Article de Pénélope Tréchot (RSEDD 2021)
A systematic approach to agriculture
The term “permaculture” was coined in the 1970s by two Australian pioneers of the ecological movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, whose work has now spread internationally. The term comes from the combination of two Latin words “permanens” and “cultura”, with is meaning being “a persistent system that supports human existence”. It is an holistic systemic approach to regenerative agriculture, that avoids pollution and gives back to the earth, thus creating a circular economy based upon the multifunctionality of its constituent parts, designed around the observation of nature, with priority being given to endemic species that have evolved with, and are thus in harmony with, the environment around them. Permaculture is an iterative creative search for a life in harmony with nature,  based on 12 design principles that feed the three central ethics: care of the earth, care of people and fair share. The idea of “design” in permaculture resides in the conscious placement of elements in a system, with the aim of linking all these elements into a whole that is coherent, resilient and, above all, that provides for our needs and fulfils the expected functions. Permaculture is a system based on mutual respect of all elements and on generating the minimum amount of waste. Like nature itself, it is designed around a search for efficiency as each element performs multiple functions and each function is supported by many elements.
Natural Agriculture – letting nature do her work
Also in the 1970s, a Japanese pioneer, Masanobu Fukuoka, was experimenting with a similar concept in his rice fields. He proposed the idea that no-one knows more about agriculture than nature herself. He promotes a vision of life in harmony and cooperation with nature. This harmony is not trying to master or improve on nature but uses the biodiversity and ecosystems already in place to create an abundance that does no harm and does not drain nature of her resources. His success in paddy fields that require less water and are more productive than those around them continues to draw students from around the world. His rice was planted as a double crop with barley protecting it during its early growth, and clover providing nitrogen fixation and then weed-suppressing mulch alongside the barley straw. Later agricultural studies have suggested that this action by the barley could be due to Allelopathy, a biological phenomenon which occurs when one plant species releases chemical compounds, either directly or indirectly through microbial decomposition of residues, that affect another plant species. Liebman and Dyck (1993) stated that including allelopathic plants in a crop rotation or as part of an intercropping system may provide a non-herbicide mechanism for weed control and found this within the exudation of allelochemicals from living roots of barley. Fukuoka’s whole doctrine, as expounded in his essay in “The One Straw Revolution”, is based upon the idea of using natural phenomena to do the job for you, as he termed it “Wu Wei” (“not doing” in Japanese). His idea of “natural agriculture”, is that nature knows best, does not need our chemical intervention and we should leave nature to do her work.
Nature’s own seeds of hope
Another example of this faith in nature’s work can be found in India, where Dr Vandana Shiva, founder of the association Navdanya, through her education centre “Seed University” (Bija Vidyapeeth), is fighting for a return to poly-agriculture and the reinstatement of endemic ancient seeds, which are regenerative and have evolved naturally over time to adapt to the local climate and insects. She sees in them, the seeds of democracy and hope for the changing world, our “ecological endowment” and duty to the earth.  They do not require pesticides (damaging both to the earth and to the peasant population) and are less demanding on precious water supplies. She actively promotes a return to basics with mixed “natural” sustainable farming in opposition to the mono-culture GMO seeds whose promised productive harvests have failed. For Dr Shiva too we need to listen to nature rather than the siren’s call of rapid profit. We should let nature do the job for us, as for example in pest control through the ancient practice of planting Neem trees, (another example of allelopathy) or simply let the pests work for us.
A return to ancestral techniques
These different types of what can also be termed “companion gardening” are increasingly being rediscovered and redefined. Their roots in fact lie in folklore and tradition that date back thousands of years but have gradually been forgotten in an age that puts its trust in modern methods, monoculture and chemical engineering. In Roman times, Marcus Terentius Varro in his book on agriculture in the 1st century BC clearly advocates the multifunctional rationale, as in the planting of elm trees: “it is extremely profitable, as it often supports and gathers many a basket of grapes, yields a most agreeable foliage for sheep and cattle, and it furnishes rails for fencing, and wood for hearth and furnace”. He also already underlines the power of allelopathy, noting the beneficial (probiosis) or detrimental (antibiosis) effects of the allelopathic elements secreted on the growth and spread of a neighbouring species. He reported that vines should not be planted near cabbages nor crops near to walnut groves as they impeded growth. Chinese farmers started using mosquito ferns successfully as a companion plant with rice crops at least 1000 years ago to fix nitrogen from the air and block sunlight from other plants which would compete with and potentially overwhelm the rice.  8 to 10,000 years ago, native Mesoamericans were using a poly-agricultural symbiotic system called a milpa, growing Beans, Sweetcorn and Squash in the same field, a practice the Iroquois named Three Sisters, or Deohako, since they were stronger together. This is a perfect illustration (8,000 years earlier) of Holmgreen and Mollison’s multifunctional principle. In the field, the maize stalks provided support for vining beans, which helped tie the stalks together for added stability. Beans pulled nitrogen from the air and, through decomposition, transferred it to the soil, making it available later to the maize and squash, both of which are heavy nitrogen users. The broad, low-lying squash plants acted as mulch to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and keep the soil cool, plus, their prickly stems deterred predators. These three crops use different nutrients from the soil, which they return as they decompose, and their root systems of varying sizes and depths help to break up the soil. Because each crop is a different height, they are not in competition but in harmony as each can capture available light from alternative angles. This diversity provides protection from devastation, too, since one pest or disease, or poor growth of a monoculture could wipe out an entire field, and so a harvest of some sort is mostly guaranteed by spreading the risk
With the rise of awareness of climate change and man’s contribution to worldwide soil pollution, this type of poly-agriculture is gaining momentum. It is seen as a way of pest and disease regulation, control of competitors, and improvement in soil fertility, and nitrogen fixation without reverting to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Also, its focus on biodiversity offers beneficial habitats and encourages pollination.. Although many have been sceptical as to the true worth of this combination methodology, recent scientific research at the University of Portsmouth has confirmed this mutual assistance of plants, demonstrating its value as a way forward, especially in beleaguered areas of agriculture.
A new influential advocate for permaculture: The perfume industry
In Grasse, in the South of France, this spirit of permaculture is also present in the artisanal perfume industry. It is now being adapted on a more extensive scale for the prestige perfume houses, in the wake of customer demand, with sustainability itself now becoming a sine qua non to luxury.
The Bastide Isnard, is one of the oldest artisanal perfumers in the area. The family has been based in Grasse since the 12th century and was a pioneer in the perfume industry since 1740, creating their perfume house Isnard-Maubert in 1826 and concentrating their efforts since 1900 on cultivation of the local floral specialities: the May rose (rosa centifolia), Jasmin (jasminum grandiflorum), violet (Viola odorata Victoria), tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) and lavender (Lavandula Spica). The estate is situated on the edge of a steep valley, its artificially terraced slopes home to its precious aromatic plants. These terraces are fed by multiple natural springs, which have been tamed to irrigate the different plantations and offered freely to the other properties in the valley below, including the “Domaine de la Rose” now owned by L’Oréal brand “Lancôme”. When you visit this garden, the present owner is proud to show off each plant type, with a profound respect for its needs in terms of exposure to the elements, soil type and irrigation. For him, each plant feeds off and protects the others in an age-old tradition of mutual regeneration and biodiversity. “You cannot make a plant grow where it does not want to”, he informs the visitors. Certain plants are better suited to a particular terrain or exposure even in the same region and this led to the original creation of perfume cooperatives in Grasse, where different aromatic essences were exchanged according to mutual needs. It is the antithesis of a monoculture, with seasonal harvests spread across the year starting with the violet in March, the rose in May, the lavender in July/August, the Jasmin and tuberose from August to October finishing with the olives “olive de Nice” certified AOP, used to create the soaps.
A recent study on the global perfume industry valued it at around USD 34 billion in 2020 – 65% of which is premium perfume (on which, according to a Bloomberg article already in 2016, USD 800 million is spent on pure advertising). Present statistics show that this sum has escalated still further over the last five years, with global promotional costs reaching into the billions for the major houses. In 2018, L’Oréal spent USD 9.21 billion on advertisement and promotional activities, an increase of 20.39% during the period between 2016 to 2018. Coty registered an increase of investment of 128%, during the same period.. This study also shows a growing demand for “natural” products, as approximately 75% of millennial women prefer buying natural products, wherein more than 45% of them favour natural-based healthy perfumes. Another study offers an even higher figure for the global Fragrance and Perfume market, projected to reach USD 43,6 billion by 2026, from USD 42,7 billion in 2020. 
Although not an “essential” sector for agriculture, this desire for “natural” products is leading to a growing commercial motivation by global conglomerates to invest in natural agriculture.
More than just perfume: Transformation through flowers
Around 6 km from Grasse itself, sits the Domaine du Manon, where four generations have cultivated flowers for the perfume industry. The present owner, Carole Biancalana, is personally committed to cultivating the earth whilst protecting the environment. She also develops local employment, training up the next generation to start their own cultivations in the spirit of sustainability, and working closely with the local authorities to ensure access to land for cultivation rather than for further construction. The May rose and Jasmin (reserved exclusively for the Maison Dior) are harvested in a traditional manner, by hand at dawn when they first open, so as to capture their perfume at its best. No pesticides are used, and there is a culture of crop rotation and leaving areas to rest to ensure natural restitution. In this garden where the air is filled with the heady floral scents, the permaculture spirit reigns supreme, as insects are left to do nature’s work and pollinators encouraged through hedge planting and natural grassing. This practice is beneficial both to the upper ground through insects as well as the subsoil through encouragement of fungi, bacteria, arthropods and annelids. By balancing the herbaceous plant-culture and climate-plant-soil, it avoids the need for chemical fertilizers..
Fabrice Bianchi, responsible for the Mul estate in the same village of Pégomas, saw the family concern saved by its direct provision of floral essences to the Maison Chanel. He notes the rise in interest over the last ten years for perfume houses to have a foothold in Grasse as something to communicate as part of their CSR initiatives. Originally a great story-telling devise (and potential subject for greenwashing), this interest has in fact had important transformational consequences for the agriculture and social economy of the region. Reinvestment in this type of culture, has also re-established Grasse as the world capital of perfumes and reinstated the flowers grown there as an object of international heritage. Together with the Domaine de Manon, the Mul estate is a founding member of the Association Fleurs d’Exception du pays de Grasse, which groups together local producers, signatories to a charter on biological agriculture, social action and seed preservation. The ten guiding principles of this charter seek to underly their commitment to promulgating an exemplary manor of cultivation that respects and protects the riches of the earth.
The leading players of the perfume and cosmetic industry, see in their sponsorship of these activities, a win-win situation, by providing a truly commercial opportunity in replying to the desires of today’s customers, whilst also caring for the planet. As one of the 50 signature companies to a joint commitment contribution to the Sharm El-Sheikh to Kunming Action Agenda for Nature and People, at the Convention on Biological Diversity , coordinated by the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) in June 2021, Laurent Kleitman, President and CEO of Parfums Christian Dior, commented: “We want to be part of positive change, and part of the bigger agenda on biodiversity, not only preserving the flowers and plants we count on but also regenerating biodiversity and supporting communities … We are embarking on this journey not only because this is the right course of action, but it is also the only direction we can take.”
Hope springs anew … sometimes in the least expected places
In conclusion, we are witnessing a global convergence born out of many cultural and scientific movements from around the world that have one common theme: man is not the only thing that matters on this earth and man cannot survive without the wellbeing of the rest of the planet. “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society” writes Pope Frances. He calls us all to “care for our common home” and be “the custodians of God’s creation”. This does not mean that man cannot be productive (or commercially viable), it just means finding new (or rediscovering old) ways that do not destroy or fight nature, but which use nature on its own terms.
Permaculture, companion gardening, natural agriculture, whatever one wants to call it, is a new wave of consciousness that has emerged out of militant desires. It has shown proven results and is becoming a mainstream tendency touching not only nutritional agriculture but related industrial disciplines that are now turning back to nature for solutions. Today, the spirit of permaculture is not just for the militant Robinson Crusoe or new age activist but, through wide-reaching and widely promoted consumer products, open to a broader audience. This gives a glimmer of hope from the unlikely, and one might say frivolous, source of the luxury sector for the possibility of a more sustainable future.
(With many thanks to Carole Biancalana (Domaine de Manon) and Alexane Isnard (Bastide Isnard) for their precious input)
Go further in France:
Spend a day at the Permaculture farm in Versailles – 15 minutes from Montparnasse by train:
Follow a MOOC on permaculture: MOOC Conception en Permaculture | Université des Colibris (colibris-universite.org)
Visit the Jardin Vavilov where ancient seeds are being reinstated: Jardin Vavilov – Mairie d’Épinay-sur-Seine : Mairie d’Épinay-sur-Seine (epinay-sur-seine.fr)
Visit the Jardin du Parfumeur : Bastide Isnard : Le Jardin du parfumeur – Parfum Isnard Grasse
Visit the Domaine de Manon : Domaine de Manon (Grasse) | Destination Côte d’Azur France – Le Site officiel (cotedazurfrance.fr)
 Bill Mollison, David Holmgren: Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements
 Varro on farming. M. Terenti Varronis Rerum rusticarum libri tres; tr. with introduction, commentary, and excursus by Lloyd Storr-Best .. : Varro, Marcus Terentius : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
 Ancient Companion Planting: The Three Sisters – Mother Earth Gardener | Expert advice on all aspects of growing and using historic fruit and vegetable cultivars, along with fiber, ornamental, and medicinal plants.
 Michael Littlewood : A guide to Companion Planting
 Charte d’engagement « Fleurs d’Exception du pays de Grasse » « se démarquer par une production identitaire d’exception et respecter, protéger les richesses que nous donne notre terre »
 “Depuis une dizaine d’années, il y a une forte demande de maisons qui veulent à tout prix avoir sur le bassin grassois une production de fleurs autour de laquelle ils pourront communiquer dans le cadre de leur RSE, la responsabilité sociale et environnementale. C’est un vecteur de notoriété et aussi un excellent support de storytelling, et cela motive de nouveaux acteurs à réinvestir dans ce type de culture” – Le retour en Grasse de la culture des fleurs à parfum – Grazia