Permaculture’s blueprint to a truly sustainable approach, environmentally, socially and financially

Our industry is attempting to rethink its relationship and impact on the environment. Driven by a growing concern from the public about the strains food systems and other industries are placing on nature and the resources available. Some argue we have a scarcity of resources, others demonstrate the issue is not the amount, rather the management of what is available. We produce enough food globally to feed everyone. The key is working in harmony with nature and its systems rather than against them, along with managing food distribution and waste. We need to look at crops, ingredients, and energy not as resources available for our exploitation but as part of a whole system we need to integrate with. 

I came across Permaculture around six years ago. I was blown away by its philosophy, approach, systems, and possibilities. What I will attempt to do in this article is connect the dots between our industry and Permaculture. What we can learn from it and adopt from its principles. 

Topics I will explore in this article include: Permaculture Definition & Origins, Permaculture Principles, Connections to the Restaurant Industry, Whole System Thinking, A Designer’s Approach, Ethics, and questioning what changes we can do to the Restaurant Business Model.

To me, “sustainability” is not a trend, it is an obligation. Unfortunately, this and many other terms have been hijacked as catch phrases and buzzwords used as marketing gimmicks. There are many exemplary operators carving the path to such a closed-loop, conscientious and well-considered mode of being. The hope is for this idea to become common practice amongst all.

My Personal Experience 

Some reports mention we waste a third of food produced. The irony is that our need to feed ourselves and the systems we created to do so are causing many to suffer because of lack of nutrition. Industrial scale monoculture (single crop agriculture) is one of the most detrimental technologies we invented that harm our soil and the environment. 

One day I was binge watching YouTube documentaries that address these topics and came across “Green Gold by John D. Liu”. His film is called “Hope in a Changing Climate”. 

The premise was straightforward and very promising. We have a solution between our hands. One that restores damaged ecosystems and transforms desserts into green oases. The proposed solution was to replicate a natural ecosystem and let nature do its course. While for many this is evident, I was introduced and alarmed by another global less advertised problem, soil. The health of our topsoil to be exact. In this documentary I heard of a system being used to let nature heal itself that nourishes rather than depletes the soil it is on, Permaculture. This led me into one of my obsessive deep dives on the topic and ended up attending a three months Permaculture Design Course in Melbourne at CERES.

I got drawn to the subject because of what it stands for and the benefits it has on our planet’s and our own health. What also drew me to it was how it was founded by two men through a curriculum, one of them was pursuing and the other was mentoring. The idea of developing your own curriculum and pursuing a discipline created by yourself to satisfy your curiosities fascinated me. This was part of the motivation for me to start my structured journey into the world of Food Business Design. 

Permaculture Definition 

Why doesn’t our agriculture system function like a forest? asked Bill Mollison to David Holmgren. “By understanding how nature designs, we create permanent agriculture and culture in everything we do” Holmgren. These two gentlemen are credited with laying the foundations and creating Permaculture. 

Permaculture is derived from two words, “permanens” to endure or persist through time and “culture” an activity that supports human existence. Therefore, some define it as a persistent system that supports human existence. 

Permaculture merges ecology, agriculture, and landscape design. Another relevant description I read is: “Permaculture is a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics and design principles”. A lot of the principles it is built upon were developed by observing and learning from nature. You then design and implement regenerative systems built on interconnected synergies.

There are great resources available for you to familiarise yourself with the concept of Permaculture further, and many experts with knowledge that far exceeds mine on this subject. You can refer to the following should you be keen to learn more about this topic:

Permaculture Principles 

Holmgren consolidated the design principles of Permaculture into twelve components with ethics placed at their centre. These ethical considerations address: Care for Earth, Care for People, and Fair Share. Key to all design activities, planning, and implementation strategies is the location itself, along with the set of constraints and variables pertaining to the site. 

One can consider the below principles as a Designer’s toolkit. They address how to deal with a specific location to create an ecosystem of self-sustaining agriculture of perpetual yield. This is achieved by understanding and cultivating interconnected synergies found in nature. 

Permaculture Principles food business design

Observe and Interact (pay attention)

Pertains to understanding the location and all the inputs, natural and social, to formulate a design strategy to suit. 

Catch and Store Energy (harvest while its abundant, seasonal adaptation)

This addresses not only solar and wind power, but also water capturing and management. It gives you the tools and perspective to operate an energy positive system rather than a depleting one.

Obtain a Yield (make sure you are getting valuable results)

This gives you a functional perspective on your planting strategy. You select, within the boundaries of healthy interdependencies, food yielding plants rather than ornamental ones. Yield also refers to the broader sense of creating resources. 

Self-Regulate and Accept Feedback (all in moderation, optimum not maximum, be open to modify and rectify)

Addresses how to spare resources and not persue excessive harvesting and consumption. The target is to aim for optimum, not maximum yield. Learning from mistakes is another important building block in the designer’s toolkit highlighted in this section.

Use and Value Renewables (reduce dependency on scarce resources)

If designed well, these resources, that are renewable, can provide a yield for us in perpetuity. It is about striking a balance. 

Produce no Waste (output becomes input)

Waste of one of the system components becomes a resource “food” for another. This also applies not only to food but materials and tools used on site. 

Design from Pattern to Detail (observe natural/social patterns and apply them to design)

When design principles are applied to go from macro to micro. Take in broad inputs on the location and then design the detailed systems that work in harmony with one another to produce a yield in perpetuity without depleting the land. 

Integrate Rather than Segregate (capitalise on how things work together)

This is where you explore synergies within your system. Designing a system with more interlinked relationships produces a more resilient outcome overall. Here you address not only the agricultural aspect but also the community component. 

Use Small Slow Solutions (local resources and responses at a manageable scale)

Long-term vision and not quick short-term fixes comes into play under this principle. It is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Use and Value Diversity (diversity leads to greater resilience)

We could consider this one of the key principles and driving forces of Permaculture. Efforts are focused on preserving and enriching diversity, which leads to a robust and resilient system.  

Use Edges. Value the Marginal (important things happen at the outskirts and intersections)

As with everything else in Permaculture, this borrows from nature and tries to increase the system’s productivity by enriching and cultivating its edges. 

Creatively Use and Respond to Change (envision possibilities and intervene in effective ways)

Idea generation and creative solutions based on “listening” to feedback and observations are key to developing and maintaining a site to adapt to shifting natural conditions. 

Branches, Zones, and Soil

In Permaculture, they also talk about seven major branches (domains) that spiral from your own site outwards into the community and then further afield. Going from the micro local to the macro global. 

  • The built environment 
  • Tools and technology
  • Culture and education
  • Health and spiritual wellbeing
  • Finance and economics
  • Land tenure and community governance
  • Land and nature stewardship 

They also use zones in their approach. These are classified based on the density of human activities that happen, along with the care and attention required within each area on the site.  

Soil health is another key focus of Permaculture and the key driving factor behind many of its practical design and implementation strategies. 

Given the vastness of this topic, I will focus the attention in this article on drawing connections between Permaculture’s broad design principles and our industry. 

Connection to Restaurants

Imagine we define restaurants the same way we do Permaculture. “Opening restaurants involves a creative process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics and design principles”. I believe we can benefit a lot from incorporating “ethics” and “whole-systems thinking” to the description of a restaurant. Given that this presents itself as a complex, interconnected riddle to solve, adopting a designer’s mindset will help us navigate and explore potential solutions. 

The twelve design principles have many beneficial aspects our industry can learn from. Below are the three broad ones that I will focus on in this article, which I believe our industry can gain from adopting: 

  • Whole-System Thinking 
  • Driven by Design Principles 
  • Informed by Ethics
Permaculture and Restaurants food business design

Whole-System Thinking 

At its core, Permaculture explores and maximises interdependencies and naturally occurring synergies. This is done through having a broad perspective and seeing the full picture. Too often in our industry we look at sustainability as an isolated action. Our industry, communities, network of suppliers, and the environment would benefit from us adopting a broader perspective. 

Whole system thinking is essential to the success of any restaurant business and is what I try to bring to the forefront through linking the worlds of Food Business and Design. From Permaculture, our industry can borrow the concept of interdependencies to achieve a successful and sustainable equilibrium. This idea calls for taking two steps up and having a more macro view. Once done, we start to observe a restaurant as a web of interlinked activities that only become apparent by looking at the entire big picture. 

We need to consider restaurants beyond just the walls that make up the lease lines. If we look at a restaurant as a living organism, we are best to see it as a micro ecosystem. It comprises multiple parts with various interlinked inputs and outputs. A restaurant plays a vital role within a community and neighbourhood. Run well, it can have a very positive impact on its surroundings. If operated with a narrow vision on a single objective, then its effects can be detrimental on the environment it is in and the people surrounding it. 

Whole System Thinking food business design

This approach has long-term benefits by providing market longevity and lower operating costs. Sometimes the process seems off putting because of the time, energy, and financial investment required. 

I will further break down Whole-Systems Thinking into the following components:

  • Closed Loop “Circular” System
  • Farm to Chair
  • Maximise Interdependencies and Synergies

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