Animals and sustainability


Animals and sustainability

I’m conscious that this subject can be controversial but I’m not going to avoid discussing it because some people might get upset. ‘Loveage’ asked the question on a previous post so this is my answer.

There are ethical dimensions to the keeping of animals because animals, like humans, suffer when abused. Unfortunately, generally, worldwide, people like to eat them, skin them and make shoes out of them . Anyway, the production line slaughter of animals is abhorrent to me and to many others like me. We are however a minority*

I found it interesting watching Mark Shepard on one of Geoff Lawton’s excellent permaculture videos talking about taking his pigs to slaughter and choking up doing it. It was only a swallow and a slight pinch in the eyes but anyone with an ounce of soul knows the man gets upset doing it, even though he was plainly trying not to show it. The same thing with Hugh Fernley Whittingstall on one of his Riverside Cottage programmes when he took his animals to slaughter, he was choking up as well. I don’t mean to disrespect either of the two because they were trying to demonstrate something important, which is that you can keep really happy, healthy livestock and then kill them humanely. As Mark Shepard put it “just one bad day”. Feeling something real during that process does them credit.

But should we be killing animals to feed our hunger for tasty food, ethically? No we shouldn’t *IN MY OPINION*, because killing things causes suffering and extinguishes their beings and personalities, something the two men above clearly realise. But billions of people love eating meat and they are not going to stop doing it unless we persuade them not to. And forcing them to stop doing it, against their will, disenfranchises them, especially as we the non-meat-eaters are a tiny minority. My democratic beliefs trump ethics on this point, at least for me.

But what about sustainability? Well this is where it gets interesting because the use of animals basically makes your plot of land self-sustaining if you get the balance of land to animals correct. On a very, very simple level 1.5 to 2 acres (the size of a football pitch) will feed somewhere between 9-15 sheep a year, with a herb, grass and nitrogen fixer mix. It may support less and your climate or soil may not allow it. The sheep eat the plants, then fertilise the ground, you get to eat the sheep and make their wool into jumpers and scarves. The process is circular. If the fertility of the field drops off reduce the amount of sheep on it.

There are many, many more examples including permaculture chicken tractor systems and historically the Four Field System used in England since the 18th Century, which unlike permaculture, has plentiful academic proof . This system increased yields of barley and corn and supported higher numbers of animals on individual farms which in turn fed more people and was internally sustainable. This was done by having a four year rotation with clover, turnips, barley and wheat. The clover and turnips fed the livestock (which in turn produced manure to feed the soil) which produced more food (meat and grain) than the previous agricultural system (the 3 Field System). Not one ounce of fossil fuels was needed to keep the system going.

My point is, using animals (*exploiting animals*) makes sustainability easier *IN MY OPINION* but surely someone can come up with, and crucially, scientifically prove the usefulness of using animals in closed loop and sustainable systems that don’t end up with them being eaten, but let them live happy and fulfilling lives, providing us with milk, eggs, cheese, butter, wool and fertilising our soils for our veggies and grains. Permaculture makes the point and many of us are putting it in practice, but I think the scientific testing and academic papers need to follow.

Anyway I’m going to bring this to a close as the more I write the more likely it is I am going to get a flame war on my hands. If there is any interest in this train of thought I could write more later.

Anyone commenting below who is just offensive without anything sensible to add will be deleted.

*For the purposes of full disclosure – I am a ‘fishocrit’ or ‘pisceterian’, which means I don’t eat meat or birds but I do eat fish. Why single out fish? Because they have the chance to be free before I eat them, I’m less convinced of their self awareness (unlike cows, sheep, etc) and the entire process is less barbaric. And because I’m free to.

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5 Comments so far

LovagePosted on10:50 am - Feb 24, 2015

I have to say that, when I commented previously, I was only thinking of the by-products of current animal farming, e.g. bonemeal. Obviously current animal agriculture poses huge sustainability questions – the land and resources, including fossil fuels, needed to feed and maintain enormous farmed animal populations, the serious impacts on the environment, etc. Given all this, by-products such as bonemeal can’t really be claimed as true elements in a sustainable system. As for manure, the same applies if that comes from animal agriculture, and even if it is obtained from the local stables – a by-product of animals, maintained by various resources, simply for the amusement of humans.

I am not knowledgeable about permaculture systems, etc, but I would make one point. When historical examples are used, I think we would benefit from historical analysis that illuminates the origins of these models and how they fitted into wider patterns of socio-economic structure, consumption and resource use. If we look to the eighteenth century (England) might we not have to consider how much land was farmed by tenants, the need for profit to pay the landlords, the landlords interest in “improvement” to make the land more profitable, etc?

Moving on to the issues that have been raised about the treatment of animals, I think there are many queries and knots. For example, when we get to producing milk, etc, surely premature slaughter becomes almost inevitable (by premature I mean before the end of the animal’s natural life). The birthing of calves is necessary to maintain cows for milking purposes – surely at least some of those calves must be slaughtered if the system is going to be efficient in terms of not having to sustain surplus cattle and in terms of keeping as much milk as possible for human use? As for the cow herself, surely it would be inefficient to maintain her beyond her best milking years.

It seems to me that if we see animals as “personalities” an almost insuperable tension is created if we then use them as objects. The best that the instrumental use of animals in farming and growing can achieve is to give them as happy a life as possible within necessary constrictions – for example, they will inevitably be prevented from expressing fully their “personalities” because many expressions will be inconvenient and inefficient for us, and they will often go to premature slaughter.

I don’t think the given examples of Mark Shepard and Hugh Fernley Whittingstall can be realistically improved upon – the dilemma they are reacting to, is surely inevitable if one sees animals as “personalities” but use them as objects

    adminPosted on10:46 pm - Feb 24, 2015

    Your comment is more intelligent than my post. I certainly hadn’t considered the killing of calves, but I think you are right on this but I’m not an expert. I’ll try and find out.

    The tension between ‘personality’ (and I think animals do have them, I spotted the quotes) and their exploitation is a different question from sustainability. Keeping animals on land and using their manure to fertilise crops is not just long term sustainable but is probably sustainable full stop. Now I hate killing animals but if the question is ‘is this sustainable?’ then I think it is. Now the fact this is unpalatable (and I hate it remember) doesn’t mean it’s realistic and can be kind to the environment.

    I’m told that aquaponics (farming fish and veggies together) has a very high yield per square foot, so much of the criticisms of, say, farming beef in brazil don’t apply to all animal farming. The same goes for using chickens in a resource reusing loop. Here you don’t need to kill them to get eggs, they can be happy (this is only anecdotal) grubbing about in orchards and preparing new ground and can turn your normal rubbish veggies, slugs, insects and trimmings into very good manure.

    And lastly I am not an academic, I am a humble gardener, but I did ask a statistician / permaculture farmer / internet rabble rouser friend who blogs at and he says the old four course rotation could feed at least the UK. He did add that modern organic techniques are much more productive.

    Thanks again for jolting me back into thinking.

LovagePosted on11:11 am - Feb 28, 2015

I think your re-focussing on sustainability is conducive to my previous points about animals as personalities and their instrumental use. It may very well be the case that the use of animals is sustainable, but if that path is to be pursued, then, logically, we must not dwell on them as personalities. In saying this I am assuming that the recognition of animals as personalities is the recognition that they vary on an individual level in terms of affectivity, character traits, preferences, etc. While sustainable methods may well seek to reduce physical suffering to a minimum, it would surely become inconvenient and inefficient to try to accommodate animals’ personalities. Therefore, I don’t see how one can have one’s cake and eat it with regard to this particular topic.

I don’t want to harp on, but with regard to chickens in a “resource using loop” that includes harvesting their eggs – one of the problems with egg-farming is male chicks. Chicks are obviously needed to replenish stock, but fifty-percent of chicks will be male, and the vast majority are totally surplus. This surplus population must surely be slaughtered; it would be inefficient to do otherwise. Unless we employ science to stop most male chick reproduction – genetic engineering perhaps?

Finally, the vision of a sustainable future where whole countries can be fed sustainably – I can’t help thinking that the quest for sustainability at such a level fundamentally requires the following: 1) an analysis of the current economic system including how economic forces exert political power, 2) how economic forces can be transformed or dismantled so as to enable national and global sustainable systems, and 3) plans for how populations, currently dependent on the current system (and that basically means all of us,) can be shifted into new patterns of living with the minimum of pain (for example, you won’t get anyone’s vote if they feel threatened by unemployment or an indefinite struggle to make ends meet, and if forces with political power keep telling them that “sustainability” will mean this and keep influencing governments to maintain, more or less, the status quo). The global perspective is of course vital – too many environmental problems (not only climate change) have an essential global dimension. In short, my point here is that where you have massive, and often globalised, vested interests in the current system, it is unrealistic to think that they will shift simply in the face of reasoned argument. I am aware that that there are elements in permaculture, for example, of what may be called “soft” politics, but I can’t help feeling hard politics is inevitable, sooner or later.

Alex HeffronPosted on7:19 pm - Mar 27, 2016

Tom, not sure if I can add anything sensible here but just wanted to say what an excellent post and well written. Nice to read someone put forward their opinion without then feeling the need to moralise others. As someone who has been a vegetarian, pescetarian and now a meat-eater (of animals I believe to have been raised ‘ethically’ – inverted commas, because my ethical would be different to a vegan’s ‘ethical’!) I can fully appreciate your post, whilst currently holding a different opinion. As someone who is about to take on a small farm, and primarily concerned with the concept of sustainability, I will be doing something remarkably like the four field system, though rather than growing a cereal will be growing a market garden but the underlying pattern is the same. I will certainly read more into the four field system now that you have brought it to my attention.

I am very interested to read through more of your posts and am very interested in your building of soil fertility without animals – and without humanure, which I’m sure would make it much easier! I will be more reliant on the manure from my animals, but am interested to learn about methods whereby fertility can be built and maintained without them. Thank you for writing this excellent blog.

adminPosted on8:08 pm - Mar 28, 2016

Thanks, you’re very kind. The more I think about it the more it seems likely that animals processing vegetation adds a quality to compost that letting it just compost on its own doesn’t achieve. Of course such a concept would break physics, but there we go. For a less exploitative system we have worm composting which makes a very potent material.

I don’t have acres, I have an urban backyard which basically gets fed by processing kitchen scraps, the garden’s own waste, hedge trimmings and a little urine to help composting. I also have an allotment which I am going to attempt to make really, fully closed loop. I am growing clover (and other green manures) for 2 years on two beds and I will pretend to be my own grazing animal, cut the clover for the compost heap and then after two years dig in the green manure and try to grow a good crop of potatoes on what I hope is rejuvenated ground. The next year I will follow with peas and beans (that will soak up the remainder of the fertility and add their own) and then back to green manures. This is while I try and avoid the free horse manure we get delivered once a week to the site…..

Anyway, thanks for posting.

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