What follows was written by a reader of this blog (who goes by CQ) as a comment to several posts having to do with the prospect of cruelty-free agriculture. I thought it would be missed by too many readers as a comment so I’ve chosen to post it as an official entry. Some fascinating stuff in here. Enjoy -jm
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 James-McWilliams.com) 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 http://www.veganpermaculture.com 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 write:
“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 http://www.landinstitute.org 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 http://www.ecofilms.com.au/2009/10/13/2000-year-old-food-forest-in-morocco. Other films on food forest permaculture are here:http://www.ecofilms.com.au/category/permaculture/food-forests
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 veganpermaculture.com.
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 http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc).
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!