With the impacts of climate change looming over our heads in more obvious ways than ever before, the recent years have seen the rise of ecologically-sound land management methods. This is great news for our planet and our species however, navigating our way around all those terms can sometimes be confusing.
In this article, we endeavour to clear-out the fog and shed some light on the similarities and differences between permaculture, regenerative agriculture, agroecology and agroforestry.
Permaculture encompasses all other methods
The first thing to hopefully clarify it all is that permaculture has the widest scope as it does not only apply to agricultural systems like the 3 other disciplines, but to all aspects of sustainable human settlements.
If it did originate as an intention to create sustainable farming systems based on the observation and mimicry of natural ecosystems, it quickly expanded beyond the scope of agriculture to also cover all the needs of human populations by creating access to food, water, energy, housing, medicinal and social needs in an ethical and sustainable way.
Indeed, permaculture is defined first and foremost as an ethical design science and the 3 ethics of permaculture are at the core of any design: 1/ Care for the Earth, 2/ Care for the people, and 3/ Fair share. Guided by these 3 ethics and a set of 12 principles (which you can check on our Permaculture page), the permaculturist will holistically look at a landscape and work in harmony with Nature to design and connect the aforementioned elements of human settlements. That is why nowadays, permaculture is no longer the contraction of permanent agriculture but of permanent culture.
The following 3 images illustrate the scope of permaculture nicely. You can see that in each case, beyond the agricultural land generally used for food and/or timber production, the whole property has been shaped and developed in a harmonious land pattern to also encompass housing, water, energy, wildlife habitat and more.
With this understanding, it is easier to realise that permaculture connects a vast array of applications and disciplines such as natural building, passive housing, renewable energies, eco-communities, sharing economies, and of course all ecologically-sound methods of agriculture: conservation agriculture, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, agroforestry, holistic management, syntropic farming, etc.
Agroecology studies ecological processes in agriculture
Agroecology is an academic discipline. It can be defined as the science that studies the interactions between all elements of agroecosystems: crops, soil, biological organisms, climatic factors, etc. (called ecological processes); as well as the influence of these agroecosystems on the surrounding natural environment. It also studies approaches to design and manage ecologically, economically and socially sustainable food systems.
As you can see, agroecology shares many similarities with permaculture but applies only to agricultural production systems. In the below picture (credit: Philip Formby), you can imagine all the interactions that may connect the farmer, his chicken, the soil, plants, sunlight, air, moisture, wildlife, micro-organisms, etc. as well as the role that the farmer may play in managing the ecosystem as a whole.
Regen Ag aims at restoring the health of degraded agricultural land
To date, there is still no official definition of the term “regenerative agriculture” but there’s a consensus that it may be based on either specific processes and/or outcomes that aim at restoring the health and therefore productivity of degraded agricultural landscapes. As such, it is not a science like agroecology is, but rather a set of practices and/or observable results; and it does not tend to focus on the economic and social dimensions as much as on the ecological aspects.
Here are some common processes applied in regen ag:
- Minimising soil disturbance
- Keeping the soil covered
- Maintaining living roots all year round
- Maximising crop diversity
- Integrating livestock
… to achieve beneficial outcomes such as:
- Improving soil health
- Sequestering carbon
- Increasing biodiversity
- Rehydrating landscapes, etc.
Agroforestry integrates trees in agricultural systems
Agroforestry applies to any agricultural land that integrates trees among crops and/or pastures. This will add many benefits to the system since trees perform many functions including:
- providing food and habitat for many species of birds, mammals, insects and fungi, therefore supporting biodiversity;
- stabilising the soil with their root system and so preventing erosion and retaining nutrients from being washed-away by wind and rain;
- playing a crucial role in the water cycle through absorption via their roots and transpiration via their leaves to form clouds and increase precipitation, which is why extended bare areas are subject to droughts and become desertic;
- shedding twigs, leaves, seeds and other materials that feed the microbial life and create more soil and biomass;
- interacting with the atmosphere, sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) and releasing oxygen (O2);
- moderating temperatures, providing moisture and cooling the air in hot weather and sheltering from frost and wind in cold weather.
Agroforesty can take many different forms depending on the farm operations. Examples may include:
- Food forests
- Alley cropping
- Syntropic farming
- Shelter belts (e.g. fire and windbreaks)
- Wildlife corridors
In summary, you can picture permaculture as encompassing not only the food systems but also the domestic and community aspects of any properties or social units. Agroecology will focus on ensuring the food systems are sustainable from an ecological, economical and social standpoint; while regenerative agriculture will focus on repairing the ecological processes that have been degraded; and agroforestry will use trees to maximise the stability, diversity and resilience of the farm ecosystems and yield added benefits for people and climate long-term.
– Discover Permaculture with Geoff Lawton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCwoQR9pOsw
– Agroecology: the Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Stephen R. Gliessman, 2015. CRC Press. ISBN 9781-4398-9561-0.
– Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agroecology and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agroforestry
– Newton, P., Civita, N., Frankel-Goldwater, L., Bartel, K., & Johns, C. (2020). What is regenerative agriculture? A review of scholar and practitioner definitions based on processes and outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 194. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723