Episode 283. Organic, Biodynamic or Permaculture?

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 20th of December 2021.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Bit of a back to first principles episode this week. I think we can take as read that if you’re listening to this podcast the chemical route to food production is a no go. This can leave a bewildering mass of other choices.

From the generic “Organic” to the semi propriety biodynamic and permaculture. We can, of course, toss in regenerative agriculture too.

So, as I say, let’s go back to first principles.

What are we attempting to do? Why are we doing it? Then finally, how? 

What are we attempting to do? 

This is a relatively straightforward question but needs to be answered. For me and maybe for you too the answer goes something like this: I am attempting to grow as much of our food as possible in the safest way possible. That includes but is not limited to: vegetables, fruit, cereals, eggs and some meat. Any surplus, over time can be preserved, sold, swapped, gifted depending upon how great the surplus is. 

Why are we doing it?

This is as personal as it gets. I’m growing our own because I prefer to know where my food comes from. I like to have short supply chains.There’s less time and distance for things to go wrong. If my food is never in a truck that’s moved over sprayed food, it can’t inadvertently become contaminated with poisons. There’s way less probability of it being part of the food recalls that regularly plague the supermarket sector.

There’s also a deeply satisfying effect that comes from growing our own. A connection to the vast majority of humans for whom growing food was the only reason for getting out of bed. From the neolithic first farmers to the Papuan gardeners of the deep past to the babushkas of modern Russia who produce 75% of the fruit consumed in that state each year. Growing my little gardens connects me with something much bigger. Doing it organically, restoratively, regeneratively and thoughtfully connects me to a higher purpose. To being part of a movement redirecting the biosphere back to a healthier sustainable future. The “many little steps make great change” idea.

On that matter, the use and re-use of heirloom, heritage, open pollinated seeds is another strand of this redirecting movement. Saving and creating localised varieties of vegetables for flavour, for stability in seed supply, for biodiversity and for the personal satisfaction of doing so are principled things to do.

Finally, how?

This is where the “be careful not to be overwhelmed” caution kicks in. 

Back in the day, as I’m now qualified to say having reached the big 6 oh, the choices were very simple: chemical or organic. Organic covered such esoteric ideas as biodynamics and biointensive  but basically it was chemicals or not.

Nowadays, the choices can be overwhelming. Natural Farming, Permaculture, Brown Permaculture, Purple Permaculture, Regenerative, Restorative, Victory Gardening, vegetarian, vegan, dig and no-dig or even minimal dig. Where the hell does anyone start these days?

Let’s create a framework for decision making.

Let’s assume we’re not going the chemical route. I think that’s reasonable. So organic. Do we want to dig or not? If not, why not? There are two reasons to go this way. 1. It’s hard work and 2. Bare soil releases CO2. Digging might be an option if you get plants growing quickly, you can overcome the loss of CO2 so that nett over the year you are CO2 negative. Choosing to use machinery to prepare your gardens would such a situation. It’s the ploughing, discing, rotovating and fallowing of beds that leads to CO2 leakage beyond any that could be reinstated in the soil. Equally unhelpful, I would argue, would be double digging. This was recommended by John Seymour and to be fair, nearly every other gardening text book I read in the 1970s and 80s. John Jeavons and the biointensive method still advocates this. I find it unnecessary and destructive of soil structure. Maybe if the soil is overly compacted, it might be an option but there are other ways of overcoming this problem. Anything from daikon radishes to mulch plus compost worms would get the job done and with far less damage to the soil. Layering is also a possibility. Looking to forests for inspiration, layering seems a no-brainer. Forests also happy support pigs, who do dig so minimal till and layers of mulch would be the best replication of natural systems. You make a decision and live with consequences.

So we have our beds. The next question is: “Growing systems.” Biodynamic, at least the demeter version relies upon minimal till and biological sprays to rebuild and enhance whater biology is extant.

Permaculture relies upon inter connected plant and animal species is an engineered system to grow the biology over time. I mentioned earlier both purple and brown permaculture. I heard these descriptions on a podcast that no longer exists. The designer being interviewed was firmly in the brown camp. By this he meant working with the soil, measuring soil health through testing, observing interactions between species and the system as a whole whilst making a profit, a sufficient profit nto justify the land price. He then described the purple wing of permaculture as doing something similar but including meditation, a “Kumbiah” feel. I am not denegrating either ideal but point them out to let anyone new know they may bump into either method or any number of variations between the two.

When we come to the “Organic” method, this, as far as certification is concerned, describes a system of production in which things are excluded. Herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers of a synthetic nature are all banned. When we see an certified organic labe lon a product we can be reassured these additives have not been used. However this is no guarantee the soil has been treated in a carbon sensitive manner. As I’ve stated elsewhere on this feed, I’ve observed a registered organic enterprise up close and personal. They sang and continue to sing the praises of their system to the world whilst ploughing long garden beds, 100m+, three times over a fortnight before planting anything. This, I think, is exactly the sort of thing we need to avoid. I would think carefully before going the certified organic path without a carbon sensitive approach to soil. This particular enterprise was basically a chemical farm without the chemicals and a liberal use of compost, ploughed into the beds.

This is not surprising, it was the only no-chemical system popularly known when this particular place was set up. It was also the system offered by John Seymour in the Complete Book of Self Sufficiency and it was first published back 1976. Two years earlier in 1974 John Jeavons had released “How to grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine.” Again a double dig approach. One he has doubled down on over time. In 1978 Permaculture became a word and an alternative to the double dig systems of Seymour and Jeavons. Fukuoka published both The One Straw Revolution and Natural Farming in 1975, September and December respectively. It is difficult to understand how slowly new books moved around the globe in the 1970s and 80s. Hey we even answered telephones with no way of knowing who was ringing. What a time, eh? 

The choices are clear now. Layering not cultivating as a rule of thumb but if you do cultivate, layer on some mulch and get some plants growing.

The other great divide is along the omnivore/no meat fissure. Jeavons falls on the latter side of this divide. The biointensive system relies upon something like 85% of crops grown being used for compost making. And if this fits with your view of the world, then go for it. I have now problem integrating animals into production. Food plants and domesticated stock co-evolved prior to domestication of either. They, particularly in regenerative/restoritive systems, are essential. The actions of stock ensure the continued growth of their feed. Doing so in a way to mimic nature ensures the sustainability of the system. Enlisting animals into the system means “compost” is available within twenty fours rather than a month or so but animals also requires of the land steward, a higher level of care than just straight plants. Then there’s the large elephant in the room of slaughtering. If you have to use a meatworks, well then you must. I prefer to do the job myself, not because I enjoy it in any way, shape or form but because I can do the job quickly and humanely and be sure of how it’s done. I don’t look forward to the job and at present I am preparing to knock a couple of spare rooster on the head, not literally but they will be killed and I and mine will be eating the flesh. If you can’t face this and no abattoir is going to take two roosters, you will have to find a solution or just keep hens or whethers or steers and this can be a good solution for some.

As I mentioned in the last two episodes, 281 and 282, The Future and The Future Part 2 now is a time of great flux in world affairs. The best safety net I can think of is to plant a food garden. And you know the drill. If you need help there’s the free ebook at the World Organic News website and the No DIg gardening course is there too. Links in the show notes.

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:


FREE eBook: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/

email: jon@worldorganicnews.com

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Bubugo Conservation Trust



Episode 281 The Future



Episode 282


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