By rejecting the use of chemicals and improving soil health, permaculture can produce food that is healthier and, in some cases, even yield greater harvests. But can it feed India’s 1.4 billion population, asks Sohel Sarkar.
In 2014, when Malvikaa Solanki bought the five-acre land that would later become Open Shell Farm, she found it rocky, barren, and compacted. There was no topsoil to speak of, and no vegetation barring a few weeds.
Less than a decade later, the farm—located in Karnataka’s Yelachatti village, about 14 kilometres from the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park—is home to more than 5,000 trees and saplings of more than 600 species of forest, fodder, timber, fruit, and medicinal trees. It also yields enough for 60-70 per cent of its residents’ food needs.
In 2010, when Manisha Lath Gupta acquired the six acres that would later become the Aanandaa Permaculture Farm, she was similarly confronted with compacted hard land on which it seemed impossible to grow anything. Since then, the farm, situated on the foot of Morni hills near Chandigarh, has expanded to 10 acres and has nearly 7,000 trees and plants, of which 150 are food species, making Manisha and her family 95 per cent self-sufficient in food.
Both Malvikaa and Manisha credit the turnaround in their degraded land to a regenerative design system known as permaculture. The term, which has turned into a buzzword of sorts in recent years, was first proposed by Australian biologist Bill Mollison and environmental designer David Holmgreen in the late 1970s. Of its many definitions that jostle for space on the internet, permaculture can best be described as the “conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people—providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
In other words, permaculture is a design science that mimics nature to create a system that provides for its own needs (closed loop system), produces no waste, values and conserves renewable resources, and can self-sustain, self-maintain and regenerate with as little outside intervention as possible, thus reducing labour as well. Since a forest ecosystem has many of these attributes, within the specific context of food production, a permaculture system is often referred to as a ‘food forest’.
The concept is not new, to be sure. Indigenous people, including those in India, have long shared a “regenerative relationship with the Earth” and practised methods of agriculture that worked “in partnership and reciprocity with the land and cycles of nature”. What Mollison and Holmgreen proposed as permaculture is therefore rooted in the knowledge and practices of indigenous communities in Australia and around the world.
Creating a ‘Food Forest’
In today’s context, permaculture can play a crucial role in rehabilitating natural ecosystems impoverished by deforestation, overgrazing, extractive agricultural practices, and climate change. To do this, the first step is to rebuild degraded soil, which puts water management on top of the agenda in any permaculture system.
At Aanandaa, Manisha spent the first few years perfecting a rainwater harvesting system that uses swales or trenches to catch and slow down the speed of rainwater, allowing it to percolate into the soil and diverting the unabsorbed water into conservation pools and ponds dug at strategic spots on the farm. Just over 10 years later, she is able to collect about 30-40 million litres of water a year with good rainfall, she says.
At Open Shell Farm, located in the rain-shadow area in the foothills of the Nilgiris which receives only about 500-600 mm rainfall a year, Malvikaa could not rely only on rainwater. One of the first things she did, therefore, was to dig a borewell, supplementing it later with other strategically designed water systems (swales, fruition pits, diversion drains, ponds, etc.). In the initial years, the land had very little water, but it was enough to get a tree system going.
Trees are at the heart of permaculture design. They give permanence to the farm by holding groundwater, keeping the soil in place, and building soil fertility. The key is to start with native forest trees, also known as pioneer, or nurse species. These are fast growers that do well in depleted soil and create little pockets of shade needed to protect the soil. They also fix nitrogen and provide useful biomass which sustains bacteria, fungi, worms and other organisms which, in turn, add nutrients to the soil.
These could include anything from Ceylon satinwood (East Indian satinwood), chebulic myrobalan (kadukkai), and bamboo which are native to southern India to shisham (Indian rosewood), pilkhan (white fig), and bakain (chinaberry) which are more common in the north, and others like pipal, banyan, and arjun which can be found across regions. With their deep root systems they mine micronutrients like boron, magnesium and cobalt that plants need in trace amounts, bringing them into their foliage and transferring them to the topsoil through dead leaves.
As the health of the soil improves, native forest species can be followed by fruit, fodder, and timber trees (native or otherwise) as well as shrubs, grasses and food crops planted in a stacked manner. This planting method makes efficient use of space and ensures that sunlight reaches all plants. Essentially, it replicates an aged forest with a tall tree canopy; shorter, more shade-tolerant trees below it; then more shade-tolerant low-growing bushes, shrubs and ferns; and finally a ‘mulch’ layer.
Mulching is the process of covering the soil to slow down evaporation losses, thus reducing both the frequency of watering and the amount of water required to keep the soil hydrated. In a mature farm, the branches and leaves from pruned trees, green manure, crop residue and cover crops, such as mint, pudina or sweet potato which are grown as much to protect and improve the soil as for their yield, act as in-house mulch sources. In their absence, other organic material like straw and wood chips can also be used. Even weeds, which compete with productive trees for water, sunlight and nutrients, can serve as mulch, especially if there is nothing else to cover the soil with.
Finally, insects, birds and larger animals, including livestock, are an integral part of permaculture farms, adding valuable organic matter to the soil and keeping pests at bay. Pests can also be discouraged through intercropping, companion planting, and polyculture, which involve planting multiple plants and crops so that pests don’t have a never ending stretch of food to feast on. Following a pest attack in 2013, Manisha has diversified to over a 100 crops ranging from cereals to pulses, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, and even sugarcane.
At first glance, these may look haphazardly scattered across her 10-acre land, but, as Manisha insists, there is a method to this madness. Aanandaa’s boundaries are lined with multiple rows of tall windbreak trees such as silver oak and casuarina planted only six to eight feet apart. Inside this is a row of native forest trees such as banyan, pipal, chinaberry and others not necessarily native to the region such as jacaranda, gulmohar, and flame of the forest. These 50-60 feet trees with wide canopies are planted far apart, making space for larger fruit trees, such as mango, litchi, chikoo, jamun, and amla, followed by a row of smaller fruit trees: peaches, pears, plums, and citrus.
Under these are the smaller plants and grasses which grow between zero to three feet tall. These include a patch for seasonal vegetables (okra, squashes, and gourds in the summer; cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, and leafy greens in the winter) and another for grains like wheat, maize, pearl millets, and sorghum. Because the grasses need plenty of sunlight, they are surrounded only by the windbreak trees, and not the forest species or fruit trees, Manisha explains. Other crops like oilseeds (sesame, mustard, groundnut) and pulses (urad, moong, chana) not only grow well under fruit trees, but also benefit them due to their nitrogen-fixing capacity.
Of the five acres of Open Shell Farm, an acre is set aside as the wild zone—planted in the early days with forest species such as kath ber, baheda, gamhar, and so on. Diverse and seasonal fruit trees such as papaya, bananas, star fruit, soursops, kumquats, amla, seetaphal (custard apple), guavas, mangoes, wild ber, star gooseberry, cashew, and sapota (chikoo) ensure a steady yield throughout the year.
The farm’s 2,500-square-feet vegetable patch includes wild mushrooms when they are in season as well as loads of edible wild greens/weeds. Many of the farm’s trees— soapnut, jackfruit, tamarind, bel, avocados, and rose apple—are also yet to fruit. At 70 per cent self-sufficiency, Mavikaa hopes that Open Shell’s climate-appropriate plant/tree palette will provide for most of the needs of the farm (firewood, food, medicine, biomass, etc.), its eight residents, and staff who come from the local village.
Who is permaculture for?
By creating self-sufficient, self-maintaining, diverse, and regenerative ecosystems, permaculture does away with the reliance of conventional food production systems on large amounts of water, chemical inputs, hybrid seeds, and intensive labour. As such, it can be hugely beneficial for India’s small farmers. Yet, the practice is largely an urban phenomenon in India.
According to G Ravikanth, Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), the transition period in permaculture—inevitable if one is to undo soil damage from monoculture and chemical farming—is often a deterrent for small farmers. “In permaculture things happen slowly. If you want to produce at scale and if you want to produce higher yields, then permaculture may not be a solution because once you begin, it takes at least five years for the farm to actually start responding,” he says.
This is not a huge burden for farmers whose livelihoods don’t depend on a single season’s yield and whose landholdings are big enough to migrate a few acres at a time to permaculture. But for small farmers, who can ill-afford to lose a season’s crop and whose land sizes rarely exceed three acres, it’s a losing proposition in the initial years. That is, unless they are supported and incentivised to make the transition.
That’s exactly what Malvikaa is attempting to do through her non profit Swayyam. The impetus came from the severe drought that hit southern India in 2016. By that time, Open Shell Farms had set the ball rolling on a regenerative system, growing seven types of crops along with fodder for the farm’s livestock.
Outside the farm, however, Yelachatti village had lost 80 percent of its livestock and most of its crops. “That’s when I realised I am not resilient in my own farm unless the community around me is also resilient,” Malvikaa says. In the same year, she started the 1,000 Trees Project to enable marginal farmers to switch to what she calls ‘organic tree-based agriculture’.
Following three years of dialogue with farmers in the community, the project finally took off in 2019. Under Swayyam’s guidance, farmers holding less than five acres each organised themselves into collectives, each of whose minimum landholding was 10 acres. The project asked farmers to practise non-chemical farming, put in place water harvesting systems, plant at least 100 main trees and 300 support species per acre, and grow crops primarily for food and fodder while surpluses could be traded or sold.
Currently, it works with three groups of four farmers each, of which the second and third groups are constituted entirely by Dalit farmers; each group also includes at least one woman farmer. In the initial days, Malvikaa shared water from Open Shell Farm with the first group of farmers; the second and third groups were encouraged to share water among themselves.
Swayyam also provided each group with three-fourths of their fencing costs—their land is situated next to the forest reserve exposing them to wildlife—and trained them in using organic inputs, mulching techniques, and watering methods like pitcher and deep pipe irrigation.
The biggest resistance she faced from farmers was in planting trees. For farmers used to monoculture cropping, the space occupied by trees is space lost for food crops. Understanding the reason for their reluctance, Malvikaa says, was the first step in addressing it. “I tell farmers that in the first five years, when the trees are still growing, you have a lot of land to continue growing your crops. Later, when trees are fully grown, you need to calculate how much grain you could have grown under that shade. Over time, the tree will likely produce a yield higher than a food crop.”
Besides, the 1,000 Trees Project was specifically intended to develop a climate resilient, drought-proof agricultural system. When a drought hits and crops fail, trees offer fallback options: fruit trees can be a source of revenue for farmers while fodder trees can sustain their livestock, she explains.
A similar, and older, initiative is run by permaculturists Narsanna and Padma Koppula under Aranya Agricultural Alternatives which supports farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Aranya’s ongoing drought mitigation project in Kurnool in southern Andhra Pradesh is helping over 5,000 marginal and smallholder farmers adopt drought-resilient practices in a highly climate-insecure region that suffers from “low surface water availability and overexploited groundwater resources”.
An antidote to monoculture and the climate crisis
In the past six years alone, climate vagaries such as rising temperatures and sea levels, erratic rainfall, and more frequent and intense floods and droughts have led to the loss of nearly 34 million hectares of India’s cropped area. The situation has been further exacerbated by decades of extractive industrial farming following India’s Green Revolution.
Since the 1960s, monoculture cropping, intensive tilling, heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and excessive irrigation has depleted soils, polluted water bodies, and led to over-extraction of groundwater and a staggering loss of biodiversity. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, modern agriculture and land use practices also contribute to a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, that in turn, lead to warmer temperatures and intensify climate change-related risks.
Against this backdrop, in 2017, environmentalist and author Paul Gerard Hawken and his team of researchers proposed that regenerative agriculture could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and mitigate the impact of climate change. Rather than functioning as a source of carbon dioxide, as in conventional agriculture, croplands under regenerative agriculture can become carbon sinks, Hawken’s research claimed.
Since then, other studies have contested the extent to which regenerative agriculture can lead to large-scale emission reduction, but there is a broad consensus that it is good for soil health and offers other environmental benefits. Permaculture—which works on a regenerative methodology—can help restore degraded soil, conserve fast-depleting natural resources like water, and minimise harmful emissions and waste. Zero (or reduced) tilling can decrease soil erosion, cover crops can do the same and also reduce water pollution, and polycultures can limit pest attacks.
By rejecting the use of chemicals and improving soil health, permaculture can also produce food that is healthier and, in some cases, yield greater harvests. But can it feed India’s 1.4 billion population? In other words, does permaculture have a role to play in food security?
“The challenge with food security lies less with food production and more with its distribution,” Malvikaa points out. By emphasising localised food production and season-specific food, permaculture avoids food wastage and shortage, and reduces reliance on long supply chains prone to frequent disruptions. In fact, by diversifying food production, permaculture provides not only food security but also nutritional and health security to farmers, she asserts.
According to Manisha, food security can also come from the ability to grow one’s own food. In a permaculture system, “every day, your farm or garden will produce something or the other, and each day you will also get something different,” she says. Growing at least 150 food crops safeguards her against sudden crop failures. She recently lost her mustard crop due to unseasonal rains, but a great chana harvest made up for it.
Of the 100 kilos of dal or 150 kilos of wheat she grows in a year, she keeps at most a third for her own consumption and sells the rest. “Some years, if I get a really good yield of some dal, I don’t grow it the next year because I don’t need more,” Manisha says. At the opposite end of this spectrum are monoculture farmers for whom even a bumper harvest of rice or wheat may spell another bad year due to a price crash.
Both Manisha and Malvikaa sell their surpluses during farm visits and workshops at local organic farmers’ markets, and through local organic stories such as Sahaja Organics and Farmizen. Both point out that value-added products like peanut butter, sesame oil, spice and chutney powders, and maize flours fetch them a higher price.
In the future, Malvikaa hopes to set up an online shop and barter the things she cannot grow. Under Swayyam Grama, she runs an informal seed exchange programme with local farmers, providing them with native varieties of seeds on the condition that they return three times the amount they receive, so she can keep the chain running.
Such ‘democratisation’ of food production is, however, a long way off, given the entrenchment of monoculture and industrial farming in the post-Green Revolution era. Meanwhile, the only way climate-resilient regenerative food production systems like permaculture can achieve scale is by involving small and marginal farmers, who constitute an overwhelming majority of India’s farming community.
While non-profits like Swayyam and Narsanna Koppula’s Aranya Agricultural Alternatives have been training farmers in regenerative practices, the government has an important protective role to play. It is, after all, at the government’s behest that small farmers switched to chemical farming in the first place.
There’s a lot the government can do to incentivise farmers, ATREE’s Ravikanth suggests. It can subsidise farmers during the transition period before their farms recover and start producing yields. It can also provide certifications for farmers switching to permaculture or regenerative agriculture so they can get premiums for their produce. But he remains sceptical that such policies will be forthcoming from the government at a time when multinational companies dominate India’s farming cultures, continuing to push hybrid seeds and chemical inputs.
In its 2023-24 Budget, the government allocated Rs 1,584 crore to help one crore farmers transition to natural farming over the next three years. Contrast this with the Rs 1.75 lakh crore fertiliser subsidy allocated for this year alone. The government also promised incentives to states to reduce chemical fertiliser consumption and promote alternatives, but this is aimed more at lowering the subsidy burden rather than supporting sustainable farming. Despite similar announcements in previous years, only 4 per cent of India’s sown area is currently dedicated to natural farming.
Land ownership offers yet another reason for scepticism. The growing interest in permaculture among urban Indians comes amid escalating landlessness among India’s small farmers, with one report suggesting that a hundred farmers become landless every hour. With a surge in land prices post the covid-19 pandemic, farmers have started selling agricultural lands as yields lessen progressively following decades of chemical farming.
“We discourage farmers from selling land, because once they sell land, they will not be able to buy it back at the same price,” Malvikaa says. “When people pay a heavy price for land, they also distort the rural economy and local dynamics. Farmers end up working on someone else’s lands and a lot of farming wisdom and knowledge is lost because they no longer are in charge of the decision making.”
But there’s also a positive trend, in that a lot of urban folks are grouping together to buy and develop land as a collective, sharing resources, water and fencing and maintenance costs. Such collectives are more likely to include and integrate with the local community. This is also what Swayyam’s workshops aim to do, by encouraging local youth, including local women, to conduct the hands-on training for the predominantly urban participants. The intent is not only to challenge discrimination on the basis of caste, class, and education but to also build respect and dignity for the farming community.
“The work we do is not limited to working on the land,” Malvikaa says, “it’s also working on the culture, working with the community—that’s the permaculture approach.”
Sohel Sarkar is a Bangalore-based independent journalist, writer and editor covering food, sustainability, gender and culture. Her work has appeared in Whetstone Magazine, Sourced Journeys, Eaten Magazine and Goya Journal, among others. You can find her on Twitter @SohelS28 and on Instagram @sarkar.sohel10.