The Tree that Hides the Prairie

On permaculture, vegetarianism, grasses and tree fetishism

Cow on Zaytuna Farm
Photo © Craig Mackintosh

Meat and livestock farming are not praised by a lot of environmental activists. Meat production stands accused of stealing food from the mouths of the poor in two-thirds world countries, driving climate change, and being resource consuming. For example, the famous UK activist George Monbiot, published many times on this site, wrote in 2002 that “[veganism i]s the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue”(1), before retracting this in 2010, saying “I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly”(2).

What happened between those two articles? Well, Monbiot read a book written by livestock farmer and UK permaculturist Simon Fairlie in 2010, whose title is “Meat – a benign extravagance”(3). It’s a very well written book that also debunks quite a few myths about vegan arguments (e.g. that much of the water consumed by animals is from rainfall on grasses used to make the hay, or that if the world suddenly become vegan, no more proteins would be available(4)).

But permaculturists, even if some of them are vegan, know better than most environmental activists. They know that livestock farming can have positive effects on soil, vegetation, carbon sequestration, etc., due to pioneers like P.A. Yeomans with his Keyline system or Allan Savory and his Holistic Management system. Books about permaculture usually contain chapters about livestock (range rotation, tree-fodder, etc.) and the Permaculture Designers’ Manual even dedicates some pages to vegetarianism in which Bill Mollison states that “omnivorous diets (any sort of food) make the best use of complex natural systems”(5).

Tree fetishism among permaculturists

Fairlie’s book highlights another very interesting point, about permaculture mythology this time. He calls it “Tree Fetishism”, which describes an attitude that can be summarised as “tree = good, grass = bad”.

For an example of this tree fetishism, just take a look at the (very good) book of Martin Crawford, “Creating A Forest Garden”, where it is said that pastures require more energy to maintain, are less resilient, have a lower diversity and interconnectedness, than an orchard.(6)

This preference for trees over grass is due to all the advantages of perennials species over annual ones which are oft-praised by permaculturists. A few of them can be deduced from the above comparison. But, wait. Grasses are perennials, and if the preceding statement didn’t shock you, maybe you’re afflicted with tree fetishism too!

In praise of grass

Fairlie writes that “permanent grass is an entire ecosystem of perennial species […] which doesn’t have any above ground infrastructure to maintain. […] It can therefore spring into life sooner than most other perennials.” He adds, “beside being 100 percent edible to animals, grass has numerous other advantages that one would have thought would commend it to permaculturists: it is highly biodiverse and resilient, it creates organic matter in the soil, it introduces nitrogen and improves fertility, its fertility can be moved easily from one place to another with the aid of animals, it can be cut for mulch, it opens up the ground to sunlight, it can be walked on or driven on when mown or grazed, it provides the easiest surface for picking up windfalls or shaken fruit, and it is good for playing football on.”(7)

Advantages of grass are also acknowledged by David Holmgren: “Ironically it is grasslands with grazing animals that might be one of the most resilient systems of land use in the face of climate chaos; these opportunistic systems mostly developed through the pulsing of ice age and interglacial over the last few million years. Animals represent storages that dampen the pulse while predators act to further moderate and protect the whole system.”(8)

Origins of tree fetishism

The lack of interest in grass among permaculturists, specially in Europe, has multiple roots. One of them is veganism amongst permaculturists, which simply makes grass useless. Another reason is the size of plots, which in Europe can be quite small, and where pasture is not the best choice to make the best use of them.

One advantage of trees over grass is the “ecological legitimacy” provided by the climax community theory, which states that in temperate climates (most parts of Europe), the stable state brought about by ecological succession is the forest (and thus, the trees). On this point, Fairlie points out the work of Frans Vera in his book “Grazing Ecology and Forest History”(9). The thesis of Vera is that the climax is not linear but cyclic. The succession from grassland to forest is well known. But for Vera, when a tree dies and creates gaps, the conditions are too shady for thorny shrubs too grow, and thus “herbivores come to eat the grass that colonizes the gaps almost immediately, and then either eat or trample the beech and lime seedlings, maintaining a grassy clearing within the woodland. The clearing may grow because the exposed trees around its edge are more susceptible to windblow.[…] The result is a shifting mosaic [this word crops up repeatedly in texts on the subject] of shade-tolerant and light loving ecosystems, supporting high levels of biodiversity.(10)”

I give the conclusion to Vera: “a permacultural approach will not be one that favours trees on the grounds that they have a superior indigenous pedigree; it will be one that juggles with the dynamic between light and shade to produce landscapes that are rich, biodiverse and convivial for humans.”(11)


  1. Why vegans were right all along, George Monbiot. The Guardian, 24 december 2002.
  2. I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly, George Monbiot. The Guardian, 6 september 2010.
  3. Meat – a benign extravagance, Simon Fairlie. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.
  4. Livestock & the environment: Finding a balance, FAO (coordination). FAO, 1997.
  5. Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, Bill Mollison. Tagari Publications, 1988. p30.
  6. Creating a Forest Garden: Working with nature to grow edible crops,Martin Crawford. Greenbooks, 2010. p. 19.
  7. Simon Fairlie, Ibid. p 245.
  8. Bee keeping for the energy descent future, David Holmgren. January 2011. [PDF]
  9. Grazing Ecology and Forest History, Frans Vera. CABI Publishing, 2000.
  10. Simon Fairlie, Ibid. p 249-50.
  11. Simon Fairlie, Ibid. p 256.