FOCUS - Permaculture what is and data about it

on .

Written by Dario Ruggiero (April 2013)
Vandana Shiva, in her book, "Return to Earth", lists all the disadvantages of an industrialized and globalized agricultural system compared with a local and biodiverse one. Such a system depends excessively on oil (for the production of fertilizers, the predominant use of machinery and transport) and it is, therefore, strongly exposed to the threat of "Peak-Oil"; one-crop plantations are the main feature of the current agricultural systems; they are more vulnerable to pests and climate change, and, finally, they are less productive than farmland based on polycultures. In essence, the globalized industrial agriculture depends strongly on fossil fuels, exacerbates the problem of climate change and is less able to adapt to changes. According to Vandana Shiva biodiverse farms and local food systems are the answer to the problem. In this perspective, "Permaculture", a method based on designing an agricultural environment for preserving or increasing naturally soil fertility and biodiversity of the system, is very close to the solution proposed by the author mentioned above. 

This agricultural model was born in the 70s, thanks to the idea of David Holmgren and Bill Mollisone, two Australian ecologists who tried to create a model of self-sustaining agriculture, with a much higher probability to last for the use of coming generations.

Over the 80s and after, the term Permaculture has had a fair widespread, although it still has difficulty in reaching a mass diffusion. Over time, projects in this field have increase; also the publications on the topic and the number of farmers and people interested in this methodology has increased, as well as, the number of schools and courses issuing diplomas qualification on this particular agricultural practice. In Permaculture, the design and the initial organization of the environment plays a key role. The environment must be designed in order to reach the highest level of energy efficiency, take full advantage of renewable energy and give elements the possibility to support each other in their growth and development. This article, in addition to describing the principles and methods Permaculture is based on, gives an overview of Permaculture diffusion around the world.
Interview with David Holmgren - (Permaculture, Co-founder; "Holmgren Design Services," President)
Interview with Andy Goldring -  ("Permaculture Association in UK"– Chief Executive)
“it is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure 
that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, 
in harmony with nature….”
(Permaculture Association -
Origin and current state of Permaculture


Since 1974, in Australia, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren began to develop a framework for a sustainable agricultural system, centered on a mixed farming based on perennial species of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and root systems. The ambitious objective of this method is to design human settlements that reduce the work required to maintain them, minimize the production of waste and pollution, and, of course, at the same time, maintain or increase soil fertility and biodiversity of the system. Since the 80s,The Permaculture method has spread all over the world. Today there are more than a dozen books and manuals on Permaculture, based on the original work of Mollison and Holmgren. Despite this, there have never been substantial additions or changes to the method originally developed in the late 70s.

It was estimated that in 2002 over 100,000 people around the world were formed in Permaculture. Despite this, Permaculture has still some difficulties in reaching a massive diffusion. David Holmgren says that the reasons are mainly due to the prevalence of a culture of scientific reductionism; Permaculture is hostile to more holistic methods, in the domain of a culture of consumerism created from a purely economic vision of health and progress, where global and local political authorities have a strong fear of losing their influence and power on the society if the population were to follow practices designed to self-sufficiency and local self-government. Finally, it is important to mention that Permaculture was the starting point for Rob Hopkins to develop concept of transition towns in the first years of 2000.
Ethics and principles of Permaculture
Graph – Ethics and principles of Permaculture
Source: our elaboration
The word 'Permaculture' comes from 'permanent agriculture' and 'permanent culture' - it is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. Permanence is not about everything staying the same. It is about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance.

In practice, Permaculture objective is to support the creation of sustainable, agriculturally productive, non-polluting and healthy settlements. In many places this means adapting our existing settlements. In other cases it can mean starting from scratch.

Permaculture has these following ethics:

1) Earth care - Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. Permaculture works with natural systems, rather than in competition with them. It uses methods that have minimal negative impact on the Earth’s natural environment. In everyday life, this may involve buying local produce, eating in season, and cycling rather than driving. It is about opposing the destruction of wild habitats, and the poisoning of soil, water and atmosphere, and it is about designing and creating healthy systems that meet our needs without damaging the planet.

2) People care - Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence. This is about ensuring the wellbeing of both individuals and communities. As individuals, we need to look after ourselves and each other, so that as a community we can develop environmentally friendly lifestyles. In the poorest parts of the world, this is still about helping people to access enough food and clean water, within a safe society. In the rich world, it means redesigning our unsustainable systems and replacing them with sustainable ones. This could mean working together to provide efficient, accessible public transport, or to provide after-school clubs for kids.

3) Fair shares - The third ethic recognises that:

  1. a. The Earth’s resources are limited.
  2. These resources need to be shared amongst many beings.

Permaculture seeks to divide these resources fairly amongst people, animals and plants alike, not forgetting future generations who will need food, water and shelter just as much as we do now. It is 'one planet living'.

Permaculture has 12 principles ((Holmgren David, 2002):

1) Observation and Interaction: We have to know how nature works if we want to be able to work with it. Permaculture uses an 'action learning' approach.

2) Catch and Store Energy: a) Storing energy in the landscape (creating a useful soil), by planting and nurturing new areas of 'biomass' - living things - mainly plants, usually as trees, woodlands, forest gardens, meadows, ponds, etc. to ensure that plant systems contribute to the development of deep healthy soils. Deep soils allow good crops, retain more rainfall, and also have the hugely important role of being the world's largest and most important living stores of carbon; b) Catching and storing energy in our built environment (exploiting renewable energy), by using sunlight and solar photovoltaics in order to heat homes and provide light for free; c) Storing energy in the household (storing food and wood), by preserving fruit and vegetables, wines and beers and a wood pile for winter fuel.

3) Obtain a Yield: Permaculture stresses self-reliance - the ability to meet many of our own needs from our own resources. We can no longer rely on global food systems to meet our needs, or on there always being enough fossil fuels to bring the crops to us.

4) Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback: Self-maintaining systems are the 'holy grail' of Permaculture, and can be seen in designs for forest gardens, in which work is minimised by planting ground covers to reduce weeds, nitrogen fixers to replace fertilisers and perennial and self-seeding plants to reduce annual plantings.

5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: Permaculture design aims to make best use of renewable resources to create, manage and maintain high yielding systems, even if some non-renewable resources are needed to establish the system in the first place. Wind, sun and waves are the key renewable resources that can help us move towards sustainability.

6) Produce no Waste: Permaculture aims to connect inputs and outputs so that different elements meet each other's needs. Recycling in Permaculture is very important. Kitchen waste can be used to make compost and this can be used to grow crops. In this way we reduce waste, the use of external inputs (external compost and fertilizers) and increase yields (better soil, more crops, more worms.). Careful maintenance and investing in good quality long lasting products can also help reduce waste and overall consumption levels.

7) Design from Patterns to Details: Zoning is a very good example of a design method that is used to help generate an overall pattern for the site and ensure that it is designed to be energy efficient. Sector analysis is another design method used to see how energy (sun, wind, wildlife, etc) flows through a site. Both of these tools help to give an overall shape to the design, before getting too carried away with the specific details to start with.

8) Integrate rather than Segregate: One of the most important insights from ecology is that the relationships between things are as important as the things themselves. A healthy vibrant ecosystem is a mass of connections and relationships. Permaculture seeks to integrate elements together so that the needs of one are supplied by another. This is well described by three earlier principles: a) each important function is supported by many elements; for example, food for a household might be provided by a diversity of main crops, wild food, salad and vegetable beds, orchards and soft fruit, agreements with other producers, small and large livestock. If any one source fails, others will provide. b) Each element provides many functions; in a Permaculture system we are trying to use all the different functions and yields of an element, e.g. a chicken can provide pest control, tillage, meat, feathers, eggs, heat etc., to increase the overall yields and create a more integrated system. c) Relative location; in order to make good connections between different parts of the system, it is important to place them so that they can do this.

9) Use Small and Slow Solutions: Small scale solutions and activities are more likely to be adaptive to local needs, respectful of nature and able to see the consequences of actions. Incremental changes can be more easily understood and monitored. This concept links to one of the "Golden Rules" from Bill Mollison's Designers Manual - start small, get it under control and then slowly expand the perimeter -.

10) Use and Value Diversity: Permaculture designs should always try to incorporate a wide variety of plants, animals and approaches. This is because diversity can act like an insurance policy - if one crop fails, another may succeed. Even within an orchard there will be a diversity of different varieties. Polycultures (agricultural systems with many plants), are now proven to be more productive overall and resilient to weather, pests and other factors, than monocultures (agricultural systems with only one plant species). Plant diversity is also the key to many useful techniques such as 'integrated pest management'.

11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal: The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own. In ecology this is called 'ecotone'. This is central to the idea of using edges as a design method. Such marginal lands are abandoned by conventional one-crop agricultural systems.

12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change: By understanding how ecosystems change over time, we can accelerate the process and create productive ecosystems faster than in nature. There are also many methods for social changes, organisational development and community engagement used to help groups work together and collectively plan for changes.

Permaculture is an ecological design process – it consists in learning from nature. Design methods are used in conjunction with Permaculture principles to create an overall pattern or plan of action. A good design helps us make best use of the available resources and create a more productive system that meets more of our needs and creates less pollution. There are a wide range of design processes and methods available: •Survey, •Analysis, •Design, •Implementation, •Maintenance, •Evaluate, •Other methods and processes
What are Permaculture’s zones

One of the main features of Permaculture is the method of “zoning”: the environment is split in “zones” in order to maximize the efficiency of energy use. Each zone has its own objective and a distance from the house (or the central part of the farm) depending on the frequency of human work. In general, in Permaculture 6 zones are identified:

Zone 0: it is the center of the activities, the house, a stable or, on a large scale, an entire village. This zone must be set in order to maximize the energy saving and satisfy the needs of the inhabitants.

Zone 1: it is located near the center of the activities. It is the most used and controlled area. It consists of the garden, the greenhouse, the nursery, the housing of poultry, the fuel tank, the woodshed, the drying rack for laundry and an area for the drying of cereals. In this zone there are no large animals; there are few big trees with the only purpose of shading. There are, instead, many little trees for common use, such as lemon trees.

Zone 2: it is a zone treated intensively and densely cultivated. This zone includes terraces, hedges, trellises and water features. There may also be some large trees that host under them a complex system of herbaceous species and trees, especially fruit plants. There are farm animals in selected areas and there may be an area for grazing animals.

Zone 3: it is the agricultural zone less treated.There are fruit trees that don’t need to be pruned, pastures and larger areas for animals, for meat or not, and the main crops. There are large trees that also perform the function of shelter belts and sources of forage.

Zone 4: It is an almost wild zone. It is used for the harvesting of wild fruits, forestry and accommodating wild animals. In addition to this, it is the area for the production of valuable wood.

Zone 5: it is a natural zone. This zone is used only for observation and learning. It is not interested by the design process.

Permaculture can be developed in different types of regions as rocky hills, wetlands, alpine areas, flood plains or deserts. In the design phase of the zones and the entire environment it is necessary to take into account the main characteristics of the area in which Permaculture will be developed: climate and microclimate, soil characteristics, the presence of water sources to exploit and preserve, space for the construction infrastructure for housing and communication.
A comparison between Permaculture and the other agricultural methods

Currently, there are two big branches in agriculture: conventional agriculture and biological agriculture. The main difference between these two methods lays in the use of fertilizers and pesticides: conventional agriculture uses prevalently chemical products, while biological agriculture uses natural products. Biological (or organic) agriculture includes many branches: biodynamic agriculture, agro-ecology, Permaculture, and so on. Permaculture, like the other organic methods, is based on the use of policultures and of natural fertilizers and pesticides. What makes Permaculture different from the other organic systems, is the emphasis giving to the goal of reducing the dependency on external inputs, through a detailed design of the environment in terms of space (physical layout) and time (how things change and evolve over time). In that perspective, Permaculture can be seen as a system of design techniques complementary to all the other systems. For more information on this thematic, please see the interview with David Holmgren on

"Permaculture isn't a production system per se. Fundamentally, it’s an approach to designing agroecological farm systems, especially within an overall settlement design. The design for any particular place will incorporate a range of suitable techniques and elements. Of course there are techniques we favour – ones that work with nature, enhance diversity, and minimise the need for external inputs – but Permaculture is not just a set of techniques. The permaculture design system can complement what organic, biodynamic, agroforestry and conventional farmers are already doing, so there is huge scope for collaboration and mutual learning."
(Andy Goldring – April 2013
"Permaculture can be seen as a branch of organic agriculture (originated both in Europe and in North America in the 1930s, in opposition to the industrial agriculture system); so it builds on organic methods and insights, but also has its own specification: 1. We should provide more of our food from perennial plants and tree crops, as variable annual crops are one of the main structural vulnerabilities in the traditional agricultural system; 2. The process of design and ongoing evolution of agricultural landscapes and systems is as important as the more traditional focus on husbandry; 3. Permaculture has a stronger emphasis on diversity through polyculture."
(David Holmgren – May 2nd 2013
Permaculture around the world
According to data of the Worldwide Permaculture Network, a social network of people and projects involved in the field of Permaculture, North America is the area that has the largest number of projects in Permaculture in the world (422 are the projects surveyed in this area for this social network), followed by Europe with 284 projects surveyed, Australia (173 projects), South America (95 projects), Asia (69 projects) and Africa (57 projects). While not exhaustive of the entire universe of projects in the field of Permaculture in the world, the mapping provided by this social network gives an idea of the areas in which Permaculture is more or less developed. In percentage terms, North America accounts for 38.4% of the projects registered in the Worldwide Permaculture Network, Europe 25.8%, Australia 15.7%, South America 8, 6%, Asia 6.3% and Africa 5.2%.
Graph – Permaculture’s projects around the world according to the Worldwide Permaculture Network
Source: our elaboration on Worldwide Permaculture Network -
“We are going to see a serious challenge in the near future: the enormous amount of net energy that was available in the past (thanks to high quality fossil fuels), will be no longer available in future. How to face this challenge? The key answer is not just the reduction in fossil fuels, but the reduction in the energy use at large, as renewable energies cannot provide the net energy necessary for current systems. Agriculture plays a key role in making it possible: by the re-localizing food production, making it more integrated and space efficient and making the most creative use of human labour and skill through good design.”
(David Holmgren – May 2nd 2013
David Holmgren, one of the two co-founders of Permaculture, has explained one of the main problems humans will face sooner or later. It is true, there may be technologies such as fracking in America, which allow us to postpone the problems caused by a mismatch between the global supply and demand of energy: while the demand for energy is constantly growing, the supply of energy (especially that coming from fossil fuels) is doomed to become more and more limited. In fact, while fossil fuels become less available and more expensive, renewable energies have not yet achieved the capacity to outfit traditional energy sources in meeting the world's energy needs. With this in mind, before wondering what kind of energy sources will replace oil in the future, we must try to understand how we can reduce the demand for energy, without creating excessive economic and social damages. Permaculture and a more balanced and sober use of Earth's resources, by reducing the ecological footprint and respecting the Earth's biocapacity (Global Footprint Network, 2012), act in this direction.
Thanks are due to Dr. Rob Scott, Assistant Professor Education Policy Studies University of Illinois, and to Rafter Sass Ferguson, researcher at the Crop Sciences Department University of Illinois (, who gave me some data for writing the article. Thanks are due also to Andy Goldring, director of the Permaculture Association in United Kingdom, and to David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture, for their availability in being interviewed on this topic.

Åhnberg, A. &Strid, I., (2010),When food turns into waste – a study on practices and handling of losses of fruit and vegetables and meat in Willys Södertälje Weda, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

Bane Peter, (2012), The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country, New Society Publishers

Burnett Graham, (2000), Permaculture - a beginner's guide, Land and Liberty/Spiral seed

FAO,(2009),The Resource Outlook to 2050: By how much do land, water and crop yields need to increase by 2050? FAO Expert Meeting: “How to Feed the World in 2050”, FAO, Rome, Italy

FAOSTAT, (2010), FAO Statistical Yearbook 2009 - Agricultural Production, disponibile su:

Fukuoka Masanobu, (2012), Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security--From the author of the international bestseller The One-Straw Revolution, Chelsea Green Publishing

Fukuoka Masanobu, (2009), The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, NYRB Classics

Fukuoka Masanobu, (2004), La rivoluzione del filo di paglia. Un'introduzione all'agricoltura naturale, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina

Goldring Andy,The permaculture teacher’s guide

Global Footprint Network, Living Planet Report 2012-

Hemenway Toby, (2009 2nd edition), Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture, Chelsea Green Publishing

Holmgren David, (2009), Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change, Chelsea Green Publishing

Holmgren David,(2002), Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Ten Speed Pr

Holmgren David, Mollison Bill, (1979 1st edition), Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture, Tagari

Holmgren David, Mollison Bill, (1990 5th edition), Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements, Tagari

Holmgren David, G. Chia (Traduttore), Permacultura. Come progettare e realizzare modi di vivere sostenibili e integrati con la natura, Arianna Editrice

Holmgren David, Permacultura. Principi e percorsi oltre la sostenibilità, Arianna Editrice

Holzer Sepp, (2011), Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening--With information on mushroom cultivation, sowing a ... ways to keep livestock, and more..., Chelsea Green Publishing

Hopkins Rob, (2011), The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, Chelsea Green Publishing

Hopkins Rob, (2008), The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Chelsea Green

Kummu, M., et al., (Giugno 2012), “Lost food, wasted resources: Global food supply chain losses and their impacts on freshwater, cropland, and fertilizer use”,Science of the Total Environment438 (2012) 477–489

Lancaster Brad, (2013), Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape, Rain source Press

Lancaster Brad, (2007), Rainwater Harvesting for Dry lands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks, Rain source Press

LTEconomy,(Febbraio 2013), “Focus: Tutto sull'Impronta Ecologica”, 

LTEconomy,(Febbraio 2013), Intervista con Mathis Wackernagel, (Global Footprint Network, President), 

LTEconomy, (Luglio 2012), “Focus: La crisi alimentare in Sahel. I principali risultati del Sahel Working Group, Rapporto 2011 e le indicazioni della FAO”, 

LTEconomy, (Ottobre 2012), Intervista con Peter Gubbels, (Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa), 

LTEconomy, (Ottobre 2012), Intervista con Momadou Biteye, (Regional Director for Oxfam GB in West Africa), 

Mars Ross, (2005), The Basics Of Permaculture Design, Permanent Publications

MollisonBill, (1997), Introduction to Permaculture, Ten Speed Pr

Mollison Bill, (2007), Introduzione alla permacultura, Terra Nuova Edizioni

MollisonBill, (1988), Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Ten Speed Pr

Morrow Rosemary, (2010), The Earth User's Guide to Permaculture, Permanent Publications

Scott Rob, (2010), “A Critical Review of Permaculture in the United States”

Scott, R. & Sullivan, W.C., (2008), “Ecology of Fermented Foods”, Human Ecology Review 15

Slow Food Italia, (2012), “Il nostro spreco quotidiano”, Slow Food Editore srl

Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, (2011), Global Food Losses and Waste, Roma

Stephen & Rebekah Hren, (2008), The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, Chelsea Green Publishing

Whitefield P., (2012), Permacultura per tutti. Oltre l'agricoltura biologica, per curare la Terra e guarire il pianeta, Terra Nuova Edizioni

Whitefield Patrick, (2012), Permaculture Design: A Step-by-Step Guide, Permanent Publications

Whitefield P., (2011), Earth care manual, Permanent

Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. &Sandars, DL.,(2006), Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities, Main Report, Defra Research Project IS0205, Bedford, Cranfield University and Defra, disponibile su and

WWF, (2011a), WWF Living Forests Report, WWF International, Gland, Switzerland

World Economic Forum,(2013), Global Risk 2013, Switzerland

WRAP,(2009), Household food and drink waste in the UK, Report prepared by WRAP, Banbury

Accademia italiana di Permacultura -

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) -

Permaculture Institute -

Slow Food International -

Slow Food Italia -

The Permaculture Association -

The Permaculture Research Institute -

Terra Madre -

Worldwide Permaculture Network -



This article by Dario Ruggiero
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License


Download the article in the PDF version (With more data and figures)