Never Ending Food Case Study in FAO’s New Manual!

Never Ending Food was asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to present a case study of their Permaculture practices in Malawi to be included in their newly released manual on ‘Recarbonizing Global Soils‘.

The entire case study may be downloaded for free by clicking here.  The following are a few excerpts from this chapter in the manual:

“Never Ending Food (NEF) is a community-based initiative in Malawi, Africa which uses Permaculture design to address developmental issues of food/nutrition security, poverty reduction, climate change, and sustainable agriculture. 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, which uses consciously designed
landscapes to mimic the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems 2021.  Through a sustainable integration between landscapes and people, Permacultureserves to fulfill human requirements for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs (Mollison, 1988).

NEF is 1.2 hectares in size, which is the average landholding size per family for smallholder farmers in Malawi (FAO, 2015). Despite the fact that Permaculture principles may be scaled up to design large-scale commercial farms or even urban cities (OSU and Millison, 2020), 1.2 hectares allows for the implementation of methods which are replicable in both size and scale for the majority of Malawians. In terms of soil management, NEF integrates a diverse range of methods, including: mulch, compost, green manure, liquid manure, agroecology, ecological succession, vermiculture, crop rotation, diversified polyculture, agroforestry, cover-crops, low-to-no till soil preparation, aquaculture, food forests, woodlot management, and intercropping. It has been estimated that in tropical climates it can take up to 200 years to form 1 cm of soil naturally (Osman, 2013). The methods employed by NEF, such as mulching with diversified organic matter up to 15-20 cm deep (often with multiple applications throughout the year in various areas), serves to promote the continual and regenerative return of organic matter, adding up to 2-4 cm of soil per year (the equivalent of 400-800 years of natural soil formation). NEF also places a significant emphasis on the designing of ecosystems which reflect the natural patterns and functionality of forest systems. Through the establishment of perennial tree crops, NEF is able to provide for year-round access to foods, medicines, fuel, building materials, fiber, shade, windbreaks, soil stabilization, and nutrient cycling.

NEF uses Permaculture principles to help Malawi meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are designed to help countries achieve social, economic, and environmental sustainability by 2030 (United Nations, 2018). The goals specific to NEF’s work include: climate action, sustainable cities & communities, good health & wellbeing, zero hunger, responsible consumption & production, life on land, clean water & sanitation, no poverty, and partnerships for the goals. In addition, NEF conducts community outreach, hosts weekly tours, and runs an internship program to help train and certify community members in Permaculture Design. NEF has been influential in introducing Permaculture into national level programs through various development partners, such as the Ministry of Education’s School Health and Nutrition Program, which piloted Permaculture implementation in eight districts in 40 primary schools, 10 teacher development centers, and one teacher training college. NEF has also been able to assist large-scale implementers, such as USAID, in helping to show how Permaculture can be used as a ‘best practice’ for development activities (Greenblottand Nordin, 2012).”

Permaculture in FAO’s New Soil Organic Carbon Manual!

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.”

Congratulations to Victoria Mwalubunju!

Victoria is a student at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) who is working on her Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science.  She just completed a month-long internship with Never Ending Food.  During this time, she was able to complete the theory, practical, and course work necessary to receive a Certificate in Permaculture Design.
As part of her design process, Victoria learned about the basics of good soil and water management (including: composting, eco-san, vermiculture, mulching, water harvesting, building swales, etc.).  She also learned about assembling guilds (e.g. climbers/supporters, groundcovers, diggers/miners, nitrogen-fixers, protectors/attractors, etc.) and using these guild systems in zones to help conserve energy.  Victoria studied the concepts of animal management, patterns, urban Permaculture, health and nutrition, propagation, and integrated pest management.  She was also able to participate in a field visit to the Permaculture Paradise Institute, and to observe educational tours that Never Ending Food offers to visitors.  For her process of observation/mapping/design, Victoria chose to focus on an area of Never Ending Food which is a public space with a gazebo for meetings and gatherings.  Her design included live-fencing to protect the site, pathways, rammed-earth benches for relaxing, and additional food-forest guilds to improve the overall value of the land.  Her final map and design work was presented to the Never Ending Food team, and we will begin working to implement many of her ideas within the next few months.
Victoria has now returned to school to finish working on her nutrition degree.  We are sad to see her leaving Never Ending Food, but wish her all the best in the future integrating her new Permaculture knowledge and skills into the field of nutrition!

Podcast on the Role of Meat in a Sustainable Food System

Stacia Nordin, co-founder of Never Ending Food, recently participated in a podcast presented by Voices, part of an online toolkit aimed at supporting sustainability in nutrition.  Voices is supported by the International Confederation of Dietetic Associations (ICDA), and this series of podcasts shares stories of the nutrition and dietetic practitioners from around the world who are working to deepen connections between people and food systems and educate tomorrow’s dietitians for the realities they will face.

In this episode on the role of meat in sustainable food systems,  two dietitians share their knowledge and experiences from the country where they currently live and work.  The first is Sonja Schonberg, who has a Masters in Food, Nutrition and Health and currently is a teacher and researcher at Bern University in Switzerland.  The second is Stacia Nordin, a Registered Dietitian who lives and works in Malawi and shares about her family’s Permaculture Home, Never Ending Food.
Stacia’s segment starts at minute 19:00; to listen to the podcast, click on the link here.

The Amazing Area 25 Health Center!

An incredible Permaculture treasure is hidden away in the heart of Area 25 in Lilongwe.  This Health Center is a result of the combined efforts of the Baylor College of Medicine (Texas Children’s Hospital), and Malawi’s Ministry of Health.  Certified Permaculture Designer, Afshan Omar, has put several years of hard work into creating an oasis of nutrition, resilience, and sustainability.

The plot is about 5 hectares in size and being used to demonstrate the links between human and environmental health.  They have also developed a community center within the healthcare facility where community members can learn about Permaculture techniques such as good soil and water management practices, intercropping in guilds, using zones, and learning about the roles of different components of healthy ecosystems.

Borrowing a description from the Baylor website:  “Adjacent to our maternity waiting home is a diverse and vibrant garden which provides healthy fruits and vegetables on a daily basis to the women staying here.  Access to nutritious and dependable food is especially important for expectant mothers to ensure successful deliveries and proper infant development. Typical foods the women receive include eggs from our chickens, a healthy bunch of green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and a selection from the most recent harvest which may include beans, maize, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and whatever fruit is in season.  From these foods, the women receive key nutrients such as Folic Acid, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Vitamin B12, Iron, and protein.”

The health center has also done a great job of integrating container gardens, tree nurseries, animals, and fuel-efficient cooking areas:

The whole place is living proof that solutions exist!  With a bit of forward thinking and minimal input, Malawi could easily be solving many of its health, environmental, and nutritional problems.  This would go a long way towards helping reduce the pressure which is currently placed upon health centers and medicinal supplies throughout the country.  Keep up the fantastic work Area 25!