Towards Common Ground: Permaculture and the Vegan Way

Graham Burnett
Saturday, 13th December 2014

Arguments have been raging on social media since we published the Vegan Book of Permaculture. The author, Graham Burnett, offers a level response and even quotes 'the old curmudgeon', Bill Mollison.

Some of the online responses to my recently published Vegan Book of Permaculture have highlighted a polarity that exists between vegans and those who use animal products or integrate animals into their systems. Whilst I think most of the time both sides of the debate co-exist (reasonably) happily together, it's an emotive topic, and when it does come to the surface can lead to raised passions, often resulting in hurt all round. This article is an acknowledgement of this divide, and hopefully moves towards a more positive and constructive outcome arising from the compost of the anger and miscommunication that can occur.

Recent concerns about potential outbreaks of H9N2 strain of bird flu that could spread to human populations at least partly because of poor practices in poultry rearing seem to be the latest in an onslaught of meat and animal product related health scares; Foot and Mouth disease, BSE, E Coli, Salmonella and Swine Fever have all had high profiles in recent years. In this light, the vegan way can seem an attractive path for health reasons alone, never mind considerations of compassion or ecological sustainability. However some permaculturists have expressed views that “vegan growing is unsustainable without lots of outside stuff being brought in”, "veganism is illogical and is unsustainable other than in a high energy use society", “Vegan(ism) requires mass farming and transportation of out of season foods, two things that directly fly in the face of permaculture principles” and that "principles of animal rights are... fine on a personal level, but fail when presented as a prescription for curing the ills of society". Others have asserted that “vegan(ism) isn't permaculture. The person who wrote the book on the matter was most emphatic”, by which I presume they are referring to Bill Mollison and the Permaculture: A Designer's Manual.

Indeed Mollison does state that "...animals represent a valid way of converting inedible vegetation into protein", also that '...we should eat what is edible, at any level' and many of his designs incorporate animals into productive systems as essential components. So does veganism have anything to do with permaculture, and can it be sustainable in a cool temperate island situation such as the UK?

In fact Bill does talk about vegetarianism on page 28 of the Designer's Manual. As one might imagine, the old curmudgeon is not overly in favour and does indeed make many valid comments, particularly regarding the limitations of the trophic food pyramid model as opposed to actual complex cyclic food webs. He also comments on the dependence of the typical vegetarian diet upon large quantities of monoculturally grown grains and legumes such as soya though he doesn't mention that this is equally true of the typical Western omnivore who also consumes such quantities (indeed vastly more) when used as feed and converted into animal proteins. On page 30 he states:

"Vegetarian diets ARE very efficient, providing;

1. They are based on easily cooked or easily processed crops grown in HOME GARDENS (his emphasis).

2. That wastes, especially body wastes, are returned to the soil of that garden.

3. That we eat from where we live, and do not exploit others or incur large transport costs".

He also goes on to say;

"We should always do our energy budgets. Whatever we eat, if we do not grow any of our own food and over use a flush toilet (sending our wastes out to sea) we have lost the essential soil and nutrients needed for a sustainable life cycle"

With which I couldn't agree more. In fact Bill's above description of sustainable vegetarianism (which here I take to mean true vegetarianism- or veganism) is virtually indistinguishable from the philosophies of the Movement For Compassionate Living and their vision, eloquently expressed in Kathleen Jannaway's 'Abundant Living In The Coming Age Of The Tree', of a UK broken up into sustainable self reliant communities, mainly meeting their needs from tree crops and garden scale vegan-organic food production.

The essence of permaculture is its attention to energy flows and cycles as well as personal accountability - it's as easy to lead an unsustainable, unaccountable vegan lifestyle based on imported, fossil fuel hungry, monoculturally grown, over packaged and over processed soya convenience foods, as it is to live as an unsustainable and unaccountable omnivore supported by the intensive factory pharm and the supermarket freezer counter. What's important is that we all develop an awareness of our own 'energy budgets' or the 'ecological footprints' of how we are living, and begin to work in our own ways to steadily reduce these.

Whatever we might think about veganism, I would suggest that if we are to create a sustainable future, we will all need to at least lessen our dependence on both animal products and the inputs they entail (at present some 85% of agricultural land use) and intensive monocultural farming in general, and start thinking about major re-afforestation programs and a movement towards a far greater percentage of our needs being met from home, market and forest gardens as well as the edible high protein and carbohydrate and other useful yields of trees.

On page 183 of the Designer's Manual, Bill quotes Colin Tudge who, in New Scientist 86, reckons ('highly conservatively') that 60% of the British Isles could be given back to nature. This is without "letting go of the misconception that it is agriculture (not individual and market gardens) that will provide the future food we eat (a common fallacy). John Jeavons estimates (on the basis of GARDENS) that we could return 94% of land to its own purposes".

Either way, that's alot of space left for trees and wildlife, and not a bad goal to aim for - nor is it unachievable when we creatively harness our human ingenuity and skills, and build upon our common strengths.

Buy direct from us and save 25% on the Vegan Book of Permaculture at Green Shopping.

US readers can buy from Chelsea Green Publishing for $24.95.

Grahamburnett |
Sat, 13/12/2014 - 23:41
Hi, I'm the author of the article above and would like to offer huge thanks to Maddy Harland for allowing me the right of reply to some of the online critisisms of the concept of 'vegan permaculture' - however a footnote to my article didn't make it into the editor's cut which I feel is quite crucial to the case I am attempting to put forward, so I've added it here, hope that is OK? "What bill describes as 'vegetarian' sounds to me closer to 'vegan' as he talks about a diet based on 'direct herbage to people' without being passed through other stages of the food chain (such as being converted to dairy products via cattle, etc). He also says that; "In the urban western world, vegetarianism relies heavily on grains & grain legumes (eg, the soya bean)", but he doesn't mention dairy products which often constitute a large part of the (lacto)vegetarian diet. He also seems to me to be talking about an animal free home garden system (where fertility is largely dependant on humanure and garden wastes being returned to the soil)"
Kester |
Sun, 14/12/2014 - 17:25
I eat meat. I was vegetarian for 23 years and had a "moment" while looking at my plastic wrapped imported tofu. I think in a lot of discussions I have had and read regarding veganism, the issue of hunting does not seem to be discussed. The only meat I eat comes from local game which either I or friends who I know and trust have killed and processed. I hunt and fish with respect to breeding seasons and age, for example when I put a creel out to get crabs, I return females and smaller males. when I fish, small fish are returned and geese and rabbits are seasonal. Related to this is the issue of "pest control" and the death that is not "on the plate". Where I live there are no foxes and rabbits present a major problem when growing crops. I snare some rabbits (Licensed under Scottish legislation, so all snares are free running with stops so do not kill, only restrain) which gives me local meat for the pot and reduces damage to crops (from small scale backyard growers to crofter's fields). This "pest control" happens all over the UK and many other countries. How much of our bought salad or other vegetable crops has this hidden cost (as well as the environmental cost of the packaging)? I forage seaweed and when/if you wash it all the small beasts on it can be seen, so how free from animal products is the washed seaweed bought at a health food shop? These are just small examples, our whole food system is ecocidal and even a forest garden will have squirrels or birds or other animal species which can be eaten. Related to this, I feel, is our disconnect and the "taking responsibility" for the death. In killing and processing a "non-human person" one must take responsibility for that killing and it places a responsibility on one, also hunting and foraging helps bridge the disconnect which so many have in our society between us and the land.
Maddyj |
Mon, 18/04/2016 - 19:43
Would you eat a dog just because it's been locally raised and is causing a pests to the neighbourhood with it's barking? Would you eat a horse because it's finished it's life racing? Probably not. But eat one And love the other, that's the norm. As long as it makes you feel better about it, than it's fine. You are definitely bridging the gap between you and the earth every time you eat it. Do you think a hawk feels emotional if he sees an animal being torn apart when it's still alive? Do you think it cares f it's children see a violent slaughter? No. Because it is a carnivore. A true hunter that relies not on guns or snares or traps, but it's own perfect hunting design to kill it's prey. Let's not kid ourselves. Vegan diet... Imported food. Do we all rely on tofu? So what's all those other things on your dinner plate along side the meat, cheese and eggs... Vegetables? Grains? Nuts? Fruit? Leafy greens? Highly demanding to grow and cost the earth tremendously. Oh and vegetables have feelings too don't you know? They run away screaming when you come at them with a pair of scissors and it's so upsetting we won't take our children with us to the allotment to dig up potatoes.