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Permaculture For Food Security And Sovereignty

Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land use that is being applied to every aspect of life, but it is best known in its application to food production, at scales from the garden to the farm.

The focus on food in permaculture is not just an accident of history or publicity. The globalised food production/consumption chain is the greatest contributor to environmental impact, while food security remains the most critical issue in human wellbeing and social stability. Food security is a condition that ‘exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.1

Through the 20th century the industrial system increased agricultural productivity and capacity for processing, preservation and distribution, by accelerating direct and indirect use of fossil fuels and precious mineral reserves. In the process it has degraded soils and polluted waters globally.

Despite these and many other adverse consequences, the capacity of industrial agriculture to produce great surpluses has been real, and food costs are a small proportion of income for the global middle class. However, this has not translated into food abundance for all because of failures to feed people first. For example, fattening livestock to maintain and boost overconsumption of meat, dairy and fish by the affluent has gobbled up much of the production of grains and seeds – one of the most obscene and inhumane aspects of the global food system.

Land degradation, climate change, war and resource insecurity have all reduced the capacity of people to feed themselves. I remember hearing about someone travelling in the Sudan twenty years ago noting that anyone who could afford it bought powdered egg imported from the EU. Asked why they didn’t keep chickens, they replied that someone with a gun would come along and say ‘those are my lost chickens’.

The move from the countryside to the city by hundreds of millions of people has massively increased dependence on monetary income and government subsidies to buy industrially-produced and imported food. In these and other ways the global economic system has changed the nature of food insecurity rather than reduced it.

Food insecurity also shows up in affluent countries. In Australia, declining backyard food growing and home cooking since the 1960s has increased dependence on 24/7 food outlets which are car-transport dependent and increasingly monopolies. The loss of community has reduced the ‘social insurance’ from non-monetary exchange of surpluses. Interruptions to supply chains by natural or economic disasters set up dependence of large populations on emergency relief on an unprecedented scale. Even without ‘peak oil’ and climate change, the prospects of large numbers of people being food insecure in Australia increases inexorably due to the dysfunction of multi-generational affluence. I wonder why people feel so comfortable relying on the supermarket as their personal food cupboard.

Photo by David Holmgren
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Household Focus

Applying permaculture principles to food production changes the way we produce food and how much we store, preserve, transport, distribute, prepare and consume. Beyond the dinner table, permaculture design reorganises the supply chain to ensure all wastes, including human waste, are recycled to food producing land. These closed loop cycles are easier and more energy efficient when organised at the household and local scale. Growing at home increases food security in many overlapping and self-reinforcing ways.

Firstly, it is relatively easy to produce perishable vegetables, fruit and small livestock products using organic methods that recycle household and local wastes. These foods might not be staples, but they reduce the food bill, diversify the diet and improve everyone’s health, both in the production and the consumption.

Secondly, home-grown food gives a sense of pride and self-sufficiency, builds skills and confidence to scale up if necessary, and generates surplus for preserving that increases household food storage. Gifting and barter further increase your credit with others. Each of these helps reboot the household and community economies that were once the backbone to the monetary economy. History shows us that whenever the monetary economy takes a dive household and community economies grow rapidly.

Photo by David Holmgren
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Further Afield

Beyond suburban gardens, permaculturists have applied themselves to the growth of community and school gardens, city farms, public plantings of food trees and reintroduction of larger livestock into urban environments. These reconnect us to nature, produce food and provide alternatives to machines and herbicides in managing vegetation.

Meanwhile, in rural Australia the pioneering generation of organic farmers gained recognition and premium prices through organic certification. But the supermarkets soon got in on the act, contracting large organic growers and enforcing the same monoculture production and logistics as conventional producers. Small-scale producers and organic consumers responded with farmers’ markets, food boxes and community supported agriculture. These improved the returns to farmers, reduced the prices to consumers and built connections that improved the food security for everyone, including the farmers who bartered leftover produce with other producers at the end of the day.

In the last ten years, concerns about the obesity epidemic have seen a strong focus on food growing, preparation and eating in schools. Most of those employed to design, organise and manage school gardens have been influenced by permaculture design and many have done Permaculture Design Courses. The PDC is gradually becoming a recognised qualification in this field of work.

Photo by David Holmgren

Food Sovereignty Vision

Public reaction to problems with the industrial food system has further stimulated grassroots interest in organic farming, farmers’ markets, fair trade, urban and garden agriculture, WWOOFing2, wild harvesting and gleaning the wastes of the industrial food system. For many, permaculture is the design system and lifestyle that brings all these interests together. It’s an integrated approach that goes beyond the concept of food security and becomes ‘food sovereignty’, where communities have control over their food production and consumption for the mutual benefit of both producers and consumers. Rebuilding the food system at the household level is the kernel that naturally generates this broader concept because the producers and the consumers are united by the intimate bonds and reciprocity of kin and household.

Food sovereignty refers to the right to produce food on one’s own territory. It originated in 1996 from Via Campesina3 in response to colonisation of the food security concept by corporate industrial agriculture, which delivers its publiclysubsidised surpluses to hungry people in regions afflicted by crises, and through free trade destroying localised food supply systems especially in developing countries. It was later taken up by ‘permies’ and ‘fair food activists’4 as relevant to Australia.

The permaculture vision of food security is one of communities full of food gardens, larders full of preserves and seed ready to go into garden beds; irrigated by rain and stormwater, and fertilised by the recycled wastes of the industrial food system, often through chooks. It includes people with the skills to make the vision a reality. It extends to public land with community gardens, fruit and nut tree orchards and food forests; grazing goat herds managing weedscapes and converting the surplus biomass of leafy suburbs to dairy products.

Rotational poultry and pig systems cultivate the arable fields of urban and peri-urban agriculture, and permaculture colonises the higher density urban spaces with wicking beds, rooftop gardens, aquaponics, plus fungal delights from shaded spaces. It easily incorporates the need to harvest the exuberance of large fastgrowing evergreen trees, to allow sunlight to sustain productive food plants, and reach attached greenhouses and solar panels. The timber becomes the structural material, fuel and fodder and fungus that sustain the retrofitting of suburbs and city edges to become our most productive and beautiful agricultural landscapes.

Wild and Wasted

Permaculture strategies to increase food sovereignty include changing our food consumption habits towards what is easily grown locally, abundant, undervalued or even despised. Weeds and feral animals often have a bad rap because we are affluent spoiled brats who can pick and choose from the world’s food larder, and because they are remembered as ‘famine foods’ by older generations.

Permaculture has always involved the harvesting of wild plants and animals from both the margins of our cultivated spaces and the wider commons – once the source of sustenance for traditional peoples. Harvesting from the wild is a close relative of gleaning: harvesting the leftovers of commercial production that a farmer cannot use or sell. Gleaning rights were part of a long tradition in Europe that provided a social safety net by which the most destitute had access to food.5 For three decades in Australia ‘permies’ have been food foragers, collecting fallen fruit that affluent suburbanites did not value.

Occasionally we found ourselves on the receiving end of such action – a friend with a highly productive garden in Coburg in the 1980s found an older woman of Mediterranean origin picking all his lemons from the front garden. When he suggested she should only take a few, the woman said ‘you Anglos don’t use them’. No doubt that was her usual experience.

Today, the protocols on harvesting the suburbs have become more sophisticated and cooperative, with groups like Growing Abundance in Castlemaine managing to distribute surplus production from backyard fruit trees through the community to people who do value and are able to process, preserve and ferment the surplus. Permaculture teacher and networker Ian Lillington says ‘Growing Abundance is combining the community development aspects of community gardens, the horticultural skills of commercial producers and concerns of “fair food” activists’. The use and value of existing household and community food production increases as part of improved food sovereignty.

The more feral end of gleaning continues with the explosion of ‘skipping’6 where the stream of perfectly good food thrown away by the industrial food system is intercepted, mostly without permission, by activists committed to doing good by getting something for free. In the same way that many reduce consumption and expense by buying clothes from op shops, young ‘permies’ today have extended the boycott of consumer madness by a combination of ‘skipping’, food growing and fermentation. Rather than eating free junk food, ‘skippers’ I know focus on gleaning organic produce.

Sometimes the scandal of food waste is being ameliorated by diversion through mainstream welfare. The big difference between ‘skipping’ and welfare redistribution is that the former creates a culture of empowered personal responsibility, while the later simply reinforces the culture of dependence on authority.

Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Diversity Rules

But does this explosion of food-sourcing activity undermine the market for ethical commercial growers trying to earn a living from supplying those in society who don’t trust the industrial food system? To some extent, but in other ways they are complementary and mutually supporting. People who have some experience at growing their own food understand that it requires skill, effort and good timing to be an effective producer. Such people are often the best customers for small organic producers and retailers.

In our own experience, over the last ten years of managing an informal hybrid of box scheme, dry goods sales and surplus redistribution, we have seen a turnover in customers as some become more competent home producers and are replaced by others moving beyond patronising the local grocer and farmers’ market. We understand the numbers of customers at farmers’ markets and local grocers are increasing, presumably as they wean themselves off the ‘supermarket habit’.

A diversity of producers, outlets and exchanges ensures the greatest resilience in a parallel food system that can survive the rigours of the energy-descent future. Permaculture offers powerful organising principles and strategies that we can apply in our efforts to survive and thrive – growing our own, exchanging surplus, foraging the wild and the waste, and supporting growers at the edges of the formal economy. Feeding ourselves, in the best way possible, simultaneously undermines the worst aspects of the industrial food system and shows solidarity with people around the world who have neither food security nor sovereignty.

For a longer version of this article visit

1 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) definition

2 Willing Workers on Organic Farms

3 Via Campesina is an international movement (148 member organisations) which coordinates peasant organisations of small and middlescale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America and Europe

4 see the Peoples’ Food Plan on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance website  in response to the Australian Government’s National Food Plan Green Paper

5 for a fantastic exploration of the historic and modern expressions of the tradition see The gleaners and I (French: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse

6 skipping (from rubbish skips) also known by the American term ‘dumpster diving’


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