Recent news has been filled with scandals of producers claiming they exercise sustainable management practices while continuing to act in environmentally damaging, socially irresponsible, or inhumane manners. The language of “family owned”, “organic”, and “natural” have been co-opted by big business as marketing tools and now hold far less legitimacy and significance than they once did. Now producers have turned to co-opting the term ‘permaculture’ and are undermining its validity as well.
Permaculture’s identity is fluid and is always incorporating new knowledge and technology. Permaculture is more complex than the ‘organic’, ‘local’, or ‘natural’ initiatives in that producers do not simply refrain from the use of certain products or practices. In addition to refrain, those who engineer permaculture systems must exercise a variety of practices and combine a multitude of physical elements in order produce the complex and dynamic systems known as permaculture. Permaculture systems are carefully engineered to mimic the productivity and resilience of natural systems. Permaculture engineering utilizes not only the principles of agriculture and horticulture, but also environmental science, ecology, and the social sciences. Claims of permaculture should not be taken lightly as they are major undertakings and significantly more complex than traditional production systems.
Despite permaculture’s constant evolution and dynamic nature, there is consensus on many traits indicative of true permaculture systems. The best way to assess the validity of a permaculture site is to visit it yourself and look for these traits. You should visit the site several times during the year in order to assess seasonal balance. A great benefit of these visits is that you will get to know your producer better and learn more about the system they manage; these things will bring you closer to your food and allow you to enjoy them fully.
What to look for in a permaculture site:
-Low Harvest Index: Most of the system’s productivity remains on the land is not exported as harvest
-Perennials: System matrix should be perennial and polyculture.
-Biodiversity: System should display not only species diversity, but biodiversity in regards to kingdoms, trophic levels, and niches.
-Native: System should include large numbers of natives
-Low inputs: System should eliminate fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and should minimize fuel and other inputs. System should produce its own nutrients and carbon, and recycle them efficiently.
-Functional Ecosystem: System should display indicators of healthy ecosystem, e.g. beneficial insects (bees, wasps, etc.), higher level predators (owls, hawks, etc.)
-Species Interactions: System should display high levels of engineered species interactions (e.g nurse crops, trap crops, etc.)
– Spatial and Temporal Distribution of Species: System should display natural levels of niche partitioning and biodiversity in regard to geography and season e.g. flowers blooming at all times of year, ground cover at all times of year, etc.)
-No Till: Most of system’s soil should not be cultivated in order to promote healthy soil fauna, enhance nutrient retention, and reduce soil carbon respiration.
-Low externalities: System should minimize pollution and other externalities (e.g. plastic packaging, nutrient runoff, pesticides, animal wastes).