select varieties suitable for our needs, which is fine. Where the danger lies is where they are actually talking about genetically modifying perennial species to give them the traits they desire…

    Thanks Chris for compelling me to provide references, I should have done this in the first place, it would have avoided a lot of unnecessary commentary.
    Even though you have strayed from the topic again, I appreciate the suggestion about PDC graduates spending time farming, I think what you really mean is ‘practical experience’, which is a necessity, I’d recommend progressive projects for urban permies such as rebuilding local communities, then constructing decentralised food production systems close to these local communities, I don’t think that training in destructive, outdated farming practices is at all helpful. If they want really sound sustainable rural experience, then I suggest an internship with Geoff Lawton at the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm. Let’s not start another off-topic discussion here.

    Now we can finally put this whole debate to rest. I wish you good luck with your farming enterprise, we need more farmers questioning the conventional practices, and moving to more sustainable models of food production, not for their own sakes, but for the whole planet.

    Cheers.

    Reply
  55. Chris Smaje

    Angelo, sorry I just can’t resist replying to your last message, though no doubt all good things including this argument must come to an end.

    First of all thanks for providing some referencing for your comments and for refraining from any psychological theories or uncalled for advice directed towards me. We could have got here a lot quicker and a lot more amicably had this happened at the start.

    Now, you ask me to stop derailing the subject with my pet theories. To me this suggests that you don’t really understand the scientific process. There is never a last word on a subject, there is always potential for one arena of study to throw up interesting insights into another seemingly unrelated one, it’s never possible to ‘put a whole debate to rest’, and today’s scientific consensus becomes tomorrow’s red herring. I’m happy to accept that my application of CSR theory to the perennial/annual question may be wrong, but only if somebody shows me why it’s wrong in its own terms, which you still haven’t done. So when you say ‘stop derailing the subject with your pet theories’ you’re basically just saying ‘stop disagreeing with me’ or ‘stop trying to subvert my agenda’. Fine if that’s what you want to say, but don’t try to justify it in terms of science.

    You’ve provided some references that argue annual farming is a 10,000 year old mistake. What you most certainly haven’t done is shown that “the world’s scientists and agriculturalists are in total agreement that annual farming is a 10,000 year old mistake”. I don’t really have too much of a problem with your basic arguments – it’s the way that you inflate them in this kind of way which is problematic, and unscientific.

    In relation to CSR theory, I accept that I’m putting a particular spin on it that Grime doesn’t, because he’s not interested in agriculture. But read his book – chapters 1, 2 and 9 in particular. I’d defy anyone with an interest in agriculture not to find his analysis thought-provoking and suggestive of why human agriculture has gone down its chosen route to date – including why fruit and nuts emerge as key perennial crops. As I’ve said before, it may be more useful to stop thinking about perennials vs annuals, and look instead at plants as C, S or R strategists and their various hybrids, and then to think about the implications of that in terms of crop development.

    Presumably you’d agree that not all perennials are more productive than all annuals? Indeed, I suspect on the basis of CSR theory that in general perennials are probably less productive of useful biomass, at least in their natural habitats, but I agree that that isn’t true of all perennials and that perennials do have certain characteristics that may make them more amenable to more sustainable forms of agriculture. But nobody’s actually created a fully developed agriculture on this basis yet, and there are a lot of agronomic problems to be addressed in doing so. I think it’s great that there are people working on these problems. But there’s no guarantee of success and while they’re doing so, there’s an enormous amount of scope for making tried-and-tested annual horticulture more sustainable, both in terms of agronomic practice and social/economic practice. That’s basically the task I’m trying to work on in my farming. You can say that I’m ‘stuck in yesterday’s thinking’ if you like – but to my mind that reflects your lack of subtlety in your thinking about permaculture, as well as a certain modernist enthusiasm for the new and disdain for the old which is a root cause of our contemporary environmental crisis. It also seems pretty arrogant.

    I accept that there are some scientists, like the Land Institute folk, who think annual agriculture was a ’10,000 year old mistake’. It was certainly a 100 year old mistake in Kansas, where they’re based, though it actually works pretty well in Somerset where I live, or at least it did do when it was still part of a small-scale mixed local agriculture. But until we’ve figured out a productive perennial agriculture I think a dose of humility about what our ancestors achieved and what we’ll be able to achieve wouldn’t do us any harm. A perennial agriculture to feed 7 billion+ people may prove a lot harder to achieve than you think.

    Reply
  56. Angelo Eliades

    Hi Chris, if annual farming by your words works pretty well in Somerset UK where you live, well, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about, so please ignore this article! ;)

    Reply
  57. Chris Smaje

    Well I reckon I do have something to worry about, firstly because we’re very far from being self-sufficient in food here, secondly because local mixed farming has largely been replaced by unsustainable agro-industrial farming here, and thirdly because as you’ve correctly pointed out there are a lot of problems with annual farming in many parts of the world where a lot of people live – and the world is a very interconnected place.

    I contacted Professor Grime and asked him if he thought my inferences from his CSR theory concerning the difficulties of breeding productive and palatable crops from perennial stress-tolerators were persuasive, and he replied that this was ‘spot on’. So I feel I can now promote my analysis from a ‘pet theory’ to a plausible scientific hypothesis, as follows:

    1. most wild floras are dominated by stress-tolerant perennials, which are well adapted to low nutrient, low disturbance habitats.

    2. by virtue of their adaptation to these habitats (slow growth, slow reproduction, defence against herbivory) these plants are generally unpromising candidates for cultivated staple food plants, although they may be useful as fibre, medicine or minor food plants

    3. competitor and ruderal plants are adapted to high nutrient situations in which they grow and reproduce fast and do not invest much resource in defence against herbivory. Plants in this category include most of the annuals and biennials, but also some perennials. They make more promising candidates for cultivated staple food plants by virtue of the above characteristics.

    4. Points 1-3 together help to explain why human agriculture has tended to focus on annual plants, despite the dominance of perennials in nature and certain apparent advantages to perenniality for the purposes of sustainable agriculture.

    5. Ruderals and competitors, even if perennial, require high nutrient input and the prevention of ecological succession (ploughing, weeding, mulching, burning etc), probably in proportion to the amount of productivity we wish to extract from them. Since annual production of palatable biomass is not a priority for perennial plants, it’s likely that the more we try to push them in this direction the shorter their lifespans become and the more their cultivation resembles annual cultivation – this seems to be the case with the cultivation of many tuberous root crops, plantains, sugar cane etc.

    6. There are nevertheless many potential advantages to cultivating edible perennial crops, so it’s worth trying to breed better ones. However, we shouldn’t expect this to be an easy task, and nor should we expect the resulting crops to be especially long-lived or undemanding in their husbandry.

    I’d be interested in any further comments on these specific points, but I now feel reasonably satisfied that CSR theory provides a good framework for understanding the problems associated with cultivating both annuals and perennials – and that it would probably be more helpful for permaculturists to think of plants in terms of CSR rather than the annual/perennial distinction.

    Although I could have done without the mountains of abuse you’ve directed at me, I’m grateful that you’ve provided a forum for me to refine these ideas.

    Reply
  58. Charlotte

    Hi Angelo, Chris and all,

    Thank you for all the references you have provided. As a novice in food growing. I have more success with edible perennials- yacon, edible cannai, Jerusalum artichoke and fruit trees etc, they seem able to take care themselves and produce well even without too much skills and attention.

    Also with the emerging of the climate change, the perennial plants are more resilient for drought, flood, extreme weather.

    Hope you permies can explore more productive edible perennials to feed our planets in the near future. Though it may take decades to achieve.

    Thanks again for all the work.

    Reply
  59. Yosefine

    Hello all,

    Wow, some pretty intense comments from a simple article. Angelo, your article was enjoyed by me. I never thought you were saying 100% perennials was the rule … more so to replicate nature (and you gave the stats) as closely as possible was the best form of agriculture. I agree. I am more wild then agriculturalist and if there is going to be some tweaking of nature then best done as close to her as possible. You are a visionary and do not feel sad that there are some who firstly cannot see where you are coming from but second have to argue against you. Keep up the great work, I have much faith in true permacuture, your comments and your article.

    Chris, my God! So much angst! What stareted out as a kind debate has ended with arguement. This is not what any of us need and I feel a permaculture website is the last place for this out of respect of the great work permies do. You might have found yourself in looking into permaculture for self gain (?) and if this is the case then I feel you will never fully understand it. Permaculture comes from a place of selflessness as I understand it.

    Humans are sad. With our frontal lobe diversion I feel we do and can separate ourselves from nature although of course this is all within nature herself. I don’t know the facts however I sense agriculture to me has it roots in greed (and diabetes!). Manipulating nature for gain wether it be more yeild, a guaranteed return another year or whatever. When looking at modern mass agriculture, take money out of it and you are left with not much else which is why the system is so flawed now and can’t feed the world.

    Feeding the world is an interesting debate and as a suporter of organics, I am sad to say that we possibly can’t feed the current world population with this … BUT HOLISTICALLY IT IS THE BEST OPTION. Some other practices of humans will have to go and before we tackle these problems there is no point trying for a global system of agriculture that can “feed us all” while we blindly continue to increase in population.

    Reply
  60. Chris Smaje

    Yosefine

    The CSR framework suggests why agriculture historically has tended to focus on annual crops, and why it’s going to be hard to develop a fully perennial agriculture. That’s the only point I was trying to make in this debate. Obviously, you feel that the argument and intensity was generated by me. From my perspective, the aggressive and self-important way in which Angelo tried to shoot the messenger rather than the message was the problem, though certainly I got drawn into the increasingly heated atmosphere – a terrible male trait, I admit, which is particularly in evidence on web forums! But you seem to be adopting the same tactic as him with your theories about me looking into permaculture for self-gain (based on what evidence, exactly?), rather than actually addressing the issue I raised.

    In my opinion, permaculture needs experimentation and debate. It needs people to ask tough questions of basic precepts – even (especially) at the risk of being proved wrong. Permaculture is better off without quasi-religious commitment to any particular view. And it’s better off without people being criticised personally as infidels or untrue believers. Fortunately, there are a lot of great people in the permaculture movement who understand this, who are willing to debate the issues, and who are engaged in open-minded experimentation with sustainable farming. But doubtless there will always be those who want to turn permaculture into a set of religious precepts and then criticise people who question them – my mistake, I guess, for wasting everyone’s time by continuing to bang my head against these tablets of stone.

    Reply
  61. Angelo Eliades

    The reason why humans chose annual crops is a minor side issue. All manner of academics have their pet theories, but none help us with the issues we face. looking backward won’t help us more forward. What IS proven is that annuals are less sustainable than perennials, and that’s what matters here.

    Debate and questioning is encouraged in Permaculture, questioning the basic premises and foundations of Permaculture is akin to self-doubt and is counter-productive. If we weren’t convinced of the effectiveness of Permaculture as a design system, we wouldn’t be practising it, let alone writing about it, especially the ones within our ranks with science or related qualifications who demand sound evidence.

    No other applied science gets bogged down in questioning its own fundamental principles as such a practice is unproductive navel gazing, and it isn’t any different here. Question the underlying principles of Electrical Engineering, Applied Chemistry or Clinical Microbiology for example and you’ll get the same response. No, it’s not religious dogma, science is comprised of agreed principles of how things work. It’s revised when new evidence challenges accepted theories. It’s tested and proven by doing. That’s what Permaculture demonstration sites are all about. The evidence is there for anyone to see, take it or leave it.

    If you want to question the basic foundation principles of Permaculture on a Permaculture forum, then yes, you’re correct, I’m afraid you are indeed wasting your time, just like trying to sing the praises of GM agriculture on an organic gardening forum. Questioning the basic premises of any applied sciences falls within the domain of the philosophy of science, and to put the value of that discipline into perspective here, to quote Bill Mollison “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy.”

    Reply
  62. Chris Smaje

    Every science continually questions and refines its basic principles, although there are always scientists who try to ridicule those who challenge accepted nostrums. The notion that we should only employ perennial cropping systems isn’t in fact a basic foundation principle of permaculture. Still, I think permaculturists could do a better job of keeping up with the ecological literature…and not just the literature that happens to suit our worldview.

    If your argument is that there are some big problems with the present practice of global agriculture based on annual crops and that it’s worth looking at perennial cropping systems to try to address those problems, then it would be hard to fault your position. But the sort of things you were actually saying, if I recall correctly, is that perennial cropping systems have proven themselves wholly superior to annual ones, that all scientists agree that perennial cropping systems are superior, that there is no value in growing annual crops and that the only reason people do so is due to arrogance and lack of perspective. None of those statements stand up.

    Permaculture demonstration sites are great. But have they provided the evidence that we can feed the whole global population sustainably long-term purely on the basis of existing perennial cropping systems? No – the evidence just isn’t there.

    My previous discussions with you about this have prompted me to look a lot more closely at the literature on perennial cropping systems, which I’ve found very interesting – I’m currently drafting something for publication on it, though as ever other commitments keep getting in the way. I think it’s fairly clear that there are tradeoffs which are difficult to overcome – in a nutshell, the more we emphasise ecological benefits, the less useful yields we get. This is the basic reason why perennial cropping systems are still fairly insignificant in global agriculture – and the more we force their productivity, the less perennial and the less sustainable they become. It may prove possible to overcome these tradeoffs, but I rather doubt it – it certainly won’t be easy. Take a look at a book like Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture (or indeed Grime’s work) to see how these tradeoffs work.

    I’m sorry, but I continue to find your style that of a religious dogmatist – “questioning the basic premises and foundations of Permaculture is akin to self-doubt and is counter-productive” sounds like something you’d read in a papal bull or a Maoist denunciation. A lack of self-doubt doesn’t make for good science. And so I won’t ‘waste my time’, as you put it, debating this further with you – I find most other permaculturists I’ve encountered a lot more open-minded. However, I’m grateful to you for prompting me to think further about this issue. And when I’ve written my piece about perennial cropping systems I’d be delighted to be able to seek further comments on it from participants on this site.

    Reply
  63. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    Hi Chris. I for one will be happy to see your piece when its ready. You can send it to editor (at) permaculturenews.org along with any images that many accompany it.

    Reply
  64. Angelo Eliades

    Likewise Chris, I’d also like to see your article on perennial cropping systems posted here, looking forward to it! It’s only when we question our own assumptions that we open our minds to learning more, I’m always open to revising my understanding as sound evidence presents itself, but I care little for philosophical speculation about the nature of any science, I’m more interested in growing food sustainably, and learning what works best. Glad I’ve been able to provide an impetus for you to research the issue more, youre welcome. Thanks.

    Reply
  65. Chris Smaje

    Well, I’d be very happy to write something up on this, though I fear it will be some time before I can deliver on the promise. I would take the view that the ‘philosophical speculation’ is mostly on the side of the perennial systems – we already know that we can have a highly productive annual agriculture, but it brings a range of problems with it. Perennial systems have been proposed as a solution to these problems, but currently many of these systems – as with perennial grains – are largely theoretical rather than actual, or at best exist as a few trials and demonstration plots from which we can’t safely generalise to assess an entire agriculture.

    Reply
  66. christopher

    I wrote a response to an annuals versus perennials debate I was observing, and it was published, with my permission, unedited. There are some typos! I believe very strongly that perennial systems offer a host of benefits, including ecosystem service replication, that annual crops cannot provide.

    The thoughts expressed in this come from over 25 years of work, so what i am talking about is not an abstraction, or a theoretical model, but a working model. We eat well from our annuals system, with a varied diet through the year. Having said that, I will readily concede that an acre of annual crops can put out a lot more calories than an acre of perennials, but to do that means fighting both entropy and succession. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested is favorable in an established perennial system.

    FWIW, we also produce a lot of annual crops, and are fine tuning an inga alley cropping system with impressive yields for maize (the leading cause of deforestation in Maya communities like the one I live in).

    There is no single solution, especially not in permaculture, and I now preface all answers to questions about our farming techniques with “It depends”, and then listing the variables I can see.

    The article is here:

    http://permaculture.com.au/tropical-permaculture-agroforestry-central-america/

    Reply
  67. Chris Smaje

    Thanks for that interesting comment & link, Christopher. I have now written an article on this topic, but I’m awaiting referee feedback on it before I launch back into this topic. A brief comment, though. What originally piqued my interest in this is the fact that most wild floras are perennial dominated, and there are many obvious advantages to perennial cropping, and yet most agricultures historically have been annual-dominated. Grime’s CSR framework basically explains why this is the case – so although it is in some ways a theoretical model (albeit one informed by a lot of botanical research), effectively it’s a theoretical model backed up by thousands of years of agricultural practice. The exception to annual dominance, though, is the humid tropics, where you are based, because the cereals that dominate agriculture elsewhere have no selective advantage there. So I’m quite ready to accept your arguments about the superiority of perennial-based agroforestry over annual cropping in Belize. However, I don’t think those arguments hold true for Britain, where I farm, or indeed for most other climatic zones in the world. Which perhaps underlines your point that in permaculture the answer almost always is ‘it depends’. I agree that there’s much to be gained from incorporating perennials into agriculture virtually everywhere (the main products from doing this in British agriculture historically are milk, beef and lamb), but outside the humid tropics I don’t see much possibility for agriculture escaping its reliance on annual crops, unless the perennial grain breeders prove to be successful. I think this is unlikely, for the reasons again outlined in Grime’s CSR framework, and in my forthcoming article, and also in Ford Denison’s interesting book Darwinian Agriculture.

    Reply
  68. Angelo Eliades

    Hi guys, I’m writing up a follow up article with many observations of real-world working annual systems, especially the problems we’re seeing with the observable climate change we’re seeing in Australia. Thanks!

    Reply
  69. Noah Beach

    God made all the plants for a reason. He made those that grow back every year and those that grow from seed every year. There is no good or bad plant. They all play a role in the ecosystem that he designed to perfection. The problem is man tries to tame what God has made and shape it into some form of a money making machine. If man can’t easily make money off the system they simply discard it. In permaculture we are interested in permanent agriculture. This doesn’t mean we can’t use annuals. If left to their own devices plants that are anuals will replicate through the huge amount of seed they produce. God made annuals to produce abundant seed for a reason. They also rapidly grow within 1 year. This is to the benefit of permaculture, because it allows us to quickly establish fertility in an area. We simply need a covering to produce fertility in the ground. Using chop and drop methods is the quickest way to reach our goals. Even if you don’t create swales the increased organic mater breaking down will hold tremendous amounts of moisture allowing plant life to flourish. God made the weeds. Weeds have a function. They are the beginning of fertility if we allow it. Most people throw a cover crop down which isn’t necessary because disturbed soil will quickly be taken over by dynamic accumilators such as dandelion and clover. These key ‘weeds’ that God made will quickly establish soil fertility building up that cover layer the soil needs. I allow these plants to grow among my newly planted fruit and nut trees, because I know they improve my soil fertility. Let God do the work people. He created it all. He knows all. Don’t fight against the tide, because you will not win. This is why farmers struggle so much today. God never designed a system that required artificial inputs.

    Job 12:7-9

    “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”

    Reply

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