I’ve been raising this question at last week’s International Permaculture Conference, in Quaker House in London. Around 650 people have come here from around the world to share experiences about how permaculture offers an alternative to the industrial agri-food paradigm. Permaculture involves system design, trying to produce food in ways that contribute primarily to natural and social capital. I led one of the workshops to ask around 50 people, academics and practitioners, to think of the three best measures of success of their systems that might persuade other people that permaculture is a successful, sustainable system. Most of the answers were the same as I have seen in other discussions, with policy makers and supporters of a more industrial agriculture. These include, levels of food production; nutritional quality of the food; levels of waste and pollution from field to fork, biodiversity, soil structure, resilience of food production, animal welfare, etc. This quick, unrepresentative survey suggested that there was indeed a common set of fundamental indicators, even if different people might interpret and weight them very differently.
At this point, some of the group expressed their nervousness about the exercise. Perhaps we should be looking at indicators that are somehow more integrative. More seriously, we should not be looking for lowest common denominator indicators that reflect the commercial agri-food paradigm, we should start again and look for something else. But what this ‘something else’ might be was left undefined.
I can understand the frustration. Professional scientists like myself find it hard to indicate the sustainability of a farm anyway; we struggle to assess its ability to carry on producing food in the future and its fit within its share of the planet’s capacity to contribute to our needs for food and other ecosystem services. I can understand the temptation of groups such as permaculture farmers to decide that it’s self-evident that permaculture is good, and to opt out of wider discussions with non-believers. But if the ideas behind permaculture are to gain penetration through policy and academic support, I think this approach misses a couple of important tricks. Policy makers (and I include major companies as well as governments) will only support less mainstream production systems if there is good evidence that they work better than the others. Secondly, such evidence may lead to the adoption of some permaculture ideas, such as improved water and soil management, into mainstream agriculture. So I would still urge the adoption of a common set of sustainable agriculture indicators, as part of an engagement between the proponents and practitioners of different land management systems.
Yet that leads to another problem. Current indicators are best suited to large scale farms and agri-businesses, that routinely measure yields, levels of inputs, power use etc. Smallholders and communal farmers often do not bother to collect such data. So it’s not just about deciding what to measure, it’s about how to measure in ways that are proportionate to the resources of the farm.
There’s still plenty of thinking to do ….