Responding to the biodiversity crisis: Permaculture and sustainability transition

Responding to the biodiversity crisis: Permaculture and sustainability transition

Benjamin Habib and Simin Fadaee

The peak scientific body monitoring UN Convention on Biodiversity—the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—released its “Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services,” headlining with the extraordinary warning that one million species are under threat of extinction, “many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Furthermore, it argued that humans are responsible for this mass extinction, and that this loss of biodiversity is undercutting the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to support human life.

The global corporate-industrial food system is one of the primary ways that human societies interact with the environment.  However, as the IPBES report alarmingly shows, the way we interface with ecosystems through agriculture has to change.  In response to the biodiversity crisis, we the authors advocate for the broader application of permaculture design as an integrated, holistic methodology for regenerating ecosystems and sustainable transition of the agricultural sector.

Biodiversity loss and the industrial food system
Sadly, the warnings of ecosystem collapse are not new.  Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sobering special report arguing that globally we have a decade to complete greenhouse mitigation measures to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, or risk climate impacts that are civilisation-threatening in scale and scope. Similarly, a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that,

“biodiversity, at every level from genetic, through species to ecosystem, underpins the capacity of farmers, livestock keepers, forest dwellers, fishers and fish farmers to produce food and a range of other goods and services in a vast variety of different biophysical and socio-economic environments. It increases resilience to shocks and stresses, provides opportunities to adapt production systems to emerging challenges and is a key resource in efforts to increase output in a sustainable way.”

Biodiversity is not only important for maintaining other species but it is a central component of building resilient human communities as well.

Industrial food production has been recognised as a significant cause of biodiversity loss. From the 1940s, a process of industrialisation of agriculture has taken place, known as the Green Revolution, based on the large-scale mono-crop farms producing cash crops for export.  This agricultural model is heavily mechanised and is based on the extensive utilisation of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

This global food system is dominated by large agri-food corporations with close links to international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others, shaping producer-consumer relationships across supply chains from seed to plate. Because of their size, multinational scale and influence over governments, these corporations are able to shape the economics, legal regimes and geography of international food systems according to their preferences, in the process alienating small-scale and peasant farmers, indigenous peoples, consumers, and other actors who have a shared interest in resisting that domination.

As the IPBES report shows, this model of agriculture has also been a disaster for ecosystem health and biodiversity. Broad-acre mono-crops require large chemical inputs because they lack the plant, animal, insect and microbial diversity found in diverse ecosystems that naturally maintain soil health and control pests. Nitrogen from chemical fertilisers contaminates fresh water and marine environments. Mature, diverse ecosystems provide habitat for numerous species, which is lost when land is converted to agricultural mono-cropping. The energy demands of this system are also immense, in turn leading to a contribution of up to quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC.

Permaculture for biodiversity and regenerative communities
The IPBES report calls for regenerative agricultural practices that recognise human and ecological inter-dependencies in developing integrated agricultural, social and economic systems.  In response to this call, in our intertwined capacities as academic researchers, sustainability practitioners and environmental activists, we the authors have gravitated to permaculture as a systematic approach to meeting these needs.

Australian biologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren developed the permaculture design system in the 1970s as a means of producing nutritious and affordable food while regenerating ecosystems and enhancing biodiversity. As a design system, permaculture utilises a set of twelve design principles to develop agricultural and social systems that mimic the diversity, multi-functionality and self-regulation of natural ecosystems and harmonise more intimately with ecological systems, such that they become sustainable (according to a hard” definition of sustainability).

As a system of ethics, permaculture is based on regenerating ecosystems and their constituent life forms, taking care of the needs of people, and distributing the yields of permaculture systems in a fair and just manner. Because of these interconnections and the holistic approach permaculture offers a “community planning philosophy” aimed at restoring ecosystems and improving the lives of communities. With practitioners working on projects that are largely context-dependent, varying according to the goals of practitioners based on their unique local ecological, social, economic and political conditions.

As a social movement, permaculture practitioners are horizontally networked around the world to the point where today there are self-identifying permaculturists in over one hundred countries, practicing sustainable models of social change.  The Permaculture CoLab project exemplifies this global network, linking together practitioners in thematic clusters based around climate mitigation and adaptation, academic research, entrepreneurialism, and education.

As a world-wide community of practice, permaculture practitioners share knowledge through magazines, demonstration sites, journals, websites, key national organisations and local organisational hubs, in addition to regular conferences and convergences at international, national and regional levels.

As a method for transition to this sustainable future, permaculture works to create networked community-level economic and social systems that can support ecologically regenerative permaculture food systems.  It helps small farmers build resiliency and facilitates new relationships between small-scale farmers and the market, between the consumers and the producers, and between urban and rural communities. As such, permaculture is a form of resistance against ecologically-destructive and economically exploitative models of corporate-industrial agriculture.

Permaculture farming sits at the intersection between food systems, social justice, community governance and international economics.  In Melbourne, Australia, the CERES Community Environment Park demonstrates the bioremediation capacity of permaculture.  CERES is a thriving urban farm, education facility and social hub that was established in the 1980s on the site of an abandoned quarry, which had since been used as a dump site.  It now features productive market gardens as well as functioning as a biodiversity corridor in an area surrounded by housing and industrial precincts.

The last International Permaculture Convergence in 2017 was hosted by Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, a permaculture organisation based in Hyderabad in India.  Aranya works closely with small-scale farmers, communities, organisations and governments on food sovereignty, farmers’ rights and environmental issues.

The Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology in Malawi was developed out of a demonstration site established during the 9th International Permaculture Convergence in 2009. Kusamala works closely with local farmers to create sustainable livelihoods through organic farming and ecological restoration, and creates a platform for them to share knowledge and experience about implementing permaculture in Malawian context.

In Central America, the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador is grassroots organisation rooted in the peasant farmers’ movement during the 1990s.  It comprises of farmers, indigenous and agricultural organisations collaborating on sustainable agricultural practices to improve the lives of farmers and create sustainable communities.

The community of Hongdong-myeon in South Korea is a thriving model of an integrated permaculture community, centred upon organic rice production, a specialist organic agriculture school, and local services provided by community cooperatives.  The organic agriculture movement around Hongdong developed during the 1970s in response to the chemical-intensive agricultural model imposed by the authoritarian Park Chung Hee regime.

Saying “yes” to holistic ecological regeneration
The IPBES report is yet another urgent call for us to address our pressing ecological crisis. If we are to collectively halt the mass extinction of biodiversity and address climate change, we need to transit from the ecologically destructive economies, social relations and cultures of today to a set of relationships with the natural world that are properly sustainable.

Direct action activism such as the school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion are enormously important to pressure policy-makers and corporate interests at a macro level. However, more than ever it has become important to stress solution-oriented approaches to sustainability transition, like permaculture, which can drive systemic transformation across different scales, from the grassroots level to international institutions.

The sites highlighted above are illustrative of the growing number of permaculture communities emerging around the world in response to ecological crisis and human needs.  In the sustainability transition space, permaculture is demonstrating a methodology of sustainable and regenerative systems design in agricultural, economic and social contexts which enables us to produce food, create regenerative communities and enhance biodiversity.


Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. Ben is an internationally published scholar with research interests in intersections between grassroots sustainability, environmental movements, and international climate politics, in addition to his research into the political economy of North Korea’s nuclear program and East Asian security. Simin Fadaee is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester, UK. Simin’s research is broadly on issues of political sociology, social movements and activism, environmentalism and environmental politics and she has conducted research in a number of places but mostly in Iran, India and Germany.