Syntropic agriculture (also known as syntropic agroforestry) is a system of regenerative agriculture that focuses on reforesting the planet whilst providing a yield for humans. The word ‘syntropic,’ comes from syntropy, and points to how the system aims to be more abundant over time by creating more matter and energy.
This is contrasted with the perhaps more well-known meaning of entropy, which is the opposite of this; where systems gradually descend into chaos like we’re seeing with the ecological destruction caused by modern agricultural practices.
Syntropic agriculture is ultimately a process-based system, as opposed to the input-based system that has become the norm in conventional agricultural practices. It aims to provide dynamic, successional, and economically viable systems that restore degraded soil biodiversity. By understanding and mimicking the natural successional patterns of nature, syntropic agriculture aims to imitate the natural regeneration of forests, whilst harmoniously integrating our food systems herein.
As such, it aims to harmonize our food and material needs with reforesting the planet.
Syntropic systems aim to stop fighting against nature and instead begin to work with it. The system was invented by the Swiss farmer Ernst Götsch. The system was developed through a multidisciplinary approach based on 5 decades of research and observations. He is based in the Brazilian territory of Bahia where he acquired a degraded piece of land previously used for cattle farming and has turned it into a lush forest where he grows many crops, including much sought after cacao.
A forest, seen from the ground up.
What Brought Syntropic Agriculture About?
Syntropic agriculture was born out of the realization that modern agricultural practices after the so-called ‘Green Revolution,’ were causing more damage to the environment than good. The prevalence of monocultures degrades the land at an alarming rate. Within a few years, soil health is so poor that, to continue to get a harvest, farmers feel the need to apply chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
It creates a vicious cycle that self-perpetuates ad infinitum. As more and more landowners opt for this system and believe it to be the only way, biodiversity is lost as habitats are destroyed, water is polluted with toxic chemicals, and rainfall becomes more scarce.
The predominant system has set itself up against the way that the natural world works. To restore the ecological balance our food choices and farming practices have disrupted, we need to work together with nature and not against it. This is what syntropic agriculture is about, restoring forests whilst also meeting our food and material needs.
Modern agricultural systems are the product of post-WW2. They are what we can call an input system. Post-war agriculture lead to what has commonly been referred to as the so-called ‘Green Revolution.’ This purported ‘revolution’ came about through advances in plant chemistry that lead to the creation of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
In the short term, it leads to higher yields, but it soon became apparent that soil degradation follows, meaning a greater amount of these chemicals are needed in the future. Fields are allowed to lay fallow when they weren’t being cultivated, leading to erosion and the rapid loss of topsoil.
Farmers felt like they had no choice but to keep using more and more chemicals to keep production levels up. Whilst traditional farming included polyculture systems, where many varieties of crops were integrated with animals, modern farming quickly moved to monocultural systems which are far from how that natural world functions.
Photo by Ingeborg Lindseth, taken in Órgiva, Granada, Spain. Notice the rows of annual crops between the perennial trees.
This move towards chemically-laden monocultures took the inherent regenerative and self-perpetuating power of nature away from the land and the farmers. This shift handed sovereignty over to the companies who sell the chemicals and genetically modified seeds resistant to the chemical poisons they sell.
Syntropic agriculture, on the other hand, takes a look at how nature grows herself, on her terms. By observing the lifecycles of forests, we can learn to replicate the succession of species that eventually leads to a self-sustaining forest. There is a move back, then, to following natural systems and away from the damage caused by modern, chemical-laden monocultures.
A syntropic system aims to mimic the natural successional way in which forests grow. It aims to move through the stages of growth you’ll find in natural landscapes, from groundcovers such as grasses to small strata shrubs to medium and larger trees. There’s also the canopy tree which will grow above the whole system. This will ultimately lead to what’s known as the climax tree.
Syntropic farming aims to reforest whilst also meeting our human needs. We want to plant native species of trees that are used to make up the forests of the area we find ourselves in. These trees are known as climax trees and are the culmination of the system. Often, depending on the area, they are slow-growing and long-lived species.
These are the trees that will take over from all the other parts of the systems, and are ultimately the long-term aim of syntopic agroforestry. The aim is to restore landscapes to the forests that previously existed on the landscape before humans destroyed them.
It also explains how there is another term that is sometimes used to refer to syntropic agriculture; successional agroforestry.
Kohlrabi leaf. An example of an understory crop that could be incorporated into your syntropic system.
Can Be Implemented In Different Climates
The system is designed to be applicable in any different climate. What will differ are the species used in your planting code. What’s important is that you plant species that fulfill the same role within the system. As such, syntropic systems will look different in different climates, depending on what the local climate can support.
Similarly, two systems in the same climate could end up looking very different from each other. What’s important is that the chosen species fulfill the same role within the system.
How Do You Implement A Syntropic System?
Syntropic agriculture is a new system, and currently, there isn’t much information on how exactly to implement a syntropic system on your own. Ernst Gotsch observed the way that forests develop over time, and the mutually beneficial relationships that exist between different species, and different strata of the forest.
Plant Everything At The Same Time.
Ideally, you want to place all your plants in the ground at the same time. Naturally, this will require a lot of management and labor in the early stages.
To people not used to syntropic systems, they can appear impossible densely planted. Some people advise, for an 80m squared plot, to plant at least 1100 seeds, cutting or trees. As dense as this may sound to people steeped in modern practices, it could easily be doubled.
This level of density can amount to something like 20-40 plants per square meter, which is extreme by almost any other agricultural system. Lare-scale syntropic systems may often opt for the lower end of this density as maintaining and implementing the higher density levels may not be a viable option.
Plant North To South Rows
In the northern hemisphere, tree lines are oriented with a north to south axis, instead of on contour as is common in many other systems. This is to maximize exposure to sunlight and thus, photosynthesis.
In the same vein, syntropic agriculture doesn’t advise planting on contour lines, as you’ll often see olive trees in the Mediterranean, for example. Instead, you’re advised to plant up and down slopes instead of across them.
Taken by Ingeborg Lindseth, taken in Órgiva, Granada, Spain. An example of a young syntropic system, planted within the last year. Notice the densely planted rows and the different strata of planting. Young strawberries are visible in the understory as ground cover.
Favor Direct Seeding
Planting trees directly from seed as opposed to cuttings or transplants. The reason behind this is both economic and practical; to be able to plant the huge amounts of trees that a syntropic system demands, planting from seed is the most viable option.
Also, this is how it is done in nature. Direct seeding also allows for the best genetics to succeed and thrive within the system. Trees grown directly from seed into the spot where they’ll inhabit are also believed to do much better than transplants or grafts can ever do.
Below is an example of a table you could follow to implement a syntropic system in your area. The idea is that all ecological niches will be filled in by selecting species to fill in these areas. The Y-axis refers to the strata (the physical space that a plant will take up.) It also refers to its light requirements and the size and shape of its leaves, and the relationships between different species.
The X-axis, on the other hand, refers to the time it will take for the species to occupy its strata at maturity, as well as its physical space. Considerations as to what to plant here include that timeline for species to reach maturity, time until harvest, pruning needs, flowering, fruiting, seasonal patterns, and maintenance needs.
Mapping out a system like this before planting allows you to see how each plant will fit into the system over space and time. A cleverly designed system will be one that, after a heavy pruning or harvest of one stratum, the other is already growing and ready to fill in the space that’s just been left.
The system is to be designed in such a way that there are no gaps; either in physical space or in terms of function and harvest. What you place within your system will be dictated by the climate in which you live, and what is suited to your area.
Once you’ve filled in your table, the next step is to map exactly where you’ll plant each species in the garden/farm. Doing so allow you to ensure that all the ecological niches are filled over time, and to determine the number of plants you’ll need to implement your system.
How Do You Take Care Of A Syntropic System?
A syntropic system will require maintenance whilst in its early stages. If set up correctly, it should require less maintenance as it matures into a fully-fledged system. However, how much maintenance the system requires will depend on what is exactly that you want to grow and harvest.
Syntropic farming follows a planting code, also referred to as a consortium. What you choose will be dictated by your local climate and area. You are trying to plant species together that will provide each other with their ideal growing conditions. The higher levels (known as strata) will eventually phase out those growing in the lower strata.
Where a specific species is placed within your code/consortium is determined by how that particular species grows naturally in its habitat. Better still, it’s decided by how you can best replicate those conditions in your system. So some species that are typically higher strata trees in their climate may need more protection to produce better where you are.
Syntropic agroforestry can involve a lot of maintenance work in the early stages of development, such as heavy pruning, and harvesting.
The timing of when you prune is essential in syntropic agroforestry. This is to ensure that the forest continues to grow at a speedy rate and doesn’t succumb to senescence, the slowing of the system.
Pruning in line with the life cycle of the specific species you’re working with is crucial to warding off senescence. Often this involves pruning when a plant begins to flower. For annuals, doing so spells the end of the life cycle. For perennials, it triggers different growth patterns.
Pruning at this stage causes chemical communication in the mycelial web within the soil that helps accelerate the succession of the system. Pruning causes trees to release Gibberellic acid, a growth hormone from roots that prompts neighboring trees to grow.
We still know very little about how this type of communication occurs between species, their roots, and mycelium webs. Whilst evidence does seem to be anecdotal, what’s certain is that it does seem to make a difference to the functioning of the overall system. It supports the idea that forests are living organisms in their own right, and are much more than their individual parts.
Syntropic farms use a whole lot of energy, both human and fossil fuel in organizing biomass. Once a system gains a certain level of maturity, some trees are pruned at 5 meters, which necessitates highly skilled labor, and machinery.
Another important feature of this system is how weeding is replaced by pruning and the organization and redistribution of biomass.
Taken by Ingeborg Lindseth in Órgiva, Granada, Spain. Notice the rows of trees interplanted with annual crops.
System-Based vs Input-Based
The idea behind syntropic planting is that it eventually produces its mulch and fertility in situ. You’ll place nitrogen-fixing, sacrificial species for chop and drop within the system that exists to feed the other species you want to harvest from.
We can think of this as a system-based approach as opposed to an input-based approach that is common in modern agricultural systems which are based on external chemicals applications for fertility. A system-based approach, on the other hand, focuses on the process that will lead us to where we want to go. The system is meant to be more or less self-sustaining whilst set up in terms of producing biomass and soil fertility.
This is how this syntopic agriculture could be scaled up and used on a bigger, more ‘industrial,’ scale.
The intensity and density of planting in a syntropic system also need an appropriate intensity of management, especially in the early stages of the system. Skilled labor is needed in times of pruning and eventual harvesting. This is especially important as the system is dependent on the biomass from the pruning to provide its nutrients and fuel its growth.
Syntropic farmers have the goal of providing all the fertility and biomass onsite eventually but will use soil amendments and irrigation as necessary, especially in the early stages of the system.
Plant Guilds/ Consortiums
Syntropic agriculture talks about what is referred to in permaculture as plant guilds as consortiums. The consortium you choose for your system will be based on what is suited to your environment and the benefits certain species can provide for one another. These benefits can include things like shade, support, microclimate, and nutrients.
Nutrients can be provided by growing specific trees as biomass accumulators. These trees, of which nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees are an example, are grown to provide support for your other species. Aim for fast-growing species suited to your environment. These trees are sacrificial and are grown to provide biomass to fertilize the other trees you grow.
Photo taken by Ingeborg Lindseth in Órgiva, Granada, Spain. A birdseye view allows us to see how a syntropic system is designed and implemented.
A syntropic system is designed to synchronize or reset after the long-term crop has been harvested. After several decades, trees could be harvested for timber, leaving room for new niches to form and develop.
This is in line with how forests develop, with trees regularly falling to make room for new, younger trees. In this light, the system becomes self-sustaining over time.
What About Yields?
The system, by following the natural succession of forests in its planting scheme, seeks to maximize photosynthesis in all strata and provide the maximum yield when the time is right. Yields (or harvest) are seen as a consequence of having the right plant at the right place(strata) and time (succession.)
In this respect, harvest can be viewed as a consequence of the regeneration of ecosystems, or vice versa if you prefer. Syntropic agroforestry evolves “towards the increase of quantity and quality of consolidated life,” says Gotsch.
Inputs vs Outputs
The primary input in syntropic farming is knowledge, labor, and the vast amount of plant material. The farmer has to manage many different species at once in a whole range of different temporal and spatial strata.
The rewards of all this input are outputs stretched over long periods, from as early as 30 days with things like radishes to decades in the future (timber.)
Photo taken by Ingeborg Lindseth in Órgiva, Granada, Spain. Notice the sugar cane and chili peppers, and their close proximity to leguminous, perennial biomass accumulators in the background.
Syntropic agriculture requires a deep understanding of the natural systems at play in local ecosystems, in all their complexity, to be able to copy them. Forests start for a whole host of reasons, and because of this, syntropic agriculture is hard to standardize and provides a formula that can be applied in a whole range of different places around the world.
Syntropic farming has the potential to reforest the masses of deforested areas that are the hallmark of humanity’s footstep on the planet. It can reduce the risk of further desertification by increasing biodiversity, whilst providing access to locally produced organic food for local communities alongside a stable income into the future.
The sustainability of the system cannot be stressed enough; the whole idea of syntropy is that the system moves to greater and greater levels of complexity as it ages, whilst simultaneously providing a yield throughout this process.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.