[permaculture] Permaculture as "organic"?

Russ Grayson pacedge at magna.com.au
Wed Jan 1 18:16:59 EST 2003

On Sunday, December 29, 2002, at 04:49  AM, Marshall Chrostowski wrote:

> On another web forum an argument has arisen over the differences 
> between
> organiculture and permaculture.

Some years back in Australia, Mollison stated that permaculture is 
"organic gardening plus design".

I understand that he was referring to permaculture design such as the 
zoned landuse system in which elements in design are placed according 
to their need for attention, monitoring, harvest and visitation, a 
process which gives to permaculture gardens a characteristic pattern 
but a pattern also in evidence at times in organic gardens. I do not 
know whether he was inferring that organic gardeners and farmers have 
no concept of design and do not use design concepts in their 
production. A little thought on the question shows that organic 
producers must 'design' their production process in accordance with 
local climatic, soil and market conditions.

Criticism of organic production practices by permaculturists - most 
permaculturists are home gardeners, not commercial growers with their 
need for a more disciplined process - and false beliefs about 
permaculture among some organic growers, I believe, account for the 
occasional animosity held by organic growers towards permaculture. 
Interestingly, the practice of organic gardening in modern times 
predates the development of permaculture by some years in this country 
and, so far as I know in the US, even though both practices emerged 
from the same social milieu in Australia in the late1960s.

An incident during the early history of Nunawading Community Garden, 
the first community garden in Australian started around 20 years ago, 
serves as an example of the misuderstandings that occur when people 
trained in only one type of garden construction come up against organic 
gardeners from a different tradition. A bunch of enthusiastic and 
recently-trained permaculturists, knowing only the sheet mulch approach 
to gardening, joined the garden and proceeded to cover the plots with 
old carpet, presumably to suppress weed growth. This conflicted with 
the aesthetics of the other gardeners who saw their pioneering 
community garden becoming a visual blight. Disagreement resulted when 
it might have been better had the permaculturists selected a different 
approach to organic gardening, had they known any. Thus, permaculture 
gained an erroneous reputation among the gardeners that has persisted 
to this day. The point is that it may be better to train 
permaculturists in different approaches to organic gardening, such as 
double-digging, as well as sheet mulching.

> My contribution, much disputed BTW, was that
> permaculturists did not necessarily operate in a manner consistent with
> certified organic practices and use of materials.

In reference to Australian organic certification standards, I believe 
that some materials used by permaculture gardeners might not be 
acceptable to organic certifiers. The use of old vehicle tyres, for 
instance, may exclude organic certification because they are believed 
to leach cadmium over time. There is some folklore regarding the 
leaching of compounds from tyres as they undergo a process of 
weathering. I have been unable to discover any definitive work on this 
question and pertinent facts such as the actual materials purported to 
leach, the rate of leaching over time, the climatic and other 
conditions under which leaching might take place, the volume of 
material leached and whether its quantity constitutes a hazard to human 
health remain unanswered.

Perhaps someone associated with a organic certification agency has 
these answers, but the situation is one frequently encountered in 
permaculture and elsewhere - notions become repeated as facts 
(Australian politicians are adept at this) and enter the pool of common 
knowledge even though there are no hard facts to support them.

There was an analogous issue with the use of newspaper as a weed 
barrier in the construction of no-dig gardens in Australia not so many 
years ago. Its persistence shows how such issues remain prevalent in 
the form of folklore, rumour and erroneous assumprtion even though the 
relevant technology has changed.

The concerns were over the leaching of lead from newsprint ink and the 
presence of dioxin in the paper. Lead type has not been used in this 
country since the early 1980s when the old lead typesetting process was 
replaced by computer-based systems, so lead from that source is ruled 
out. Modern inks, such as those used in newspaper production, are based 
on carbon or soy. Some of the coloured inks used to print glossy papers 
may contain other chemicals, however.

As for dioxin, my understanding is that most papers in Australia are 
now chlorine bleached. Approximately 40% of newsprint is made from 
recycled stock -- old newspapers - in a cooperative arrangement of 

> I received a bit of
> bashing for writing that from an Aussie permaculturist who insisted 
> that
> Mollison held strongly to the organic ethic and practices.

Mollison did hold organic ethics and promotes organic practices as I 
assume he continues to do so although he is largely silent these days 
and remains aloof from listservs such as these. Many of his ideas were 
derived from traditional systems of farming in developing countries and 
can also be found in use by agricultural aid and development agencies 
where they are part of the LEISA - Low External Input Sustainable 
Agriculture - approach to food production. Here they have been 
developed independently of permaculture and, I believe, were 
permaculturists to study them then their approach would be more 
diversified and adaptable.

These farming ideas are more developed and better articulated among aid 
agencies because the need to increase the food supply encourages 
continual innovation and, in part, because orthodoxies such as no-dig 
gardening tend to become entrenched in permaculture although 
alternatives such as double digging and biointensive offer faster 
pathways to nutrients entering the soil profile and to working with 
compacted soils. Permaculture's argument is that the alternative 
methods are more labour intensive, which they are, and this is held to 
be a negative even though there are benefits such as faster nutrient 
availability and improved soil structure. Seems to be no agricultural 
equivalent of cost/ benefit analysis.

Permaculture once received criticism for 'ripping-off' the traditional 
farming methods of developing countries, however the accuser ignored 
the design component of permaculture and the fact that identical or 
similar farming techniques are found across a swath of developing 
countries. The techniques found in LEISA are derived from many cultures 
and packaged so that those most appropriate can be selected according 
to circumstances and adapted. In doing this the processes evolve, are 
picked up by other aid workers and transferred elsewhere. Thus, like 
music, seeds and art styles, they are international.

The critic of permaculture cited above was not advocating cultural 
property rights to farming technology, a move which would be ludicrous 
as farming techniques have been spread since the dawn of the 
agricultural revolution by diffusion as peoples migrated, invaded and 
otherwise made contact and spread their ideas - that, however, is 
another issue.

So, in a similar way, permaculture has taken on board the practices of 
organic gardeners and farmers and these are now common property. But 
permaculture goes further to look at the integration, through design, 
of the settlement, the economy, the selection of technologies and the 
other elements of living.

PacificEdge Media
Russ Grayson + Fiona Campbell
pacedge at magna.com.au
Phone/ fax: 02 9588 6931
PO Box 446 Kogarah NSW Australia 2217
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