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.
Drawing inspiration from classic texts such as J Russel Smith's 'Tree Crops', Masanobu Fukuoka's 'One Straw Revolution', plus the work of permaculturists David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, Restoration Agriculture reminds me in many ways of Kathleen Jannaway's classic 'Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree'1. This was a visionary publication that proposed an entirely new paradigm for the evolution of humankind beyond the age of oil dependency, annual grain agriculture and animal exploitation. It pointed the way towards a tree-based culture very different from anything seen thus far in history, wherin virtually all our needs for food, shelter, fuel and fibre are met from managed woodlands and food forests. We can’t of course know what such a future would look like, any than more than our ancestors would have been able to envisage the world after the advent of the plough or the internal combustion engine, and Jannaway's slim pamphlet (deliberately) provides little more than a tantalising sketch of a world based on values of true compassion and ecological harmony. Yet 'Restoration Agriculture' is a significant step towards fleshing out and adding colour to her broad brushstrokes in the here and now.
With lucid facts and figures based on experience gleaned from his commercial 106 acre New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, Shepard dismantles the myth of feeding the world with annual crops as a long term sustainable option, presenting instead an extremely convincing argument for polycultural and perennial plant-based food production. Monocultural grain-based farming works against nature, uses more energy than it produces in terms of food calories, and generates often toxic wastes. It erodes soil and degrades the earth's resources, while yields inevitably decline drastically over time, requiring ever more inputs of oil-derived artificial fertility. Polycultural alternatives on the other hand are integrated, diverse systems which are resilient and mimic nature, restoring rather than depleting 'natural capital' such as soils, clean water, biodiversity and air quality. Shepard takes the example of the prevalent cool temperate eco-system of his north American bio-regional home (oak savannah, by and large similar to our own climate region in the UK), and explains how diverse alley-cropped trees and bushes such as oak, chestnuts, hazel, apples, blackcurrants and fungi can produce up to 6 million calories of nutritionally dense food per acre annually, and how such farms can not only be financially viable but restorative of local communities and economies.
Shepard does not exclude animals from his polycultural model, although the systems of management he proposes for integrating cattle, pigs and birds into broad scale food forests are based on understanding and meeting their natural behaviours and needs, thus ensuring a high quality of life. This is unlike current industrialised factory (or even 'organic') farming methods that maximise profit above any considerations of welfare, resulting in cruelty, misery and the diminishing of both the animals, and we humans as producers and consumers. To my mind these parts of the book are enlightening and well worth reading. Yet at the end of the day, even though his animals have 'had a good life', they still wind up dead for the purpose of providing human sustenance. This is where, as a vegan committed to a belief in the intrinsic right to self determination for all sentient beings, I part company with the methods Shepard advocates, although it's easy to skip these chapters without losing any of the overall concept. Indeed Shepard himself cheerfully admits that the polycultural model he proposes is fully adaptable to a veganic system, and will provide more than enough of an abundance of high quality food without (captive) animal inputs. I find it very refreshing that he avoids adopting an antagonistic stance towards the vegan point of view, something that perhaps cannot be said for some of the other proponents of regenerative agriculture (eg, Joe Salatin and Alan Savory) and their insistence that domesticated animal 'components' are 'essential' to building and maintaining soil fertility.