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New civilisation, primitive wisdom

Is permaculture a real solution to agricultural distress?

New civilisation, primitive wisdom

At first glance, the farm resembles a hurriedly laid out landscape where unintended vegetation and overgrowth have set in following a long neglect. Located in Telangana's Pastapur village, the farm has stretches of bushes interspersed with trees of custard apple, passion fruit, teak, almond, gooseberry, moringa, and so on; the tree trunks tightly embraced by twisted vines and branches adorned with beehives and fruits. Poultry birds play on a bullock cart as rabbits peep through fronds of the thick undergrowth. At places, safflower, mustard, lentils, flaxseed, onions, and tomatoes grow in smaller patches in perfect harmony with weeds. In one corner, a few tree stumps are being fed on by termites. But Narsanna Koppula, who runs the farm, says an order underlies this randomness, and that's the order of permaculture.

The farm, spread over 10 acres (a little more than 2 hectares), is home to at least 100 varieties of plants. They are all being grown keeping in mind a design that facilitates coexistence of competing species and perennials with seasonals, and ensures that the farm makes the most of the ecosystem services, such as sunlight, wind and rain, says Koppula, who also spreads awareness about permaculture under non-profit Aranya Agricultural Alternatives. For example, he adds, all tall trees on the farm are confined to the western and southern boundaries and the eastern side has been left open. This ensures that the other plants and crops remain protected from the harsh afternoon heat and strong winds while benefitting from the morning sun.
At places, species like teak, tamarind, black plum and casuarina have been planted on the west in rows so that they act as windbreaks and guard the semi-arid soil against erosion. The field of sorghum is interspersed with nitrogen-fixing crops such as safflower, lentils and chickpea so that they fulfil the nitrogen requirement of sorghum plants. They act as green manure and ensure soil fertility. Even weeds are allowed to thrive as they can be used as mulch. Local grasses, which grow in abundance, are used for thatching and as fodder. "At the heart of permaculture lies the idea that a plantation should offer multiple benefits, right from food and fodder to timber and fertiliser," says Koppula, who has been practising permaculture for 30 years.
The concept is not new. It was first propagated in the 1970s by Australian biologist Bill Mollison. It gained acceptance in India after several enthusiasts were influenced by Mollison during his visit to the country in 1987. According to Mollison, permaculture is the "conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way." Mollison passed away in September 2016. By then his idea had grown into a movement and spread to 140 countries. Today, more than 3 million people across the globe practise permaculture, and claim that the novel farming system is the only way to make agriculture sustainable in the face of extreme weather events such as recurrent droughts and unprecedented floods, land and soil degradation due to excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and manure, and a growing population.
A farm for the future?
In 2009, the UN gave a call to scale up food production to feed the global population, which is estimated to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with 70 per cent of them living in urban areas. In such a scenario, Koppula says, it is imperative to produce more with less resource, build resilience among small farmers, improve soil health and encourage people to grow their own food. And all these can be achieved through permaculture, he says, adding that the food grown on 0.5 ha of the Aranya farm is sufficient to meet the year-round needs of his family of four.
"The fear that there may not be enough food to eat by 2050 is a conspiracy devised by international organisations and governments. Our conventional agriculture system focuses only on a few market-driven crops. Over the period, consumers too have restricted their choices to those cereals and pulses," says Koppula. Padma Koppula, who helps Narsanna in running the farm, adds: "We have stopped looking at what nature has to offer us and neglect a wide variety of foods. For instance, we only consume five to six of the 40-50 varieties of pulses that were once available in the country. Several wild and uncultivated foods, such as tubers, millets and fruits, which continue to be the source of nutrition for tribal and forest-dwelling communities, have got sidelined from our food basket."
Since the principles of permaculture discourage monoculture, it opens up the opportunity for growing a wide variety of grains, fruits and vegetables, and widens one's food basket.
Permaculturists claim that the benefits go beyond achieving self-sufficiency in food. For example, the farm generates manure for the soil, thus saving on fertiliser cost. "In chemical farming, the focus is on feeding the crop using synthetic manure. But in permaculture, or any other non-chemical agriculture practices for that matter, emphasis is on nourishing the soil which in turn keeps nursing the plants," says Sultan Ahmed Ismail, a soil biologist and ecologist who runs Ecoscience Research Foundation (ERF), a non-profit based in Chennai.
Permaculture also helps curtail expenses on labour. "Perennial plants are integral to a permaculture farm. Since they do not require regular tending, one can plant cleverly to counter labour shortage by planting perennials on a large part of the farm. In Aranya, 75 per cent of the plants are perennial," says Padma Koppula. Clea Chandmal, a permaculturist in Goa, leaves her farm untended even during the monsoon which is potentially the most damaging time of the year for crops. "Permaculture allows farms to weather harsh conditions just the way forests would do," says Chandmal.
Little quantification of yields has been done for permaculture farms, which makes it difficult to judge whether this agricultural system can replace conventional farming and would be able to feed the world. But permaculturists are optimistic.
Malvikaa Solanki, a permaculturist in Gundlupet taluk of Karnataka, who propagates the idea through non-profit swaYYam, says while conventional sunflower seeds have 30 per cent oil content, the seeds grown on her farm are sturdier and bigger in size and have 40 per cent oil content. "I also harvest 700-1,000 kg of peanut from an acre (0.4 ha), whereas the average yield of the country is 1,066 kg per ha," says Solanki, who harvests enough cowpea, green gram, pigeon pea from her 2 ha farm to feed her family round-the-year.
When asked whether permaculture can help India feed its 200 million food insecure population, the largest in the world, Solanki says hunger is related to both quality and quantity of food. Nutritive values are highly compromised in today's food. "The problem lies not only with production but also with distribution of food. But no one talks about the huge amount of food that gets wasted every day," she says. In permaculture, the focus is not only on ensuring food security, but also on ensuring diversity of food, seed security, nurturing of the ecosystem and, more importantly, protecting the health of communities.
While the idea is seductive with promises of both bounty and sustainability, a seemingly obvious bottleneck is that not all ecosystems are equally productive. For example, a farm in the arid Vidarbha region cannot be as productive as Chandmal's farm in the rainforest. But Chandmal claims that one can improve productivity of the farm irrespective of the ecosystem by introducing the right design. "Ecosystems may appear poles apart but there are similarities between compo nents that make up the ecosystem and the way they function. For example, all ecosystems host a variety of bacteria, fungi and soil-dwelling microbes. So one needs to select plants that can adapt to these components and satisfy human needs," she adds.
Although Chandmal is confident of the science, she is reserved about the potential of permaculture in future food production. "I can tell you from my experience that the system is powerful. But its future depends on factors other than science because this is an industry with political and economic implications," she says.
(The views are strictly of Down to Earth.)

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