Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

Vegan farming: Life after poo!

When we debate with farmers and growers about the need to give up meat and dairy, many can hardly wait to deliver the coup de grace to our arguments. “You can’t grow things without animal manure!” You can almost hear the triumph in their sniggers.

They’re wrong and a couple of organisations have been proving it for a number of years now.

Robert Mackey runs Northop Organics, a five-acre site at the Welsh College of Horticulture in North Wales, dedicated entirely to growing fruit and vegetables without chemicals and animal products. Students learn about stockfree horticulture to HND and HNC level under his tutelage and the produce they grow supplies a local box scheme. Robert swears that his land is every bit as productive as conventional organic land. His courses at the college, one of the best in the UK, train students to farm sustainably.

The Vegan-Organic Network (VON) has been doing something similar for
more than a decade, encouraging gardeners and commercial growers to go stockfree. It has introduced a symbol that identifies products as being vegan-organic which is inspected and policed by the Soil Association.

Not surprisingly, there are close links between the ventures and it could be argued that they hold the key to our future as a species. There is no longer any argument that livestock for meat and dairy pose probably the greatest threat to the planet (see here for more details) and if their numbers are not dramatically reduced, global warming will carry on increasing, deserts will continue to spread, soil to erode and degrade, forests fall and plant and animal species will continue their rush into extinction.

If livestock numbers are slashed then the manure that conventional organic horticulture currently depends upon will virtually disappear. It will bring to an end any expansion in organic farming and highly-damaging chemical agriculture will roar away, continuing the cycle of environmental degradation.

Stockfree farming avoids all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically modified organisms and animal parts. Instead, growers insist on green manures – such as crops of clover which are then turned into the ground – plant-based composts and plant mulches.

You can see common comfrey growing wild everywhere. This plant can be grown, cut and placed in butts of water where it rots to produce a wonderfully effective fertiliser. Other fundamentals include disturbing the soil as little as possible and creating a balance between cultivated and wild areas, developing habitats such as hedges to shelter predators and act as wind breaks and being tolerant – accepting that a part of the harvest will go to nature.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of stock free growing is the earth worm which thrives under these friendly conditions and provides the simplest of litmus tests as to whether a soil is healthy or not.

The key word in veganic production is efficiency and not productivity. Productivity is when there is only one driving force – output per hectare regardless of how much energy has been used to produce it. It has led to the ludicrous situation in modern farming where it can take seven calories of energy to produce one calorie of food.

The stock free movement would have proved its importance if it went no further than this. But it does, with an holistic philosophy which also concerns itself with world justice and peace. Battle lines are being drawn across the globe over resources such as water and land and insecurity, impoverishment and despair prosper as multinational corporations exert a tightening stranglehold over developing countries.

There is no prospect of solving these seemingly intractable problems so long as the West continues to believe it has the right to guzzle obscene amounts of meat and dairy to the detriment of the world and most of its people. Stock free growing is the counter to this – so it has to succeed.

The Vegan Organic Network awards bursaries for people to study at the Welsh College of Horticulture. They can be contacted on 0845 223 5232 or email info@veganorganic.net (www.veganorganic.net ).

Welsh College of Horticulture, 01352 841000 or email robert.mackey@wcoh.ac.uk (www.wcoh.ac.uk). Not only can we grow food without animal manure – we can do it better