From Pesticides to Permaculture: Journey of a Plant Pathologist

Caroline Smith recounts a career path that took her to the other side of the world and a new perspective on the role of science

Article from SGR Newsletter 29, July 2004


This is the story of a personal journey about a conflict between a love for nature and a profession that declared war on her, and the slow relearning that emerged through the practices of permaculture and of organic farming. This journey has been a long one and began in early childhood in England, nurtured by my mother who loved the English countryside with a passion. At school I felt no conflict between my love for nature and my favourite subject at school - science, which added to my understanding of the natural world. I studied chemistry and microbiology at Bedford College, University of London, then went on to spend a year at Imperial College’s Silwood Park studying for a Masters degree in mycology and plant pathology.


Being a Plant Pathologist

The choice of plant pathology seemed a good one – it would satisfy my love of science and my need to work outdoors. I had dreams of being an agricultural research scientist. During this time my parents emigrated to South Africa, and having vowed I would never set foot in the place, I arrived there ‘just for a holiday’ in 1970. The holiday lasted 13 years. My first role as a real scientist was as a plant pathologist in the South African Department of Agriculture. My job was to identify fungal pathogens of crops such as lucerne and chicory, and then find out the best highly toxic fungicide, kindly supplied by a couple of major chemical corporations, to eliminate them. In my work I uncritically adopted the only means I knew - the methodology of reductionist science, well learned through my formal education. This approach took no account of the larger system in which the host-disease relationship was played out. I never even considered looking at the system as a whole, and question why these diseases existed. I had not been trained to think systemically or holistically. And so I never even considered whether other means of fungus control could be possible. The process was simply to isolate the pathogen, selected a fungicide effective in vitro, then carry out suitably designed trials after which the farmer could be reliably recommended which chemical to spray on the infected crop. And I, a naïve 23 year old from London with a fancy Master’s degree, but who had never planted a bean in her life, was the one to hand out the advice. The wider implications of such pesticide use or even the cost to the hapless farmer simply did not enter my thinking. I was the expert, the specialist, the source of knowledge. I had joined what Vandana Shiva (1989) described so perfectly - a new breed of agricultural 'experts' who have fragmented knowledge of individual components of the farm system, but who through their work have become totally integrated with the market system of the chemical companies. I still remember the systemic fungicide benomyl (benlate) being heavily pushed as the saviour of cucurbit growers. Benlate has since been associated with birth defects and has been withdrawn. And though we may no longer use some of the very toxic pesticides of those days, the push for GMOs in agriculture displays the same reductionist mindset.

It was only by chance that I stumbled across another approach. I heard somewhere that by simply altering the fertiliser regime, some fungal pathogens were rendered less destructive. This insight refused to go away. It represented the dawning of a different way to approach plant disease, and in hindsight proved to be the beginning of the slow unfolding of what I now understand as a new ecological paradigm. Something deep down, instinct, call it what you will – began to gnaw at me, and the agricultural research I was conducting and its underlying assumptions became less and less attractive. I believe that at a deep level I was slowly realising that my love for nature deeply contradicted the way in which I had been trained and was being asked to operate. I left agriculture and entered the world of education. It was only much later that I was able to understand clearly the way in which chemical agriculture operated and how I as a scientist had been unwittingly co-opted into this system of war on nature.


Discovering permaculture

I first came across two remarkable texts in early 1980's called Permaculture One (Mollison and Holmgren, 1978) and Permaculture Two (Mollison, 1979). It was a moment of epiphany - a mere flick through the pages sparked a recognition, a resonance, a sense of sanity; what Mollison has called "uncommon sense". It seemed to be pointing to the kinds of answers to questions I was unconsciously grappling with ever since those agricultural research days. Permaculture talked of human scale living through the creation sustainable human settlement, of recognising humans as part of larger natural systems, of working with nature instead of against her, of care for the earth and care for people. Permaculture was asking humans to take personal responsibility for our impact on the environment. Its principles seemed particularly sane and workable when viewed alongside the ever-deepening environmental crisis. Instead it offered an ecological vision towards a quality of life in ways that did not depend on the destruction of nature. And most appealingly, permaculture was implicitly action orientated, enabling positive, achievable solutions and directions forward.

The seeds of change had been sown. I began experimenting with vegetable growing in the back yard, often with disastrous results. The key design concepts of paying attention to sun, wind, seasons and soil were missing completely from these early efforts. My proudly acquired degrees and years in research proved useless in the face of carrots that failed to thrive, cabbages that were devastated by caterpillars and compost that refused to breakdown. The agricultural scientist couldn't even grow a pumpkin! Later the family moved to a small block of land and I participated in a ten-day Permaculture Design Certificate course. Now the serious learning had begun.


Learning through inhabiting

In the years that followed, enactment of permaculture through design and intimately working on the land has enabled a growing consciousness of a sense of participation with rather than power over nature. It is an intimacy, an inhabiting rather than an occupying of the land. Through seeing the farm as a living system, I experience intense and powerful feelings of connectedness with nature that I never did as a plant pathologist. It is a spiritual connection. I'm beginning to know the wind and its changes, where water flows and where frost forms its patterns. Finally real meaning is given to the sterile classroom learning of geography and biology, of physics and chemistry as we attempt to develop a dynamic, interconnected, complex and sustainable system evolving over time and space where energy and resources are used as effectively and productively as possible.

Such long and protracted engagement brings forth the sense of place. There are no short cuts here. The sense of place means a far more intimate knowledge of where we physically live. I discover the exquisite and subtle world of myriads of insects and other small life forms and note with pleasure the appearance of a new species of bird as biodiversity increases. I am learning to recognise the subtle seasonal changes, the natural indicators. The lemon verbena in its first pale green scented leaves of late spring is a signal to plant the tender crops while the cry of the currawongs as they return from the mountains signals the return of winter.

Weeds take on new meaning, they are great teachers. They indicate wet and dry places, the low pH of the soil, the lack of minerals. They are the signs of our past failure to inhabit the land. They are marvellous sources of biomass, they become the black gold of compost, of mulch, even food. They provide nectar for insects, seeds for birds, cover for the earth that humans have made naked. And if we are content to wait long enough, they may prepare the way for native species as natural succession unfolds.

Recently David Holmgren has published an important new book on the principles of permaculture, which builds on 25 years of praxis (Holmgren, 2002). In it he notes that “spiritual beliefs about a higher purpose in nature have been universal and defining features of all cultures before scientific rationalism. We ignore this aspect of sustainable cultures at our peril” (p.2).

So this scientist has come a long way. But the science learned in those far off days is not wasted, rather it is seen for what it is - a cultural knowledge that is one way of knowing, of making meaning. It is powerful knowledge but it is partial knowledge. And it is knowledge that is produced not in an objective, value free way but shaped by prevailing economic, political and social forces. So there really is no conflict at all. As scientists we are able to choose to produce knowledge for good – for a sustainable and socially just future, rather than for the profits of multinationals or the power politics of governments. We do indeed have a global responsibility.

Dr. Caroline Smith is Senior Lecturer at the Science and Sustainable Futures Education, Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy, Australia


Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn: Holmgren Design Services.
Mollison, B. (1979). Permaculture two. Tyalgum: Tagari.
Mollison, B. and Holmgren, D. (1978). Permaculture one. Tyalgum: Tagari.
Shiva, V. (1989). Staying alive. London: Zed Books.

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