Permaculture and Vegetarian Diet

Permaculturist Bill Mollison's Odd Notions About Vegetarianism

I'm up on my soapbox, and I'm here to talk about Bill The Permaculture Guy's misinformed views about vegetarian diet. Ref: Chapter 2.7 of ' Permaculture, A Designers Manual the section titled 'Pyramids, food webs, growth and vegetarianism'.

I greatly admire Bill Mollison - his book is an invaluable resource as an agricultural usability manual for Planet Earth. His permaculture expertise is awesome.

His comments on vegetarian diet, on the other hand, make me think that Bill knows next-to-nothing about vegetarianism. And, he apparently has the typical meat-eater belief that if you don't eat meat, you'll starve.

Like many other meat-eating enviros, Mollison rationalizes eating meat as part of a normal human diet, which can be easily accommodated by permaculture activities on 4% of the arable land on our world - the percentage he gives as the ideal proportion of cultivated land in permaculture. His arguments are full of contradictions and misinformation.

Mollison states that 'omnivorous diets (any sort of food) make the best use of complex natural systems.' What, nature can't keep itself in balance if we don't eat animals?

I just don't know how the lacto-vegetarian Hindu population of India managed to feed their millions for all those thousands of years, growing grains, legumes, and vegetables on bite sized individual plots of land. Although it's true that all those sacred cows wandering around can be a bit of a nuisance.

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And, '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.' Acceptable to whom? Why, meat eaters of course! And, all that inedible vegetation does have other uses, doesn't it?

'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.' But Bill, I thought with permaculture, we could manage to feed everybody using only 4% of the arable land. If we didn't eat animals, probably less. At present, most of the earth's arable land is given over to industrial agriculture, supporting animal production, and causing widespread environmental destruction.

The typical Western diet includes about 6 - 10 times more animal protein than our bodies can use, and very little whole grains, or fresh fruit and vegetables. Our unbalanced and contaminated diet is the cause of terrible health problems which are a huge economic burden. It's hard to imagine how switching from beef to a legume and grain based diet could make things worse.

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Mollison says, 'In the urban western world, vegetarianism relies heavily on grains and grain legumes (e.g. the soya bean). Even to cook these foods, 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. Worse still, about 70% of the beans were either fed to pigs, or used in industry as a base for paint used on motor vehicles.'

Is Bill advocating eating raw meat? Last I heard, meat must be well cooked to be safe to eat. And total energy input to grow, process, transport and cook grains and beans is a fraction of that associated with meat. Soy beans grown for humans represent a small percentage of total soybean production, which as Bill says, is mostly used to feed animals or for industrial applications.

Mollison goes on to say, 'Much worse again, grains and grain legumes account for most of the erosion of soils in every agricultural region...' Well yeah! And again, mainly to feed animals. And using industrial, non-sustainable agriculture. Not permaculture. So tell me again, Bill, how does all this mean that we shouldn't be vegetarian?

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With the amount of people the world has to feed, the Western world's enormous meat addiction, and the numbers of people actually starving, it seems purely romantic to assert, as Mollison does, that 'sensible omnivorism is a good choice for those with access to semi-natural systems.'

Mollison means people who can grow a garden, keep a few chickens or rabbits, and recycle their wastes - proper permaculturists. What percentage of the US population do you think that might be? .1% or less is my guess. How many people even know what a semi-natural system is? Or permaculture, for that matter.

Mollison states that 'City people using sewers would be better advised to adopt a free-range meat diet than to eat grain and grain legumes. Better still, all city waste should be returned to the soils of their supply farms.'

I can see that recycling all our waste would be an excellent idea, but what would be the advantage of a free-range meat based diet? It could be an improvement on industrially raised meat, but not at our current levels of consumption. It simply isn't possible to support that with free-range production.

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Given that most food consumed in cities arrives in trucks anyway, it should cost less to transport grains and beans, pound for pound of nutrition. Plus, if land devoted to animal agriculture were given over to grains and legumes, we could feed all those starving people, and actually, we wouldn't need all that marginal land that is now used for grazing.

Permaculture assumes a balanced diet of grains, vegetables, fruit, and animal products. Bill Mollison also envisions a stable population in proportion to the earth's resources, using population control measures. I suppose in that case, the earth could support an omnivorous diet. However, according to an Earth Save article on global warming and industrial agriculture, global meat consumption has increased fivefold in the past fifty years, and shows little sign of abating.

Permaculture, A Designers Manual was published in 1988, before a lot of environmental research had been completed, before we were aware of the extent of environmental pollution caused by industrial agriculture - methane gas and deforestation, for example.

Also according to the Earth Save article, because of animal agriculture's high demand for fossil fuels, the average American diet is far more CO2-polluting than a plant-based one. In 1988, fossil fuels were still relatively inexpensive.

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Bill Mollison is a great source of info on permaculture systems. He is not a great source if you want to know how a vegetarian diet can help save the planet. Visit Earth Save, or read SV's reviews of The Food Revolution or Veggie Revolution, or read Vegetarian Diet and Sustainable Agriculture.

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