What is vegan organic growing and why does it matter? Ellen Percival gives us an introduction and tells us how to do it
What is vegan organic growing? As a reader of Vegan Life you’ll more than likely be familiar with what vegan means, but what you might be less aware of is that a lot of food growers fertilise their plants with animal by-products, for instance fertilisers derived from fish, blood, bone or manure. Luckily, there are people who have come up with another way – growing food vegan organically (also known as veganic agriculture, particularly in North America). The organic part is pretty obvious, but the vegan part means that by-products of animal agriculture or animal exploitation are not used. These products are often used in both conventional and organic food production, so vegan organic growing is pioneering as it directly demonstrates that food growing without domesticated animal inputs is possible. Of course, some animal inputs are inevitable and desirable: wild animals such as birds, mammals and invertebrates will always be present – their presence adds to the health and diversity of the local environment, and can also help to reduce the impact of pests and diseases on crops. Hence, vegan organic systems always actively encourage wildlife.
So why does vegan organic growing matter? One reason is that the sale of by-products of industries such as slaughterhouses and trawler fishing to gardeners and farmers helps these industries to remain profitable. Of course, these industries won’t go away with a switch to vegan organic growing alone, but it can form an important part of efforts to make them increasingly obsolete. Secondly, the environmental impacts of the livestock and fishing industries are immense and well documented. Using the by-products of these industries to grow food adds greatly to the footprint of that food, and in a time of growing environmental crisis it makes sense to be seeking low impact alternatives. Thirdly, many vegans and vegetarians are uncomfortable with the idea of the by-products of animal exploitation being used to grow their food, so there is certainly demand for more food to be grown without these inputs, to be made readily available and to be labelled clearly. Growing vegan organically also has a surprisingly long history – people such as Robert Hart, the ‘father’ of forest gardening; Kathleen Jannaway, the founder of the Movement for Compassionate Living, and Dan Graham, founder of the Vegan Organic Network, pioneered it from the mid twentieth century onwards.
How does vegan organic growing work? It’s possible to grow food vegan organically in spaces as small as a windowsill. (In fact, if you’re using an organic-certified, plant-based liquid feed such as seaweed concentrate, then as a windowsill gardener you’re probably growing vegan organically without knowing it.) However, vegan organic techniques come into their own in gardens and on allotments and farms, where a range of techniques are used to build soil health and fertility and to suppress weeds. Plant-based compost and mulches (layers of material spread on the surface of the soil, e.g. straw, leaf mold and grass clippings) are used to improve soil texture, fertility and water retention. Compost teas are easily made preparations rich in soil microorganisms which help to prevent fungal diseases (there are lots of videos about how to make your own on YouTube), and green manures are fast growing plants sown to cover bare soil. Green manures have a variety of functions, depending on the species, from clovers which fix nitrogen from the air and build soil fertility, to mustard which can reduce pests such as wireworms. Tolhurst Organic in Berkshire and Growing With Grace in Yorkshire are examples of farms in the UK which produce food vegan organically, and between them they send out over five-hundred veg boxes a week to local customers.
If vegan organic growing appeals to you, then there are lots of things you can do. The Vegan Organic Network (VON) are a UK-based organisation whose website provides loads of information about how to put vegan organic principles into action in your house, garden or allotment. They also publish a list of sites around the UK that grow vegan organically, many of which hold open days. It’s worth becoming a member of VON if you want to learn more, as they publish a book called ‘Growing Green – Organic Techniques for a Sustainable Future’, the most comprehensive guide to vegan organic growing, which is available at a significant discount to members. Plus ‘Growing Green International’, their members’ magazine, is full of discussion and information about new techniques. There’s also an ever-growing overlap between vegan organic growing and permaculture. Eminent permaculturalist Graham Burnett recently published ‘The Vegan Book of Permaculture’, and together with Nicole Vosper taught on the UK’s first vegan Permaculture Design Course in summer 2014, which is running again this summer in Somerset, while another is being held in South Wales by Aranya and Tony Martin. With ever-increasing interest in both veganism and sustainable food it makes sense that vegan organic growing is on the up.
Useful links on vegan organic growing and gardening:
- veganorganic.net – The Vegan Organic Network
- spiralseed.co.uk – Graham Burnett’s website
- emptycagesdesign.org – Nicole Vosper
- designedvisions.co.uk – Aranya
- green-shopping.co.uk/books/pp/the-vegan-book-of-permaculture.html – The Vegan Book of Permaculture
Ellen Percival is a passionate vegan, gardener, and collector of 90’s rave cassettes. You can drop her a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org