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My aim in this diary is not to step on anyone's toes, but I do wish to make certain that when we communicate about agroecology and things in general, that we do not conflate ideologies and approaches because they may or may not share common techniques and ideas.

Agroecology as a science is new to many people here. Not just here, but around the world it is new to many people; even though the core concepts of learning from nature and employing biomimicry are as old as our species. It is therefore predictable that when exposed to new ideas- especially ones that come hand in hand with descriptors such as Permaculture, Holistic Managment, Biodynamic agriculture, and Natural farming- that they could become confused, conflated, and amalgamated through no fault of the individual.

So, with that in mind, join me over the fold to discover what brings these ideologies together and what clearly delineates them from one another.

Warning- this will be long on text and short on media.

Last Time Here

In the past two months, I have published two diaries specifically about Holistic Management. The first diary provided a refresher regarding what agroecology is before launching into a deeper examination of the design system known as Holistic Management. My second diary was shorter and aimed to keep these concepts on our collective radar. In order to stay brief, if you are unfamiliar with Holistic Management or agroecology, please see my previous diaries.1

Before those two diaries, I have written a short "Introduction to Ecological Gardening" series, which you can find on my profile.

1. For another look at agroecology, you can see my first diary in the Ecological Gardening series here.

Preliminary Points of Clarification

Although I have placed all four of these ideologies under the same heading of agroecology, it should be duly noted that all of these ideologies expand beyond the realm of agroecological systems and into the broader human realm.

My operating definition of the word ideology is from Merriam Webster's online dictionary:

Ideology 2a : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
Therefore, while I have conveniently pigeon-holed these ideologies under the heading agroecology, I want you to know that they are not entirely subsumed by the concept. I am fairly certain that I have always tried to make this distinction because it is very important that we do not misrepresent these concepts.

My use of the mathematical symbol for inequality is not a judge of value or worth of these systems. I am in no way implying, for instance, that Permaculture < Holistic Management (nor any other arrangement of these ideologies).

This diary's aim is simple: to provide a level of familiarity with the terms so that you will not mistakenly conflate one or more of these ideologies. You will also note a dearth of the in line citations that typically accompany my diaries. I am intentionally keeping the text "clean" so that you will engage with what I have written. The "additional resources" list will accompany this diary, like always, and should help you find answers to many questions.


Permaculture is an ethical design system founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Tasmania during the mid-1970's. The word is a combination of two words: "permanent" and "culture."2 The three ethics are:

1. Earth Care
2. People Care
3. Fair share/Return of surplus

The first two ethics are relatively straightforward. First, we our actions must have taken into account the health of the planet. Second, we must take into account the well-being of the people who inhabit the system we are designing and those it will indirectly affect.

Permaculture's last ethic is a huge point of contention among permaculturalists. This is because it is not as straightforward. From my understanding, the point of contention comes from who gets to decide what a fair share, or a surplus, is. But the general idea is that we should aim to accumulate only that which is necessary to sustain ourselves and our system. Surplus from that should either be directed back into the system or distributed how the practitioner sees fit.

It should be noted that these ethics are self-regulatory. No authority can call upon you to defend your actions as fitting the three ethics. Accusations that so-and-so are not practicing permaculture because x, y, or z are an unfortunate symptom of basing a design framework upon ethics which can be interpreted in opposing ways.

If an individual is following these three ethics to their best ability, then they are practicing permaculture. One does not need to have a farm, a garden, or consulting company to "do permaculture." More than likely, however, once someone does adopt the permaculture framework they will seek to follow Earth care by becoming involved in the food chain which feeds them. That is just one reason why permaculture is so readily associated with agroecology.

Using these three ethics as a foundation, there are roughly 12 design principles that guide a permaculturalist's decision making process. These vary from person to person and are just that- design principles or guidelines. Their object is to support the individual, rather than straight-jacket them.

If an action, technique, or technology passes the ethical litmus test, then it can be incorporated into a permaculture designer's "tool box." We'll get to conflating the system with the tools at the end of this diary.

Lastly, because it is an ethical system, it is my opinion that one must consciously decide to apply permaculture to their lives. I find it awkward and disconcerting (at best) that some people wish to label actions taken by individuals past and present as "permaculture" when they either a) were not acquainted with the term (possibly because they lived before it was coined) or b) are acquainted, but choose (or chose) NOT to associate with permaculture. It would be as if someone went around with a checklist and posthumously (or concurrently) declared another individual, organization, or project to be part of their group without consulting the individual.

2. Until recently, "permaculture" was often described as the combination of "permanent" and "agriculture." However, because permaculture is an ethical design system, it can reach beyond agriculture and into other realms. Hence the adoption of "permanent culture" to stress its universality.

Holistic Management

Holistic Management is a decision making framework that has emerged over the past fifty years from Allan Savory's early work in 1960's Rhodesia. It is estimated that Holistic Management is being applied to over "12 million hectares (30 million acres)" globally.3 While many people see it as simply mimicking natural predator-prey relationships to manage livestock, this is not the case.

Indeed, Holistic Management is an entire framework that:4

[...] helps farmers, ranchers and land stewards better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic, and social benefits. This “triple bottom line” of benefits can be achieved by maximizing the management of current resources.
Holistically managed land takes into account the entire ecosystem in addition to helping a person, organization, or business reach their goals. Planners take into account wildlife needs- including breeding cycles-, watershed management, and an entire host of other factors to restore ecological functions which in turn generates abundance.

There are six key steps to guide the implementation of Holistic Management.4 This is not "divide your land into small paddocks and move your cows every once in a while." There are other terms for that and we'll get to them.

Holistic Management mostly fits well within agroecology, but the emphasis is- once again- stressing the entirety of the systems we are dealing with. Therefore, when it reaches into the social realm, it can begin to grow beyond the agroecological system.

3. Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
4. From Holistic Management International's page on the subject.
5. The six steps can be found here at the Savory Institute's website.

Biodynamic Agriculture

Biodynamic agriculture is probably the most derided of these ideologies because of it's origin in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of both biodynamic agriculture and anthroposophy. Biodynamic agriculture is:6

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition.
[Note: I copied and pasted the above quote and for some reason there is invisible "text size" data embodied in this section, hence the small text and awkward formatting]


In relation to its practical application in farming, this philosophy suggest that humans, animals, plans, minerals and the cosmic periphery form a whole system, or organism. The farm organism forms a unity in regard to the workings of both human and natural systems. The root of the Biodynamic system is the relationship of the farmer and his or her practices to the local ecosystem, which in Biodynamics reaches the extent of including the influence of the cosmos and subtle life forces on local habitats.
[emphasis added]

The last bit, emphasized, is where many (if not most) of the pseudoscience allegations are leveled against. While I can honestly say that I am incredibly skeptical of most of Steiner's teachings, it is undeniable that biodynamic farms are some of the most well run, diverse, regenerative, and well... dynamic farms in existence.

Biodynamics is unique among these ideologies because it has its own certification for farms and the products derived from them: Demeter. Many of these products are also separately certified as organic. Similarly to organic certification, not all biodynamic farms are certified as such.  

Due to its relationship with anthroposophy, biodynamics often transcends the agroecological realm and into the social. Therefore, if biodynamics and agroecology were compared with a Venn Diagram, they would be two separate but overlapping circles. The same can be said for all of these ideologies.

Biodynamics absolutely forbids the use of synthetic, industrial fertilizers and biocides. They are, by definition, following organic principles. But, again, organic ≠ biodynamic. The same can be said of all the other ideologies.

Just because something is "organic" does not make it biodynamic, permaculture, Holistically Managed, or Naturally Farmed!

6. What is Biodynamics? from the Biodynamic Association's website. From now on, I will refer to Biodynamic agriculture as "biodynamics."
7. From Demeter Biodynamic Trade Association, on "What is Biodynamic Agriculture?"

Natural Farming

Natural Farming, or "Do Nothing Farming" is a philosophy born out of Masanobu Fukuoka's life experience as a trained agricultural scientist and microbiologist who turned away from Western industrial agriculture after a spiritual transformation.7

His philosophy rejects tillage of the land by machine (some even reject any disturbance, including the use of hand tools), rejects the addition of fertilizers (even the making of compost is seen as unnecessary), rejects the removal of plants considered to be "weeds", rejects pruning, and of course rejects the use of biocides.

Fukuoka's seminal work, "The One Straw Revolution" was published in 1975 and continues to influence readers worldwide (translated into more than 25 languages) with its deeply spiritual and practical accounting of "Do Nothing Farming."8

His life work has deeply influenced the permaculture movement as well as the organic and agroecology fields at large. Larry Korn, a student of Fukuoka, helped translate "The One Straw Revolution" and still maintains the site by the same name (linked below). His work "Masanobu Fukuoka's Natural Farming and Permaculture" is a very good article which talks about the relationship between the two ideologies.

Notice I said two ideologies! While Natural Farming and Permaculture have influenced each other greatly, they are not identical. They share a great deal, but remain distinct approaches to life.

7. Adapted from Wikipedia's succinct biography.
8. See The One Straw Revolution site for some more details.

All Together Now

What unites all four of these ideologies is the realization that we cannot act before acknowledging that we are dealing with ecosystems. They all absolutely require a holistic worldview: from the land and climate to the beings which inhabit it. They all emphasize observation before action. All of them share a deep respect for the land and everything that inhabits it. Practitioners of these ideologies understand that one size does not always fit all. Therefore you will not see them promoting the same set of techniques, organized by their design or decision making frameworks, everywhere for everyone. "It depends" is not a snarky way of declining to offer direct advice, but rather the acknowledgement that the number of factors to be considered are too great to offer pedestrian responses.

But there are differences! For example, Biodynamics very much involves the creation of compost and special fertilizers.9 Natural Farming, on the other hand, rejects that we need to produce compost in the first place. So if anyone mentions that a farm or garden is both biodynamic and "do nothing farming" then they are mistaken. Biodynamic farms emphasize the human element in the system as a means to help focus cosmic energies and guide the system. Natural Farming repeatedly states (at least in The One Straw Revolution) that humans cannot improve upon nature! So a farm cannot be both at once.

9. has a list of some of the "preparations", as they are known, here.

A Technique Does Not an Ideology Make

I hope that I have made the case that each of these ideologies are distinct entities in their own right. That they have definitions, that they are not amorphous and should not be used as catch-phrases for a set of techniques that one uses.

It takes a conscious decision on the part of a person to adopt these ideologies and apply them.

For this reason, one must not confuse techniques utilized by them with the ideology itself.

Here are some examples:

+Rotational grazing is not Holistic Management. If I move livestock from one paddock to another without going through the Holistic Management design process- I cannot call it Holistic Management. It remains rotational grazing. I would be mistaking a technique for a decision making framework, they are not synonymous.

+Hugelkultur is not Permaculture. Hugelkultur is a type of raised bed made popular by Sepp Holzer. The decision to build such a bed may be born out of my permaculture design process, but it remains one of many techniques. It will never be "permaculture."  Why? Because permaculture is an ethical design process- not a technique. It also isn't a dozen or a hundred techniques. It is an ethical design process.

+If I decide to create a spray preparation whose recipe comes from Steiner's work, that isn't Biodynamic Agriculture. Why? Because biodynamics is larger than just one preparation- or even all of the preparations taken together. It is an ethical-spiritual approach to agriculture. The preparation may very well be biodynamic, but it isn't Biodynamic Agriculture. I've made similar preparations, but I've always said that they are "of biodynamics." They are a product from the source, not the source itself.

+No-till cultivation is being put to the test on everywhere from small farms to land grant universities world wide. By itself, it isn't Natural Farming. Many farmers combine no-till with the cultivation of genetically modified foods. If your neighbor has a lawn and never plugs, fertilizes, weeds, or applies biocides that doesn't automatically mean he or she is practicing Natural Farming! It could very well just be an abandoned lawn.

Let me repeat one point: just because something is organic does not automatically mean that it is any of these ideologies. While there is a 99.99999% chance that someone who follows these ideologies can be considered following an organic approach, that does not mean the reverse is true. Just think of all the huge agribusinesses that have organic certified products but still have no respect for the earth, the people living there, or the system at large.


I want to close by saying that I chose these four ideologies simply because I am most familiar with them and that they are becoming ever more popular. Other decision making frameworks exist under the aegis of agroecology. I am not making any judgement of value. If someone decides that they do not want to call their project any of these (or any other) ideologies, that is fine with me.

As these ideologies become mainstream, there is the constant threat that people with limited knowledge of them will conflate them with one another or with a set of techniques. Ignorance is dangerous!

I have seen people write that "permaculture advocates the use of invasive species and should be avoided at all costs." If you run across such a statement after reading this article it should be obvious that is completely false. Certain permaculture practitioners may advocate the use of one plant or another, but permaculture is an ethical design system. As such, you will not find "permaculture" advocating for anything other than Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share/Return of Surplus.

If you run into someone and they say you should come have a look at their biodynamic garden and they have never even heard of Rudolf Steiner, alarm bells need to start ringing. They have probably been the victim of well-intentioned, but mistaken information. Perhaps they think it is a fancy word for organic, but you will know better.

Remember: there is a huge difference between one thing being inspired by, or of, something and being that something. If two or more ideologies share similar world views and operate similarly, that does not make them the same thing.

Additional Resources

Holistic Management: The Savory Institute.
The Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
Holistic Management International.

Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.

Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit. I'll have to do a diary on this documentary. It is astounding.

There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from 2011 (around the time of the Convergence). John Liu's Green Gold also features the site and is probably newer than the 2011 pictures. If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence. Most were delivered in Bedouin tents near Wadi Rum.

You can also find a few more great documentaries in the first diary of this series- one about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods as well as a documentary about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian noted for his ability to cultivate citrus in the Alps.

My favorite books:

Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!

For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List. The article I linked to up top is also a great read.

There are plenty of materials online as well.

The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.

The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.

Originally posted to Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living on Thu Feb 21, 2013 at 09:50 AM PST.

Also republished by SciTech and Community Spotlight.

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