Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the Permaculture Association

· We need to move from an industrial food and farming system dependent on high external inputs, to an agroecological one that cycles nutrients and resources sustainably on local and regional scales.

· This shift in approach will require new skills and businesses – from ecological design (permaculture) for landscape and settlement re-development, to practical land management skills such as making activated compost teas and holistic management grazing.

· 'Peak oil' is coming and will usher in much higher fuel prices. We need to redesign our settlements now to become more resilient and self-reliant with reduced dependency on high energy inputs and long supply chains.

· Many years of practical experimentation in this country and around the world demonstrate that an agroecological approach is both possible and desirable, and can deliver social, environmental and economic benefits.

1. Permaculture is not a form of agriculture, rather an ecological design approach that can be used to design agricultural systems as part of wider sustainable settlements. It is based on observations of natural systems in which local beneficial relationships are maximised. Permaculture adopts techniques as appropriate to the situation, such as agroforestry, holistic management grazing, forest gardens, silvo-pasture, eco-building, energy efficiency, rainwater harvesting, etc.

2. The task to re-establish a sustainable food and farming system is the same, i.e. to cultivate local beneficial relationships which cycle nutrients, resources and money between producers and consumers.

3. Integrated design can solve multiple problems. We face multiple challenges – peak oil, climate change, soil degradation, low farm incomes, flood risk, drought risk and so forth, and we therefore need approaches that can respond to them in an integrated way. Permaculture design is one such approach, and we believe there is now an urgent need to scale up our work and do more testing at a farm and landscape scale. Project proposals are in place to do this.

4. There are now tools available for the re-design of the economy – the so called 'circular economy' as proposed by Dame Ellen McArthur, the New Economics Foundation and others. This thinking and overall approach needs to be applied to the food and farming sector too, and is indeed an excellent place to start.

5. The food and farming sector is dominated by a number of very large corporations, and we would like to promote greater competition to enable more local and regional food networks and businesses to emerge. The market dominance of supermarkets in particular must be examined and challenged.

6. The most important constraint facing every aspect of the industry in the coming years will be the price of oil and gas. This will affect diesel prices and the costs of producing synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides etc. This suggests the need to re-think the way we farm at a fundamental level. Solutions will include a shift to largely organic practices, the use of nitrogen fixing plants (trees in particular, which lead to the need for farm design skills), and integrated pest management approaches (which suggest the need for polycultures and diverse planting arrangements). Permaculture is a 40 year long response to the coming challenge of 'peak oil', with its emergence soon after the 70's oil crisis. We are therefore confident that we have much to offer in this transition to a low carbon society.

7. A second major constraint will be the availability of super phosphate, another issue that suggests that a cyclic economy and food system in which nutrients are returned to the farm (human wastes, composts, swill, etc) will be essential for the long term fertility and productive capacity of our land.

8. Society's response to climate change must be twofold. Firstly to reduce drastically the amount of carbon emitted by society, and secondly to sequester carbon from the atmosphere in order to reduce atmospheric concentrations to 350ppm and ideally back to 280ppm which is the pre-industrial level. The only industries able to sequester carbon are farming and forestry. The most important steps to sequester carbon are to: reduce inversion ploughing to a minimum; reduce use of agrochemicals that disrupt the ecological/ biological functioning of soils; increase tree cover substantially; and build soil carbon.

9. Agricultural approaches that incorporate trees are therefore useful such as agroforestry (silvopasture, silvoarable, forest gardens), as is the incorporation of a greater amount of managed woodland within farms and the landscape overall. A key limit here is the low skills base farmers have around designing and managing tree crops. There are currently no subsidies for integrating trees within agricultural systems. Farming and forestry are seen as separate industries, which is to the detriment of both, and to UK land use generally.

10. To build soil carbon we need to reduce inversion ploughing to a minimum and reduce agrochemical use. To re-build soil fertility we can adopt 'soil food web' approaches as championed by Dr Elaine Ingham, where ecological processes are enhanced and nurtured using activated compost teas, worms and so on. Keyline planning and use of long rooted plants are other strategies that can help build substantial soil fertility and organic matter content.

11. For grazed land, keyline planning and holistic management are both highly useful approaches that can dramatically increase soil carbon levels. Again both have been tested in other countries (groups such as Carbon Farmers of America in the USA, similar groups in Australia) but are yet to be trialled and developed in the UK. Considering around 65% of the UK is grazed, it makes sense to trial a method that claims to build soil carbon and increase farmer incomes substantially. The Permaculture Association is working to develop trials of both keyline planning and Holistic Management in the UK in the near future, and is seeking support and partners to do this.

12. Planning policy is a key challenge to new entrants. It needs to be easier for farming and horticultural activities to start, especially on the edge of settlements where a ready market is available with minimal transport requirements. Horticulture is an intensive form of food production that requires close and constant attention, and permaculture experience shows that productivity and nutrient flows are maximised when the managers are able to live on site. This is made very difficult by the current planning system. We don't yet know how the Localism bill or new National Planning Framework will affect this.

13. Land ownership and the very slow turnover of land for sale on the market is also another major hurdle for new entrants to farming. The average size of farm is increasing, whereas for agroecological benefits they should almost certainly be reducing. Policies that allow access to land for new entrants would be desirable but obviously politically challenging. New forms of tenure, new tenure contracts and agreements that enable new entrants to have security without necessarily having ownership would be useful here. Encouragement of a public debate about land ownership would be one step forward, and a number of policy instruments have been suggested (land tax for example).

14. From a food production perspective the key critical shift is from extensive monocultures (lots of land, with high external inputs) to intensive polycultures (smaller scale systems, with low external inputs). Polycultures are normal at a smaller scale, within horticulture and in traditional systems. New research is needed in the UK to catch up with practice that is becoming normal in other countries (New Zealand, France, USA all have much more advanced agroforestry systems, support and research for example). Polycultures have been proven to be more resilient to fluctuations in stresses such as heat, pests, water availability, and overall more productive than monocultures (RAND corporation). On-farm trials of polycultures are essential to develop new productive farm systems that make use of this latest thinking and make it available in proven configurations for other farmers. Prof Martin Wolfe's work to develop 'population wheat' at Wakelyns Farm, (and supported by Defra) is an excellent example of what can be done.

15. A new agricultural extension system is required, where innovation and learning is driven at farm level and by farmers themselves, and supported by university research and other expertise as required. Participatory in nature and using new network design approaches and online systems. There are many NGOs, universities and farmer pioneers that if properly connected, could create the required impetus for a shift towards an agro-ecological / sustainable / local/regional market orientated food system. This requires government support but could be best achieved through a genuine partnership between farmers, agencies, NGOs and researchers. Pilot programmes need to be developed. The Low Carbon Farming Initiative proposed by the Permaculture Association has described a process to test and develop such an agricultural extension system.

16. Agricultural research programmes need to be re-prioritised to give equal attention to agroecological issues. Biotechnology will provide some solutions (although the Association does not support transgenic gene transfer 'GM'), but agroecological methods offer greater potential in our opinion, and also allow scope for farmer innovation (as stated above). Current research programmes barely mention agroecology and seem to be mainly for biotech development that favour large scale monocultures.

17. Food production needs to be supported within urban areas, and landscape architects and city planners need to recognise the huge interest at a local level for the creation of highly productive 'edible landscapes' which nourish people and city with a range of food and non-food crops. These systems can be highly productive and have educational, health and social cohesion benefits, as well as environmental benefits such as increased biodiversity.

18. We need to send out clear signals about what we want the sector to do. CAP reform is one way that this can be done. It is essential that the goals for the system are integrated and holistic and go beyond profit and per unit area production. We would suggest that 'holistic goals' for a future food and farming sector would be along the lines of:

· Improved farmer quality of life

· Improved farm incomes

· Reduced whole farm carbon footprint and increased carbon sequestration through increasing soil organic matter (leading towards becoming a carbon sink rather than source.)

· Increased on-farm biodiversity

· Increased soil health and fertility

· Increased water holding capacity and reduced contribution to local flooding

· Equal or increased yields per unit area

· Reduced requirement for external inputs (agro-chemicals, fuel, water)

· Strengthened local resilience and enhanced regional food economies

· Farm innovation, research and development is dynamic and participatory and enhances the above goals

19. A farming system that met these goals would be productive, environmentally sound and with huge social benefits. Once holistic goals are set all policy instruments then need to be set to ensure they happen. The Holistic Management goal setting and management process would be useful to follow, to do this at both national policy level and at a farm scale (it is already being used widely at a farm scale in other countries).

20. Once these goals are set they would need to be communicated widely through popular education approaches, websites and the government's own channels. Since these goals are essentially 'a good thing' they would be widely supported by the public and could allow wide participation in the development of local scale solutions. The Local Food Fund (set up by a consortium of which we are members) has been given £50 million from the Big lottery to support local food initiatives and projects. We were massively oversubscribed (by around 3 times) and had to close to new applications early. There is a huge appetite for local food. It is a topic that can engage everyone, and can be used to enhance many other important goals – education, cohesion, health etc. Financial and policy support for more local and regional food systems will be hugely popular and deliver real sustained benefits.

21. The Permaculture Association is willing to elaborate in more detail on any of the points made above to suit the Environmental Audit Committee as required.

About the Permaculture Association

The Permaculture Association is a company (05908919) and registered charity (1116699 and SC041695). The Association is part of a world-wide network of associations working towards a common aim of teaching and disseminating design methodologies to enable sustainable human settlements which maximise productivity and minimise unwanted outputs and energy consumption (including work) to provide high standards of social, ecological, and economic well being in an equitable way.

This discipline is founded in benign systems of land-use which are high yielding and in harmony with the natural environment. Several hundred thousand people have attended permaculture courses world-wide, with the majority practicing garden scale food production, and a small but growing minority practicing permaculture on a broader scale as farmers and land managers.

The Permaculture Association currently has 1,200 members and some 3,000 people have graduated from the full Design Course, which sits at the heart of the Association's efforts to build a core of thought leaders and practitioners skilled, experienced and well connected in sustainable living.

The Association is currently running a major project to create a permaculture learning and demonstration network of 80 learning centres, supported by online services and information, where people can see permaculture in practice. Sites include home gardens, community gardens, public spaces, allotments, smallholdings and farms.

The Permaculture LAND project (Supporting local food by Learning & Network Demonstration) was the first national project funded by the Local Food scheme managed on behalf of the Big Lottery by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and with sixteen major partners.

28 March 2011