What’s The Differences Between Agroforestry And Permaculture?

Agroforestry and permaculture are distinct but complementary approaches. These approaches aim to create sustainable relations between people and nature. Though closely related, agroforestry and permaculture are not the same.


Agroforestry is a specific agricultural approach that combines trees with perennial and annual plants and livestock to create synergistic, integrated production zones. Permaculture is principally a broad set of principles for designing efficient, ecologically-sustainable human settlements.

Agroforestry and permaculture both strive towards sustainability by observing and working with natural systems and processes. Nevertheless, these two approaches are distinct from each other in significant ways. Let’s consider these differences more closely.

How Are Agroforestry And Permaculture Different?

Agroforestry and permaculture differ in many important ways. The following table summarizes six of the most important differences between these approaches.

Scope and applicationA specific body of knowledge and practices focused exclusively on agriculture and forestry.A broad, conceptual framework of design principles applied to all facets of human settlement design and management.
HistoryAn ancient approach that has been developed and refined over the last century through scientific research.A novel approach developed initially in the seventies.
Prioritization of commercial objectivesAn explicit focus on commercial profitability.Commercial profitability is generally not one of the highest priorities (though it depends on the situation).
Scientific knowledge and researchClosely based on agronomic, agricultural, and silvicultural sciences.Loosely based on a wide diversity of scientific disciplines.  
Use of Hardscape and Softscape ElementsSoftscape or living elements (like plants and animals) are the principal components in agroforestry systems.Softscape and hardscape or non-living elements (such as buildings and earthworks) are equally important in permaculture systems.
Role of values and ideologyValues and ideology generally don’t play an important role.Values and ideology often play a prominent role.

Agroforestry is a system of practical principles, knowledge, and methods specifically focused on integrating agriculture and forestry. This approach has a long history and uses traditional and scientific knowledge to maximize agricultural yields in a sustainable, efficient, and profitable manner.

In contrast, permaculture is a conceptual framework of design principles concerned with all aspects of sustainable human settlement and land use, from agriculture and forestry to housing, waste management, and energy generation. Permaculture has the broad aim of achieving sustainable (or permanent) human cultures.

Another difference between agroforestry and permaculture relates to commerce. Agroforestry has an explicit emphasis on commercial production and profitability. Indeed, profitability is one of the four primary goals of agroforestry. Permaculture, on the other hand, encompasses but goes beyond commercial considerations.  

Agroforestry is based closely on agricultural science, forestry science, and agronomy. It is grounded in practical strategies and methods for increasing forestry and agricultural yields while decreasing costs and inputs.

Permaculture draws freely from multiple disciplines such as agricultural and forestry sciences, architecture and engineering. Permaculture, unlike agroforestry, has been developed mostly in isolation from formal academic institutions. Permaculture also has a more prominent ideological dimension than agroforestry.

The Scope Of Agroforestry And Permaculture

The main distinction between agroforestry and permaculture is that agroforestry is specifically focused on agriculture and forestry, while permaculture is focused more broadly on human settlements and organization.

Agroforestry: Integrating Agriculture And Forestry

Agroforestry uses strategic combinations between trees, shrubs, annual crops, and livestock. The main aim is to harness the synergistic interactions between diverse types of plants and animals to produce higher yields in smaller areas with less labor and external inputs.  

Agroforestry systems are characterized by the application of methods such as:  

  • alley-cropping –  rows of field crops planted between rows of trees
  • riparian buffers – planting trees and perennial shrubs between agricultural land and bodies of water to manage runoff and erosion,
  • windbreaks – permanent, dense strips of  trees and shrubs to create beneficial micro-climates that protect tender annual crops, prevent soil erosion, and provide shelter to livestock,
  • forest farming – growing high-value, shade-loving annual crops under forest canopies that are also produce timber yields,
  • silvopasture – raising and grazing livestock under the protection of trees used for timber and other tree-derived products.

These methods are core, defining practices in agroforestry. They are what sets agroforestry apart from conventional agriculture. 

Agroforestry: A Sustainable Land Use System
  • Hardcover Book
  • Kumar, Raj (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update on 2024-06-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Permaculture: Principles For Designing Human Settlements

The scope and application of permaculture are much broader than agroforestry and encompass the full spectrum of aspects relating to sustainable human settlement and land use design and management.

Permaculture shares agroforestry’s focus on harnessing synergistic interactions between diverse elements, but broadens the application of this principle from agriculture and forestry to housing, electricity generation, water, and waste management.

Emphasis On Hardscape And Softscape Design Elements 

Agroforestry and permaculture use different components in their systems. While agroforestry works primarily with softscape (living) elements, permaculture focuses on integrating softscape and hardscape (non-living) design elements.
In agroforestry systems, the primary components are living trees, perennial shrubs, annual food crops, and livestock. Agroforestry systems revolve around these elements. Hardscape components like buildings or earthworks might be part of agroforestry systems, but these non-living components function specifically to serve the living components of the systems.
Permaculture systems integrate a more diverse range of hardscape and softscape elements than agroforestry systems. In permaculture, non-living elements like houses, fences, dams, and renewable power generation facilities are often the primary elements in the system. Living, softscape elements like plants are usually secondary, supporting elements.
Some permaculture systems, such as food forest gardens, are centered around softscape design components. Nonetheless, permaculture gardens often incorporate hardscape components such as earthworks for capturing, storing, and distributing water in the system.

Old And New Approaches To Sustainability

Agroforestry and permaculture have different origins. The core methods used in agroforestry can be traced back hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. In contrast, permaculture is a uniquely modern invention.

Agroforestry: An Ancient Approach To Productive Land Use

While agroforestry only became a formalized agricultural approach in the 20th Century, the practices that characterize this approach have a long history. Agroforestry practices like alley-cropping, polyculture guilds, and silvopasture retain the same essential features and purposes they had in traditional agricultural systems, though they have been refined through scientific research.

Though agroforestry methods are not infallible in every situation, it is fair to say they have, more or less, withstood the test of time. The involvement of modern science in the evolution of agroforestry has enhanced rather than diluted the traditional methods of sustainable agriculture.

Permaculture: A New Approach To Modern Crises

Permaculture was formulated in the late 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a direct response to the growing environmental crises associated with modern industrial civilization. They attempted to create a holistic system for permanent human cultures based on traditional and scientific knowledge and practices.

This innovation was novel and reflected the need to develop new, complex solutions to the unprecedented complexity of contemporary ecological and social challenges. The combination of multiple, diverse scientific disciplines and traditional systems in permaculture remains under-researched in practice.

Introduction to Permaculture
  • Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 208 Pages - 06/14/2024 (Publication Date) - Tagari Publications (Publisher)

Last update on 2024-06-12 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Role Of Commerce

In agroforestry, profit-making is one of the main goals and measures of success. By comparison, permaculture has a less explicit emphasis on commerce.

Commerce Is Central To Agroforestry

Commerce is a primary consideration in agroforestry design, planning, and practice. Trees, plants, and animals are selected and combined in different ways with the specific intention of creating several viable revenue streams in the short, medium, and long term.

Access to markets is a crucial factor in agroforestry. Agroforestry systems target specific markets which practitioners identify during the design and planning phases. The use of high-value plants and post-harvest value-adding processes is another central feature of agroforestry’s focus on commercial profitability.

Commerce Is Not (Necessarily) Central To Permaculture

The role of profit-making is less prominent in permaculture when compared with agroforestry. The broad scope of permaculture includes commercial considerations, but these considerations are not always central (or even included) in the design and implementation of permaculture systems.

Permaculture is focused primarily on creating human settlements that are socially and ecologically sustainable. Commerce is a secondary focus in permaculture that is prioritized only to the extent that it advances the central goal of sustainability. 

Nonetheless, permaculture designs try to optimize the efficiency of the various elements and interactions in a particular permaculture system. In this way, permaculture potentially increases economic benefits and can decrease economic costs associated with permaculture systems and thereby enhance the commercial profitability of those systems. 

Relationships With Scientific Knowledge And Institutions

Permaculture and agroforestry each have a different relationship with scientific knowledge and academic institutions. Agroforestry is more strictly grounded in scientific knowledge than permaculture. Permaculture tends to be more amenable to using methods that are not scientifically validated.

Agroforestry: A Close Relationship With Science

Agroforestry and permaculture draw heavily from indigenous ecological knowledge and agricultural techniques, but unlike permaculture, agroforestry principles and practices are also based fundamentally on silvicultural, agricultural, and agronomic science.

Though agroforestry is informed by indigenous, agricultural, and land-use systems, it has evolved through close interaction with scientific research institutions. The knowledge and methods used in agroforestry have been developed, refined, and tested through scientific research.

Permaculture: A Distant Relationship With Science

Permaculture has a somewhat complicated relationship with scientific knowledge and academic institutions. Permaculture design principles were developed on the periphery of the formal scientific establishment, though they are informed by a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

That doesn’t mean permaculture is unscientific! However, permaculture departs from academic protocols by aiming to integrate knowledge from many heterogeneous scientific disciplines. Permaculture doesn’t fit into established disciplinary boundaries and this is one reason for its alienation from the scientific research community.

Ideological And Social Dynamics

The different relationship with scientific knowledge and research alludes to the role played by ideological values and beliefs in permaculture compared with agroforestry.

Ideology Is A Negligible Factor In Agroforestry

Agroforestry is a pragmatic, science-based approach that is focused predominantly on the material practicalities of producing yields for profit. Aside from a shared respect for the intrinsic value and efficacy of natural systems, there is no identifiable ideology associated with agroforestry,

The narrow, utilitarian focus and scientific orientation of agroforestry leave little space for cultural and political values and beliefs to exert a significant influence. Agroforestry has clearly defined, measurable goals, and decision-making processes are informed by scientifically-validated knowledge.

Ideology Is A Prominent Feature Of Permaculture

Though not the initial intention of its founders, permaculture has become a social movement with a strong ideological dimension. This can be attributed to the conceptual nature and all-encompassing scope of permaculture, which leave ample room for ideological values and beliefs to play a prominent role.

Indeed, permaculture practitioners (known as permies) are known for their ideological commitment to the approach. This ideological commitment can sometimes lead to the dogmatic interpretation and application of permaculture principles.

The view of many permaculture practitioners towards tree pruning and felling illustrates the prominence of ideology in this approach. Permaculture practitioners are often reticent to prune and fell trees unless there is no alternative. By comparison, agroforestry practitioners view tree pruning and felling as fundamental to land management and stewardship.


Agroforestry and permaculture are separate systems though the boundary between them can sometimes be difficult to discern. Permaculture is a novel conceptual framework of principles for designing sustainable human settlements. Agroforestry, in contrast, is specifically focused on agriculture and forestry, and its history goes back many centuries.

Commerce is central to agroforestry systems. These systems aim to produce yields for profit. By comparison, commerce is not necessarily a primary consideration in permaculture designs, which are generally more concerned with social and ecological sustainability.

Agroforestry has also evolved in relatively close coordination with the formal scientific community. Permaculture, in contrast, has been developed in isolation from established academia. Similarly, ideological values and beliefs often play a more prominent role in permaculture than in agroforestry.
Despite these differences, agroforestry and permaculture systems use many of the same bodies of knowledge and methods. In addition, these approaches have the common aim of creating sustainable relations between human and natural systems. Agroforestry and permaculture are thus complementary rather than contradictory approaches.


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    Author, blogger, podcaster, homesteading and permaculture enthusiast. I have a passion for sharing what I learn and helping others on their journey. If you're looking for me, you'll usually find me in the garden.

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