What is Syntropic Agriculture?

What is Syntropic Agriculture?

What is Syntropic Agriculture?


The question “what is Syntropic Agriculture?”, is perhaps one of the most asked in today’s regenerative agriculture scene.  But, in my understanding, answers to it often provide an incomplete picture. Usually focusing on its techniques and concepts (i.e. stratification, life cycle, species selection, selective weeding, systems of accumulation, etc.) rather than on its essence – Human(s) interaction with nature.


I would agree that explaining syntropic agriculture through its techniques and concepts allows for a faster intellectual understanding, but unfortunately, it lacks the comprehension of the driving force behind these actions – the human being. Leading towards conceptually productive systems that struggle to become a fruitful reality.


While there certainly are specific concepts and techniques that help define syntropic farming, we also need to explore the human functionality within an agroforestry system. Thus, through exploring what lies beyond the term syntropy and its agricultural evolution, we might be able to find our job description.


What does Syntropy mean?


The term syntropic agriculture has arisen from a necessity to differentiate its practices while also attempting to define its concepts. Over the years, Ernst Gotsch, has experimented and experienced a number of agroforestry systems in a myriad of climates and biomes, and as his observations and practices have evolved, so has the name.


Early on, Ernst’s practices were simply called agroforestry, where annual and perennial crops were interchanged with a forest element. Slowly, that forest element gained further attention, and it became evident that it must be informed by the locality and its forests, where the endemic forest processes should underpin the methodology. The name then morphed into Analogue Agroforestry.


The forest processes then became the focal point. Forests don’t simply grow from a grassland to a rainforest composed of climax species in one go, but actually undergo a series of cycles (succession) that allows it to slowly accumulate and diversify. In so doing, through successional stages, the constant ebb and flow of life allows for more life-demanding plant communities to exist, in a never ending transitional growth pattern. The name then evolved into Analogue Regenerative Successional Agroforestry.


After understanding the movement in time, a question still remained, which related to how the plants are organised in space, as not all plants occupy the same space. From this, the term stratification came about, which identifies the specific spatial requirements of plants based on their light requirements, the name then became Analogue Regenerative Successional and Stratified Agroforestry.


It is certainly becoming a mouthful… but the journey is not over yet, we are still missing the human interactive component of these systems. The pruning factor, as expressed by Ernst, is “the cat’s jump” (“O pulo do gato” in portuguese), the key factor that really adds a dynamic movement and accelerates the forest processes exponentially. This factor is so prominent, that If all of the previous elements are put together, the result would be quite good, but fairly slow. However, the addition of the human element through its observational, participatory and interventional capacities allows the system to move through successional stages much more vigorously and intentionally, thus making the system not only highly productive (in terms of food) but also powerfully regenerative.


So… the name would have become Analogue Regenerative Dynamic Successional Stratified Agroforestry, or something like that!!! You know where we are going right? A never ending descriptive name that clearly gets lost in translation. So what could these agroforestry systems be called? What would be able to describe all of these context-specific interactions?


The word Syntropy then emerged as a description of this type of agroforestry systems, one that is able to encompass time, space, forest processes, crop production and human interaction, thus becoming Syntropic Farming. But what does syntropy mean anyway? And does it encompass all of these processes?

what is syntropic farming? - what does syntropy mean?

Syntropic Agriculture and Syntropy


In a world of polarities, we are often familiar (through our school and academic education) with the word entropy, which basically describes a thermodynamic law in which energy dissipates through use, usually in the form of heat. Thus, if you think of a piece of wood, when you burn it, its accumulated energy is dissipated through heat, up to a point where there is no more wood to burn as all the accumulated energy has now dissipated. Syntropy sits on the other side of this polarity, where instead of dissipation of energy, it accumulates energy through a cooling process. Going back to the previous example then, the syntropic process takes place through the growth of the plant towards the formation of the wood (which was then burned). In this case, energy from the sun has been accumulated through photosynthesis.


Syntropy thus, is directly related to living processes (simplistically measured as photosynthetic capacity), as only life is capable of organising, complexifying and accumulating through a cooling means. So, when we look back at the conceptual framework, does syntropy describe all the qualities hidden in the name Analogue Dynamic Successional Stratified Agroforestry?


In my understanding, yes it does, but it requires further clarification. That is, syntropic farming is certainly concerned with favouring processes that cools, organise, complexify and accumulate energy (in other words optimise photosynthesis), and a very good way to do that is through:

  • Understanding local forest processes and selecting appropriate local plant species that are adapted to local conditions (Analogue);
  • Having a diversity of plants that will move through successional stages (Successional);
  • Placing plants in correct relationships with each other in their spatial arrangement (Stratified); and
  • Planting appropriate crops that will aid regeneration and allow economic return (Agroforestry).

However, the human element, which is the key defining factor of syntropic agriculture, is not so evident in the word syntropy, and requires further examination. In fact, unfortunately, there is often a perception that Syntropic processes are good and Entropic processes are bad, which is the same as saying that growth is good but decay is bad, and a lot of emphasis is devoted to growth alone. This then creates a significant problem, as growth cannot continue in perpetuity without decay (and vice-versa), it will collapse unless external inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation) are used.


These two polarities must be brought into balance, where the forces of decay and growth are kept in synergistic order, and here is where the human factor comes into its full expression, not only in design but more importantly in observation, participation and management. Here it is also possible to conceptualize why syntropic farming is process and knowledge-based rather than input-based. Instead of fertilizers, irrigations and pesticides, we conduct our plant communities with observation, contemplation and understanding.


Syntropic farming is thus highly context-specific and its success is entirely dependent on the relationship between individual human(s) and nature. Land managers need to understand that they are embedded in their agroforestry and that they need to be a part of it. If they simply design and implement their systems with analogy, succession, stratification and productivity in place, but they do not consider themselves in the picture, they will fail, I’ve done it, and I’ve seen many do it. The success of Syntropic farming is directly related to the level of engagement of the human(s) being in charge.


Once we understand that when we plant a tree we have a teacher for life, then all the techniques and concepts of syntropic farming have a place to hang on and can be called upon at anytime, anywhere!

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Here are some of the things we've talked about:

  • Victors background into environmental science and sustainable food systems
  • What is Syntropic Farming? How did it get started?
  • Syntropy vs Entropy and how it fits into natural cycles
  • How Syntropic farming regenerates soil
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Hope you enjoy it