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Vegans, Vegetarians, and Permaculture

Permaculture Principles are derived from the observation of the economy of natural systems - in a word, sustainability. So we need to examine vegetarian and vegan diets in this context.

Since the purpose of Permaculture Design is to create productive systems with the stability and diversity of natural eco-systems, animals need to be included in most established Designs, for their value as a source of fibre and fertiliser, as transport, tillage, and waste disposal, and for their ability to turn vegetation which humans can't digest into high quality protein.

Permaculture proposes that all products should be used to the greatest advantage - that is, to produce the optimum energy yield - before any surplus is returned to the system. That means that some animals, principally the male offspring of milking animals, and those which have become otherwise unproductive, are eaten as meat. Milk, blood, and eggs, where produced, also form an important part of the diet.

I am not suggesting that eating animal proteins is mandatory. Simply that, where meat and animal proteins are a natural product of a system, and since they contain a great deal of embodied energy, it makes sense to eat them before returning them to the system as compost or sewage.
Nor need anything be wasted all edible parts of the carcase should be consumed.Skins can tanned and used, sinews cured and kept for sewing or thonging, teeth and bones cleaned and used for tools, games, buttons and jewellery.

Where it is not possible to raise stock within a system, but wild meat or fish is readily available, it makes sense to supplement the total dietary energy required by the inhabitants of the system by responsible hunting or fishing, rather than importing food, in the form of large quantities of vegetable or dairy proteins, from a distance.

If you study the history of hunter/gatherer and indigenous populations, you will find that they used the full range of foods and resources which occured naturally in their territory/bio-region. While there were seasonal and other taboos, these were usually derived from an understanding of natural cycles and the role of conservation in ensuring future survival. Even today, where animal protein can be obtained by hunting, fishing, or simple pastoral practices, it is a welcome addition to the diet, and often the reason for a feast or celebration. When these sources of animal protein are scarce or unobtainable, eggs and insects are still sought as supplements.

Only in sophisticated heirarchical communities are permanent taboos placed on the eating of flesh, and usually for reasons, though ostensibly spiritual, that are advantageous to those at the top of the heap. It is only the very privileged who are able to refuse perfectly good food and choose exactly what they eat, rather than eating what they can afford, or what they can get.

So why choose to totally abstain from meat?

The commercial production of meat increasingly involves feeding animals artificially, often with cereal crops which could feed many more people than the meat, if only it were distributed to those who need it. Also increasing is the feeding of GM crops, especially soybeans & cereals, which are refused as human food by many jurisdictions, to poultry and stock. These can then be offered as "free-range", "corn-fed" etc. to the unwitting consumer. Many, if not all, stages of the production process also cause great suffering to the animals. So for reasons of sustainability and compassion many of us choose to abstain from meat entirely.

Yet Vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, and some think fish permissable.

While those aware of the horrors perpetrated in the course of commercial egg production either keep their own poultry, or shop for free-range eggs, how many give a thought to the cruelty involved in the commercial production of milk and it's by-products, butter, cheese and yoghourt? If you keep your own milking animals, you will know that to keep females lactating they must have regular pregnancies, and that the young must fairly soon after birth be removed from the mother, and disposed of. In a small-scale operation these necessary tasks can, by those who care, be accomplished with a minimum of suffering. The same is not true of large-scale commercial dairy production, and I would venture that the suffering inflicted upon the milkers and their young is as horrific, if not more so, than the commercial production of either eggs or meat. A horrific development in economic efficiency is to induce the birth of calves.

Fish are left to gasp out their lives for as long as it takes after they are pulled from the water by all commercial and many recreational fishermen. And over-fishing - mostly commercial, though the recreational fisherman is far from innocent- has already seriously depleted the fish stocks in all the world's oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Commercial fish-farming , or aquaculture, can cause serious pollution, and interfere with the natural balance of the surrounding ocean or water-body, while providing in most instances a miserable life-style for the unfortunate marine creatures involved.

So is Veganism the way to go?

Certainly if we avoid animal products altogether, we can absolve ourselves from directly causing suffering to animals. But what about the many indirect causes, too numerous to list here.
If we aspire to live according to ethical and compassionate principles, does this mean we must live solely on vegetable products?
If so, we need to look very closely at each of our food sources to ensure they satisfy the standard we have set. If we rely to any extent on foods imported from countries which grow them as cash crops, while the population goes hungry or malnourished, is our diet any more sustainable or ethical than that of the meat-eater?
Is it sustainable or ethical for former Europeans, having dispossessed indigenous populations of their territory and the means to maintain their formerly sustainable and natural diet, to use large portions of savannah or mallee for cereal production, or worse, the production of irrigated vegetable, oil, or fruit crops?
Is it sustainable or ethical to feed the Inuit on white flour and sugar while limiting their traditional dietary intake of seal and whale in the name of conservation?
Are we able to feed ourselves entirely from local, and preferably sustainable sources? Are we in fact willing to do so?

I respect the choices made by my fellow Permies who are vegetarian or vegan. But I would ask them to what extent their choices are rational, or indeed, Permacultural?

I would also ask those who eat meat whether they have ever slaughtered, or supervised the slaughter of, and butchered their own animals?
If you eat flesh, surely you should be willing to experience, at least once, the processes by which it's consumption is made possible. And also take responsibility, as far as you can, for this to be done in such a way as to minimise the animal's suffering.

In Permaculture there are no rules. We look to ethics and principles for guidance. We know there are no perfect choices, and that the ideals we aim for always have to be lived in the context of everyday lives. But what Permaculture Ethics and Principles do require is an ongoing process of evaluating our lifestyle choices. And decisions based only on sentimentality, squeamishness, or unwillingness to be responsible for taking a life in the context of natural economy, are not worthy of the aspiring Permaculturalist.

Aiming for a sustainable lifestyle means that, as far as lies within our power, we take personal responsibility for our choice of food sources, just as we do when considering energy and water use, and the disposal of our wastes. And since we are members of a privileged society, and can choose what we refuse and what we eat, let us all think deeply so that we may exercise that privilege wisely.

Adelaide, October 2004, update November 2011.
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