The food we choose to eat, and the way that it is grown has a huge impact on our planet, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and the health of our soils and waterways. The vast majority of our food globally, both plant-based and animal-based, is grown in ways that are having a devastating impact in all of these areas.
The role of animals in agriculture in particular has become one of the important and widely-debated environmental issues of our time.
The most developed system available to guide us on the sustainable and regenerative use of land and resources is permaculture. Permaculture is an approach that aims to create systems of food production that can be operated permanently, while regenerating rather than degrading our natural environment and resources.
To achieve this, permaculture models itself on nature and pre-industrial growing systems. In both ecosystems, animals play a vital role.
Produce no waste
One of the 12 principles of permaculture design is to create systems that produce no waste. One of the core roles that animals play in all mixed farming systems is by eating residues and by-products from crop production.
In Kelmarna’s case, chickens eat all the insect-damaged leaves from our green vegetables, while cattle are able to digest tough materials like banana palms, and flax leaves, that are difficult or near-impossible for us to compost. Cattle have also helped us to minimise the spread of noxious weeds and invasive insect pests that would survive composting, and are otherwise difficult and time-consuming to process on-site.
In return, growing vegetables and fruit trees on the same site ensures that nothing is wasted from our animals, as their manure is put to good use in returning fertility to our soils. The cycling of all organic fertility relies on animals of one size or another - whether that is cattle, chickens, worms, or soil organisms - to break down plant material into nutrients that new plants can access.
In the urban context, livestock can also play a role in reducing waste more widely. Our urban environments produce huge quantities of food waste, the majority of which ends up in landfill, where it produces methane.
In one year, three cattle at Kelmarna consumed more than 10 tonnes of fruit and vegetable scraps from local greengrocers that would otherwise have gone to landfill. This prevented methane emissions of around 19,760kg Co2-e, more than off-setting the methane produced by the cattle themselves in the same time period, estimated to be around 6,900kg Co2-e.
In this way, urban livestock can play a valuable role in wider society’s transition from a linear to a circular economy.
Use and value diversity
A diverse farming system enables farmers to make the best use of the unique and varied environments of their farm.
In Kelmarna’s case, our vegetable gardens are on flat or gently-sloping land, with a north-facing aspect, which makes them suitable for vegetable growing (despite a base of clay soil under all the years of compost). By contrast, most of the area currently occupied by our paddocks is much steeper, on heavy clay soil, and with wetland elements near Cox’s Creek, all of which makes it poorly suited for crop growing, but still suitable for grazing livestock.
Permaculture design also considers what is sustainable for the humans involved in the particular ecosystem, given their differing needs and resources. In Kelmarna’s case, this means a diversity of food producing operations is most sustainable, as each requires different amounts of human labour and attention. By our estimate, 80% of our staff and volunteer labour is spent planting, weeding, and harvesting our vegetable gardens, 15% maintaining our food forest areas, and less than 5% on looking after the animals and paddocks.
Use and value renewable resources
Another of permaculture’s core principles is to make good use of renewable resources. Grass that grows in our paddocks is one such renewable resource, naturally capturing energy from the sun and water from the rain, without our intervention, which is in turn consumed by grazing animals.
Obtain a yield
As much as animals play a multitude of important and sometimes vital roles in a permaculture system, ultimately if we intend to produce food in a sustainable and regenerative way, animals also need to produce food, whether in the form of meat, milk, or eggs, to be an effective part of the system.
It is widely agreed upon that a shift to a plant-rich diet (especially in developed countries) is an important aspect of reducing our food-related emissions. Mixed farming systems such as that demonstrated at Kelmarna, where plant crops (grown using regenerative methods) are the primary output, and animals play a secondary and complementary role, will play an important role in shifting our diets to include less meat, of better quality and produced in more sustainable ways.
A linear, wasteful, and unsustainable food system
The agricultural system that dominates food production globally currently embodies the opposite of permaculture.
Industrial agriculture is not modeled on nature, but the industrial manufacturing process, where specialisation and segregation are used with the intention to produce efficiency and economies of scale.
One result of this thinking is huge concentrations of animals farmed in entirely unnatural conditions, whose food is produced in different regions, countries, or continents, and whose concentrated manure becomes a massive waste problem for environmental and human health.
Another result is enormous expanses of monocultural crops, intended for both animal feed and human consumption, which are almost totally devoid of any animal life, and rely on hugely damaging and non-renewable synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to compensate for the lack of animal and insect-life.
Each of these produces disastrous impacts on our atmospheric emissions, biodiversity, soil health, water quality, human health and community wellbeing.
Whole systems thinking
By contrast, permaculture is based on whole systems thinking, in which every element in an ecosystem exists only as part of the whole. Animals and plants play different and complementary roles in nature, and both are essential parts of every ecosystem.
In order for farms to be truly sustainable and regenerative, their systems need to work with nature, making use of the beautifully-balanced synergies and relationships that have provided food for millennia, rather than continue the last century’s attempts to force animals and plants into a segregated existence that denies their natural interdependence.
Sources for the numbers calculated on methane emissions from food waste and cattle:
Some further reading on animals in permaculture: