Vegetarianism, Veganism and My Permaculture Experiences – How To Eat By Your [Ethical] Values

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           “I could be vego, but I could never go vegan...” – if I had a dollar for every time someone said this to me, I could afford to eat vegan cheese every day for the rest of my life (that shit’s expensive). I have been guilty of saying this myself! Generally, the person stating this is indicating that they could give up meat, but that cheese, milk, eggs, honey and other animal products are just too [insert desirable word here]. Never eating dairy again? What! Who could even entertain such an extreme thought? These comments are made without consideration of the 'WHY' - why is it important to eat/avoid certain things? WHY do you choose to eat/not eat what you do? Whether you’re a vegetarian, pescetarian, conscious omnivore or flexitarian (yep, I just found out that’s a real word), I’d like to offer up more information to help you understand some of the decision-making behind veganism and how Permaculture ethics have taught me about the importance of flexibility and open-mindedness.

            I once said to one of my best mates (a vego) that I believed an ethical vegetarian could not truly call themselves that and still eat eggs and dairy. A little harsh perhaps, but I do still believe this. I’m sure you’re aware that many people ditch meat from their diet out of love for animals – you wouldn’t eat your pets, so why eat a piglet? Good on you guys, that’s a tough connection to make amidst a modern society’s daily echoes of “I’ll have extra bacon, thanks”. A clear statement is made that says to others “I am not okay with hurting animals for my pleasure”. This is the crux, I believe, of our daily life and the decisions we make. We pick values we believe in, consciously or subconsciously, then act alongside them (most of the time...).

            Dairy, eggs and other animal products (e.g. leather, silk, gelatin) that aren’t so obviously linked to cruelty are brushed off, or considered ‘less bad’. But just because there isn’t a large chunk of dead flesh on your plate, doesn’t mean an animal wasn’t killed, abused, raped or tortured for your meal. Dairy cows are a perfect example – if you were taught that glistening creamy milk drips effortlessly and endlessly from the teats of a free-roaming, smiling cow until she one day drops dead of natural causes... you’d (sadly) be very wrong. Milk = baby cow food = birth = pregnancy = sex. Unfortunately, to feed millions of us, this equation speaks more like: cow is impregnated (raped by a syringe), cow gives birth, baby cow is removed, cow grieves for days over loss of baby, cow is milked twice daily for weeks until milk slows, cow is re-impregnated, cow gets old and slows milk production, cow is killed. (For more on this, see this link).

            Commercially produced eggs follow a similarly awful story (yes, even the free rangers). Eggs are a daily product of a hen’s reproductive cycle – we bred them that way. As with cows, one day their production slows and they are killed to reduce farm costs – these are not the breeds of chooks to sell off for meat either. Wait, not all chickens are born female, are they? Nope, and we don’t yet have the technology to tell their sex before they’re born. Yes, the horrible online video your mate tagged you in last year are real – baby boys are minced or gassed once their sex is determined as they have no role in the eggs-for-human-consumption industry. This was confirmed to me by a farmer with a well-respected, local, true free-range egg farm – farmers themselves do no do this, but the farms from which they have to purchase their layers from do, and these suppliers are limited across the state by industry laws. Right now, if you’re done sobbing into your pillow after YouTubing “minced baby chickens”, I’m hoping you’ve realised there’s not much difference in eating meat versus dairy and eggs if you’re wanting to avoid harm to animals. It’s not your fault that you don’t know this stuff – we never get told! At least, most of us don’t. Which is exactly why I’m writing this. We’re a smart, vastly developed society and, in Australia, we have so much information and food available that eating animals has become completely optional.

 Polly the Pig at Djanbung Gardens

Polly the Pig at Djanbung Gardens

            Permaculture is a term you might be familiar with. It presents three main principles to live by: Earth care, People care and Fair Share. Permies aim to live alongside nature in a way that is not just ‘sustainable’, but that improves both the immediate and broader environment. Animals often play a significant role in a Permaculture-inspired lifestyle, used for meat, other tangible products, labour, companionship and unique skills (such as bees for pollenating fruit trees). When you are introduced to the amazing uses and impacts some animals can have, they become integral and near-essential cogs in the wheel. Animals don’t need to be included as purely sources of food (livestock) and it is their natural behaviours and skills that can be utilised in a harmonious system (read an example here).

            Chooks are the most commonly kept animals by Permies, as they have dozens of different roles within a closed-loop system. It’s quite easy to keep a small number, maintain their health and wellbeing, and reap daily benefits without harming them. At some point in a closed-loop system, there are opportunities presented that form somewhat of a ‘grey area’ for vegans and vegetarians. An example is that, when breeding your own chickens, you’ll undoubtedly get multiple roosters, where only one good rooster is required to maintain a safe, less volatile flock. The choices are then to dispose of, sell, or eat the excess roosters.

            From a perspective of waste reduction and energy maximization, eating the roosters presents an obvious choice to omnivores, as calories gained and number of meals created is high with meat products. Composting presents an option, but takes a long time and has less net gains as a fertilizer than as immediate food. Selling roosters in a community that is likely trying to do the same is possibly not viable. I personally would choose to offer the roosters for slaughter and consumption to other ethically conscious meat-eating friends, ensuring a low stress life, a quick kill and use of all animal parts. I couldn’t kill a chicken with my own hands, so I choose not to eat them.

            Eggs present a similar case, where they are a byproduct of keeping chooks for other purposes like processing food scraps, fertilizer, companionship and pest management. Over the last few months I have craved protein-rich food in my diet, which I have satiated with eggs from other people’s backyard hens. The chooks have been well cared for, free-range, and used for waste management and other skills by the owners. Most backyard hens are either bought from small-scale breeders or are ‘old’ commercial laying hens, which avoids most of the issues mentioned above surrounding large-scale egg farming. I eat about six eggs a week and still consider myself vegan, as the modern definition is to ‘avoid harming all animals’, not simply ‘avoid all animal products’. My experiences with and learnings from Permaculture have predominantly guided my decision-making and opened my eyes to the use of animals in different situations. On our future property, I intend to incorporate some animals to improve efficiency and waste/energy management.

            I now invite you to consider your own values, as well of those of the animals we farm (because animals have a right to live just as much as we do). Do you value freedom? Do you value the Earth and our role as its custodians? Do you value your body, and want to fuel it with positivity? Do you value all animals, or just the cute ones? Do you value minimising waste and maximising resources? Ill leave it up to you to continue your research, allowing some flexibility and open-mindedness as I have. We only have one crack at life, and so do animals – make the most of them both.

Further Reading:

My friend’s blog has numerous fascinating, in-depth philosophical pieces on everything there is to know about veganism and humans’ use of animals, I highly recommend having a read – TheThoughtfulVegan. You can also read much more on the impacts of animal products on the environment and human health on my website – SEED. Follow me on Instagram @seedblog for daily tips, facts and inspiration on all things sustainable.

Integrating Animals On A Permaculture Farm

Veganic Permaculture example

Veganism and Permaculture

Article on Vegan Permaculture via Pip Magazine