Permaculture and vegetarianism

September 27, 2005 at 2:24 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

I’ve had my nose in and out of a book by Bill Mollison — his third, Permaculture; A Designer’s Manual. The book is due at the library again in a few days; it seems to be one of those massively circulating tomes, with mulitple “holds” on it at any given moment. Luckily, however, there’s plenty to learn about permaculture on the web, too. It’s defined as follows on this webpage: “Permaculture – from permanent and agriculture – is an integrated design philosophy that encompasses gardening, architecture, horticulture, ecology, even money management and community design. The basic approach is to create sustainable systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste.” And it’s elaborated as follows here:

… is a practical concept applicable from a balcony to the farm, from the city to the wilderness, enabling us to establish productive environments providing our food, energy, shelter, material and non-material needs, as well as the social and economic infrastructures that will support them.
… is a synthesis of ecology, geography, observation & design.
Permaculture encompasses all aspects of human environments and culture, urban and rural, and their local and global impact.
It involves ethics of earth care because the sustainable use of land cannot be separated from lifestyle and philosophical issues.
… encourages the restoration of balance to our environments through the practical application of ecological principles.
In the broadest sense, Permaculture refers to land-use systems and lifestyle options which utilise resources in a sustainable way.
[More...]

I was really very intrigued to read Bill Mollison’s commentary, on pp.28-30 of Permaculture; A Designer’s Manual, on the question of “Pyramids, Food Webs, Growth, and Vegetarianism.” Mollison begins by dismantling the naive understanding of the trophic pyramid, which is often used to illustrate that carnivorous man, sitting at the top of the pyramid, requires huge amounts of “lesser” animals and plants to produce for his consumption a kilogram of meat. This pyramid is then used to bolster the argument that it is therefore ethically and environmentally desirable to become vegetarian. In the pyramid that illustrates p.29 of the book, we see that 10000 kg of herbage feeds 1000 kg of grasshoppers which feeds 100 kg of frog which feeds 10 kg of fish which feeds 1 kg of human. In a direct “herbage to human” path, however, it takes only 1000 kg (vs 10000 kg) to feed one kg of human. This is then used to argue that we should use the direct path and eat herbage (vegetarian diet) vs feeding herbage to other eaters who in turn are eaten by bigger animals who in turn are eaten by us.

But Mollison asks us to consider the following other factors:

1. Because we are enmeshed in complex interactions, nature is much more complex than the pyramid would suggest. There are complex interactions between same species, for example, “governed not by food habits, but by pasture management practices.” (Here he is referring to the complex web of species interaction literally on the ground — between insects, for example, or between amphibians.) It’s preferable to use a food web to explain this, not a pyramid.

His second point really caught my attention:

2. “Pyramids ignore feedback.” Because the earth on which we’re all planted (or stand) literally “eats” us up again (in the form of our continuous waste as well as our eventual waste when we die), and because we exist over time (vs. as a “still” or “snapshot” in time), feedback isn’t taken into account in the pyramid model: “…as an animal grows, it returns nutrients to the soil via excreted, moulted, or discarded body wastes, and even if the frog eats 10 kg of grasshoppers to make one kilo of frog, it doesn’t (obviously) keep the 10 kg in a bag, but excretes 9 kg or more back to earth as manures. This causes more vegetation to grow, thus producing more grasshoppers. (…) …the real position is that waste recycling to herbage is the main producer of that herbage.”

The third point is equally thought-provoking:

3. “What of maturity?” Consider that some animals below the level of “man” at the top of the pyramid grow to be very old. Mollison uses the example of a carp, which may grow to be 80 or more years old, yet that same carp is already fully grown at age two. Mollison writes:

So now, the carp (at 80 years old and 10 kg weight) has eaten 100 x 10 kg = 1000 kg of frogs and insects, and has returned 990 kg of digested material per year to the pond, to grow more herbage. Thus, in order to keep the system in growth, we must be able to efficiently crop any level just before maturity is reached. We can see that old or mature systems no longer use food for growth, but for maintenance. So it is with mature fish, frogs, forests, and people.

Old organisms thus become constant recyclers (food in, waste out) and cease to grow, or they even begin to lose weight. This is why we try to use only young and growing plants and animals for food, if food is scarce. An exception is a fruit or nut tree, where we consume seed or fruit (seed is an immature tree).

4. Next, he asks “Are food chains so simple?” The “man” at the top of the trophic pyramids eats lots of other things (including vegetation) besides the carp (or fish — or cow) immediately “below” him.

Mollison points out that the argument that we should become vegetarians to ameliorate food shortage is suspect: “Only in home gardens is most of the vegetation edible for people; much of the earth is occupied by inedible vegetation. Deer, rabbits, sheep, and herbivorous fish are very useful to us, in that they convert this otherwise unusable herbage to acceptable human food. Animals represent a valid method of storing inedible vegetation as food. If we convert all vegetation to edible species, we assume a human priority that is unsustainable, and must destroy other plants and animals to do so.”

Even if you bristle at the suggestion that animals are there “for” you, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that most of the vegetation covering the earth is inedible for us. So, what should we do? Convert everything to soybeans? No, because then we’d be depriving the rest of the animal world that depends on the vegetation which we can’t eat from getting nourished. As Mollison points out, soybeans in particular are a scourge if held up as an alternative to eating meat:

“Even to cook these foods [grains and grain legumes like soya], we need to use up very large quantities of wood and fossil fuels. Worse, soya beans are one of the foods owned (100% of patent rights) by a few multinationals. They are grown on rich bottomland soils, in large monocultural operations, and in 1980-82 caused more deforestation in the USA and Brazil than any other crop. (…) …grains and grain legumes account for most of the erosion of soils in every agricultural region, and moreover, very few home gardeners in the developed world ever grow grains or grain legumes, so that much of what is eaten in the West is grown in areas where real famine threatens (mung beans from India, chick peas from Ethiopia, soya beans from Africa and India).”

Ok, if you’re concerned about supporting sustainable natural systems, what sort of diet should you, an urbanised Westerner, eat? According to Mollison, vegetarian diets are only efficient if they provide for the following conditions:

1. if they’re based on easily cooked or easily processed crops from home gardens (or the local farmer’s market, I wonder?)
2. if wastes, especially body wastes, are returned to the soil of that garden. (…Hmmm, now that’s an argument for the composting toilet, right? I know that some friends of mine (in jurisdiction of City of Victoria) tried to get one of these, but were turned down by the plumbing department — of course, the City of Victoria still sends its raw sewage straight into the ocean, so …are we supposed to eat more fish?? Not likely, given all the toxic chemicals that also got flushed and found their way into the flesh of the fish… (In fairness, Victoria is slowly getting a process in place — forced on us, finally — to address the sewage scandal, and there’s talk of looking at bioponds and other bioneered solutions; waste recycling back to soil should be at least part of the equation…)
3. at the same time, nearly exclusively meat-dependent diets have a place in very cold climates that don’t allow for home gardens — think Arctic: fish, seal, blubber.
4. And finally: “We should always do our energy budgets,” says Mollison. Regardless of what we eat, if we don’t grow our own food and send our sewage into the ocean, we’re losing “the essential soil and nutrients needed for a sustainable life cycle.” As for city people who use flush toilets, we “would be better advised to adopt a free-range meat diet than to eat grain and grain legumes.” No more tofu burgers. (Never liked them anyway.)

Unless you have a solar powered freezer and can stock up with direct-from-the-farmer quantities of meats, it’s still way too expensive to buy free-range meat in meal-sized portions at the store. It’s especially impossible if you’re feeding growing teenagers who tend to inhale alimentation the way the rest of us inhale air. The home garden, on the other hand, is more achievable (and plenty more work). When we still lived in Greater Boston, one of my neighbours got into Square Foot Gardening and actually grew corn on the cob along with other delicious veggies… (he was originally from the mid-west…).

He also went hunting. Which reminds me of the closing paragraph from Richard Manning’s amazing 2004 Harper’s Magazine article, The Oil We Eat; Following the food chain back to Iraq: disgusted by our industrial method of agriculture’s dependence on petrochemicals and what this implies for supermarket food choices and politics, Manning concludes:

Food is politics. That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The day after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the mountain behind my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native grasses in the morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years has become great enough that on that morning I did not hesitate but went straight to my job, which was to rack a shell and drop one cow elk, my household’s annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of choice—an act not all that uncommon in this world, largely, I think, as a result of the way we grow food. I can see why it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit of violence, though, is more satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe’s ordinary political mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed, but then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those elk went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes, mountain lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact natural system, all of it went on. [complete article here...]

That said, I once again this summer let my garden go to hell. But at least I managed to shop at farms a couple of times…

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