Agroforestry and Permaculture Explained

Agroforestry and Permaculture Explained

In my professional life I have delivered many presentations, workshops and short courses on the basics of agroforestry over the years. I’ve repeated the concepts of agroforestry so many times, I can almost slip into a semi-conscience state and reiterate the definitions like a mantra. Common questions that I will field are: “how is this different from agriculture / forestry?”, and occasionally, I will be queried if agroforestry is the same as permaculture. While these two systems are similar in some respects and even encompass common land use practices, they are distinct. I hope with this posting to clarify how the two relate to each other.

First let’s visit the definitions for agroforestry and permaculture. Some have complained to me that there is no universal definition of agroforestry adding to the confusion of the uninitiated. Indeed, a short search of the internet or agroforestry literature will generate scores of different wordings. But my counter to this complaint is that there is no single universal definition for agriculture or forestry (or likely for any complex endeavor), and despite the academic world’s predilection for the incessant working and reworking of definitions, there is a consistent conceptual thread woven through the definitions.

In my home jurisdiction of British Columbia, the Ministry of Agriculture defines agroforestry as a “land use system that involves the deliberate retention, introduction or mixing of trees or other plants into crop and animal production systems in order to increase profitability, sustainability, protection of the environment and social acceptance. Agroforestry is:

  • Intentional – designed and managed for a planned result
  • Intensive – all components are intensively managed
  • Integrated – a blend of agriculture, forestry and environmental science
  • Interactive – designed to minimize negative and maximize positive interactions between trees, other crops and livestock.”

This definition is consistent with, and derived from, other North American organizations’ including the Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA) and the USDA’s National Agroforestry Centre (NAC). AFTA defines agroforestry as “an intensive land management system that optimizes the benefits from the biological interactions created when trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock,” and the USDA NAC states “agroforestry intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems. Agroforestry takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock.” There are many other published definitions that are minor variations on these themes of the deliberate integration of agriculture and forestry (silviculture) to optimize social, economic or environmental benefits that result from managing the interactions.

On the global stage the only overt difference from these temperate examples is the inclusion of the concept of integrating practices in time in addition to sharing the same physical space (so as to include various traditional swidden agricultural practices. The World Agroforestry Centre defines agroforestry as “land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and/or animals on the same land management unit. The integration can be either in a spatial mixture or in a temporal sequence. There are normally both ecological and economic interactions between woody and non-woody components in agroforestry”. And the from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) we get “a technique where tree and crops are grown together so as to optimize the productivity in a given space and time.”

For permaculture there is also a range of definitions available, but because there are fewer institutional players involved in permaculture research and education, there are fewer published variations. Personally, I like the succinct version on Wikipedia (and who am I to differ with the collective wisdom of everyone with typing skills and internet access): “an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.”

Agroforestry as a defined field of endeavor is relatively new, emerging from international development efforts and literature in the early 1970s, and entering the formal lexicon in the mid 1970s (e.g. Webster’s dictionary added an entry for agroforestry in 1977). But the practice of agroforestry is ancient and likely spans the entire history of human food and fibre cultivation. Many traditional cultures have developed integrated practices for blending livestock, perennial crops, annual crops and trees together in multi-storied, mixed cropping systems, some of which were displaced by modern farming and forestry, but many which persist to this day.

Permaculture has a more focused origin from the mindspace of Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in their 1978 publication “Permaculture One“. Their original concept of permaculture encompassed agroecological systems to achieve “permanent agriculture” but it has evolved over time and it now generally accepted to denote design and practices for “permanent culture” as a means to achieve sustainability. Permaculture practitioners attempt to replicate growth patterns observed in “nature” through production systems of food plant configurations that resemble their “wild” origins. ‘Design permaculture’ moves beyond food systems to use the connections and underlying ecological principles observed in naturally functioning ecosystems as a basis for planning all manner of human systems (habitation, waste recovery and recycling, transportation, etc.) .

The two fields of endeavor are most certainly complementary, with the modern interpretation on permaculture being more broadly applied to all human activities, and agroforestry confined within the realms of natural resource management. Both rely heavily on incorporating woody perennial plants into their systems; all agroforestry practices involve the production of trees and/or shrubs, and it is common, but not a necessary component of permaculture. For example, permaculture has embraced the concept of the forest garden (a form of ‘forest farming’ in the agroforestry realm), but you can have permaculture food systems without a tree/shrub component, as long as it mimics some other natural plant community or process. Permaculture limits it’s design to arrangements that occur in natural systems. Agroforestry includes some practices that are completely a human construct but that still generate valuable ecosystems services. For example the ‘linear forests’ created through narrow shelterbelts, living fences or fenceline plantings of trees and shrubs do not occur in nature, but they are a pragmatic approach for increasing the protective benefits (from wind erosion), the structural and species diversity, carbon sequestration and water and nutrient cycling in agricultural landscapes with displacing conventional production.

There is also a marked difference in the social dimensions of agroforestry and permaculture. Agroforestry has permeated the global lexicon to greater extent (though not necessarily in North America) and is embedded institutionally in government and academic programs and institute names all over the world. Search any large library catalog (e.g. US Library of Congress) and you will find many more academic papers and books tagged to ‘agroforestry’ than ‘permaculture’. Permaculture institutes are also found around the world (in at least 100 countries), but they remain more as a ‘grassroots’ organization. This is likely a product of it’s ‘multilevel marketing’ approach to disseminating information. Indeed, many of the original students of the permaculture ‘Design Course’ offered by Mollison went on to establish regional institutes for teaching the techniques they had learned, but it didn’t cross over into university curriculum or government support programs. Permaculture is also more demanding of it’s practioners as a holistic philosophical approach agriculture and society. It is a more all-encompassing lifestyle approach than agroforestry which as a group of activities can be applied as a means to diversify or complement any existing forest or agricultural system without replacing them.

To summarize, both systems have foundations in applied ecology to achieve social and environmental goals, and even share common practices. They differ however, in scope, depth of the philosophical approach and applications. For me, when comparing agroforestry and permaculture, it is very much like a favourite phrase of friends in Kanchanaburi, “same same, but different.

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