Vegan Permaculture

» May 24th, 2012

 

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!

27 Responses to Vegan Permaculture

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. It’s great to see that there are people out there working towards sustainable and ethical alternatives.

  2. Thank you QC & James for sharing this critical information! Here is Helen Atthowe’s link http://veganicpermaculture.com She is amazing!

    • CQ says:

      She is indeed!

      I checked to see if her website includes “www” or not. It does, though I guess you’ll automatically arrive there even if you don’t type it in…. Thanks for giving it again. Once more won’t hurt: http://www.veganicpermaculture.com !

      • Sorry, should have clarified. In the article you have the address as “vegan” permaculture, but is actually “veganic”. Have been following her for a few years.

        Much thanks for all you are sharing!

        • CQ says:

          Oh, I didn’t even see that. Proves that editing types don’t always see their OWN mistakes! Thanks for telling me/us, VZ.

          James, if there’s any way you could fix that typo in the second paragraph, adding an “ic” to “vegan” in the hyperlink, that’d be much appreciated!

  3. Thanks for this post. Vegans need to learn more about agriculture if our movement is to move forward. Most vegans I know do not know anything about agriculture, and most carnists who do know anything about it, generally refuse to credit the successes of veganic alternatives. Carnists are way ahead of us in terms of the “sustainable farming” conversation (even if they’re wrong– they’ve been exploring it for way longer) and we’re going to be buried if we don’t start learning and talking more about this. Here’s a bunch more info to add about veganic ag if anyone is interested, including lots of links and resources: http://vegetarianmythmyth.wordpress.com/vegan-permaculture-ecovillages-busting-keiths-myth-once-and-for-all/

    In terms of larger-scale veganic farming and polyculture grains, I agree that there’s potentially a long way to go (though I think this article overstates it a bit.) In terms of simple veganic farming, there isn’t, really. Many people do it already with compost piles in their backyard, and many poor farmers throughout the world do it by default because they cannot afford livestock. I think there’s a lot of hope if we just step up and educate ourselves and others.

    • CQ says:

      Carolyn, when you say “In terms of larger-scale veganic farming and polyculture grains, I agree that there’s potentially a long way to go (though I think this article overstates it a bit)” I am not sure whether you mean that the time will come sooner than hoped or later than hoped. I hope you mean sooner than hoped! :-)

      Sounds like we need an association of veganic farmers. Actually, as many of you know, there already IS one: the North American Veganic Agriculture Network (http://www.goveganic.net).

      I moseyed around that website briefly to see if it has a category for polyculture grains, and there doesn’t appear to be one. So perhaps they’ll start a section devoted to this subject.

      After all, it’s what got me interested in exploring more, and it’s what needs to be more widely known by vegans who want to opt out of supporting monoculture crops.

      Speaking for myself, I don’t like being charged with hypocrisy (with good reason, it would seem) by fellow commenter Mountain :-) and not have a way out of that hypocrisy. At some point, unintentionally and indirectly but KNOWINGLY causing suffering and death to any animal will become unacceptable to every vegan, just like eating and wearing parts of animals is now.

      I would love it if there were at least ONE veganic farmer providing produce, including grains, in every city around the world.

      And I envision — sooner rather than later! — a handful of independent commercial processors of animal-friendly breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, chips, etc., selling a wide selection of reasonably priced products in stores nationwide. (By independent I mean not started or bought out by animal-unfriendly companies.)

      Yes, Carolyn, as I have learned in a crash course over the past month, continuing education is key.

      Hey, thanks for posting this as a guest blog, James. I trust your having done so will enable the word to reach lots more readers. Maybe one of them will become the founder of the first producer of polyculture veganic cheesy puffs — and pasta (my favorite food).

      • Thanks for your response, and for your great words in this essay :)

        Let’s see. I think I meant that polyculture grains and larger-scale veganic/stockfree agriculture isn’t a project that a whole lot of folks have taken on especially the polyculture, sustainable grains) so I do think it will take some major adjustments of practice and attitude, BUT I think there’s reason to believe that, since the technology and means are there, it could happen SOONER than this article states! I hope it’s true, anyways! :)

        There’s a great movement in the UK that tends to use the term “stockfree” instead of “veganic” and has implemented official stockfree standards (sort of like organic standards) that a farm can be certified with. Some farms in the US are using that standard, too. Check out Tollhurst’s “Growing Green.” Good stuff!

        I am very interested in this subject and am writing a book on it (among other things regarding the future of veganism) so please keep us updated about your musings/finding re: sustainable grain. I’d love to know more. Do you have a blog?

        And as someone else stated here, I think it’s important to remember that in any case, eating plants and grains causes less animal destruction than any meat-based diet. So, vegan revolution anyone?

        • CQ says:

          Oh, right, Iain Tolhurst. A year or more ago, I discovered the stockfree movement in the U.K. and scoured the two websites (which now seem to be nonexistent). Here’s the new site I found just now: http://www.tolhurstorganic.co.uk

          It was only when I learned from Mountain a month or more ago that my grain-greed was causing animals grief that I began exploring the subject in more depth. I see Tolhurst doesn’t do grain — yet.

          Nope, no blog. Am too busy responding to this one and others to even think about having my own.

          Thanks for the encouragement, though. :-)

          What I’ll do is check in with Helen and Robert every half-year or so for updates — and to find out how Montina is selling — and then I’ll pass the news along here.

      • Mountain says:

        Hey CQ, just wanted to applaud the wonderful & wonderfully open-minded research you’ve done, understanding your food & its consequences. You have shown tremendous integrity in looking to minimize harm.

        You inspire me as I continue to work toward the goal of a farm without cages & without prisoners, where the chickens are free to roam as they please, eat as they please, and do as they please. Because the property had incomplete fencing when we got it, they are even free to leave if they please– though, happily, none have done so. Even as I complete the fencing, it is important to me that it remain at a height the birds can get over (a free roaming chicken, wings unclipped, can easily clear six feet). It may sound crazy, but I want the fence to deter potential harm from dogs or humans, not to limit the freedom of the birds.

        • Bea Elliott says:

          Hello Mountain – It’s great that these birds can have the freedom they have a right to – Especially with the protection from humans.

          Just wondering though… Is there a time limit for how long they can come and go as they please?

          • Mountain says:

            Bea, there is a theoretical time limit of whatever age the chickens begin dying of natural causes in large numbers. In my current inexperienced state (though I’ve done a lot of reading on it), I believe that is somewhere in the range of ten years of age. As a practical matter, it is likely I’ll never actually enforce that time limit, even if intellectually I think I should.

        • CQ says:

          Doesn’t sound crazy to me, Mountain. Sounds like a great plan and a worthy motive.

          As for the integrity bit, well, thanks, but you gave me no choice but to pursue it! So the credit is shared. :-)

          Now, as to Bea’s question below, I found the exchange you and I had under the old Eating Plants May 8th blog on Temple Grandin, and am pasting it here — on the off-chance you’d like to tell us, for the record, that you’re growing quite fond of the chickens, and that apart from your scientific reason for not making their flesh your dinner, you couldn’t bring yourself to do so anyway, given that you’ve grown to love, admire, and respect them — and wouldn’t dream of betraying their absolute trust in and affection for you, any more than they’d dream of doing said deed to you and your human family!

          Our exchange below can be found here: http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=1340#comments

          CQ says:
          May 9, 2012 at 1:08 am

          Question, Mountain: Couldn’t you adopt some chickens instead of breeding them? Rescued chickens deserve some of that fun you describe! There are many such individuals available, given the number of people who plunge into the trendy backyard chicken movement and then opt out, causing shelters to fill up with abandoned hens. Hey, they’d love it at your place, as long as they remained your companions and never became dinner. :-)

          Reply
          Mountain says:
          May 9, 2012 at 4:04 am

          We don’t breed chickens, but so far all of our birds are from breeders. Now that we have space (we started in our backyard, knowing that we were looking for a farm), we will start adopting chickens. We can only go as fast as we can build resources. Our basic approach is to gather food waste + carbon resources, and let the girls turn it into compost. They are free to roam wherever they want on the farm, but the compost piles are the most biologically active spaces on the farm, so they spend most of their time there.

          Honestly, this first group will never become dinner, since we need to observe how long they live before old age & disease takes it toll– hopefully, 10+ years. In addition to quality of life, I think they should have the full length of their natural lives.

          Reply
          CQ says:
          May 9, 2012 at 4:59 am

          Ah! I predict, dear Mountain, that you will fall so head-over-heels in love with your first group of chickens that not only will they never become dinner, as you say, but neither will any future groups of hens.

          Puuuleeeease don’t tell me that you would adopt them and then later — much later — chop them (my just-made-up phrase for you-know-what). :-) I don’t think you’d have the heart to do that. And besides, would that not violate a rescue organization’s contract?

          • Mountain says:

            CQ, lots of other posters received the same invitation to face the consequences of their (vegan) eating. To my knowledge, you’re the only one who pursued it.

            As for your question for me, I think it is fair to say I loved the chickens before you & I had our exchange. And while I still think culling (or chopping, as you say) at the end of a natural life is the right thing to do, I don’t expect to ever be emotionally ready to do it. So, on a theoretical level, we are still in disagreement, but on a practical level, I believe you are correct.

          • CQ says:

            Wow, Mountain, you confound me. Luckily, in a good way. :-)

            It’s heart-warming to read the exchanges between you and Bea about the chickens you both love. It makes me feel there’s hope for us all.

            Bea signed off with “peace.” That word accurately describes what has happened here. By doing our best to understand one another … to be open-minded … to be kind and courteous to one another and considerate of feelings … to apologize for unintentional (or even intentionally) slights … to agree to grow beyond our present understanding and commit to finding out more information, we have been modeling inner and outer peace.

            I’d like to think that our peace-building is having a ripple effect on the world.

            I know for sure it’s being felt by the sweet chooks, as the Aussies call our fine, feathered friends.

            Mountain, if you haven’t seen this video, I believe it’s right up your alley: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/10/22/urban-chickens

            And, if you’re interested, the website of the featured human is here: http://www.brittonclouse.com/chickenrunrescue

            Hey, I’m not going to worry about our theoretical disagreement. What we feel in our hearts and practice in our lives is what counts, for me. I guess ideally the two (theory and practice) would merge at some point — but NOT on the culling/chopping side, I pray. :-)

            Good to have made your acquaintance, Mountain. Dare I say, good to have you as a friend.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Thanks for the link, Carolyn. I also have a sister living in Canada, but unfortunately, she eats meat — I so wish she were vegan.

  4. In fact, I should mention, Honeybrook Farms in New Jersey, which is the largest CSA in the US, is veganic.

    The means are there; people just aren’t using them.

  5. Tim says:

    Fantastic read ! It should also be mentioned that choosing vegan, even with grains involved, is most certainly the least violent choice, as violence is “intentional harm”, whereas grain production results in accidental, unintentional harm, not violence. That being said, it should most definitely be a top concern for all of us to also reduce the amount of accidental harm to the lowest level possibly achievable.

  6. Ellie Maldonado says:

    CQ, thanks so much for all this wonderful information! I’m so glad to know there’s hope for the future. And I haven’t given up trying to grow a vegetable of my own. So please wish me luck :-)

    • CQ says:

      Well, I haven’t even gotten to the point of trying! :-)

      Yes, indeed, Ellie, I wish you every success with your first tomato or pepper or carrot. My neighbor is like a kid in a candy store with her new little veggie garden on her back porch.

  7. Bea Elliott says:

    What great resources! I’m constantly amazed at how much more information gathering/learning there is to make the vegan argument a winner.

    Thank you again James for providing this forum. And CQ for your tireless efforts in accumulating useful data en route to a peaceable kingdom.

  8. Lisa Viger says:

    Nicely done, CQ! Veganic agriculture makes a great deal of sense. We’re trying it here, as well.

  9. Bea Elliott says:

    Hi Mountain
    I too have a small flock of rescued birds – Time has not been a friend to all of them. Just as with all of fragile life – Some have died at a very young age for mysterious reasons that I just must accept as part of “the circle”.

    Of the twelve original factory farmed hens, there is only Ruth and Ginger that remain. And both are slowing down and showing the signs of a life-time of wear. I have found the Leghorns are particularly vulnerable to an early end… No doubt the breeding that causes them to lay an “egg a day” takes it’s toll on their bones and overall health. As it is for the last year or so they lay one or two a month… Wish I could just turn off that biological thing that makes them do this, as it would allow them to conserve that much more for what their own bodies need to live. And I certainly don’t “need” the eggs. :/

    I hope you find much joy and relaxation observing and interacting with your flock. Chickens are amazing and delightful company when given the chance. I’m glad you won’t be interfering with the time that nature will give them. I think knowing that, as you care for them and care about them, it will make all the difference in what you get back. ~peace~

  10. CQ says:

    Rereading the comments, I realize with red cheeks that I haven’t properly credited Helen Atthowe with doing all this amazing research and writing the original draft of the post. When Robert Monie added his portion, the article changed from first-person to third-person, and some of Atthowe’s and Monie’s words became direct quotes.

    They and the other farmers and organizations they cited in this piece deserve kudos from all vegans, who will one day be eating truly harmless grains with a clear conscience.

  11. Fireweed says:

    Please forward any new links for veganic growing operations to me if you would be so kind, as I would like to add them to my blog http://www.veganiculture.blogspot.com to share with others interested in our movement! -Fireweed

  12. [...] Why this unconventional cuisine compact? Well, it started in earnest when Mountain insisted in a mid-December Eating Plants blog (http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=2782) that the monoculture-grown grains vegans eat harm animals and the earth. Actually, I already knew he was right, because after he first made that claim last spring, I’d searched the web and discovered that polyculture, veganic grain crops — a food fit for what one could call “vegans-plus” — do exist. But they’re in the experimental stages of development. My research led me to ask one of those experimenters to write an article on her findings. She did so, and I edited it into the form of a comment on this blog, which James then published as the guest post “Vegan Permaculture” last May (http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=1463). [...]

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