What we can learn from the “schools” of organic food production

The Sustainable Living Festival took place in Melbourne recently and we decided to take a look on the Sunday of the festival. It was a pleasant set up, along the banks of the Yarra river next to Federation Square, with a wide variety of stalls, eateries and venues for talks throughout the day.

After wandering the stalls for a while and then enjoying an early lunch, we opted to head to a talk and ended up at the outdoor stage for Permaculture – The 4th Ethic, presented by “Pete The Permie”. Not knowing anything about permaculture before this talk, we were perhaps not his target audience but he was an engaging presenter and the content was really interesting.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Permaculture was developed, and the term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. It is based on three core tenets, viz.

  • Care for the earth: This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics.

You can become “certified” in permaculture via the “Permaculture Design Course” (PDC), based around these three core tenets of the approach. Pete’s talk was about whether such PDCs should also include a fourth ethic on “Care of spirit”. He was discussing whether religion, Biodynamics or other spiritual systems should be included in the teaching or not (and, if not, where does the nurturing of people fit in a “Science Only” based design system in a world that needs lots more caring of oneself & each other?). This was fascinating stuff and it’s obviously a big deal in the permaculture community about whether these less scientific aspects should be included in their certification.

These other aspects are a feature of the Biodynamic approach.

Biodynamic agriculture is a form of alternative agriculture very similar to organic farming, but it includes various esoteric concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Initially developed since 1924, it was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives.

It soon became clear as Pete talked about the differences of opinion between the “schools” of organic food production – Permaculture and Biodynamic – that there were similarities with the “schools of testing” that our industry appears to have become somewhat preoccupied with in recent years. Pete’s approach has been to learn lots more about some of the unscientific aspects of the Biodynamic approach, as he argued it can’t do him any harm to learn about them and see if there are lessons to be learned in his application of permaculture. It was notable that he didn’t show disrespect to people following Biodynamics but was open to learn more about their ideas, while maintaining his strong association with Permaculture.

The lesson I took away from this talk was that isolating your thinking to one particular school of thought – in any field – is limiting and you might be surprised by the usefulness of approaches or ideas from a different school of thought. Hopefully those of us who align ourselves strongly with the context-driven “school” of testing can always remember to be respectful of those who align themselves with other schools and also become students of those schools to understand them better and perhaps find useful ideas to apply in our own contexts.

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