Permaculture VS Science?

Science VS Permaculture? Organics VS Synthetics? Heirlooms VS Hybrids? 

Last week’s “Science Friday” on NPR had a segment on gardening, and it was a good example of why we need Permaculture. It can help show why Permaculture offers us something very different from the approach taught in most Master Gardener programs.

At its very best, Permaculture is not anti-science. Good Permaculture is fully evidence-based and relies on the research of scientists. But, it also aims to help us transcend some of the limits of the modern scientific industrial complex and provide a critique, and alternative to that system.

For example, there were several statements made by the “scientific horticulturists” on Science Friday that are very strongly contradicted by reason and peer-reviewed research. These are very common beliefs of the scientific gardening community, that are myths debunked by good science. While there were several pieces of information that are contradicted by science, I’ll focus on one statement they made which is very common to the “scientific gardening” community: that for gardeners, there’s no practical difference between organic fertilizers and synthetic fertilizers

This statement is interesting because it reflects the commercial products sold by graduates of “scientific horticulture” and reveals the underlying problem: that government has created a University/Industrial complex in which research institutions are funded and linked with corporations. The problem isn’t science, the problem is the conflict of interest of this “public/private partnership.” This conflict was created by governments in opposition to the protests of scientists.

So, to a gardener’s perspective is there really no difference between organic and synthetic fertilizers?

The NPR guest gave the “scientific horticulture” perspective, which reduces the question to one of pure plant growth: “to the plant they are the same, the plant only cares about how much fertilizer and when, not the source.”

But Permaculture is different, because it starts with the perspective of the gardener, and considers that the gardener may wish to care for the earth and care for people.

For example, a gardener may very well care that there’s abundant peer-reviewed research that synthetic fertilizers increase pest and disease problems in their plants. Here’s a good rundown, (though more recent research has demystified the mechanisms by which synthetics increase pest and disease problems):

And here’s just one metanalysis, finding that research concurs with the general consensus that synthetic fertilizers cause pest problems.

This evidence is broadly accepted by scientist and I’ve never heard anyone dispute it. But to the perspective of the “scientific horticulturist” this is no problem, it just creates a market for the scientific/industrial complex’s fine chemical products—biocides to kill insects, and fungi, and other microbes. The scientific horticulturist is so indoctrinated in this worldview that they simply say “there’s no difference” and stop there. This perspective is so complete in the “scientific gardening” circles, that the MSU “Smart Gardening” program’s introduction page for growing fruit at home states plainly that growing fruit at home requires spraying poisons, PERIOD.

But the Permaculturist considers that the gardener may have many good, rational reasons to not want to buy and use these products. Rather than simply tell the gardener they’re backwards-thinking and superstitious, the Permaculturist tries to understand and meet the gardener’s goals. For example, these gardeners may be moved by the huge body of research going back to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, which has documented how pesticides were causing harm to ecosystems and wildlife. They may be moved by the pleas of scientists concerned about plummeting insect populations globally due to the increase in pesticide use. 

They may be concerned about the global governmental bodies of scientists finding reasonable health risks due to these products, and they may not want to use these poisons in places where their children play in bare feet. 

Earth-conscious gardeners may understand that creating synthetic N fertilizer requires massive amounts of energy—almost always fossil fuels— and they may not want their garden to be responsible for using non-renewable resources associated with climate change, pollution, and global conflicts like the one with Russia. And they may wish to avoid supporting the corporations who manufacture these poisons, since they have been implicated in causing ecosystem harm, being the #1 cause of climate change, deforesting the Amazon, driving mass extinctions, manipulating political systems, and causing social justice problems world-wide.

So Permaculture looks at good scientific evidence to provide research-based alternatives to the poisons, plastics, and petroleum approach. For example, despite what the “scientific horticulturists” say, it’s entirely possible to successfully grow fruit at home in Michigan without spraying poisons (though they ARE absolutely right it is nigh impossible to grow things like grocery store varieties of common hybrid fruits in most of Michigan.) It just takes the right plan, the right crop selections, and the right systems, which is what the best Permaculture provides.

And the same is true of several other statements made in the name of “scientific horticulture” on Science Friday. For example, they said there’s no difference in the environmental impact of heirloom plants vs hybrids. The hybrids are the products of the university/industrial complex, and it’s fully possible to construct experiments in which the two perform the same—especially when commercial pesticides are used. And indeed, to compare a randomly selected set of “heirlooms” to a set of “hybrids” would have no hypothetical benefit to the gardener or the earth! It’s a convenient and easily defeated straw man.

But this entirely ignores the gardener’s perspective, and the deeper truth that LOCAL, long-term heirlooms (often called landraces) hypothetically have an evolved resistance to local disease, pest, and climate conditions which is lacking in hybrids created for a global market. The hybrids are also designed with commercial fertilizers and pesticides in mind, and much more dependent on them. And there’s plenty of good research to show that such local heirlooms really do perform better (especially when tested without commercial fertilizers and pesticides.)

In fact, many scientists are concerned about the disappearance of heirloom varieties due to competition with hybrids (which are far more profitable seeds to sell) because of the rich genetic diversity and resistance to various disease and conditions they represent.

A wise, pro-science gardener may wish to support the maintenance of heirloom seeds for several very good, research-based reasons: to preserve that biodiversity, to reduce biocide use, to save their own seeds (you cannot save hybrid seeds) and reduce their dependence on corporate seeds and fossil-fueled production and shipping. The “scientific horticulturist” simply ignores those needs, while Permaculture does not.

And this is why we need Permaculture: to provide alternatives and a critique to the products of this “university-industrial complex” which researchers consider the #1 cause of climate change, and a lot of other problems. And gardeners need permaculture if they want to avoid poisons and chemicals in their own landscapes, and have food sovereignty independent of a global corporate system.

And finally, while the best permaculture relies on the work of good scientists, it can transcend the limits of science. It can recognize that good research has shown there are health and mental benefits to having a spiritually fulfilled life, and that many of us look to our gardens for spiritual nourishment. Good behavioral science shows that when people go out of their way to take care of the earth, they actually become more passionate about tending the earth! While this would be scoffed at by reductionist “scientific horticulturists,” permaculture can make room for things like moon planting, aesthetic design, and companion planting. These things may have no measurable benefit to plants or yields, but they very well may help gardeners feel more connected to natural rhythms and synergies. The very best permaculture will help us understand which things to prioritize as research-based approaches for meeting our goals, and which we may do simply to nourish our spirits, and it makes a place for both. Good Permaculture can help us transcend the false choice between reason and intuition, intellect and heart.

We can ”transcend” the fa

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