Health & Disease

Urban Design – Designing for Health

Kay Baxter with seed from an old barley variety
Photo © Craig Mackintosh

As a life long gardener and permaculture garden designer, I have never seen a design for a food garden that actually takes into account the fats, minerals and vitamins human beings need for optimum health, according to science and history.

One of our research programs here at the Koanga Institute looks at relationships between human health, soil health, plant health, and animal health. We’ve concluded that if we wish to be eating food that nourishes our bodies and maintains our DNA for the long haul, we need to follow principles or ‘Laws of Nature’ around how energy becomes matter, how we grow and maintain health, and how our plants and animals grow and maintain their health.

Weston A Price discovered that all the indigenous people he studied were getting 10 x the fat soluble vitamins and 4 x the minerals compared to a Western diet of the same time (1930’s). He also discovered that although they all ate very differently, they all followed the same principles in their diets, and all of them were extremely healthy. They knew how to eat to maintain their DNA so that they were extremely healthy and they passed on strong genes.

These were the principles he discovered they each followed:

  1. no refined or denatured foods
  2. all traditional cultures consumed some sort of animal protein and fat
  3. all diets contains 4 x the minerals and 10 x the fat soluble vitamins ( A, D and K and E)
  4. in all traditional cultures some animal products were eaten raw
  5. total fat content of all traditional diets varied from 30 – 80% of daily calorie intake and only around 4 % of that was polyunsaturated oil. The balance was saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids
  6. traditional diets had a high food-enzyme content from raw meat and dairy and also fermented fruit vegetables and meat/fish
  7. seeds grains and nuts were soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened in order to neutralize antinutrients in these foods such as phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors, tannins and complex carbohydrates
  8. traditional diets contained nearly equal amounts of omega -6 and omega -3
  9. all primitive diets contained salt
  10. traditional cultures consumed animal bones, usually in the form of gelatin rich bone broths
  11. traditional cultures made provisions for the health of future generations by providing special nutrient rich foods for parents to be, pregnant women and growing children.

The relatively new science of epigenetics (Deep Nutrition by Katherine Shanahan, Primal Body Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas) and others confirms the importance of following these principles. My understanding of the principles expounded by Dr Carey Reams, as described in Nourishment Home Grown by A.F. Beddoe lend additional support to these understandings.

I have come to the understanding that soil health, plant health, animal health and human health are intimately linked in incredible ways beyond our ability to fully comprehend at this time. My rudimentary understanding is that we have daily requirements for energy coming from the interactions taking place in our bodies between the mineral compounds in the food we eat during the digestion process.

An implication of this is that if we have long term shortage of a mineral or we have an imbalance of minerals or for some reason the plants/animals/humans are not able to absorb that mineral, that energy shortage shows as ill health, degenerative disease or premature ageing.

According to Weston Price, we need around 1500mgs of available calcium and around 10,000 mgs of Vitamin A on a daily basis so that some variation can be coped with. If we don’t get the Vitamin A we can’t absorb the minerals.

There are many other minerals and vitamins that we need but I’m finding that if we actually focus on the calcium, the vitamin A and getting daily high quality traditional fats, most everything else is basically taken care of.

The Challenge

If we are serious about designing our daily nutritional needs into small backyards, typical of the urban spaces where half the world’s population is living, how do we even begin to get it right? How can we be permaculture designers if we don’t at least try to match gardens up with human nutritional needs?

We’re going to give it a go! Obviously there will be endless ways to do this and we’d love feedback and ideas from you all. We will follow this introduction up with our designs and we will publish all of them on the Koanga Institute and PRI websites. This is the brief.


We have an urban, low income family in a large city who are super resourceful, have common sense and basic DIY skills, and are very keen to learn. They would like a design for their 200 sq m urban garden to produce as much as possible of the key elements of nutrition needed to keep their family of two adults and two children (aged 4 and 6) super healthy. They are concerned that high quality food is not easy to buy and is not affordable and that it is likely that this situation will rapidly become worse.

They have been given some money ($2,000) which they want to use to establish this garden, to enrich their lives in every way.

They live in a Mediterranean climate, cold in winter, maybe 20 frosts between, normally very hot and dry in the summer with free draining sandy loam soils and a water table around 1m below the surface. Rainfall average 1600mm per year.

They have every weekend to work in their garden, and, in the summer, evenings as well. They dream that this garden can be their fun, their work, their play, their connection with nature, their connection with their own ancestors.

They also dream that the skills they use and the resources this garden might produce could enable and empower them to take the skills to their wider community.

Stay tuned for more…!


  1. I thought I should make mention to readers that there is quite a lot of controversy surrounding the Weston A Price Foundation, which was established in 1999, 50 years after the death of its namesake, Weston A Price, the dentist. You’ll find a few examples of many here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

    I’ll leave you to do your own research and make your own decisions, but as editor I need to bring the above to your attention.

    With this comment I in no way wish to detract from the main point of the article – that being that we should design our gardens with health in mind (rather, I’m just questioning the WA Price foundation’s view on what is healthy, and am ensuring people don’t immediately associate the WAPF with permaculture). Nor do I want to detract from some of the worthy aspects of the WA Price Foundation’s work — that being to encourage people to move away from refined/processed, ‘denatured’ foods.

  2. I have a lot of respect for Kay’s work, particularly in developing the Koanga Institute, which has worked hard to save and distribute heritage seeds. And I’m glad that PRI Editor Craig Mackintosh’s comment (above) provides links to a few of the many articles that point out the controversy surrounding the nutritional beliefs of the Weston Price Foundation. Permaculture is wonderful, but I wouldn’t want readers to automatically associate the Foundation’s views with permaculture. Kay practices them both, which is certainly her right. But readers also have the right to know that the Foundation’s nutritional beliefs are dubious at best.

  3. Enjoy and except your mortality with vitality and a love for life, fresh diverse local food, diverse meaningful exercise, good sleep, few or no vices, a diversity of good diverse meaningful peaceful face to face communications, an interest in education and enough good sleep enriches your life.

    Your time quality is the most important aspect of your life.

    All life is special plant or animal, micro or macro.

    Enjoy the references below and enjoy being engaged in permaculture design that extends the riches of this earth for all living things.

    Your life your choice.

  4. Hi Craig,
    I’d like to enter into this debate with regard to the Koanga Institutes association with the Weston A Price Foundation, and the implications to Permaculture.
    I see that Permaculture is a patterned response to the challenge of designing our environment. For me that pattern includes the synthesis of:-

    Ethics – that which we see as inherently good, moral principles
    Principles – fundamental truth or laws of our environment (science) that are used as a basis for reasoning or a course of action
    Patterns – a theme of recurring events or objects in our natural environment from which we shape a ‘common’ understanding (of how things are) that we use as a basis for design and actions. (patterns in soils, climates,ecosystems, culture etc)

    If we can agree that this represents a ‘reasonable’ view of what Permaculture design is, then lets turn our focus to what has pushed a few buttons in Kay’s article.

    The Weston A Price Foundation.
    Their stated Mission statement is given here (
    In particular I would note the following:-
    . Dr. Price’s research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.

    This is essentially a statement of an observed pattern and the basis for a hypothesis that we can take into our design (or not) depending on your level of confidence in that understanding. That level of confidence will depend partly on theoretical scientific support (or lack of it) and partly on observational/experiental feedback.

    After several years of observing the work of the WAPF (and their detractors) and eating a diet recommended by them, I have come to the following conclusions :-
    * WAPF isn’t strictly anti-vegetarian, it is anti veganism, and its not about maximising meat in ones diet
    * I believe vegetarianism, at least in the ‘western world’, is essentially a metaphysical construct, rather than a culture formed out of observed patterns. (I believe in parts of the eastern world it is a response to ecological stress, which has formed the metaphysical construct that we in the west have often copied)
    * As a permaculture designer I am naturally suspicious of metaphysical constructs, leading design, and I am more comfortable being directed by my natural curiosity of observable patterns (as both Bill Mollison, and Weston A Price were)
    * all groups of people who support or oppose an idea (whether that be WAPF or vegetarians/vegans) are prone to seeking scientific authors that support their hypothesis, and frequently their emotional attachment to their hypothesis can get in the way of good science.
    * The body doesn’t ‘give a damn’ about hypothesis, ideologies or emotional politics. It is more interested in things like minerals, vitamins and energy. Our job as permaculture designers is to respond to that need, finding our best ‘source’ to make design decisions on.
    * On the whole, as a scientist and as a permaculture designer, I am happy to be associated with the WAPF, because they seem to align with the general structure of permaculture design, and I have yet to be convinced that their science ( as published in their official publication) is not reasonably rigorous and plausible. (within the context of the major limitations that science has addressing these issues)


  5. For anyone interested in the comparative study of diet patterns in pre industrial traditional cultures should read weston a prices book; Nutritional and physical degeneration. Permaculture people like you and I recognise that patterns observable in nature form models for us to test and use for our benefit. The comparative study by weston a price is no different in that he shows people living on radically different diets but all of which were free of most degenerative diseases. The common pattern for the levels of health observed are shown here..

  6. WOW! thanks to everyone commenting on this thread… i have recently just finished a course with Kay and was opened to a vast amount of knowledge about soil, food and health that i otherwise would be ignorant of today. i am glad that the medium for discussion here seems free of judgement of the individual and based more on the interpretation of facts. i don’t have much to share myself, i am just hoping to watch and learn more from the on going discussion. thanks again everyone for your opinions and knowledge…

  7. Cool brief Kay. I raised this issue at last year: to what extent do permies factor nutrition into their designs, or design from nutritional needs? There was some interesting discussion. We get alot of threads started at the PRI forum about how much land one needs to grow one’s own food, but often these discussions are based around calories produced per hectare. I’ve not seen alot of work done on permaculture design for wholistic human nutritional needs: fats, carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins etc. It seems there is something missing here, from a design perspective, so I look forward to seeing how Kay’s posts explore this.

    (btw, at permies the discussion did get a bit sidetracked into a veg/vegan vs omnivore debate. Maybe we can avoid that here, and instead accept that permaculture is a broad enough garden that allows us all to eat in a variety of ways).

    I’m not sure how useful science is in telling us what to eat at this point in time. It can certainly help us to understand certain aspects of nutrition, but choices about food and health are far more complex than that. My own reference would be The Diet Delusion by science journalist Gary Taubes. It’s a book that details 150 years of diet science esp regarding fat, carbohydates and cholesterol and explains how we have gotten it so wrong, including the mechanisms within science itself and how these are influenced by things like politics and funding. The NYT article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” is a good intro to Taubes’ work, and he has some vids on youtube too.

  8. There are basically 4 fat soluble vitamins. I know of no evidence whatsoever that we need animal fat to obtain or to utilize any of these.

    1) Vitamin A: Many foods of plant origin contain beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene, or provitamin A, comes from fruits and vegetables. Carrots, pumpkin, winter squash, dark green leafy vegetables and apricots are rich sources of beta-carotene. In the United States, toxic or excess levels of vitamin A are of more concern than deficiencies.

    2) Vitamin D: This really a hormone that we obtain through our skin which makes vitamin D in response to sunlight.

    3) Vitamin E: Good food sources of vitamin E include many vegetable oils. Vitamin E is also found in fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.

    4) Vitamin K: Naturally produced by the bacteria in the intestines. Good food sources of vitamin K are green vegetables such as turnip greens, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli, and certain vegetables oils including soybean oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil and olive oil. Animal foods, in general, contain limited amounts of vitamin K.

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