Nature, Animals, and Holistic Farming: Some Raw Thoughts

» May 19th, 2012




I’ll start with two related thoughts, and then run with them. First, I’m thrilled by technology. It’s not I that I think technology will solve all our problems–I’m no determinist–but it’s just that I see technology as a vast arena of innovation, a place where humans can pour an abundance of natural creativity and, at times, reap substantial humanitarian and environmental rewards. In many ways, what makes life meaningful–what gives us pleasure and allows us to reach our potential as engaged human beings–is linked in one way or another to technological advancement. I’m well aware that technology is also the cause of immense suffering and ecological degradation. Nevertheless, there’s no disentangling humanity from technology. Systematically meddling with natural resources is, for better or worse, an important part of what defines us as a species.

Second, I’m impatient with the idea that technological advance is somehow a deviation from what’s “natural.” This is a common rhetorical strategy used by the spokespeople in the sustainable food movement to deride many agricultural technologies as artificial and destructive. It’s also a questionable pretext for insisting that we must grow plants and fatten animals according to more “natural” or–big buzzword here–”holistic” methods, drawing upon processes that occur in nature without human intervention. It’s also an intellectually lazy understanding of nature. In this formulation, nature becomes something not only falsely segregated from technology (and thus from humanity), but it becomes something that we’re supposed to think of as inherently superior to “artificial”–i.e., processes designed with human participation. Yes, the buffalo once fertilized the land that produced the grasses that fed buffalo when there were very few people around North America. That was natural, we’re told. But more people are now here. Billions more. And agriculture has to feed them. So it’s time for a new natural.

I’ll concede that my heart pulls toward the romanticized preference for natural methods. And the fact is this preference would be fine if there weren’t 7 billion people living on earth, with about two billion more on the way, and billions more on the verge of entering the middle class. But, as it now stands, to allow nature to be our farmer–which is what the sustainable food people say should happen–is to promote two of the more dangerous aspects of agriculture: systematic animal exploitation and gross inefficiency in plant production. Indeed, it’s a central tenet of the sustainable food movement that responsible and “natural” agricultural systems require the incorporation of domesticated (and thus genetically exploited) animals to enhance soil quality. Similarly, it’s a central tenet that plants should be grown without any synthetic fertilizer or fossil fuel. These flawed tenets are directly related to each other. In other words, reliance on exploiting animals is precisely what allows advocates of “natural” farming to justify avoiding synthetic fertilizer or the natural gas used to produce food. Take animals out of the agrarian equation and you have to acquire soil fertility in other ways. So, how does the ethical vegan respond to this quandary?

I’m becoming well aware of veganic agriculture. And I have hope for veganic agriculture. I imagine that–though technological progress–we may one day be able to create a global plant-based agricultural system using green manure and other non-synthetic enhancements. For now, though, my response cannot be so idealistic: if we want to take animals out of agriculture, we’re going to need to use fossil fuel and synthetic fertilizers–and even some level of pesticides and fungicides–to feed billions of people a plant-based diet devoid of intentional animal exploitation. I realize that this assessment might not sit well with many vegan advocates–who tend to be environmental advocates as well as animal advocates–but keep two things in mind: a) manipulating the environment to make it feed billions of people will always come at some cost (people who talk about a “free lunch” in agriculture–ahem, Pollan–are dreaming), and b) there are, with technology, remarkably encouraging ways to minimize the impact of these necessary synthetic inputs.

So here are a few reasons why I think it’s possible–and desirable–to remove animals from agriculture, produce enough food to feed 9 billion people, use fossil fuels and other synthetic inputs, and still have an environmentally responsible agricultural system.

–The overwhelming source of fossil fuel consumption in agriculture today is animal based agriculture. All that corn and soy is mainly the problem. Switching to a diverse agricultural system that produces plants for people to eat would dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and fossil fuel, to the point that the environmental impact would be greatly minimized. Again, to think that any system of agricultural production in the modern world can break even in terms of energy costs is crazy talk. Holistic/sustainable advocates fail to calculate the energy wasted and required to remove an animal from a holistic system prematurely, not to mention killing, commodifying, and replacing her. As the World Preservation Institute reported late last year: a global vegan diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by 94 percent. What more needs to be said?

–High end synthetic fertilizers can be extremely efficient when it comes to plant nutrient uptake–often more efficient than manure. In fact, customized fertilizers deliver more nutrients more efficiently than manure, which–not being in any way designed for the specific nutrient needs of the crop–has high rates of nutrient run off. Plant biologists have made great strides in matching crop nutrient needs with specific fertilizer profiles–but, they’ve only done this with corn and soy. What if we did it for 500 edible plant crops and grew them all in the United States? “That’s not natural,” the sustainable agrarians would say. To which I would respond: “Agriculture is not natural by your definition. Get over it.” Subsidizing the judicious use of these fertilizers makes more sense than subsidizing corn and soy production. The use of efficient, high grade, low run-off fertilizer could–calorie per calorie–be more environmentally sound than using loads and loads of composted manure or relying on rotational grazing.

–A plant-based system that eliminated animals would require much less agricultural space, an acute factor given the press on limited arable land globally. Rotational grazing gets people excited because it’s so “natural,” but there’s nothing terribly natural about chopping down rainforests to clear land so we can fatten animals and grow crops “holistically.” The only viable objection I ever get to this claim suggests that, under holistic systems, we would not need as much land because people would eat less meat. But this objections fails on at least two grounds. First, it’s naive to think that consumers are going to switch to more expensive animal product options so long as cheaper ones are available–and cheapness comes from industrialization. Two, and relatedly, eating limited animal products produced in holistic systems will become the domain of the elite. I see no reason to reform a food system so that wealthy people are the only ones able to eat in a way that supposedly respects the environment and the welfare of animals.

–Finally, advocates of sustainable agriculture support the holistic model because it theoretically eliminates dependence on fossil fuels. While I’ve already mentioned many problems with this goal, there is one that I haven’t mentioned that’s more important than all put together: the worth of an animal’s life should never be measured in barrels of oil.



2 Responses to Nature, Animals, and Holistic Farming: Some Raw Thoughts

  1. Mariann says:

    Is there any role for composting in a large-scale, sustainable, non-exploitative agricultural system?

  2. CQ says:

    This comment is a spillover from another one I just posted at the bottom of James’ May 4th thread: “Just One Bad Day”: Why “Sustaining Animal Farming Is Still Cruel (


    Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater?

    We’ve been going ’round and ’round that question on various posts in the Eating Plants (now blog, haven’t we?

    Recently, I found someone who has been attempting to reduce the harm to animals from grain production down to zero.

    Helen Atthowe of Montana is a vegan agricultural ecologist who is behind and whose writing, photos and videos of her veganic permaculture farm are featured on it.

    According to Atthowe, humans who eat grain cannot, for the most part, escape causing suffering and death to other living organisms.

    Consumer demand for bread, pasta, cereal, crackers and chips, Atthowe laments, has homogenized the landscape into a monoculture of annual grasses—wheat, corn (maize), rice, oats, rye, and barley grains, all called cereal grains. Even organic vegan cheesy puffs use monoculture grains.

    (Another monoculture crop, soybeans, is a grain legume; livestock are fed almost all the soybeans grown in the U.S.)

    This vast production of grain by modern agribusiness inevitably kills many birds, small mammals, and insects. It is also hard on larger wild species, not to mention on the land itself.

    At present, a typical vegan eats the same grains as non-vegans simply because there are not yet any commercially viable veganic grain production systems. But thanks to the efforts of some dedicated scientists around the world, annual grains grown as single cash crops will not remain the only large-scale option much longer.

    Indeed, grains can be grown and are being grown in less disruptive polyculture systems. Polyculture systems, says Atthowe, closely mimic nature’s ecosystems, within which insects, birds, small mammals and other wildlife thrive. These polyculture grains can be grown as perennials, with reduced tillage and hence less disturbance of the organisms who rely on a stable soil system.

    For the past 30 years, Wes Jackson, Ph.D., president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been working on “perennial polyculture” grain production modeled on a prairie system.

    Jackson is one of eight scientists who authored a three-part series, “Breeding perennial grain crops,” published in the June 1, 2002, edition of Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. In part one, the authors wrote: “All of our current grain crops are annuals; therefore, developing an array of new perennial grains—grasses, legumes, and others—will require a long-term commitment. Fortunately, many perennial species can be hybridized with related annual crops, allowing us to incorporate genes of domestication much more quickly than did our ancestors who first selected the genes. Some grain crops—including rye, rice, and sorghum—can be hybridized with close perennial relatives to establish new gene pools. Others, such as wheat, oat, maize, soybean, and sunflower, must be hybridized with more distantly related perennial species and genera. Finally, some perennial species with relatively high grain yields—intermediate wheatgrass, wildrye, lymegrass, eastern gamagrass, Indian ricegrass, Illinois bundleflower, Maximilian sunflower, and probably others—are candidates for direct domestication without interspecific hybridization. To ensure diversity in the field and foster further genetic improvement, breeders will need to develop deep gene pools for each crop. Discussions of breeding strategies for perennial grains have concentrated on allocation of photosynthetic resources between seeds and vegetative structures. But perennials will likely be grown in more diverse agro-ecosystems and require arrays of traits very different from those usually addressed by breeders of annuals. The only way to address concerns about the feasibility of perennial grains is to carry out breeding programs with adequate resources on a sufficient time scale. A massive program for breeding perennial grains could be funded by diversion of a relatively small fraction of the world’s agricultural research budget.” (Go to and click the dropdown menu Publications/Science.)

    Another type of perennial polyculture, forest farming, is being practiced by New Forest Farm in Richland County, Wisconsin. The 100-acre property has been converted from annual monoculture crops (commodity corn and soybeans) to a “food forest” growing fruits, nuts, berries, asparagus and other woody perennials. Although New Forest Farm grows some annual grains (wheat, rye, barley), they are inter-planted within the tree crops.

    [For a look at a 2,000 year old oasis food forest found in the Morocco desert, see Other films on food forest permaculture are here:

    Then there are perennial wheat breeding experiments. They began in the early 1900’s, when USDA scientists began making crosses. Since then, scientists from the USSR, the University of California, Montana State University, and the Rodale Institute have worked with perennial wheat.

    For many years, none of these efforts could compete economically with annual wheat production. First-year yields of perennial wheat reached 70%-to-80% of annual wheat, but in successive years yields declined.

    More recently, however, some promising work on competitive perennial wheat has been done by the aforementioned Land Institute as well as by Washington State University (WSU) and Michigan State University (MSU).

    At WSU, for example, Stephen Jones is currently testing several varieties of better-yielding perennial wheat. These plants live between two and five years, producing a seed crop each summer. This seed contains more protein and more micro-nutrients than annual wheat, and its quality is similar to that of annual wheat. In some cases, unfertilized perennial wheat yields have been reported to be equal in some instances to soft white annual winter wheat, harvesting 20 to 35 bushels per acre.

    Rice is another candidate for perennialism. From 1995 to 2001, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed perennial rice cultivars to reduce erosion on the steep slopes where upland rice is often grown. Plant populations from IRRI’s breeding program were distributed to cooperators in China, where perennial rice breeding efforts continue.

    Masanobu Fukuoka, who passed away at age 95 in 2008, grew rice in Japan with no tilling, weeding, or spraying for insects and diseases. Yoshikozu Kawaguchi grows rice in Japan with no tilling, no spraying for insects and diseases, and minimal weeding. Atthowe is working on refining Fukuoka’s methods for small-scale grain production at her farm in northeastern Montana; she reports she has had some success.

    Moreover, native perennial grasses are being studied for food production. In fact, Atthowe is harvesting grain from a perennial grass called Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides) for human food. Indian ricegrass is a native dryland prairie bunch grass. A cultivar of this native grass, Rimrock, is being produced, milled, and marketed under the trade name Montina. Yields vary between 250 and 500 kilograms per hectare, but improvement through breeding may be possible, says Atthowe.

    In short, Atthowe declares, “we do not have to produce grains in monoculture. We can design agro-ecosystem farms that enhance species diversity and respect wild areas and species.” Leaders in this field are the Wild Farm Alliance of California and Gary Nabhan of Arizona. Atthowe has done some work in this area, too, which she tells about on her site

    Of course, it isn’t only monoculture grain production that kills birds, small mammals, and insects. Large-animal and small-animal producers deliberately kill “rodents” and insects in order to pass public health inspections. Predators, such as coyotes, are murdered at an alarming rate to protect the cattle, sheep, chickens, and other livestock on small farms and homestead livestock operations. Large livestock production, in particular, homogenizes native plant landscapes into permanent pastures.

    According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 data, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet.

    Then there is the violence of killing the animals that become food for humans. At Animal Visuals, Mark Middleton published data in October 2009 showing that a plant-based diet kills the fewest animals.

    In this study of eight food categories, when one million calories of grain is produced for direct human consumption, 1.65 animals die. When the same amount of grain is produced for humans to eat the flesh of chickens, 251.1 animals die. The other two categories of food that vegans eat, fruit and vegetables, cause the deaths of 1.73 and 2.55 animals. The consumption of (dairy) milk, pork, beef, and eggs kills 4.78, 18.1, 29.0 and 92.3 animals, respectively (see

    Until animal-friendly, economically viable grain production systems become more widely available, vegans do have choices. They can limit their intake of grains, including processed foods that contain grains. They can also grow veganic grains on their own plots of land.

    That’s what Robert Monie does. Retired from a local community college, Monie, a vegan who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, has experimented with no-till and low-till approaches on a micro scale, both in his backyard gardens and in tiny, shared garden plots on land worked by Vietnamese farmers.

    Monie says the term vegan “does not mean total absence of animal or insect content. It means the least animal or insect content we can practically achieve.”

    He believes that “vegan farmers will have to be brave, because they are setting out on uncharted waters that will require great innovations to help them arrive at their destination.

    “Vegan farming and a large-scale shift to vegan diets will not be business as usual,” he notes. “It will require growing methods never tried on a large scale, such as perennial grains, forest farm polycultures, and living mulch turnovers of the kind pioneered by Fukuoka and Kawaguchi in Japan, but without the chicken manure Fukuoka used.

    “The shift from standard farming—even of the organic kind—to vegan will be as radical as the shift from fossil fuel energy sources to renewables like photovoltaics and will probably require technical expertise of the same order that has gone into research and development in solar energy,” he adds.

    It is true, admits Monie, that “no one will know the extent to which cruelty in farming grains and vegetables can be reduced until numerous vegan commercial farms have been set up to try these new methods. Farming is, above all, a practical art, so there can be no a priori answer.

    “Nor,” he says, “can we expect ‘tradition’ to come to our aid. Tradition—that is, cultural patterns that we’ve been indoctrinated with and that we tend to fall back on— tells us we must plow the field, manure it with animal droppings, and eat animal flesh.

    “As Thoreau remarks in Walden, tradition has it that animal food is necessary to build strong bones, and yet the ox, having never heard this tradition, ignores it, eats plants, and builds stronger bones than those of any human.”

    So, based on the research done thus far, it appears that the question “Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater?” can be answered “yes.”

    It will become a even more emphatic “yes” as polyculture perennial grains become ever more economically viable and are increasingly marketed to a public eager to minimize their footprint on the earth and improve their relations with earth’s nonhuman inhabitants.

    Grains may become the ultimate harmless vegan food.

    Veganic cheesy puffs, here we come!

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