Most people recognise vegans as those who don’t eat, or use animal products. And whilst even a decade ago most of us would have struggled to find a vegan in our school, work, or neighbourhood, times are changing and veganism has become an increasingly popular and accepted lifestyle in the west.
According to Ecologist magazine, half a million people in the UK are currently following a vegan lifestyle and with new initiatives like The Vegan Society’s ‘Plate up for the Planet’ campaign, choosing the vegan lifestyle is becoming an easier choice for those that make it today, especially when compared to a decade ago.
That said - and despite its growing popularity - living as a vegan can still present challenges. Avoiding the consumption of anything that supports animal industry profit requires considerable conscious thought and planning, especially around food shopping. Many vegans will question whether all of their purchases fully align with their lifestyle ethics and some will adopt the view that any produce, including legumes, fruit and vegetables, that are grown with the help of manure, or bone meal fertilisers are not strictly vegan.
Enter veganic farming
In response to the vegan lifestyle becoming more mainstream, and extensive, there are now a small number of UK food providers exploring the pioneering practise of veganic farming, which doesn’t use any animal-derived fertiliser on crops.
Instead, the crops are grown adopting a ‘green alternative’ fertiliser whereby nitrogen-fixing plants - which do what the name suggests and fix nitrogen into the soil - are grown first and then ploughed back into the soil to create a greener compost that boosts its nutrient content, in preparation to grow a veganic crop.
This method isn’t new. The power of nitrogen fixing plants has been harnessed for millennia:
“Maize, beans, and squash have been intercropped for thousands of years, sustaining Maya Indians and Native American tribes with bountiful harvests,” writes Heather A. Miller of the University of Illinois in her journal Effect of Native American Bean-corn Biculture Planting.
Scientists now know that this intercropping method is largely successful because of an array of symbiotic bacteria (rhizobium being one). These clever organisms find their way into the roots of leguminous plants, giving them the ability to turn atmospheric nitrogen into fertilising ammonia.
In short, the Mayan and Native American nations were farming veganically before the term even existed!
Veganic farming causes less damage to the environment
Non-organic manure usually comes from animals sustained on a diet of imported feed. Non-veganic farmers who buy feed from overseas contribute to the detrimental environmental impact of transporting this by inadvertently burning fossil fuels to do so.
ProVeg International confidently states that “biovegan (veganic) agriculture is the most positive form of agriculture, in terms of all major environmental problems and climate change.”
Another key benefit to veganic farming is that pesticides and genetically modified organisms are not used. Instead, a diversity of plant species - which helps to better prevent the spread of pests - is promoted by growing mixed crops and by adopting a balanced crop rotation programme which, in most cases, means the use of farm machinery is also reduced.
As oil reserves become increasingly scarce, “biovegan agriculture could better guarantee the future supply of food” says Kristin Höhlig, campaign executive of ProVeg International.
Veganic farming is more energy-efficient
Today, the largest human emissions of atmospherically-damaging nitrous oxide are substantially linked to the processing of nitrogen fertilisers and manure used in mainstream agriculture.
The gases emitted by livestock, combined with their manure waste products, currently contribute to more than one third of global methane emissions. This gas warms the world twenty times faster than carbon dioxide.
In his article, ‘What’s new down on the farm’ the former President Emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Bill Schlesinger, states that some of the largest human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases stem from grazing cattle and the monocropping of rice.
So by establishing itself outside of the conventional animal agriculture industries, veganic farming contributes less methane gas to global warming and requires less energy to produce crops, which together results in a much lower carbon footprint.
Following in the footsteps of the organic movement
With scientific evidence supporting both the environmental and ethical benefits of veganism, can we now expect an increase in the number of specialist veganic produce suppliers?
Woj Gawor is the founder and managing director of Plant Curious, the UK’s first vegan food box delivery service. He says: “Veganic farming is in its early stages so just like organic farming was thirty years ago, it needs momentum, drive and demand to push it forward. We believe veganic agriculture is really the only sustainable way of farming into the future.”
Want to buy veganic produce?
A small, but growing number of farms in the UK currently supply veganic produce. This list of UK veganic farmers is regularly updated.