Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Permanent Agriculture: Past, Present and Future

by Chris Marsh

The story of how agriculture began seems very familiar. We know about the Neolithic Revolution,1 a profound change which took place when prehistoric people were already skilled at making stone tools, but before they discovered how to work metals or even fire pottery. They domesticated plants and animals, and domesticated themselves too by making permanent settlements, with the social structures and cultural practices which sustained living closely together. This revolution became possible because of the amelioration of the climate around 12,000 years ago, after the peak of the last glaciation, in the early Holocene, with its relatively stable warm conditions. Agriculture was discovered between 11000 bp and 3000 bp. There were probably multiple primary origins, in the Middle East, central Africa, China, New Guinea, Mesoamerica, and the northern Andes, and then the farming way of life dispersed to cover and dominate more and more of the world.

The old agricultural revolution involved the domestication of remarkably few species of plants and animals: some large-seeded annual grass species, several important legumes, and the major meat sources: cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. These all originated in western Asia, the area which has the world’s earliest evidence for food production. Other regions where agriculture began contributed fewer domesticated species of such importance to the world today (Bellwood 2013 127). Given that agriculture today depends very largely on these same species, domesticated thousands of years ago, we must surely agree that the old revolution brought in a ‘permanent agriculture’.

That may be interesting, but is it relevant to the challenges of today? Surely what’s happening now is what matters! That is certainly true, and there exists a concerned response to the horrors of what Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, calls ‘Farmageddon’. The response includes promotion of organic farming and small-scale mixed farming, and campaigns focussed on what Lymbery calls ‘putting people first’, which means not tolerating the grossly inefficient process of feeding animals with massive quantities of grains, legumes and fish, which could and should be used to feed far more people directly. The response also includes taking action at a personal and local community level, with organic gardening, allotments, community gardening, veg boxes, farmers markets, community supported agriculture – adding up to the ‘local food movement’ which Lester Brown notes, in World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, has grown hugely worldwide without needing any explicit policies or political intervention (175-78).

Permaculture is part of the concerted response against Farmageddon. The Permaculture Association, and its members and associates, work towards today’s ‘permanent agriculture’ with some success. As I observed in an earlier article ‘Permaculture is growing. Education and research are expanding. Interesting demo sites are becoming available to visitors. Permaculture “dots on the map” are multiplying. All this is good news. What was a lifestyle choice for a few, based on a set of ethics, principles and techniques, is starting to look like a movement (‘Permaculture and Tagore’). An important offshoot of the permaculture movement is the Transition Network, which has grown enormously since Transition Town Totnes started in 2006. There are currently thousands of transition groups in at least forty countries, and local food is a crucial element in all of these.

The reformist and more radical efforts to promote ‘permanent agriculture’ today are encouraging, but they are not going to get big enough fast enough to avert the ecological and human crises we are faced with. There needs to be a new agricultural revolution, and I believe that to bring this about we need to understand the old one, and why it is still with us, in an intensified and profit-driven version. A book I would strongly recommend for this purpose is First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective by professor of archaeology Peter Bellwood. This may seem an unlikely title for a study of the Neolithic Revolution, but it is the sequel to his earlier book First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. In the second half of his recent book Bellwood covers the same ground as the earlier work, with increased confidence and concision – and better maps.2

Setting the two books side by side illustrates a conundrum: how is it that virtually the whole of the human species is shaped by a contradictory dual instinct: a combination of sedentism and migration, an urge both to dig in and to move on? It is this which made the first agricultural revolution highly successful and enduring, and yet destructive and doomed in the very long term.

Bellwood explains how unlikely, uncertain and protracted was the domestication of wild grasses, plants which had evolved to ripen gradually and then shatter to distribute their seeds in time and space (Bellwood 57-8). From around 19,000 bc people were exploiting wild cereals, picking them unripe before they shattered. For domestication to occur, people must have harvested ripe grains, the ones which had not yet fallen off the ears, and planted some of the seeds in new plots away from wild stands. This must have been repeated often enough for varieties to be selected which ripened all at once and did not shatter. The process took about a thousand years and the humans who first domesticated cereals can have had no prevision of how important those varieties would become.

The downside of the domestication of annual plants is that it requires land to be cleared every year, an unnatural process which results in land degradation, especially with the major increases in settlement size which occurred during the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic (8500-7000 bc), when some large villages reached an almost urban extent of 16 hectares (Bellwood 2005 54). The spate of forest clearances may even have contributed to a ‘Greenhouse Era’ thousands of years ago.3 Another factor which has made agriculture ultimately unsustainable is that it resulted in dramatic increases in population, especially after the development of ceramics, and the ability to boil up gruel as early weaning food, hence reduced birth intervals. A further factor is a set of powerful cultural attitudes and assumptions arising from the sedentism and migration duality of agricultural societies. This includes hostility towards wild nature, the right to property, boundaries and enclosure, perpetual progress, exploration and colonisation, economic growth – and even the nation state in politics and dialectics in philosophy.

Ten thousand years after taming the handful of plants and animals we still largely depend on, Homo sapiens has grown to monstrous proportions, a parasite overwhelming its host, a geological force of the ‘Anthropocene Era’. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of the permaculture movement, realised that the only remedy is to for humankind to develop an altogether different relationship with nature. In contrast to the unlikely event when we tamed the grasses, leading to perpetually exhausted monocultures, we need to root our lives in consciously designed complex agricultural ecosystems. One appealing model is the woodland garden, and the introduction to a Plants For A Future book on the subject says:

It is evident that plants can provide us with the majority of our needs, and in a way that cares for the health of the planet. A wide range of plants can be grown to meet all our food needs and many other commodities, whilst also providing a diversity of habitats for native flora and fauna. With a rapidly growing global population and increasingly unpredictable climate, food security has become a serious concern. There are over 20,000 species of edible plants known in the world, yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food. Large areas of land devoted to single crops increase dependence upon the intervention of chemicals and intensive control methods, with the added threat of soil depletion and the development of chemical-resistant insects and new diseases. More diversity of crops is urgently needed, and some of the lesser known plants in this book may have a useful part to play in future food production systems. (Woodland Gardening, p. 3)4

There is work to be done and no time to lose. The lesser-known plants we need to bring into our designs for the ‘permanent agriculture’ of the future need developing and testing, along the lines of the Permaculture Association’s very promising LAND project It is often said that ‘permaculture’s not just gardening’, which is true. What is also true and vital is that without the gardening it’s not permaculture.

Works Cited

Bellwood, Peter, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008 [2005])

Bellwood, Peter, First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013)

Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011)

Lymbery, Philip, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat (London: Bloomsbury2014)

Marsh, Christine, ‘Permaculture and Tagore’, 
Mollison, Bill and David Holmgren, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, 1990 [1978])

Plants For A Future, Woodland Gardening: Designing a Low Maintenance, sustainable Edible Woodland Garden with Fruit and Nut Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, Vines and Perennial Vegetables (Dawlish, Devon: Plants For A Future, 2013)

Plants For A Future,
Ruddiman, William F., ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climatic Change, 61 (2003), 261–293.

Transition Town Totnes,
1 The term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ was coined in 1923 by Australia archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, and is still used by archaeologists of the Old World. American archaeologists use the term ‘Formative’ or ‘Early Agricultural’. (Bellwood (2013), p. 133.)
2 The authority and also fascination of Bellwood’s early farming dispersal hypothesis derives from his multidisciplinary approach, which combines archaeology, linguistics and human genetics. Both books are impressive works of scholarship, each with detailed notes and some 1500 works cited, but perfectly accessible to the lay reader. Bellwood may have concerns but he does not indulge in polemics, except of a mild kind such as a mention of ‘our overcrowded and highly stressed world today’. First Migrants is usefully also available as an e-book.
3 Bellwood mentions the argument put forward by William F. Ruddiman that early agriculture in Eurasia, including the start of forest clearance by 8000 years ago and of rice irrigation by 5000 years ago, caused the release of sufficient greenhouse gases to alter the climate, long before the anthropogenic era 150 to 200 years ago, when the industrial revolution began producing CO2 and CH4 at rates sufficient to alter their compositions in the atmosphere. (Bellwood 2013 130-1 citing William F. Ruddiman, ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climatic Change, 61 (2003), 261–293.)
4 The pioneer who has gone furthest in the perennial agriculture direction is Ken Fern, founder of Plants For A Future (PFAF). Fern’s legacy has been retained and enhanced in the form of an online database containing the details of 7000 unusual plants, all of which are edible or have other uses. This information is made freely available to the public under a Creative Commons Licence. The volumes of traffic on the PFAF website ( are impressive and rising. The most recent report indicates that over 180,000 people a month viewed over 400,000 pages, with a daily high of 6,580 visits.


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