To build a just food system that advances the rights, health, and wellbeing of humans, other animals, and the planet requires attention to each element of production and distribution. These elements include growing practices, land access, labor practices, food access, and more.
Here, we highlight vegan permaculture, a system that takes these issues into account and that could form the basis of regional and national policies and practices to eliminate hunger and food insecurity among humans while respecting the rights of other animals and protecting the health of the planet.
What Is Permaculture?
Permaculture as a systems-based philosophy of food production was introduced in the 1970s in Australia by environmental researchers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to counter industrial agriculture’s environmentally destructive fertilizers, pesticides, and methods of planting.
Mollison and Holmgren based their framework on observations of the systems and relationships that enable diverse species of plants and animals to thrive together, and they proposed an agricultural system—with an emphasis on perennial plants—that would mimic those systems, providing food for humans, with minimal labor or resource input after the initial design, and while maintaining and benefitting from biodiversity and the resulting soil health.
J. Russell Smith’s (and later Toyohiko Kagawa’s) articulations of forest farming were precursors to Mollison and Holmgren’s model, and Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming philosophy was also an influence. All these models reflect traditional indigenous agricultural practices that produce food while disturbing natural systems as little as possible.
Permaculture practitioners base their designs on twelve design principles outlined by Holmgren and three guiding ethics defined by Mollison.
Holmgren’s twelve principles enable growers to work with natural systems and to adapt as necessary to meet human needs while protecting the health of the planet and its wild-living inhabitants:
- observe and interact
- catch and store energy
- obtain a yield
- apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- use and value renewable resources and services
- produce no waste
- design from patterns to details
- integrate rather than segregate
- use small and slow solutions
- use and value diversity
- use edges and value the marginal
- creatively use and respond to change
To the extent possible, permaculture designs that follow these principles become “closed-loop” systems, neither requiring resources from elsewhere nor producing waste.
Mollison’s three guiding ethics are often summarized as “Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.”
Together, these principles and ethics ensure care for the planet, for free-living animals, and for individual humans and their communities.
Importantly, permaculture practitioners recognize the value of applying these principles to relationships within human communities as well. For instance, they understand the importance of nurturing diversity as part of the integrated whole, of valuing and paying attention to what happens at the margins, and of expecting and accepting change.
What is Vegan Permaculture?
Vegan practitioners add respect for the rights, health, and wellbeing of domesticated animals to the permaculture framework, either considering animals as people in the “People Care” ethic (our preference), or adding a fourth ethic of “Animal Care.”
Vegan practitioners note that oversight of captive animals to be used for labor, for fertilization, or as food is resource- and human-labor-intensive. Therefore, omitting them is not only the only ethical option but also is more consistent with permaculture’s goal of creating food systems that are as self-sustaining as possible.
Vegan permaculture still faces resistance within the larger permaculture movement, which shares mainstream culture’s reluctance to stop eating animals, often relying on the mistaken but popular assumption that captive animal manure is necessary to or the most efficient way to maintain soil health.
The larger permaculture movement itself faces huge resistance to a veganic model because of the financial interests of companies that manufacture inputs to the industrial agricultural system.
Additional sources of resistance to vegan permaculture include the inherited, colonial cultural belief that humans stand apart from nature, the preference for maintaining the illusion of human mastery over the physical world, and the romanticization of tradition and of the fictional, idyllic farm.
Much work remains to be done in changing hearts and minds and in dismantling the financial incentives of the current industrial farming system, which compromises the health and wellbeing of earth systems, of animals, and of human laborers.
Here, we highlight two vegan permaculturists committed to leading the way, and a food forest project that exemplifies the potential of permaculture to build community and care for the most vulnerable.
Policy: Vegan Permaculture: Graham Burnett
Graham Burnett, based in the UK, created an accredited Vegan Permaculture Design Course, which he teaches internationally. His book, The Vegan Book of Permaculture, provides an in-depth introduction to permaculture principles and ethics; advice on employing them toward personal, community, and environmental wellbeing; tips and techniques for designing a permaculture garden; recipes for what you grow; and overviews of community-based forest gardening and foraging.
Practice: Market Vegan Permaculture: Helen Atthowe
At her farm in Oregon, Helen Atthowe grows fruit for market and other produce for her own consumption using veganic permaculture methods.
At One Path to Veganic Permaculture, she describes her experiences and experiments farming in Montana, California, and Oregon and details her transition from organic farming to vegan permaculture.
She discusses her research and practice of plant-based soil health restoration and maintenance, along with international conservation agriculture researcher Amir Kassam, in this interview by Seed the Commons.
Practice: Building Community and Protecting the Vulnerable Through Permaculture: The Food Forest Project
Community food forests are public spaces where edible landscapes—usually consisting of perennial fruit trees, berry shrubs, herbs, and occasionally annual vegetable gardens—are planted for no-cost harvesting by community members.
In the past decade, many permaculture groups based in urban centers have begun collaborating with neighborhood organizations to create food forests in parks and other green spaces to help create community, increase food sovereignty, and alleviate food insecurity.
Food forests also provide habitats for birds, insects, and other wildlife. Find more about food forests here.
The Food Forest Project is particularly notable for its mission statement’s focus on food forests as a means of creating community engagement to alleviate loneliness and related mental health issues.