Permaculture & The Vegan way

Toby Hemenway hemenway at
Thu Mar 8 13:35:38 EST 2001

I appreciate many of the points that Graham raises on veganism in
permaculture at 
I tend to agree with Wes Trotman, that veganism is only feasible in rich
countries. But I think the whole question, "which is more sustainable,
veganism or omnivory?" misses the point. Vegans point to the huge acreages
needed to produce beef; omnivores point back at the wasteful agriculture
that monocrops soy beans. The culprit in those cases is not a particular
eating choice but rather industrial agriculture, whether as feedlots or
beanfields. Neither "side" of this discussion is living sustainably, just as
all of us who drive cars are not living sustainably. So I think basing the
choice of eating animals on sustainability is a blind alley and isn't
related to how we're really living. I can certainly envision a permaculture
system that integrates animals in a way that consumes no more land and
resources than one without animals, and offers more yields. We can stack
animals into the system very efficiently, just as nature does.

Frankly, I have a hard time conceiving of a sustainable agriculture that
does not involve animals, as the many roles they play in natural systems and
in designed ones must then be replaced by fossil fuel inputs or vast amounts
of human labor (and I prefer my hammock). For example, setting aside acreage
to grow and process compost crops is probably less efficient than running
livestock within a system to consume forage and crop wastes and generate
manure. Humanure can't be the only source of fertilizer‹the Second Law of
Thermodynamics dictates that you'll run out of of nutrients. Plus having
humans as the only animal designed into the system is its own form of
monocrop, and overlooks many other ways to process nutrients.  Stripping
animals out of our designed ecosystems seems unwise and certainly unnatural.

Having animals in a system doesn't mean you have to eat them (although those
who believe keeping livestock is slavery are still going to be unhappy).
However, I share the views of Paul Shepard expressed in "The Tender
Carnivore and the Sacred Game," and of David Abrams in "The Spell of the
Sensuous" wherein they say we need relationships with animals; they enrich
us, connect us to the rest of life, and expand what it means to be human.
Even our role as predator is a crucial one, deeply embedded in our psyche
and genes. Not everyone wants to act out that aspect of ourselves, but as a
biologist I've got a healthy respect for 3 billion years of the
predator/prey dynamic, and I feel deepened by entering into the
awe-inspiring mysteries of that ancient and respectful relationship with the
"more than human" world.

Thus I feel the sustainability argument tilts somewhat in favor of omnivory,
but that in the face of much larger constraints--since few of us are growing
all our own food, and we are dependent on industrial systems--whether or not
we eat animals really boils down to personal belief. Hence we can discuss
it, cheerfully or angrily, forever.


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