Jonas Gampe is a trained landscape gardener and a well-known permaculture designer from Germany. In his books «Permaculture in Home Gardens» and «Last Resort: Permaculture» he provides food for thought, examples, and implementation tips for permanent agriculture on small and large plots. According to him, permaculture is not only for hobby gardeners, but if implemented at large scale, offers answers to some of the greatest challenges of our times.
Mr. Gampe, where does permaculture come from and at which scale can it be applied?
The concept of permaculture was developed by the Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. They were convinced that permanent, diverse agricultural structures with closed, natural cycles are more sustainable than our modern industrial agriculture, which is mainly based on annual crops.
As a landscape gardener and permaculture designer I have helped many people to turn their gardens into permanent, sustainable ecosystems. It’s a rewarding, fulfilling job. However, me and my team are convinced that Mollison’s and Holmgren’s initial vision of permanent agriculture is not only feasible at a larger scale. It has the potential to tackle some of the most urgent environmental problems of our times. In my book «Last Resort: Permaculture» I share ideas, examples, and realistic calculations for small gardens as well as large plots that cover hundreds of hectares.
«Permaculture ecosystems can deal better with the weather extremes we are already facing today»
What does your vision of permanent agriculture look like and what differentiates it from organic agriculture?
In comparison with conventional farming, organic agriculture is a very important step in the right direction. But neither the EU organic regulation, nor the stricter guidelines of the organic associations imply far-reaching structural changes. In my permaculture vision, all agricultural goods would be cultivated in multifunctional, permanent, diverse ecosystems. Compared to today, half of the agricultural land would be covered with a wide variety of trees and shrubs. Instead of focusing on monocultures that grow on huge plots, fields would integrate fruit, nut, and high-quality wood trees as well as hedges and bushes. They would grow between the annual and perennial crops.
What are the main benefits of such an agricultural system?
Transforming our agricultural land into permanent, circular ecosystems can help us become climate-neutral and tackle the biodiversity crisis at the same time. The diverse plants, trees, and hedges would not only capture CO2, but provide plenty of habitat and food for animals. Furthermore, permaculture ecosystems can deal better with the weather extremes we are already facing today. For example, trees and hedges can serve as wind breakers and protect crops from heavy rain and hail. They can humidify and cool the air and regulate small hydrological cycles. Water management would also be supported by integrated biotopes and healthy soils that are rich in humus. The absence of hazardous chemicals on the fields would preserve our drinking water. And thanks to a greater diversity of crops, local food sovereignty would increase and result in less emissions and transport costs.
«Transforming our agricultural land into permanent, circular ecosystems can help us become climate-neutral and tackle the biodiversity crisis at the same time»
Can your vision of permanent agriculture feed the world?
I believe that in the long run, permaculture can feed more people than our current agricultural system. The concept reduces crop failures and promotes diversity. So even if one crop fails, there are plenty of other plants that provide yields. Furthermore, the integration of fruit and nut trees implies that we do not only use the surface of a field to produce food, but we grow food on different levels. As a result, the overall yields per acre are higher. To increase efficiency, I am – in contrary to some other permaculture designers – not against the use of machinery.
What are the main reservations farmers have towards permaculture?
As someone who has been trained to plan and implement gardens and landscape projects, I have been working with different types of plants for all my life. Most farmers, on the contrary, have been trained how to use big machinery and tons of chemicals to grow a small variety of crops on large plots of land. It is therefore understandable that many of them shy away from complex permaculture concepts which may involve tasks that many of them are not familiar with – such as pruning and cutting trees. I have found that the key to convince them is to show them projects which are already up and running and which proof that the concept works.
«The absence of hazardous chemicals on the fields would preserve our drinking water»
For many, permaculture is all about creating edible, sustainable paradises. But is it also economically viable?
In industrial agriculture, which focuses on a few annual crops on large fields, it is possible to quickly achieve relatively good yields. However, this usually triggers a series of events that will increase production costs in the long run – such as soil depletion or the loss of beneficial animals that help with pollination and keep pests under control. A vicious circle begins, in which more and more external inputs are needed to keep the yields high.
In permaculture, it’s the other way round: the initial investment, which often involves creating completely new structures by planting trees and building biotopes, can be relatively high. On top of that, it takes between 30 to 50 years for fruit and nut trees to produce maximum yields. But over the years, the required effort becomes significantly lower whilst the yields increase through independent and natural growth. Therefore, I am convinced that permaculture is the way to go. It has the potential to secure our survival.
Author: Ina Hiester, freelance journalist for the organic sector
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