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Permaculture and Climate Change: Interview with Patrick Whitefield

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Marcin Gerwin: With temperatures rising and changing weather patterns, agriculture will most certainly feel the effects of climate change. Do you think permaculture has the potential to help farmers to deal with the changing climate?

Patrick Whitefield: One specific way in which permaculture can tackle climate change is through diversity, which we emphasize. In terms of trees, one of the big problems with planting trees is that we don't know what the climate will be when those trees mature. So if we plant a large variety of trees, lots of different kinds - some of which are suited to hotter or cooler climates - then hopefully we'll get the ones that will survive and be still thriving in 50 or 100 years. The ones which don't thrive can be taken out as thinnings.

In terms of the short-lived plants, vegetables, cereals, and so forth, I think that planting mixtures is important, because one of the main effects of climate change is not so much steady increase in temperature but an increase in extremes - of drought, of flood, of hot or of cold. For example, in cereals it's probably worthwhile to sow a mixture of varieties in the field. So in a dry year one variety will do well, in a wet year another variety will do well.

MG: Are the techniques that are used in permaculture for soil management useful in this regard as well?

PW: With the management of the soil there is always a tension between long-term health of the soil and short-term management needs. When people plow the soil or dig the soil it's usually to gain some immediate benefit. But the long-term effect is usually detrimental in terms of soil fertility, particularly in terms of humus content. One of the main principles of permaculture is that we try to avoid digging or plowing - we try to leave the soil as undisturbed as possible. This allows for a long-term buildup of humus, of soil structure and beneficial soil organisms. This will give a much more resilient soil, a soil which is much more capable of withstanding the extremes of weather.

It works both ways - humus, which is stored in the soil, is actually carbon which is taken out of the atmosphere. Someone has even calculated that if everyone in the world were to stop plowing and digging immediately, the change would be big enough to control global warming, because that much more carbon would be taken out of the atmosphere. I don't know whether that's true or not. What I would say is that four times as much carbon is stored in the Earth's soil as all the living plants and animals. People talk about planting trees to mitigate global warming, but it's the wrong idea. The most important thing we can do is to stop disturbing the soil.          

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