Why Permaculture?

Are Small-Scale Farms the Key to Feeding the World?

In the United States, agricultural production has been shifting to larger farms for many years. The demand for cheaper food and lower production costs has turned fertile fields and small operations into industrial plots and factory farms.

Today, these large-scale operations account for most of U.S. food production. However, due to high soil erosion rates and a loss of biodiversity, industrialised farming doesn’t offer a long-term solution to the world’s food crisis. If anything, it reduces food security and dooms future generations to barren, un-farmable land.

It seems the U.S. has much to learn from countries like China and Africa, where small-scale farmers produce a vast majority of food. Here, family-run operations and rural farms thrive, and sustainable solutions are readily adopted, many of which would greatly benefit the Americas.



Organic Food

The most obvious alternative to industrial farming is organic farming. Organic farms tend to take up less land and produce almost the same amount of food as conventional small-scale farms. Certified organic cropland has increased nearly every year since 2002, and organic sales in every food category have also multiplied in recent years. In 2016, fruits, vegetables and milk accounted for 55% of total growth, despite many of them costing two to three times more than conventional products.

As more small-scale organic farms appear, the price of their livestock and agricultural products will likely decrease. Meanwhile, consumers will continue to become more aware of how their food choices impact the environment. When considering the negative impacts of industrial farming, they’ll come to discover that organic agriculture is cheaper for society and healthier for the planet. Their support will likely hasten the widespread adoption of this more sustainable farming method.



Crop Diversity and Asynchrony

Most large-scale farms are monocultural operations. They grow one crop year-round, and their fields are void of any diversity. This system produces a greater volume of fewer crops that are higher in calories but lacking in micronutrients. Therefore, crop diversity may offer a viable solution. By planting a wide variety of plants and maintaining genetic diversity among livestock, small-scale farmers can produce crops higher in micronutrients, which may allow the world to thrive on less food.

Asynchrony is another critical factor in stabilising food production. Greater asynchrony results from planting different crops using various sowing and harvesting times. Most small farms already use this technique by using mixed crops and following the vegetation-climate rhythm — or growing seasonal products. Doing so ensures there’s always food — and a greater diversity to choose from. Currently, India, Mexico and China are among the countries with the highest asynchrony and crop stability.




Permaculture Garden
Image by Lukas (Pexels)

Small-scale farms are also adopting permaculture food systems, which is becoming part of the solution to feeding an ever-growing world with diminishing resources. This form of agriculture relies on energetic farming systems to create self-sustaining operations. For instance, instead of rotating crops to prevent soil erosion, farmers grow a mix of two or three at the same time. This system enables a higher yield of all crops sharing the land and promotes healthier soil.

Permaculture has also encouraged many individuals to start their own gardens. Here, people can plant a wide variety of crops and feed themselves. These intricate polycultures, which would be impossible on a large-scale farm, are much more feasible and sustainable than industrialised farming. As food prices continue to rise, more people will likely begin to grow their own, therein destigmatising permaculture and small-scale agriculture.



A Piece of the Puzzle

As promising as small-scale farms sound, they aren’t the key to feeding the world. Instead, they are a single piece in the puzzle to solve hunger and the agricultural crisis. The other two parts are minimising waste and diverting food surpluses to impoverished communities.

However, these solutions won’t feed the world by themselves. To effectively solve world hunger and ensure a sustainable future, they must work together. For all three to coincide, world governments and consumers must stop siphoning money to large-scale farming operations and invest in small farms instead. Only then will these plots of land feed the world and its growing population.

Jane Marsh

Jane writes on environmental sustainability, agriculture and gardening. She also works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co.


  1. This web-site is consistently ‘jumpy’. I can not read 15seconds without the page leaping about due to to th adverts on the side bar to the right. I have been interested in Permaculture under that heading since 1992, and practising its tenets without a label since 1075. I have two PDesugn Certificates, but I still like to keep up with latest information. This jumpy web-site is annoying to say the least.

    1. Hi Maureen, thank you for your feedback. Could you please advise what device (i.e.mac/pc/mobile), operating system (i.e windows) and browser (i.e chrome, firefox, safari) are you using please. I will escalate to our IT support to see if they can fix the issue.

  2. I discovered a video about a walipini at “A Different Way” on YouTube and then ended up looking for other designs. Then I saw the title of your article.

    The growing crises in our food supplies demands more local small farmers, new approaches to urban supplies, and a lot of visionary approaches. It is such a huge task to farm that CO-OPS seem the most likely option. This will provide food and shelter for the growers and their families, and many hands to do the work, and a way to teach new generations good farming skills. Close to urban areas means a good market for the crops. These small farms can be the emergency supplies for a local disaster or other unexpected needs.

    It seems to me that the empty real estate in urban areas, like industrial spaces and empty supercenter stores, can become roof gardens and teaching centers, income providers and job creators, especially in low-income area that are food deserts.

    We have a local mall that has been struggling, but its largest empty stores could become senior housing, and the mall can become a city unto itself so seniors can get out into the world in a protected environment that is usually close to public transit. Emergency services, grocery stores, and other family needs can be brought into the malls to make them both living spaces and public spaces. A good roof garden, or two, or three, can also be incorporated into the mix. Whole Foods has already proved it can work.

    Why is all this important? Not only for a better future, but because we never know when the next serious supply threat will happen. We don’t know where most of our food comes from. We are not just in danger of natural disasters, we live under a huge threat of terrorism, possibly taking down the grid that serves about 60% of our nation, and lockdowns by the government. Food is the MOST CRITICAL survival need, after clean water.

    I watched a video about NYC Farmer’s Markets and I remember that the nearest farmland was 200 miles outside of the city. Scary. If the grid goes down there is no gasoline because the station pumps need electricity to work, no banks, no credit cards, no public transit to fall back on, no taxis or trains… and a broken grid may take over a year to repair (our transformers are made in China I read… a big problem.)

    Small farms close to their markets will be essential for everyone’s survival… cities, farmers, people.

    I know some about permaculture but not all I should. To me it is a permanent growing option like a walipini. It is established, then enriched each planting season. It doesn’t require plowing. It can be waist high for eliminating bending and physical distress issues. Spaces can be dedicated to one plant type so the fallen fruits can grow the next year as they would in nature. Permaculture, to me, is a way to establish a field and then focus on building it into an amazing resource for food and people.

    Maybe those five-acre roofs on huge stores would be a big enough field for a neighborhood.

    I guess I followed your title because I think small, local, and organic is our only hope for survival.

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