Some people prefer organically grown food because they want to avoid pesticides. Some believe the most natural ways of growing are the most ecologically responsible. Other people want to be assured that the farm workers who harvested the crops did not have to face dangerous toxins. And there are those vegetarians who want foods that were not grown with chemicals that kill or cause other animals to suffer. For many people, reasons to choose organics include a combination of all of these reasons. Presently, however, much of the food available to U.S. consumers is grown in a production system that directly or indirectly exploits animals — even if it is organic.
Organic farmers, like all farmers, must restore minerals and organic matter to the soil in order to continue to grow crops. Instead of using chemical fertilizers, most organic farmers use products such as animal blood, animal manure, and fish and bone meal to replenish the minerals lost from the soil as a result of their farming activities. Many organic farmers use the animals themselves in what is called a crop and livestock rotation system. Any use of animals or animal derivatives, of course, results in animal exploitation and needless killing.
Veganics to the rescue
Veganic (sometimes called “vegan-organic”) farming rejects the notion we have to exploit or kill other animals in order to grow food. Veganic farmers avoid artificial chemical products, genetically modified organisms, animal manures or slaughterhouse by-products. Those who argue that nonhuman animals are an essential part of organic crop production have been proven wrong by individual farmers, commercial farmers, and even government-sponsored farms that do not use animals or animal derivatives.
The Elm Farm Research Centre in England successfully completed an 11-year trial study of a vegan organic farm. During the study, crop yields were maintained without the use of animal manures, and there were no significant problems with disease or competing insects. The study was based on three different rotations for cereals and roots. During the phase in which animals would normally be used, farmers instead covered the soil with leguminous, nitrogen-replenishing green manures.
This Elm Farm study changed the way farmers perceive the conversion to organic farming. Whereas they once assumed that conversion to organic farming would mean obtaining live animals to maintain the soil’s fertility in the absence of chemical fertilizers, the farmers now know that making the switch to organic farming does not have to mean getting involved with owning and maintaining a population of animals. Consequently, this study may help to convince increasing numbers of conventional farmers to switch to vegan organic farming — a good result for the environment and certainly for nonhuman animals.
The Elm Farm Research Centre study proves it is simply not necessary to pass materials through an animal in order to enrich the soil. From a biological perspective, this passing-through merely results in a net loss of energy, and ultimately, an inefficient and unsustainable process of food production. “There is nothing mysterious or magical about manure,” says Ron Khosla, owner of the Huguenot Street Farm, a veganic farm in New Paltz, New York. “Manure is nothing more than the grass or grains that are growing on the farm, cycled through a cow’s digestive system.”
How they do it
Of course, veganic farmers, like all farmers, watch for competing organisms and diseases. Veganic farmers, however, have phased out the use of chemicals or other animals to protect their crops, opting instead to reinforce the health of the soil cultivate a natural resistance. The maxim of vegan-organic growing is to feed the soil, and the soil will feed the plants.
To maintain soil fertility, vegan-organic farmers may use mulches made from plant-based materials. They also rotate their crops. In contrast, conventional agriculture is based on monoculture — that is, growing of single crop varieties across wide areas of farmland. Over time, the single-crop method tends to foster disease and reduce output. It also tends to diminish the value of the land for a diverse population of animals. Through mixed planting, veganic farmers encourage the biodiversity that ensures a natural balance of predators, insects, and helpful organisms. And ensuring plenty of habitat for wintering animals and plant life can be helpful for keeping the balance healthy through years of growing seasons at the same it respects the interests of other animals with whom we share the land.
Veganic gardeners and farmers might use compost material made from vegetable peelings, grass cuttings, old hay, spent hops, comfrey, garden waste, ramial (shredded branches and leaves), or even seaweed. They supplement their compost material with green manures. Green manures are plants that are grown and then cut down, and then either worked in the soil or left on the soil to eventually disintegrate, for a variety of purposes. Clovers, alfalfa and vetches add nitrogen to the soil. Red clover and lupins have deep roots that recover nutrients from lower down in the soil. Cereal green manures such as buckwheat, oats, barely, and rye are good for growing later in autumn to protect the soil during winter.
If you are a veganic gardener, or interested in establishing a vegan-organic farm, there is a model to help guide you. The Vegan Organic Trust has developed the first “Stockfree-Organic Standards.” Commercial growers who apply these standards will be able to obtain certification as vegan-organic growers, demonstrating that their produce is grown organically and without the use any materials of animal origin. This gold standard of veganics requires growers to adhere to a number of commitments: for example, that no animals for food production or commercial gain are to be kept on the registered farm; and that no animal manures or fish derivatives are used; and that the farmers grow no animal fodder or bedding. Farmers must not permit hunting or trapping on their land. Nor may they keep ducks on the farm to eat slugs and snails.
Conclusion: Everything old is new again
There’s nothing new about embracing biodiversity and using decomposing plant matter to grow plants. It’s the very basis of natural growth. The best example is the forest, whose fertility comes from the accumulation of plants on the surface, without anyone working the soil and without artificial additions of animal manure.
Early farmers acknowledged this. There was a time when nearly all farming was done without animal manure or animal derivatives. As Ron Khosla points out, “the Romans and the Chinese used ‘green manures.’” In practical terms, explains Khosla, farmers did not keep animals in high concentrations; nor did they have our substantial ability with fossil-fuels to transport manure from place to place. “Farmers in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1800’s knew and wrote of the problems with depending on animal manures for vegetable nutrient needs,” says Khosla. To avoid these problems they learned how to farm using green manures and crop rotations.
Conversely, if modern farmers would learn to avoid using animals or animal derivatives to grow crops, we could also eliminate the needless use of fossil-fuels consumed during the transport of manure from place to place. Finally, without animals, it is not necessary to maintain vast areas of pasture, so we could return this land to its natural state: forests. Not only would we stop using animals for our purposes — they’d also get precious habitat back.
The food we eat is a constant connection with the natural world. Where we have the privilege of choice, our support for specific farming methods will, over time, have a lot to do with whether other animals — human and nonhuman — will have the space, the food, and the environmental health and diversity they need to survive. Supporting organic farming, therefore, has always had a special appeal for the conscientious consumer. Supporting a movement for veganics takes that conscientiousness a vital step further.
Ron Khosla, veganic pioneer, hopes vegetarians will support the idea by starting shopping co-ops. “As a percentage of income,” says Khosla, “food is cheaper for Americans than it has ever been.” Nine out of ten consumers will buy the cheaper carrots, not the veganically grown carrots. This pushes farmers to the edge in terms of their profit margin. If they try to switch to veganic farming, and it doesn’t work — whether technically or in terms of sales — they may lose their farms. Consumers need to be willing to share the risk and the responsibility to make veganics work.