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What do vegan permaculturists do differently?  RSS feed

 
Burra Maluca
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With diet, it's B12. What things do vegan permaculturists have to take extra care with or do differently when designing their systems?
 
Graham Burnett
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Good question Burra - To be honest I don't think the design aims when setting up veganic systems would be hugely different from those of 'conventional' permaculture - it's all about learning to see patterns in nature and in human and social contexts, and utilising these to create systems that aim to be multifunctional, self-sustaining and regenerative whilst meeting the needs of ourselves and our communities as well as future generations and the planet's non-human inhabitants. In short, leaving the world a better place than we found it in terms of biodiversity, habitat, soil, water and air quality, human well-being and fulfilment through practising Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares.

However a theme that emerged from conversations during the Vegan permaculture design course that I co-taught with my friend Nicola Wildheart in Somerset (UK) last summer was whether a vegan permaculture (vegaculture?) needs a ‘fourth ethic’ in addition to ‘Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares’ - one of ‘Do Least Harm’. Is it enough to simply ‘care for’ our non-human fellow earth-citizens whilst our relationships with them continue to be exploitative, or should we actively promote their recognition as self-willed beings with an intrinsic right to exist free from unnecessary harm? In that case, how do we then dismantle and replace industrial and animal agriculture with systems that are life-sustaining and liberatory? I think there can be an inherent tension between Animal Liberation’s core belief that we ‘strive to survive causing the least suffering possible’ and the permacultural maxim that ‘we are a part of the earth, not apart from the earth’ (ie that we are a part of the natural cycle of life and death and need to acknowledge our place in that). Not all these questions are easy to resolve, and neither are there always simplistic solutions in what is after all a complex world, but I feel there is value in at least beginning the conversations.

On a more practical level I would say that veganic permaculturists have an imperative to develop and demonstrate ways of building fertility and regenerating soils, ecosytems and economies in ways that are not dependent on the inputs of chemicals or captive animals. The 'Regen Ag' systems promoted by, for example, Joe Salatin and Darren Doherty, such as encouraging livestock ‘mob grazing’ modelled on the behaviour of wild herds, are very high profile and rightly gaining alot of attention in the permaculture community and beyond right now. Other regenerative techniques such as minimising the usage of heavy machinery, harvesting water and practising effective irrigation, utilising long term cover crops and sub-soil ploughing in order to avoid erosion and compaction and developing viable local markets for produce, are well suited to stock free farming systems. Examples of successful vegan organic projects such as Tolhurst Organic, Growing With Grace, Plants For A Future, Brook End Growers, and others championed by the Vegan Organic Network, demonstrate that it is indeed not only possible to grow food without the inputs of domesticated animals, but that stockfree methods can in fact improve fertility levels and regenerate the landscape, especially once we start to move away from a dependence on annual crops such as grains and instead look at the potential of perennials and tree crops as our staples.
 
Chad Sentman
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I don't know where to begin trying to articulate the thoughts in my head but I'll give it a try.

When I try to reconcile what I know of veganism with what I know of permaculture, my brain wants to conclude that the two terms are incongruous and the concepts are incompatible.

In all fairness, I am not a vegan, and I'm unfamiliar with several of the issues or talking points, so speaking from a position of ignorance or inexperience, some questions come to mind:

1. Does vegan permaculture utilize animals without eating them?
2. Does it seek to absolutely exclude animals?
3. Can vegans have pets?


Um, I guess I have more questions than that in my head, but I can't seem to solidify them into concrete words.

I hope it's clear that I'm trying to be respectful in my ignorance, because I take offense at the sort of militant veganism that I have previously encountered and I would sincerely like to participate in an honest and polite conversation about veganism, animal husbandry, and ethics-driven methods of ecosystemic management.

At the moment, my family and I are raising four Valdarno hens, a breed which nearly became extinct in the 20th century. It is our first experience with chickens, and so far, we are merely pet-owners, although we do eat the eggs. (4. What would a vegan have us do with the eggs? The chickens will lay them anyway, and no harm is done to the chickens or the eggs by collecting them.) The chickens provide much value to us aside from egg production, including companionship for my children. (5. Is the vegan perspective simply not to have chickens as pets? They are a domesticated animal and I feel that to set them free to the wild would be irresponsible.) The chickens also help in pest management in the garden. 6. Would vegans consider this cruelty to the animals being eaten? Or, how do vegans feel about wild animals eating other wild animals? My Chickens provide other benefits for me as well, including their fertility. I try to model the way I raise chickens after the methods of Karl Hammer of the Vermont Compost Company, whose primary product is compost. However, he utilizes the natural instincts of the chickens, accommodating their needs with no obligation. They are happy to trade their manure deposits and labor (in the form of scratching and turning the compostable material) in exchange for the nourishment he freely provides for them. He doesn't fence them in, though I believe he does also employ livestock guardian dogs to protect them. Otherwise, they are free to leave, but they choose not to, because of the abundant way their needs are provided for. So I suppose my main question here would be: 7. Is there a place for chickens in Vegan Permaculture?

A few years back, I started worm composting, because I couldn't justify the costs and environmental impact of having biodegradable material removed by municipal garbage trucks. 8. What is the vegan stance on keeping a culture of worms, Black Soldier Fly Larva, woodlice, or other such decomposers and detrivores?

Another former interest of mine is aquaponics. 9. If I'm raising fish I don't intend to eat (for example, exotic, tropical or ornamental fish) but cycle their nutrient-rich water through a vegetable garden bed to eliminate water waste and feed plants, would vegans disapprove?

As I understand it, vegan compost should be based on vegetable components, at the exclusion of animal components. 10. But if animal components provide higher levels of fertility, why not utilize them? What do vegans suggest be done with animal manures if not compost them? Or perhaps I've misunderstood something. 11. Can the manures of herbivores be used in compost? Geese manure is okay but duck manure is not?

Bees are clearly a central element of planetary ecosystemic health. 12. What is the vegan perspective on beekeeping? Don't harm the bees, don't eat the honey? Don't keep bees, just let wild bees do their work? Vegans obviously can't be for the wholesale exclusion of bees, but I don't know where they draw the line.

We were taught in school that there are five kingdoms of life: Plant, animal, bacteria, fungi, and protist, if memory serves. To claim to be a supporter of biodiversity, you need all five. Allan Savory said that if all the humans on earth were to suddenly and permanently switch to a vegan diet, you would still need livestock to reverse desertification. If I had to summarize my position based on my current level of understanding, I would say that veganism is a term that applies exclusively to dietary intake and nutrition, and that permaculture without animals is not possible. We may not have to eat them, but we do need to integrate them into our efforts to build and increase life and sustainability.

 
Ryan Geils
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Hi Graham,

I took a look at a few of those sites you mentioned and found it pretty amazing that the Tolhurst Organic project has been using only green manure produced on-site for the past 10 years. I have read other material that challenges these ideas and some that say flat-out that it isn't possible. Although I like the idea of not having to use captive animals to fertilize crops, we are far from free ranging natural habitats (which would eliminate the captivity part) that would provide disturbance and fertilizer that Joe Salatin argues is necessary for the "symbiotic dance" going on between people, animals, and living organisms in the soil, to ultimately have a sustainable system we can live in. I guess my confusion comes from not understanding where these animals fit-in then. I think they add to the beautiful diversity of life we have on earth and would hate to see them go because we don't see a use for them. Can these species survive without human interference since we have created so many unnatural habitats or in many cases eliminated their natural homes? Or can we start with a paddock grazing system and ween off of it to slowly redevelop natural herds that used to dominate the landscapes and provide helpful fertilization, disturbance, and food for all parts of the food chain? In other words, is green manure, or vegaculture, helpful in rebuilding a sustainable system with these animals still a piece of the whole puzzle? Can a hands-off approach help animals sustain their populations without extinction or overpopulation?

Thank you for your time, its been a joy to read your posts!

 
Graham Burnett
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Hello Chad, I hope you are well and happy. First off, I'm sorry that you've previously had negative experiences with what you describe as 'militant veganism'. Whilst I can kind of understand where such 'militant' anger and distress comes from in a world where there is so much unnecessary cruelty inflicted on the non-human beings with which we share this planet, I personally learned long ago that a confrontational approach usually tends to be counterproductive. Judgement and criticism rarely changes hearts and minds, but instead just cause people to become defensive and closed to new ideas. To me it's better to ‘seek to understand before seeking to be understood’; that is, staying open and receptive to others’ opinions and viewpoints, whilst at the same time striving to ‘speak one’s own truth’ in an unequivocal manner, so thanks for coming along with the intention of participating in an honest and polite conversation.

Anyway, that's alot of questions you've asked, and I'm not sure if they all have answers - or at least there are probably as many different answers as there are people who identify as vegan, depending on the individual and their interpretations of the word... At the start of your post you stated that you found it challenging to solidify your questions into concrete words. To be honest I'm having the same problem trying to give answers as I don't think it is my place to try and speak for all vegans! But I'll pick up a couple of your themes and try to give my own viewpoints, it would also be good to also hear what other readers think...

I'm interested to hear that you feel that veganism and permaculture are incompatible. To me that isn't the case. My understanding of Permaculture is of it being an approach rather than a belief system, a useful design framework for positive action whatever our lifestyle choices. So whilst adopting an animal-free diet and permaculture may not necessarily be the same thing, for me the ethical underpinning of all permaculture design – Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fair Shares – doesn’t seem so very different from the compassionate concern for ‘Animals, People and Environment’ spelled out on the Vegan Society sticker in my front room window. To me permaculture is a journey rather than an end point, and the same is true of veganism. As I stated elsewhere, it's an attitude rather than an absolute, with many 'grey areas', and we are all on our personal journeys. Only the individual can decide where they should draw the line between their own ideals, and how far they can acceptably compromise or what choices they feel comfortable with making.

For example, one of your questions is 'What is the vegan perspective on beekeeping?' I don't think there can be a 'one size fits all' answer - bees are pollinators and play an important (in fact essential) part in edible ecosystems such as orchards, fruit gardens, etc, indeed any edible landscape which includes flowering plants. They are part of a (potentially closed and self sustaining) cyclic system, so is it justifiable to harvest excess honey as a yield from that system, provided this is done with sensitivity and respect to the bees needs? The transaction could even be said to be mutually beneficial (in return for the excess honey harvested, the land steward (the human element in the system) is providing a rich and diverse habitat, place to set up a hive, organically growing flowering plants, etc) - this is not the same in my view as large scale commercial honey production which cares nothing for the bees' welfare and where the relationship and their growing environment is exploitative and artificial/industrialised (I confess I don't know a great deal about commercial honey production, but I'm pretty sure in terms of ethics and ecological accountability it's the same as all large scale food production, where the cow/bee/soya bean (Megacorp PLC doesn't differentiate) is viewed purely as a commodity rather than a component within a total system with intrinsic qualities, needs and value/worth measured beyond purely financial terms). Seen in these terms, local scale honey production (an animal product, therefore not vegan) is more environmentally sound than sugar production (an animal free, therefore vegan product, but which can have a large ecological footprint in food miles, land loss, exploited plantation workers, degraded and eroded land, cash crop economies, etc etc.). Which is the more ethical and sustainable choice of sweetener? I guess we would all have our own answers, but my point is that we are all trying to do our best and make the right choices in a messy and complex world that we didn't make, and opting for the dogmatic solution can be a comfortable substitute for thinking for ones self sometimes!

I fully agree with your final point regarding the 5 (at least!) kingdoms of life, and the need to embrace all of these in order to support biodiversity, and have answered this point elsewhere, but at the risk of boring everybody will repeat it again with a quote from my book;
Permaculture Without Animals?
Not all permaculturists or permaculture projects are vegan, and I’ve often been asked whether a completely animal-free permaculture is even actually possible. My response is, of course not, and neither would it be desirable. For example, how would we fence out the earthworms that build our soil and maintain its fertility, or the bees that pollinate our fruit trees and vegetables, and why ever would we wish to? In fact, we actively design in features that are intended to attract wildlife: Ponds for frogs, toads and dragonflies, and flowering plants to bring in the ladybirds and hoverflies that keep populations of potential pests like slugs and aphids in check, and are essential to maintaining healthy productive ecosystems. What we don’t include are those ‘system components’ that we believe perpetuate exploitative relationships with our non-human earth co-citizens, such as pigs, goats and chickens, whose primary function is the production of meat, milk and eggs.

The Naturewise forest garden in north London is one example of an edible landscape that is ostensibly ‘stock free’, although in actuality members of several of the Kingdoms of Nature work together here for mutual benefit. Deep rooted comfrey plants mine nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous from the subsoil, making them available to fruit trees and bushes. Birds and bees buzz around the canopy layer, whilst insects and arthropods patrol the undergrowth and leaf litter, checking and balancing pest populations and playing their role in the cycles of growth and decay. Fungi and bacteria continue the process. These break down dead matter into rich humus and minerals that are exchanged with plant roots via associations with mycorrhizal soil networks in return for sugars and carbohydrates manufactured by photosynthesis. Based on the structure of natural woodland, the forest garden is a complex web of which humans too are an integral part. Aside from a bounty of apples, pears, figs, grapes, strawberries, currants and edible leaves, one of the most important yields of this mini-woodland is the sense of community that the space offers to the volunteers that spend time here. And being situated in a school playground it also acts as an open air classroom where children of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds are able to interact with nature, an opportunity that is often all too rare in the inner city.


Best wishes, Graham
 
Graham Burnett
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Hi Ryan, thanks for your comments - Tolhurst Organics is indeed an impressive testament to how it is possible to build soil fertility with non-animal based regenrative techniques - I was blown away by the quality of Tolly's living soil when I visited last year here's my blog post about it. As well as the mini-documentary Youtube documentary embedded at the bottom of that post, here's another interesting short interview with Tolly;

 
Chad Sentman
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Hi Graham, thanks for your response.

I really appreciate your candor, the sincerity and straightforwardness of the way you communicate. I certainly hope that my questions didn't come across in any way as antagonistic, confrontational or hostile, because that is certainly not how I intended them. Also, I hope it wasn't implied that I wasn't trying to hold you personally responsible for being the voice of veganism.

Just to reiterate, my understanding of veganism is that it's about food intake, i.e. don't eat animals or animal byproducts. I am trying to understand how it relates to anything beyond that, and furthermore, I am concerned about the label "vegan" being used as a marketing tool for products and services that are unrelated to food intake, for example if a publishing company declared that their books are produced to vegan standards. (I think also of the example Paul Wheaton has used of the label on a package of store-bought chicken eggs which says "Vegetarian fed!" which is a nice way of admitting that the chickens were kept in confinement and fed an incomplete diet, as chickens are omnivorous.)

I suppose that part of the reasoning behind veganism is being cruelty-free insofar as it relates to animals, but there are many instances where animals and their interactions with their environments (as well as their interactions with humans) are mutually beneficial and absolutely cruelty-free. Some might also say that animals and their environments co-evolved and are symbiotically and synergistically interdependent. Natural processes happen naturally, without human interference or manipulation, like dropping manure or laying eggs, so what then is truly the objection to utilizing the resources available to us?

It sounds like there is probably a wide spectrum of opinions that vary in how integrated animals are in permaculture systems, some of which don't exclude the possibility of being vegan and practicing good animal husbandry (though I would call that "vegans practicing permaculture" and not "vegan permaculture"). Showing compassion for animal welfare doesn't necessitate their exclusion. "Animal-free" does not equal "cruelty-free" any more than "animal inclusion" equals "animal exploitation" and I think that if we are truly concerned about how animals are treated, creating environments for animals to thrive in is a valid approach, perhaps even more valid than abandoning them altogether. As it has been said, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." We can all recognize the various ways in which large-scale commercial animal agriculture gets it wrong. It takes no skill to see the evils of those systems, but rather than choosing not to participate, I place more value on the choice to do it better:



I appreciate the point you bring up about beekeeping, that although eating honey may not be vegan, honey is probably far less exploitative than sugar cane, and can be harvested respectfully. (Side note: You may also be familiar with Willie Smits, who is a big proponent of using sugar palms instead of sugar cane, for a more perennial system which can grow and build ecosystems instead of adding to their destruction, and hence, there is a vegan-friendly, environmentally-friendly method of obtaining sweetener.)

I imagine the answer can be found in your book, but how would you differentiate "vegans practicing permaculture" the way I describe, with the kind, careful, protective and intentional inclusion of animals not raised for food from "vegan permaculture"?

All in all, I'm glad you're here in the forums, and I'm glad for the opportunity to personally confront these questions as I forge my path through these issues.
 
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