May 28

Veganic Agriculture, is it Sustainable and Viable?

Sustainable Living

20  comments

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.

[responsive_video type=’youtube’ hide_related=’1′ hide_logo=’1′ hide_controls=’0′ hide_title=’1′ hide_fullscreen=’0′ autoplay=’0′]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWDznkdUjb0[/responsive_video]


The criteria I would use to identify a successful farming model are very simple:

  1. Is it sustainable? (If it can’t continue to feed people generation after generation, what’s the point?)
  2. Is it economically viable? (This would be a requirement to compete with so-called “conventional” methods or with established permaculture systems that incorporate animals.)

Large mechanical operations – not sustainable

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.

Singing Frogs – profitable but not veganic

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 – not self-sufficient

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).

Why manure rules

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.

Option 1: With animals

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.

Option 2: No animals

If I were to refuse to use animal labour, I could either…

  • Fire up a tractor and plough the crops into the soil, which does as much harm as good…
    or (if I wanted to strive for true sustainability)…
  • Pull out my scythe and spend a few days cutting the plants down and leaving them to decompose in place on the ground.

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.

Tolhurst – closest so far?

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…

  • how much plant material they import as compost (if any),
  • and the value of produce grown per acre on-site.

(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.)

Conclusion

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.

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Ben Hunt

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  1. Good post, Ben.

    There’s one notable producer that Mick the V didn’t mention–whether he failed to, or didn’t want to, or didn’t know about, not sure–who is farming without using animals, but he doesn’t claim to be veganic, nor even organic. His name is David Brandt; he’s one of the producers with the Soil Health Consulting with Ray Archuletta, Gabe Brown, and Allan Williams–http://soilhealthconsulting.com/ and he uses quite the polyculture, no-till system. But I remember reading or hearing somewhere where David admitted that his practices do not build soil as quickly as Gabe Brown’s regenerative system, which includes animals–cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry–in his polyculture crop systems.

    I think that veganic agriculture can be sustainable and viable with good management practices in the short term. But the question is, is it truly viable over the long term? If those who have such systems fail to account for the whole system, and end up with problems in soil fertility because they cannot get enough plant-available phosphorus and potassium (and have to source these minerals from unsustainable mined materials, including rock phosphate and potash), or with a warped biological system because they’ve failed to account for and integrate the beneficial activities of large grazing herbivores, then they really aren’t all that viable and sustainable–probably not even regenerative either–in the end.

    And I know that a fair few vegans have not acknowledged that the most influential factors that mean the difference between prohibiting and allowing cropping opportunities will determine if veganic farming really is viable–namely climate, and the very land itself. When, according to the FAO, only 11% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is used for arable agriculture because both land and climate is suited for it, that tells me a whole lot about the true viability of a veganic agricultural system.

  2. You’re not very fair with the no-animal option. You can actually kill specific cover crops with the frost, that’s what a lot of farmers using soil conservation techniques do here in France. You can also roll over the cover crops during winter and the plants will die fast. It’s way faster than using a scythe.
    I also see a lot of farmers here using direct seeding under living cover (not sure it’s the way to say it in English, in French it’s “semis direct sous couvert végétal vivant”).

    You also don’t need farm animals to have animals in the cycle. Humans are also animals. We’re running out of phosphate rocks so we’ll have to re-integrate humans in the cycle of resources any way. I’m not sure there is any big pro for manure compared to humanure or human urine.

    Where I disagree with vegans though (or dogmatic anti-specism) is when we’re talking about peak oil. We might have no other choice than using strong animals to do the heavy work if we don’t prepare agriculture for the end of oil. But it doesn’t mean we have to kill the animal.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Patrick. I guess I’m looking at very long-term sustainability, beyond the point when the oil runs out. As you say, if we want traction then, we’ll have to go back to using horses or draught cattle.

  3. I think you and someone in the comments have forgotten that we must produce crops for the animals we farm as well. Animal agriculture takes up 80% of arable land, with one-third of arable land currently being used to grow feed for our livestock. This means that 20% of our land is being used to grow crops that we eat and 33% of our land is being used to grow crops that our food eats. https://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/meat-and-animal-feed.html

    I don’t see why a good chunk of that land that is suitable for growing crops for animals (65% more than the land we’re currently using to grow crops for ourselves) can’t be used for veganic farming.

    1. No, we don’t, if they’re pasture-raised. Pasture is the key, with perennial grasses, forbs, even trees, which suck carbon out of the atmosphere, help retain water, all the time requiring no pesticides or fertiliser. That’s the beauty of Nature’s system.

      1. If pasture raised cattle was economically viable and sustainable enough to feed 10 billion people, we wouldn’t have factory farms in the first place.

        1. Ahh, economics. It’s economics that gives us factory farming, because of the constant drag to reduce costs of production to the bare minimum.

          Pasture-raising cattle has always been viable. It’s only in the past few generations that people and corporations have put profits before what’s right and natural. So don’t go excusing factory farming, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Animals are livestock, not just “stock” units.

          And who says we have to feed 10 billion people on one thing anyway? That’s an appeal to the extreme. Yes, the human population can survive and thrive on animal products, together with some foraged seasonal plant-based foods such as nuts and fruit. That’s the way we’ve lived for millennia. And I believe we will again, once the current parasitic global economy breaks down, which it surely must. One thing I can say with confidence is that, when that happens, there won’t be 10 billion homo sapiens running around to worry about feeding.

          1. I’m not excusing factory farms, they are a monstrosity that was born out of necessity. It’s easy to vilify profit seeking ignoring the fact that factory farms meet the demand placed by increasing populations and increase in demand for meat & dairy. We need to drastically reduce either of the two (population/meat consumption).

            Barring a catastrophe, there is no way to quickly and easily reduce our population which is projected to reach 9-10 billion before it starts to fall, so any “solution” needs to work at this scale. I’m glad you’ve admitted your model doesn’t work at such numbers.

            Feeding the world a largely plant based diet plus cultivated (lab-made) meat and dairy proteins, and farming with a minimal population of ruminants freed from factory farms or naturally raised would be the most optimal compromise. Whether we achieve it technologically is the question, but it certainly is the more optimistic way forward.

          2. I don’t agree that there’s any need for factory farming of animals. I don’t think it’s more efficient in terms of resources, only more profitable to the owners. I’d ban it in a heartbeat.

            Regarding the trade-off between human population and food, this is less clearcut. There is far more area of this planet’s surface that is suitable for grazing than is suitable for arable crops. We clearly need to stop growing crops specifically to feed to animals, as that is inefficient and wasteful, but of course animals also provide a very useful service at recycling crops that are substandard for human use.

            Can we feed 8+ billion people on meat, fish, and dairy alone? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s not really a valid question, just as absurd as the idea of feeding 8+Bn people on just plants. We have both, and some people want to eat meat, others plants, there’s no question of a single solution.

            I am totally convinced that lab-made fake meat is an abomination for human health, and I don’t support it at all. Real, outdoor-reared meat is not only far healthier, but can positively improve the land, whereas practically all arable in this industrial farming era is unsustainable.

          3. But this assumes there is no better option than continuing the grazing. Rewilding to me is clearly superior, though, which would involve more tree plantation and the larger variety of species on the land, not just cows. Why is asking if we can feed people on just plants absurd?

          4. Hi Tom.

            Nature gave us grazing herds, who are we to banish them? The circle of life is already perfect. I’m interested in rewilding as well. I’d love to see new forests growing with cattle, pigs, and poultry roaming free. And I believe we should use these animals for food, according to Nature’s model.

            Why is it absurd to ask if we can feed people on just plants? It’s bad for human health, for one thing. Plant-based eating is a slow starvation diet, which strips the body of essential fatty acids and other nutrients, leading to brain and neurological damage among many other issues. That’s not to mention the oxalates and other defence mechanisms that plants have. I think the health question closes the case, but it’s also no better for animals or for the environment.

          5. “Plant-based eating is a slow starvation diet, which strips the body of essential fatty acids and other nutrients, leading to brain and neurological damage among many other issues.”

            That is such nonsense. Per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals: “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. “

          6. From what I can see, any organisation with the word “Dietetics” was set up, at least in part, by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has a vested interest in promoting veganism and has been responsible for huge numbers of sick people out there. Therefore it’s not evidence-based. I won’t waste my time refuting the individual points.

  4. I will tell you what it’s like to be a 200 hectares of organic mung beans farmer here in NSW Australia. Thousands of animals culled each year to protect my crops from all sorts of criders and then hundreds more going through my combine havester. As it’s not financially viable to grow crops without controlling the pests. Millions of insects as well. This is a hard life to continue doing for the vegan kind to live in an idealistic ignorant guilt free existence just to listen/ read what some arrogant little piss amp or some idiotic nassisistic vegan psychopaths dribble to change the way of the world.

    Is there any truth in this artical. Because the idealist vegans think it’s fake news.
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7194701/Australias-vegan-lie-revealed-growing-vegetables-kills-hundreds-thousands-animals.html

    1. True. Animals are used to convert the byproducts and waste products of arable agriculture so they don’t go to waste. That includes cattle eating the husks of soybeans (which are inedible to humans) after production removes the oils. Even better, pigs and poultry can do a great job of recycling plant waste in situ, converting it rapidly into super-helpful manure.

  5. Interesting article!

    I have been vegan for 1,5 year now and exploring/researching Organic and Veganic farming methods. I think the Vegan principles of not harming and killing animals for mere pleasure-eating is possible in organic farming. If the animals on the land have the space and live free to an old age while doing their useful thing to the land, than I don’t see any problem. We don’t have to consume their milk or eggs perse (unless maybe they produce more than their babies need). And the animal can of course be eaten when it dies of old age.

    The point is, we don’t have to be so cruel to them and just let them be their natural selves on the land, while they make the land more fertile. Also, we could make sure they don’t reproduce too much, because than we might need to kill or steal babies, and that would be again cruel and avoidable violence

    1. I’m in agreement with you Evert. To me, denying animals life, and denying Nature her true, healthy biome that includes large animals grazing and fertilizing etc. is also cruelty. We are Nature, we are all one, it is not about any animal being superior to any other, once you realise it’s all a beautiful cycle, everything makes so much more sense.

  6. Interesting article but OMG, Ben "Plant-based eating is a slow starvation diet, which strips the body of essential fatty acids and other nutrients, leading to brain and neurological damage among many other issues. That’s not to mention the oxalates and other defence mechanisms that plants have." This is SUCH bullshit. I can't even believe that you, (who seems reasonable) would even write that.

    I personally know people who have been vegan since BIRTH! Super healthy and athletic. There are bodybuilders, runners, Olympians, regular people, etc who have been vegan for DECADES and are in extraordinary health. I'm almost 60 and I've been vegan for over 7 years and vegetarian for years before that and my health is as good as, and better, than ANYONE from 50 on in my locality. I'm confident.

    You, my man, need to do some open-minded learning about the situation.

    I'll add, regarding the article, that I think the obvious easy choice is regenerative agriculture with natural animal input. Doesn't mean that the animals need to become food.

    1. Well your experience flies in the face of what I know, which is hundreds and hundreds of people whose health has been damaged by eating only plants, in many cases permanently. Of course I’m happy if someone can thrive on just plants, but the MAJORITY of people I know who are, or have been, vegan have suffered. It’s simply not our biologically-appropriate diet, so you’ll always be fighting nature. But if you can make it work, great for you.

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