The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has just released their new manual on cost-effective nature-based solutions to mitigate the effects of climate through the management of soil organic carbon (SOC).  This manual was developed through the participatory work of more than 400 soil management experts from around the world.

Kristof Nordin, co-founder of Never Ending Food, was asked to write the practice paper on how Permaculture practices can be used to assist with the sustainable regeneration and conservation of SOC.   The full volume of practice papers may be downloaded for free by clicking here.  The following are a few excerpts from this chapter.

“1. Description of the practice
Permaculture is a term coined in Australia in the 1970s from the combination of the two words permanent and agriculture.  It is an agroecological-based philosophy (Holmgren, 2002), which uses consciously designed landscapes to mimic the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Through a sustainable integration between landscapes and people, Permaculture serves to fulfill human requirements for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs (Mollison, 1988). Unique to Permaculture is the fact that it is based upon three ethics: Earth Care (care of all the earth’s biodiversity); People Care (ranging from individual health to the designing of sustainable urban cities); and Fair Share (an ethical approach to economics, the return of surplus, and the equitable use of natural resources) (FoodTank, 2018).

Specific to soil management and carbon sequestration, Permaculture focuses on the four areas where soils are conserved or increased: forest systems; under the water of lakes and ponds; in permanent planting systems; and where agriculture occurs under mulched or non-tillage practices (Mollison, 1988). As a holistic design system, Permaculture borrows best-practices from a wide range of traditional and modern approaches, so it is common to see a combination of many beneficial technologies being employed on a single site. In terms of soil management, this includes concepts such as: mulch, compost, green manure, liquid manure, ecological succession, vermiculture (worm farming), crop rotation, diversified polyculture, agroforestry, biochar, cover-crops, low-to-no till soil preparation, aquaculture, food forests, woodlot management, and intercropping (especially with legumes) (Horvath, 2015).

Two of the main tools used by Permaculture practitioners are guilds and zones. Guilds are groupings of living and non-living elements which serve multiple functions (Guilds, 2020). In terms of soil management, a functioning guild requires the use of groundcovers and things which feed the soil. This may include a diverse range of mulching materials, cover crops, the intercropping of legumes, various composting technologies, fungi, vermiculture, ecological sanitation (composting toilets), etc. Along with food for the soil and groundcovers, guilds also include: attractors/protectors, climbers/supporters, and miners/diggers. The task of the Permaculture designer is to choose the most advantageous and multi-functional resources that are best-suited to the conditions of the site. This promotion of functions, rather than specific species, is one of the aspects of Permaculture that helps to make it highly adaptable to any situation, site, or region.

Zones are a tool that enables designers to consider factors such as soil, water, energy, patterns, ecological biodiversity, human needs, and external influences (e.g. climate, wind, sun/shade, noise, fire). Zone 0 is generally the starting point (a house, structure, water source, etc.) where there is an accumulation of energy and resources; Zone 1 is a horticulturally higher-maintenance area, often irrigated; Zone 2 generally contains orchard-type production and smaller animals; Zone 3 is often reserved for larger animals and rain-fed agricultural systems; Zone 4 tends to be manage woodlot systems; and Zone 5 is natural forest (OSU and Millison, 2020). Zones are determined by available energy and labor constrictions, plot size, and the needs being met by the design. Zones can be scaled up or down in size to accommodate small urban households or large commercial farms.

2. Range of applicability
Permaculture offers practitioners tools that may be universally adapted to any living situation, on any sized site, in any climate, and in any part of the world. Sites are laid out according to a 3-step process: observation (allows practitioners to identify a range of factors, such as soil type, water sources, existing and future structures, natural resources, and needs analysis); mapping (plots existing resources and helps to identify areas for improvement); and design (a well-thought-out plan for the future sustainability and productivity of each unique site). Once observation and mapping have been completed, guilds and zones are overlaid onto the design to help ensure the beneficial integration of resources and conservation of energy.

3. Impact on soil organic carbon stocks
As a design system, Permaculture is not limited to one specific technique, climate, or location, but rather promotes a compendium of tools for practitioners to assess and determine what is most suitable, beneficial, and productive for each unique situation. For instance, Permaculture encourages the emulation of natural forest patterns (food forests, multistrata forest systems, agroforestry, silvopasture, etc.) to reap the benefits of carbon sequestration, perennial stability, diversified natural resources, increased biodiversity, and more. Species selection will be dependent upon an analysis of the inputs required, the outputs yielded, and the characteristics for each element in relation to a needs assessment of the site. The patterning and placement of elements are determined by factors such as climate, soil type, growing conditions, energy/labor requirements, functionality within guilds, and relevance to zones. Project Drawdown has estimated that a single Permaculture tool—multistrata agroforestry—has the potential to sequester 4.5 tons of carbon per hectare per year. If this practice were to be scaled up from the currently existing 100 million hectares, to an additional 39-66 million hectares, 11.3-20.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered. Similar estimations are made for Permaculture tools such as abandoned farmland restoration, biochar production, coastal wetland restoration, composting, managed grazing, perennial biomass production, regenerative annual cropping, renewable energies, silvopasture, tropical forest restoration, and many others.”