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Veganic Farming: Sustainable Agriculture Practices

11 Min Read

The Business Value of Sustainable Agriculture

In every business, sustainability is a significant consideration for customers and industry leaders alike. Consumers are increasingly aware of the effects the products they purchase have on climate change and other environmental implications, and many are seeking ways to reduce their own contributions to environmental problems.

Likewise, many consumers are concerned about the ethics of the products they purchase and use. Veganism is one such ethical approach to consumption, but even customers who aren’t themselves vegan may still be interested in products produced according to certain ethical standards.

In short, vegans and sustainability-conscious consumers are a significant share of the market for farm products, and agricultural entrepreneurs have an opportunity to reach that market via veganic farming.

What Is Veganic Farming?

The term “vegan” is usually associated with dietary choices, but it refers more broadly to the principle and practice of not exploiting animals in any way, both for ethical and sustainability reasons. Veganic farming, then, is a form of agriculture that seeks to avoid using animal byproducts in any capacity. It’s also known as “animal-free agriculture” or “animal-free organic.”

Philosophically, veganic farming seeks to de-link plant farming from animal farming and produce plant-based food in a sustainable manner without exploitation of animals. In other words, veganic farming is best understood as a set of overarching principles for farming rather than a single growing technique. Two explicitly veganic approaches to farming are the Stockfree Organic Standards, established in 2007, and the Biocyclic Vegan Standards, established in 2017. Numerous other farming techniques can also be practiced veganically, including no-till agriculture, field-scale agriculture, permaculture and container gardening.

It should be noted that while there is a great deal of overlap, not all veganic farmers are dietary vegans or even vegetarians. Some farmers choose animal-free farming because they believe it’s better for the soil, plant nutrition and overall sustainability, even if they still eat meat, fish and dairy themselves. It’s also an opportunity to reach the vegan market while still producing high-quality products for a broader range of consumers.

How Veganic Farming Works

Among the core principles of veganic farming are:

  • Practicing soil stewardship.
  • Maintaining biodiversity of free-living animals.
  • Promoting local plant-based fertility.
  • Minimizing off-farm inputs.

Veganic farmers keep the soil constantly covered with crops, mulch or green manure in order to prevent topsoil loss and nutrient leakage when the soil is exposed to the elements. They practice crop rotation to expose the soil to plants that serve different purposes, such as nitrogen fixation or nutrient mining.

In addition, while veganic farming avoids inputs from domesticated animals, the presence of free-living animals is encouraged through conservation of habitats like trees, ponds and hedgerows. Free-living animals contribute to pollination and maintain a healthy, diverse ecosystem on the veganic farm.

To the greatest extent possible, veganic farmers look for local sources of fertility, ranging from producing mulch and wood chips on the farm itself to locally sourcing biomass and plant meal. Depending on the location, veganic farmers may use anything from locally sourced seaweed to spent hops from local breweries. Green manures – that is, plants that are grown to be cut down and incorporated into the soil before going to seed – are used to build up the nutrient content of the soil. Nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, are particularly useful as green manure.

Veganic farmers will use imported mineral supplements to the extent necessary, especially in areas where the soil has previously been depleted. The ultimate goal, however, is to use on-farm products as much as possible in order to minimize the cost of transportation and avoid removing resources from somewhere else.

Types of Farming

Industrial FarmingOrganic FarmingVeganic Farming
Uses synthetic pesticidesUses naturally occurring pesticidesUses biological control of pests
May use genetically modified organisms (GMOs)Does not use GMOsDoes not use GMOs
Uses primarily synthetic fertilizer; some industrial farms use manure as wellUses fertilizer derived from animal byproducts such as manure, fish emulsion and bone meal, as well as plant-based fertilizersExclusively uses plant-based composts and green manure

The History of Veganic Farming

One persistent myth about veganic farming is that it’s an impractical, untested new-age idea. In fact, animal-free agriculture in some form has existed for a long time. The Maya and other ancient Mesoamerican people, for instance, used an animal-free agricultural system using corn, beans and squash. The milpa crop-growing system, based on those centuries-old techniques, is still used in Central America today.

Modern veganism has its origins in the 1940s, when the Vegan Society was founded in London. While veganism was initially associated with diet, the definition was soon expanded to include rejecting the exploitation of animals for any purpose. However, according to advocates for veganic farming, the issue of animal exploitation in food production specifically was under-discussed in vegan circles for many years.

Veganic farming as we know it today gained momentum in the 1990s, when the Vegan-Organic Horticultural Agricultural Network (now known as the Vegan Organic Network) was founded in the United Kingdom. The Stockfree Organic Standards, which codify the approach to veganic farming promoted by the VON, were codified in 2007. In 2008, the Veganic Agriculture Network, a core promoter of veganic farming in North America, was founded.

In 2017, the Biocyclic Vegan Standards were codified, building on the work of organic farming pioneer Adolf Hoops in Germany. Biocyclic vegan farming is focused on creating a sustainable, closed loop in which nutrients are systematically returned to the soil.

Timeline of Veganic Farming

  • 1996: Vegan Organic Network founded in London
  • 2007: Stockfree Organic Standards codified in the United Kingdom
  • 2008: Veganic Agriculture Network founded in the United States
  • 2017: Biocyclic Vegan Standards codified in Germany

Advantages of Veganic Farming

Environmental Benefits

At the local level, one of the advantages of veganic farming is a significant reduction in water pollution. Synthetic fertilizers release nutrients so rapidly that groundwater can become contaminated with nitrogen and phosphorus. Fertilizers made from animal products (especially those containing fish) can likewise cause ground and surface water to become contaminated with ammonia and nitrates. Plant-based fertilizers used in veganic farming break down much more slowly, keeping those contaminants at safe levels.

At the global level, livestock rearing contributes to climate change, both directly through greenhouse gas emission from livestock and indirectly from practices such as deforestation to clear more pasture land for livestock and farmland to grow animal feed. Fundamentally, animal products use more resources to produce because of thermodynamics: animals require substantially more calories in feed than they produce in edible protein, not to mention the costs of transportation to bring feed to animals and emissions from processing (particularly slaughterhouses). Animal products are also more prone to spoilage than plant-based products, leading to further loss of efficiency.

Veganic farming promises a climate-friendly approach to food production by eliminating animals from the supply chain entirely. An Oxford University study found that shifting to diets that exclude animal products would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 73%. Such a shift would require far more than veganic farming, of course, but veganic farming does provide a necessary ingredient by giving consumers the option of purchasing completely plant-based products.

Sustainability and Growth

Veganic farming advocates argue that their methods can benefit developing countries by creating a long-term, continual increase in soil fertility and reducing dependence on industrial fertilizers and pesticides. One of the key challenges faced by the developing world is to modernize their economies in a sustainable manner, and veganic farming offers a solution on the food production side of this challenge.

Livestock production is associated with significant amounts of food waste, both because animals require significantly more feed than they produce in edible products and because animal products themselves are more prone to spoilage than plant-based alternatives.

As the world grapples with the challenge of how to feed a growing population with limited resources, the veganic approach deserves a close look.

Criticisms of Veganic Farming

Critics of veganic farming have argued that animals are one of nature’s ways of quickly processing plant matter and returning nutrients to the soil in the form of manure. Eliminating domesticated animals from the system and merely allowing plant matter to decompose in place on the ground also returns the nutrients to the soil, but this occurs more slowly, making soil fertility management more difficult.

More generally, veganic farming is quite labor-intensive, as plant-based mulches and composts require more human effort to create than simply allowing animals to graze and excrete. Pest management in a veganic framework is also both logistically and ethically challenging.

Veganic farming is in many respects still in its infancy, perhaps in a comparable place now to where organic farming was 30 to 50 years ago. The veganic community is quite small, especially in North America, and resources for those seeking to farm veganically are still limited. This can make it difficult for new farmers to move into the industry or transition to veganic farming.

Marketing Advantages of Veganic Farming

While most veganic farmers are primarily motivated by non-economic concerns, there are potential business advantages to be derived from animal-free agriculture. Consumers are increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of their purchases, and while many are aware of the environmental benefits of buying plant-based products more generally, they may not be aware of the role of animal byproducts in producing those plant-based products.

Educating consumers, retailers and other market actors on the environmental and sustainability benefits of veganic farming may lead some to purchase veganic products as a show of support for the production method. Slogans such as “buy local,” “eat local” and “buy locally grown,” resonate with consumers, and veganic farmers can lean into that messaging by emphasizing that not only are their products locally grown, but the inputs used on the farm are also mostly or completely locally sourced.

There is some debate in the veganic community regarding the marketing value of the word “veganic” itself. While the term certainly resonates with dietary vegans and to some extent vegetarians, there are also negative connotations associated with veganism, and some veganic farmers have raised business concerns about social stigma. Still other consumers may be more interested in the “organic” aspect of veganic rather than the veganic aspect per se. The term “stockfree” has been promoted as an alternative to “veganic” to present the same concept in a less politically charged manner.

Even in areas without prominent vegan communities, though, veganic farming provides a unique differentiator and marketing angle for farmers. Arguments such as “it’s better for the soil” or “it’s better for food safety” have the potential to resonate with consumers in any market. The more attention consumers pay to what they put in their bodies, the greater the potential for veganic farming to fill a valuable niche.

The Future of Veganic Farming

Again, veganic farming is still quite young, and especially so in North America. Currently, there are limited educational opportunities and resources for aspiring veganic farmers in the United States. The number of veganic farms remains quite low, limiting the opportunity for veganic farmers to organize regionally and share growing and marketing techniques.

In addition, there is no US-based certification system for veganic farms, and only a few US farms have explicitly sought Stockfree or Biocyclic Vegan certification. Creating a US-based veganic certification or more broadly adopting one of the international certifications would be a significant step forward for the veganic movement.

These barriers are temporary, however, and it seems likely that veganic farming will continue to grow momentum and institutional support in a changing world. Factory farming has attracted significant criticisms in recent years on the grounds of sustainability, contributions to climate change, food safety, resource use and animal welfare, and renewed attention on infectious diseases created by human-to-animal transmission has brought additional attention to the link between animal consumption and public health. Meanwhile, the market for plant-based meat and milk alternatives is growing, and some animal-based industries such as dairy are contracting. The need for specifically veganic agriculture may grow for the simple reason that animal-based fertilizers and byproducts may be in shorter supply. Experimenting with plant-based methods now could be key for future sustainability in food production.

Veganic Farming and the Business of Agriculture

While veganic itself may not be the answer for every locality or every farmer, the thinking behind veganic farming is a case study in the challenges facing farmers in a changing world. Sustainability needs to be a priority in every industry due to the looming threats of climate change, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, and farming is no exception. At the same time, the growing world population has a greater need for resources, including food, and thus the need to produce more calories without increased environmental damage will become an ever more difficult balancing act.

As farmers and advocates continue to advance veganic agriculture, there is tremendous potential for growth and application in this alternative approach to farming and gardening. Fulfilling that potential, however, will require innovators, communicators and managers who know how to bring together sound business principles and ethical responsibility as animal-free agriculture expands to meet the needs of a changing world.

In short, the story of veganic farming is a story of innovation, exploration, and a strong commitment to both sustainability and an ethical code. These are the types of innovation that will be needed as the business of agriculture moves into the 21st century, and those are the skills you can learn in the online BS/BA in business administration program at Eastern Oregon University.

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