Labels can be confusing. The terms permaculture, organic farming, and regenerative agriculture are a shift to natural methods of tending the land and you may have even used them interchangeably, but the fact is that each one represents a different approach to sustainable gardening and farming. If you’re still confused as to which refers to what, well, fear not as we seek to explain what each terminology refers to.
What is permaculture?
The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by a professor of biogeography and environmental psychology at the University of Tasmania named Bill Mollison. The word permaculture is a combination of three words: permanent, agriculture, and culture. Mollison defined permaculture as a “harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” At the root of the concept is that we create human systems that respond to our needs but is done by following natural processes and drawing inspiration from our existing ecosystems. As Permaculture Research Institute states, “it is working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action.”
Permaculture is a practical approach to agriculture. Simple examples can be found in suburbs across the world where people strive to incorporate natural systems through their entire space including homes, offices, backyard and balcony gardens, designing the spaces to capture the abundance of energy and resources that flow through, mimic the natural world by reusing and not wasting, and ensuring surplus is shared. Permaculture has also become a worldview perspective in itself and is a grassroots movement with its own set of principles.
To summarise, permaculturists believe that people should observe and interact; catch and store energy; obtain a yield; apply self-regulation and feedback; use and value renewables; and produce no waste. Furthermore, they advocate to design from patterns to details; integrate and don’t segregate; use small, slow solutions; use and value diversity; use the edges and value the marginal; as they creatively use and respond to change. Their ethics revolves around caring for the planet, caring for the people, and fair sharing. This belief has diverse applications from rural to urban settings. And its philosophy extends beyond agriculture to our everyday activities such as shopping for clothes that use sustainable raw materials.
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What is organic farming?
Now, here’s a term that we’re pretty sure you’ve heard before – organic farming — the reason why so many of us now have access to organic fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines organic farming as “holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.” Put simply, it is food production that does not use any synthetic products. Instead, organic farmers use crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures, green manures, approved natural sprays and other natural means to control pests and diseases that affect the optimum growth and yield of plants (using geese for pest control for example). By doing so, these farmers significantly lessen their environmental impact and help clean and improve agricultural lands that have been degraded through the application of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and constant growing of mono crops as well as soil tilling.
Organic farming offers many benefits to our environment. It restores the health and productivity of the soil. Since synthetic pesticides and harmful chemicals aren’t used, the soil is healthier. Organic farming practices also help in fighting soil and land problems such as erosion. It also supports proper water conservation and promotes water health. Organic farming also benefits wildlife as there is less pollutants impacting natural habitats, and thus promotes biodiversity. Ultimately, it improves soil health and reduces environmental pollution and thus helps fight climate change.
When it comes down to it, both permaculture and organic farming have the same goal — to work with nature. But permaculture takes this belief even further, beyond agriculture itself. As mentioned earlier, the permaculture philosophy can be used for various applications as it concerns our way of life, not just the way we approach the growing of food and plants.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Another concept that’s growing in popularity is regenerative agriculture. Non profit consumer advocacy group Green America defines it as a “holistic land management practice that uses the power of photosynthesis in plants to sequester carbon in the soil while improving soil health, crop yields, water resilience, and nutrient density.” Regenerative agriculture is an important tool in combatting harmful greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change since this process ensures carbon is transferred from the air into the soil.
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Regenerative agriculture traces its beginnings from organic farming. However, there is more emphasis on rehabilitating and enhancing the farm’s ecosystem by paying extra attention to the health of its soil. To achieve this, regenerative farmers do away with unnatural farming practices and techniques which include eliminating or decreasing tillage, reducing the use of artificial fertilisers, using sustainable livestock grazing management, and promoting biodiversity through multi-species cover crops. For example, by buying strawberries that bear the organic label, you can be assured that the fruit hasn’t been grown with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides but you don’t have any idea if the soil on the land it was grown on is healthy. This is the main difference between regenerative agriculture and organic farming. With regenerative agriculture, you know that the soil where it was harvested is made healthier with the use of restorative farming practices.
As Rodale Institute explains, regenerative agriculture “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” However, the end goal should be regenerative organic agriculture so that we go beyond sustainability and work to enhance and advance our resources. This is made possible through “a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures.” It puts farmers at the forefront of the battle against climate change while they are actively protecting their own livelihoods, thus making it a win-win situation. “It’s an approach that leads to better, more resilient crops grown using sustainable methods that, at the same time, fights a crisis that presents a threat to all agriculture.” Let’s add our entire planet to that.
Different yet the same
Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions so how we manage our land resources determines how effectively we can tackle climate change. Organic farming, permaculture, and regenerative agriculture are all important approaches as we combat this climate emergency. Organic farming does away with the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Regenerative agriculture takes it further by ensuring that the soil is made healthier while permaculture levels it up by encompassing our way of life and how we see the world. It all boils down to providing the food that we need while making our planet better so that future generations can continue to enjoy it long after we are gone.
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Cover image by Zen Chung.