Indian rice farmer looking across his fields

What is Syntropic Farming? A Sustainable Agricultural Alternative for Higher Productivity and Resilience

Sustained production and food delivery where and when needed is essential to human survival. It could happen through syntropic farming.

Syntropic farming appears in a sustainably FED post on three eccentric farming pioneers that highlights its inventor, Swiss farmer Ernst Götsch, who developed techniques that reconcile agricultural production with landscape regeneration.

Götsch’s vision is to change how we perceive, interpret, and interact with the farm so that food production works harmoniously with nature.

More of the details later, but the idea is that food production comes about because of ecological processes—the interactions between organisms and their environment—that occur naturally. Each plant in a food production system grows in conditions that mimic what would happen in nature. 

Farming creates an ecology similar to what would happen if nature were left to its own devices but with plant species humans find useful.

Food ecology is at the heart of sustainably FED. We see food production returning ever closer to its ecological beginnings to achieve sustainability of food production and sustainable diets.

Along with the other ecologically-based approaches to farming—agroecology, regenerative agriculture, holistic management, natural sequence farming, and rewilding—syntropic farming will be essential to feeding everyone well.

Feeding everyone well

Feeding everyone well is not just about the fundamental human right of every person “to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing” established internationally since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It is also about the survival of humanity. Without adequate food, society begins to unravel, law and order break down, people move en masse to find what they need, and chaos readily ensues.

It is this basic.

Predictions of a food supply catastrophe have little traction in mature economies.

Abundant food on the shelves of every supermarket lulls consumers. Few have any idea that supply chains are fragile and production fickle.

The good news is that there is an easy way to prevent or at least reduce the risk of food shortage chaos, and that is to guarantee food security that requires three things:

grow enough, distribute well, and waste little

sustainably FED

One of the many ideas to grow enough, specifically, the how part of food production, is to go back to ecology for food. A return to food grown more naturally within the constraints of the ecological context of the farm.

Ecological farming comes in many guises, but first, we must understand intensive agriculture that mostly bypasses ecology for food.

Modern agriculture 

It sounds odd, but there are just two broad types of agriculture: subsistence and intensive.

Subsistence agriculture is generally small-scale, involves modest to no inputs and relies on the innate and regenerative capacity of soil to deliver nutrients to crops and livestock.

This method of farming is still the most common.

The FAO estimates that five of every six farms in the world consist of less than two hectares, with more than 608 million small family farms across the globe that use around 80% of the world’s farmland and produce 80% of the world’s food in value terms.

At least 2 billion people, one in four of the global population, in 500 million households survive as “smallholder” farmers, working less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land.

Intensive agriculture is input-driven, typically large-scale and reliant on machinery. Inputs are energy, nutrients (fertiliser) and chemicals (pesticides and herbicides). These intensive production systems often involve irrigation or significant infrastructure such as glasshouses, feedlots and rearing sheds. 

The energy subsidy to intensive agriculture is huge such that most intensive food production is an energy sink. This is a reversal of what made agriculture so successful in the beginning when it was a way of creating an energy excess so that human societies could grow in number and support priests, soldiers and rulers.

Most of the meat, dairy products, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets worldwide come from farms with intensive, high-productivity systems. Efficiency defines intensive agriculture to create cheap food. 

Between 1930 and 2000, U.S. agricultural productivity rose by 2% annually, while the proportion of U.S. disposable income spent on food prepared at home decreased, from 22% in 1950 to 7% by 2000. 

Intensive agriculture feeds close to 6 billion people every day.

The problem with having just two broad types of agriculture is the risk—a failure in either is catastrophic. 

Alternatives at this coarse scale add diversity to production and reduce the risk of failure. Options exist that cover a range of systems, activities and philosophies that are closer to nature under names such as

  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Regenerative agriculture 
  • Holistic management 
  • Natural sequence farming 
  • Syntropic farming
  • Rewilding

Let’s take a look at one of them.

Rice farmer in Asia who is already close to syntropic farming

What is syntropic farming

Syntropic farming is food production that tends to be independent of inputs and irrigation and delivers ecosystem services, especially soil formation, regulation of microclimate and promotion of the water cycle.

An ecological approach to food production.

The creator of syntropic farming, Ernst Gotsch, advocates changing how we see, interpret and relate to nature. In his vision, holes become nests, seeds become genes, weeding becomes harvesting, competition gives way to cooperation, and pests and diseases are seen as the “agents from the department of optimization of life processes”. 

Syntropic farming allows farmers to replicate and accelerate the natural processes of ecological succession and stratification. The idea is to give each plant the ideal conditions for its development to mimic what would happen in nature left to its own devices but with plants that humans find useful.

Ecological succession

Succession in ecology is like its namesake television drama. Plants follow each other and compete for future space, water and nutrients. Who wins the succession from the incumbents is less about patriarchal choice and more about plants’ ability to compete, which, in turn, is influenced by chance, especially when they arrive and where.

In the syntropic farming system, the farmer recognises the local succession and guides it with species and individual plants useful to long-term production. The guiding hand of the patriarch. 

As succession proceeds, so does the complexity. More species in multiple layers with greater numbers of interactions. Complexity tends to add ecological redundancy where more than one species supply processes so that if a key plant is lost, another quickly takes over its functions. 

Logically this leads to resilience in many ecological processes but also to the productivity of the farm. If the carrots get hit by a frost, there are always the turnips.

Companion planting

Some plants compete, but some are beneficial for each other. Planting a fruit tree next to a bean plant. 

Planting companion plants results in a higher density of plants that optimizes the use of space, sunlight, nutrient cycle, and mycorrhiza.


Modern arable agriculture tends to be a single crop based on the soil prepared for that plant species. Weeds are bad, and tillage (ploughing and raking) are considered essential so that for part of the cropping cycle, the soil is bare.

Syntropic farming keeps permanent soil covered with plants or organic matter (from weeding, pruning or removing plants). This helps to maintain soil moisture, increases infiltration, reduces erosion risk and, most importantly, helps to sequester carbon into the soil. Soil carbon is the fuel for soil biodiversity that, in turn, helps to mobilise plant nutrients.

Look, Listen – and Prune 

Understanding agroforestry means reconnecting to nature. And as Ernst continuously emphasises, this requires the human to observe, to learn and to understand that “the mistake was when humans thought they were the most intelligent species; but we are only part of an intelligent system.”

Pruning, cutting branches to rejuvenate maturing plants, accelerates the growth rate, increases the amount of sunlight for other plants, increases nutrient cycle, and directs the process of natural succession. 

This is perhaps the trickiest part of this system. 

The farmer needs to look and listen to know when a plant will benefit from pruning as a stimulant and where it mimics the natural grazing and browsing by herbivores in natural ecosystems.

Trial and error

Farmers are not good with mistakes. An error or misstep in production can ruin a crop. This is not just a financial risk it can be evident to the neighbours. 

Farmers hate admitting that they ‘stuffed up’ even though they are human like the rest of us. Mistakes happen.

Syntropic farming, like several alternative production systems, uses mistakes. Looking, listening and learning the pattern of succession benefits from mistakes, so long as the error is recognised and the consequences understood.  

Ernst Gotsch takes this further and advocates for trial and error to introduce some planned mistakes and careful observation of the consequences as a way to learn more about the farm’s ecology.

Sustainably FED agrees and would add that some basic knowledge of the scientific method would make trial and error super helpful.

Higher productivity

A farmer who learns the local succession, plants companions and prunes with care whilst maintaining ground cover and a diversity of crops and livestock should expect  higher productivity by accelerating the natural processes. The idea is for ecology to operate synergistically and optimally for the local conditions, a production system close to what nature would produce if there were no humans to interfere.

The reason for this is that nature is essentially super-efficient. 

Organisms all strive to reproduce, and they come together in combinations that natural selection, through competition, determines as the most efficient.

Example of a syntropic farm

An example of growing annual crops through Syntropic Agroforestry

What sustainably FED suggests

Ecologically, all of the advantages of syntropic farming make sense and are consistent with the settled science.

Carbon is essential for soil health, and moisture retention supports soil biodiversity. Together they power the transfer of nutrients to plant roots.  

Multi-species systems are more resilient and frequently more productive than monocultures, especially when they are manipulated to be structurally complex and biodiverse.

However, a human is essential to syntropic farming.

The farmer has to pay attention, become flexible and be attuned to the natural dynamics of the ecology in his soil and vegetation. 

Typically it also takes more hands-on work with fewer energy subsidies and no big machines to till and harvest vast fields because the farm fields are smaller and interspersed with trees.

This begs a critical question. 

Can enough farmers pay attention? 

We think they can and will because the alternative is going out of business and very few farmers want to admit to that.

Hero image modified from photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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