My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How can we make things better?"
In a recent online discussion, someone claimed that “farms everywhere are turning veganic” (i.e. growing food without using any domesticated animals or animal products like manure, blood, or bonemeal.)
He directed me to this video by vlogger “Mic. the Vegan” as proof that veganic farming is both economically viable and sustainable. I agreed to check it out, because I’m interested to know how a veganic model can possibly compare to the best organic, no-till systems that incorporate animals. I’ll post my analysis below.
The criteria I would use to identify a successful farming model are very simple:
The large farms shown at the start of the video use legume cover crops/green manures, which is better than leaving the soil bare over winter. But they plough those crops back in, and that will have a net detrimental effect to soil life. Let me summarise why ploughing is so detrimental.
Mechanical mutilation of soil is man’s way of recreating a catastrophic natural event (e.g. fire, flood, volcano, drought) that resets the land back to the start of the vegetation succession cycle. That creates the ideal conditions for annual plants to grow, because most of the grains and vegetables we eat today are fast-growing annuals.
In nature, those pioneering annuals would be succeeded by perennial plants, perhaps grasses (which could be there for a long time if there are enough grazers), or bushes and eventually trees. The soil would recover its fertility through the activity of all the plants and animals.
What conventional agriculture does is continually hit the “reset” button, one or more times every year. The soil is savaged, any protective covering overturned and the delicate topsoil exposed to the elements. The effect is that organic matter is lost following every pass of the machinery, so the soil loses part of its ability to support microbial life and to store water. Eventually, you’re left with inert dirt, which can’t grow anything worthwhile without significant inputs of artificial fertilisers, and lacks the biological defence mechanisms to deal with pests and diseases.
Many commentators are convinced that soil destruction due to tillage has been the primary factor in the collapse of every single civilisation that has been based on arable agriculture. I don’t know if there is any model that uses ploughing that can be called truly sustainable.
If you are growing annual crops, yes cover crops make a lot of sense, but the ideal way to turn them back into the soil is to use biological methods, not fossil fuels, and that means grazing.
He then quotes the Kaisers from Singing Frogs Farm, who have increased soil organic matter and are very profitable per acre. Singing Frogs is an excellent model, but they do not claim to be a veganic farm. Theirs is a “high-compost” system, which I’m pretty sure means significant inputs of organic compost from elsewhere. If they were actually veganic, their headline profitability per acre would be slashed by at least fifty percent.
Woodleaf Farm in California is primarily a fruit and nut grower, which means they’re growing perennial crops that do not need manure. (Perennial crops, which mainly grow on bushes or trees, are naturally far more sustainable than annuals, and form part of many permaculture-based systems.)
Instead of manure, Woodleaf import hay to use as a mulch, which is absolutely fine, but again the area used to grow and harvest the hay would have to be factored into the viability equation.
Any veganic system that uses off-farm imports is automatically less efficient than one that uses animals to convert the plant matter into manure on-site. The work required to grow, harvest, and transport the plant-based materials will either have to be done by human labour (which is very expensive), or fossil-fuel-powered machines (which is not sustainable long-term).
The presenter is correct that “there’s no magic ingredient in manure [that you can’t get from plant-based composts]”… but the key difference is speed, and that factor alone is the one that means a veganic model cannot ever get close to a complete permaculture model in terms of efficiency, and therefore productivity per acre or profitability.
Here’s the rub. The digestive systems of ruminants convert plant matter into bio-available fertiliser in a matter of hours or days, compared to weeks or months with an animal-free system. That doesn’t affect the sustainability of the veganic model, as the model itself can be sustainable if it doesn’t use tillage or fossil-fuelled machinery, but it does hit the viability hard.
Just compare two very similar approaches to using cover crops/green manures. Let’s say I sow clover and mustard to keep my soil covered over winter (a great idea). Now spring is coming around, and I want to incorporate the goodness of those plants back into my soil.
The traditional approach would be to put sheep (or other grazers) onto the field. They’ll happily munch away at the treats. Their rumens will perform biological alchemy, employing specially-evolved bacteria to break down the cellulose into simpler compounds, and within three to four days the clover and mustard are deposited right there on the soil as Grade-A nitrogen-rich fertiliser.
The sheep will also trample down other plant matter, bringing it into contact with the ground where it can rapidly decompose, and they’ll add further nitrogen and moisture to the land through their urine. Finally, of course, my sheep are converting some of the energy in the cover crops into nutritious meat! All with very little work on my part.
If I were to refuse to use animal labour, I could either…
Both those methods are workable, but neither comes close to the sheer efficiency of Nature’s way, which is to cycle nutrients through plants to animals to poop to soil and back to plants again.
Let’s be clear… either of the mechanical methods above (whether diesel-powered or human-powered) will return the goodness of the mustard and clover to the soil. But — either process will take a lot more work and a lot more time than the biological, natural way.
There is no better, more beautiful, or more efficient model than the one Nature has provided for us. Veganic agriculture tries to get the benefits of abundant food while refusing to use one of the most important parts of Nature’s way. It simply cannot achieve that.
The closest example of a sustainable and economically viable model is Tolhurst Organic here in England, which gets a brief mention towards the end of the video. Tolhurst operate a “stockfree organic” model, which means they don’t important manures or any other animal products from off-site. However, I cannot yet report…
(I have reached out to the guys at Tolhurst to see if they can help, and will add more information here when I can find it.)
The video throws various examples at the viewer, in the expectation that the examples will combine to prove the viability of veganic agriculture. I think this is more than a little disingenuous, because not all the case studies are veganic, not all are ecologically sustainable, and I’m not sure if any of them is economically viable.
Veganic farming can work, for sure. It can also be sustainable, if it doesn’t use tillage or (ideally) fossil fuels.
It is also likely that it could be economically viable, but that may be restricted to a niche market, where people are prepared to pay higher prices for produce because it has been grown without domesticated animals.
(I say “domesticated animals” because it is impossible to grow in soil without the input of billions of smaller animals that teem in the soil, all of them eating and being eaten and creating soil fertility.)
…But I am not convinced, at this time, that it can be both sustainable and economically viable. And that is because it is fundamentally ill-conceived.
The bottom line is the unavoidable fact that a veganic approach can never be as efficient as biological farming that uses animals. That means it cannot directly compete economically with full-spectrum permaculture. It won’t be able to feed as many people on the same amount of land, because it must mathematically produce less plant-based food (as well as no animal products).
Yet another problem that hampers veganic farming’s potential to feed the world is that much of our planet’s land area is unsuitable for growing crops. It may be too remote, to steep, too dry, too cold, or have too little soil. However, animals have adapted to graze most regions quite happily, all the while producing nutritious meat and other products and supporting biological fertility. It all goes to underline the fundamental point that Nature’s ways are always best.
I will keep exploring veganic models to see if I can find examples of best practice, and how well they can perform.