Ask: Is veganism best for soil and farmers?

It’s complicated but the way we buy food and how it’s grown is just as important as what we eat.

Our monthly series, Your Questions Answered, collates questions from Wicked Leeks readers and puts them to our expert team of writers and contributors. Submit your question for consideration by commenting on this article.

What benefits British farmers most – me being vegan or not? What benefits the soil most? I know these aren’t easy questions to answer.

Manderjee via Twitter

Whether you’re a vegan or not, there’s no denying that the movement has brought the environmental and animal welfare issues of intensive livestock farming to the mainstream. It has confronted us with horrifying animal welfare abuses, how the industry drives deforestation and is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global emissions. But the animal welfare-led movement has potentially been lacking other aspects of sustainability, and many plant-based products are ultra-processed and sourced from far-flung places. However, as this question highlights, the debate surrounding vegan diets is becoming more nuanced and there is a growing awareness that food and farming is rarely simple. Excluding animal products doesn’t automatically mean that the food we do eat is being produced in a way that is actively beneficial for the soil, farmers and even our health. Plant-based products can still be grown in a harmful way and exploit farmers.

This question raises what is best for soil, as well as farmers, which is an interesting point. A vegan diet abstains from meat, but organic farmers where soils are most healthy rely on animal manure to fertilise their crops instead of greenhouse-gas emitting nitrogen fertiliser. To make this work, they often run small-scale mixed farms, rotating animals among veg to create build up nutrients as well as storing carbon in the soil. Who will buy the animals to sustain these kinds of nature-rich systems if veganism is the dominant diet? As ever, there is no answer to be found in the extremes and if some people eat a sustainable vegan diet, while others eat less and better meat, that would most likely enable a shift to an all-round more sustainable and fairer system for farmers. When considering whether veganism is better for farmers, another big part of the question is where you are buying that vegan food. Is it a vegan meat alternative sold by a brand with minimal links to farmers, or from a supermarket where complex supply chains leave farmers with a small fraction of the final cost? Or is it a vegan meal made with fresh fruit, veg or pulses bought from a farmers’ markets, organic veg box, community-supported agriculture or food co-op? These places are the best way to support farmers as they receive a greater share of the price.

A similar question was raised by another reader about plant milks, who asked: Is there a way to compare the ethics, environmental impact and health benefits of a full fat organic cow’s milk and comparative oat milk? The carbon emissions of plant-based milk may be a fraction of the dairy equivalent because plants require a lot less energy to grow than raising and feeding cows, which also release potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. But many plant-based milks are ultra-processed and grown in intensive farming systems that use energy-intensive inputs such as fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides that drive biodiversity loss and high levels of emissions. That’s not to say all plant milks are made equal. There are small-scale organic producers who make ‘milk’ from crops like oats or almonds grown on organic farms, without chemicals and in diverse, nature-friendly systems. It’s complicated but, as a general rule, whether your diet has a positive impact on the soil depends not just on what you eat but how it’s grown and where you buy it.

Jack Thompson, staff writer, Wicked Leeks

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36 Comments

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  1. What isn’t mentioned above is that vegan diets are totally lacking in vitamin B12. Yeast supplements favoured by vegans contain B12 produced in fermentation vessels in chemical factories, yeast does not produce B12. To ensure a source of natural B12 in one’s diet it’s necessary to eat a meat or dairy product every week or two. Veganism is a totally foreign regime for our bodies, although its quite true that most people today eat far too much animal based food.

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    1. B12 in yeast extract form is a byproduct of the beer-brewing process. Marmite is produced next door to one of our biggest breweries (sorry, can’t remember the name right now).

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    2. I’m afraid you’re under an illusion. Yeast doesn’t produce vitamin B12, other B vitamins yes, B12 no. Marmite and similar yeast supplements are “enriched” with B12 produced by the chemical industry. Read the label.

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    3. Well, I do read labels – sometimes rather obsessively! I agree SOME products are enriched with B12, but see my response to your other reply, below.

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    4. Plenty of farmed ruminants are supplemented with B12 or cobalt (needed for them to produce B12). Vegans just consume it directly, whereas omnivores take it via the meat and dairy of animals who were often supplemented! Farm animals are given various other supplements and medicines: for instance globally nearly three quarters of antibiotics are administered to livestock, and this is contributing to life-threatening antibiotic resistance. One of the many issues that would recede or disappear if humanity adopted plant-based diets! . .

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  2. A very complicated issue, as you point out. I really don’t think I have to eat meat every, or any week to get B12. Many supplement suppliers provide one with B12. I may be wrong here but I have heard that animals only have B12 in their flesh because they too take supplements. I do wonder when an animal spends all it’s time in a shed, where in the so called sanitary conditions it lives would it find the bacteria to get B12? Could be all wrong about that. People who eat meat can also be deficient in B12, so I hear. As far as plant mylks are concerned I don’t look on them as providing any particular nutrients but just to wet my muesli. Oh I do drink a Soya drink made with European Soya doctors tell me it’s good for me.. Many try hard but I really believe perfection is almost impossible to attain.

    Of course we are not here talking at all about the many health benefits which can result from low or no animal eating systems, which are confirmed by many studies, which our gov’t never tells us about.

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    1. You seem to have rather missed the point, ALL the B12 in supplements is produced by the chemical industry, Without supplements vegans would be quite ill. You may want to rely on a industry which is responsible for most of the modern food related malaises but I’m not.. In fact the human body does host bacteria which make B12. Unfortunately for us they live in our large intestine and our bodies are designed not to absorb anything from that part of the digestive system, it’s for waste only. The consequence is that faeces are quite a rich source of B12.

      It is nonsense to suggest animals are fed B12 supplements, even the ones reared under intensive and totally unacceptable conditions. The bacteria which produce B12 live in one of a ruminants stomachs, it is part of their natural gut biome. Poultry, fowl and swine get their B12 from the soil and bacteria it contains, which they consume as part of their normal feeding processes.

      Finally, in order to maintain a healthy organic soil some animals are virtually essential. We certainly eat far too much meat in modern western diets but an animal product once every week or so is essential for good health without supplementation and also essential for the health of the soil.

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  3. An interesting and thought-provoking article. Mixed farming on a small scale seems such a wise idea, but it seems almost impossible to find meat produced this way, so many of us become vegetarian. Locally produced, seasonal food (where possible) feels important too, but it’s much harder producing varied and interesting meals during the winter in Britain, especially without eating meat or fish..
    I liked the reference to plant -milks being good for ‘…wetting…muesli…’ It seems to me that many vegan ‘swaps’ – like vegan cheeses, milks and burgers – are just a short-cut pretence, allowing some vegans to feel that they are ‘doing the right thing’ in shunning animal products, while consuming products with very little food value (while also being ultra processed, often from ingredients sourced a very long way away).
    Perhaps trying to eat more locally produced food, mostly in season, and in moderation, is the key, for the health of the planet and ourselves?

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    1. Everything in moderation, even moderation as they say!

      I think choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is a totally appropriate reaction to the opaque supply chains of meat and animal products. Unless you’re lucky enough to know a farmer and how they raise their animals (very few of us do), or have the money to afford certified organic meat (a lot of us can’t) then being veggie or vegan is the obvious choice.

      How can we make seasonal produce more exciting, and offer people an alternative to more exotic (ie avocados and out of season produce) and ultra-processed alternatives to meat? Is Riverford a good resource for this?

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    2. Jack, I’d say yes, Riverford is a very good resource for this. The Field Kitchen is the best restaurant anywhere, and I say that as a vegan. You already do make eating seasonally exciting, including on the website with your recipes, and of course the books.

      I grow organically, and as an author I am currently completing a vegan cookbook that aims to make plant dishes local, seasonal, organic, affordable, non-processed and delicious. It IS possible – my guinea pigs all seem to think I’ve achieved that.

      I confess that, though I’m really careful with my purchases and don’t buy processed (unless yeast extract as a beer byproduct counts) or long-distance foodstuffs, on occasion I let myself eat avos. Even self-righteous vegans fall from grace sometimes! But after all, Riverford sources them from Spain during their growing season (which ends soon now). This aids the food miles issue (I don’t ever buy the Peruvian ones), if not so much the water one.

      Btw the average savings on a vegan diet rather than a meat one is £645 pppa – according to The Vegan Society (https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics)

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    3. Hi Roselle, we’re all human aren’t we and there’s no such thing as the perfect choice or diet. I would say that the problem with trying to eat a green/sustainable diet is the amount of information capital it requires to make good choices. It’s overwhelming how many trade-offs and challenges there are.

      Do I buy organic but from abroad? Should we buy local at all costs? How to eat a vegan diet without ultra-processed foods?

      The impacts of food and diets are complex. The government has to make life easier for us – take away some of the trade-offs, ie don’t do trade deals and allow imports of meat with lower animal welfare, ban the use of unnecessary plastic packaging, and raise the standards of farming.

      It’s all too much to process otherwise!

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  4. Veganism is better for the animals, the planet and you. I found this article totally biased against it and not surprising as shared by an animal abusing business. You can eat a healthy whole food vegan diet or a junk food diet as a vegan or non vegan. We don’t need to keep making excuses to exploit animals. People do it because they like the taste of flesh. There is no thought for the misery and suffering caused to animals as long as you can have your cheese, eggs and slices of a being that wanted to live just as we do. Drinking cows milk means killing her babies so you can drink the milk that was meant for them. We are all deficient in vitamin B12 because the soil is so depleted due to decades of abuse. Animals are routinely injected with B12 as they are also deficient and pumped with antibiotics. You can get b12 from supplements or natural sources without killing sentient beings. I want to live in a kinder earth that doesn’t enslave other beings and commodify them and use as resources and that’s why I am vegan. The only excuse for not being vegan is because you like the taste of animal products and for me that’s not a good enough reason to torture and kill another being. There are plenty of vegan fertilisers for the earth too. If you want to keep animals then do it out of kindness and not to exploit and kill them.

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    1. I think your comment is rather heavy on prejudice and rather low on substantiated facts. The soil certainly isn’t depleted of B12 producing bacteria if it’s managed organically and probably not if its part of a non organic mixed farm. Animals are certainly not injected with B12, whether in a organic or nonorganic system, although the routine use of antibiotics in animal husbandry should be condemned.

      I repeat yet again, there is NO natural vegan source of vitamin B12 unless you take artificially produced supplements, that is unless you care to consume faeces. Without modern technology veganism is untenable.

      Vegan fertilisers are produced from the land, land that is needed to produce food, and ultimately without a mixed farming system the land will become poorer and depleted.

      Finally, I wonder what vegans would do with the animals they condemn others for exploiting? Since there would no longer be any use for them and they will be occupying land needed to grow the food and fertiliser I assume they’d have them all culled.

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    2. Oh Richard there is so much to contradict here.

      I want to say that I’m not sure any of us posting here in favour of reducing meat-eating is condemning others who do; I think we’re putting forward an alternative that is kinder and much more environmentally friendly.

      Firstly, I’ve already tackled your incorrect statements about B12 – you’ve perhaps seen that below.

      Secondly, while I don’t mean to be rude, what you say here is rather poorly-informed::

      ‘Vegan fertilisers are produced from the land, land that is needed to produce food, and ultimately without a mixed farming system the land will become poorer and depleted.’

      If we fed humans plant protein we could feed between 10 and 18 (depending on which study you read) times more people per acre than on a diet that consists of meat and dairy! And that includes producing compost etc.

      Secondly, well-tended land does NOT need animal products, and the land used, as you can see in the example I’ve just given as well as in what I say next, is actually minimal in comparison. And organic vegan fertilisers are generally mulches made of (this is what we use, and all bar the seaweed and cardboard is sourced from the margins and green waste on our own land): leaf litter and humus; cut nettles, comfrey etc; domestic and garden waste; woodchip and composted woodchip; any mowings (we don’t mow much); seaweed; cardboard; and green manure crops (NB in situ, not produced elsewhere and transported). As you can see, none of this requires land given over expressly to growing fertilisers; and I can assure you that our land is extremely productive, and has been over many years.

      Thirdly and significantly, our domestic livestock and the grain and soya grown to convert animals to protein for humans to eat now covers an immense area of the global landmass, to the extent that wild mammals now only occupy 6% of that land mass. 77% of the world’s farmland (and 85% of the farmland in the UK) is used to graze farmed animals or to produce crops to feed farmed animals.

      There are also problems of starvation: 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals who are then eaten by Western countries.

      Then there are the issues of environmental degradation, pollution, deforestation and so on.

      Although I personally love animals to the point where I don’t want to eat them, I can see the argument for small scale mixed farming. However I feel strongly that we very much need to cut back completely on the number of animals suffering in intensive units and cut back massively on livestock for our consumption. This would happen slowly, and not by culling, but by consumers making different and planet-friendly choices, until we had a better balance of forest, wildlife, biodiversity and clean air and water.

      By the way, all the figures I give are from independent studies – which I have read – and which have been collated on the Vegan Society website. I somehow suspect you won’t follow this up, but if you do want to verify anything I’ve written you can see it here: https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics

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    1. Of course they are. However, a) they don’t have a central nervous system like animals or us, so don’t suffer pain in quite the same way, and b) meat-eaters who routinely trot out this response forget that in eating a herbivore, they are also consuming vastly more plant matter than they would otherwise!

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  5. Thanks for this article. A couple of points that I wish had been included: 1) Organic farmers do not HAVE to use animal-inputs, Tolhurst Organic near Reading is a wonderful biodiverse farm producing loads of organic food without any animal inputs. I am not advocating either way, just pointing out that the animal/petrochemcial option noted above is a false dichotomy. 2) Regarding the ethics of plant- and animal- based milks, Ethical Consumer did a really great indepth look at this, including specific brands. Both Tolhurst and Ethical Consumer have easily found websites should anyone be interested.

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    1. It’s true, we actually covered Tolhurst’s veganic farm and veg box scheme last year:
      https://wickedleeks.riverford.co.uk/features/farming-veganism/veganic-farming-solution-or-sideshow

      There was a lot of ground to cover in this short article so not all nuances of the debate could be covered unfortunately.

      But as you say veganic farming is possible, as tolhurst demonstrates. But organic farming is still marginal at best, with only 2.7% of Uk land in organic production, let alone, veganic, which has only 22 farms registered in total. Shouldn’t the industry be focused in scaling up rather than splintering?

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    2. Scaling UP? No, intensive growth is part of the problem. But if you mean scaling up organic and veganic farming, with animal and environmental welfare top of the list, then certainly, if it displaces some of our current abhorrent practices.

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    3. Yes, i did meant scaling up, veganic, organic, agroecological farming, or any other way of producing food that works with nature, rather than against it. It’s likely that different types of farming will suit different contexts.

      What is interesting about Tolhurst is that he demonstrates it’s commercially viable, but only with direct links to customers and short supply chains (and no middle men). The way we buy food is underestimated. This is the most effective way of supporting farmers to farm more in more ethical and environmentally sensitive ways.
      Jack

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  6. Not all food animals are ill-treated. Stop thinking about all the scare pictures and stories (especially from the USA). It is still possible to get ‘happy’ meat etc. Look around for yourself.

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    1. Have you ever accompanied even a ‘happy’ animal to the slaughterhouse? Didn’t think so. (And they are still our slaves…)

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    2. Yes I have seen animals being slaughtered.. We used to raise our own meat and they were killed on the premises by a licenced slaughterman from the local butcher. They were usually half grown goats which had lived their lives in the field with their dams. There was no sign of distress from the animal because we were respectful and thankful.

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    3. OK, I stand corrected on your experience. I’m glad you were both respectful and thankful, that your animals were reared outdoors, and I recognise that there are some of you around in the farming world.

      However, I’d still say no animal goes WILLINGLY to feed us, so it’s hardly consensual; and killing a young goat when they can live to a great age (I’ve worked with them) in order to keep the dams in milk each year and because male kids are no ‘use’ to a human doesn’t fit my own picture of compassionate farming, though in a meat market economy I recognise that there may be no alternative unless one has infinite pastureland and resources.

      But it’s good to converse about such things.

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    4. Female goats don’t HAVE to have a kid each year to keep producing milk – they can go on for several years, and their milk is excellent food for other vulnerable animals. Young male kids seem to have a death wish – getting heads stuck where they shouldn’t be; jumping off things they shouldn’t be on in the first place; running up vertical walls and breaking legs on their descent. I loved my goats and all their idiosyncrasies and would never have made them unhappy.
      At one point, the local vet was asked to put down a castrate billy kept as a pet but having become too boisterous, and asked me instead f I would like him for the freezer, and I chose the latter – at least we could give thanks for his life and not have him dumped in ignominy.
      I do understand that some people would rather not have animals for food, but myself consider that mixed compassionate farming is the way to go. I used to use biodynamic principles at one point but there wasn’t time to do it properly.

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    5. Yes, you’re right, I’d forgotten than unlike cows goats don’t need to calve/kid every year.

      I also get why you took the castrated billy for your freezer. I also get the small compassionate mixed farm approach; and I really love living among animals, but I still feel, as somebody who is trying hard to live an ecocentric life, that we need to step back from our well-established view that only human wellbeing, rights and privileges count. We know animals suffer, and it isn’t necessary. That’s my view – kindness is all.

      But still, I understand where you’re coming from – my daughter too takes your approach.

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  7. I”m completely with ‘C’est moi’. I found the article above rather biased and perhaps not as informed as it might be.

    To go to the original question: is it better for farmers? That’s hard to answer, and I’m not a farmer (although I come from farming stock), but I do know that dairy farmers barely break even on a pint of milk, and tending animals on any scale is a long hard slog with 4 or 5 am starts. Intensive farming is different, and one cannot argue that there is any good in that, for anyone, least of all the animals.

    For the soil? Best of all is a perennial permaculture system.

    We have grown our own veg organically for years now, and don’t use animal manure. Our land is very productive, on mulches of seaweed, nettles, grass, comfrey, woodchip and composted woodchip, domestic and garden waste compost, and leaf litter. It is NOT necessary to use either animal manure/blood and bone OR chemicals of any sort. As someone mentioned above, Tolhurst Organics show this, as do many other organic producers; and for a very inspiring read see ‘Miraculous Abundance’ by the Hervé-Gruyères. They are not animal-free but largely use their own mulches.

    There are other questions, like land use, environmental pollution, developing world starvation as they grow so much grain and soya to ship to the West for intensively-farmed animal consumption, which is a very poor way to produce protein; and we would need between 10 and 18 times less land to feed the current world’s population if it were vegan, not meat-based.Then there’s deforestation to grow said crops for animal use. AND we could rewild/re-tree the up[ands if we removed sheep, and help biodiversity enormously. For me most significant of all is the huge issue of animal suffering.

    The B12 question: B12 in eg yeast extract is a byproduct of the brewing industry. It’s not a big deal to use that or nutritional yeast flakes.

    And yes, you can get plenty of protein from a plant-based diet.

    Btw, I’m currently writing a book on all this, so I have done my research.

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    1. Just to correct you, yeasts do not produce vitamin B12, it’s a common fallacy that they do. All yeast products that contain B12 have been supplemented with B12 produced in fermentation vessels in a chemical factory, which is then extracted and purified like any other chemical product.

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    2. Richard:

      ‘Yeast extract naturally contains vitamin B12 which is not derived from animals. It contains all the ingredients that are present in fresh yeast, as well as proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. To produce yeast extract, enzymes break down the contents of the yeast cell and the cell wall is removed. Yeast extract is basically made up of the yeast cell’s natural components, including vitamin B12, without the surrounding cell wall. As it is completely free from any animal ingredients, it can contribute to a balanced diet for both vegetarians and vegans.’

      I’d just point out that in the brewing process, of which yeast extract in the form of Marmite is a by-product, fermentation DOES occur, but I wouldn’t say this was a factory chemical process as such, even in a broad sense.

      However, perhaps you know more than I do – are you maybe a biochemist?

      – However I lifted the above from this link: https://yeastextract.info/2016/06/25/vitamin-b12-occurs-naturally-in-yeast-extract/

      which also tells you exactly how this is produced (on a different page).

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  8. For me – ethical farming is best – whether with plants or animals… It should be done (and can be) with respect and kindness. I eat a mostly vegan diet with meat or egg once or twice a week. But I try and buy organic/biodynamic/local where possible. – growing veg and grain chemically is horrendously harmful to the environment and our health – let alone the knock on effect of water pollution etc…. Everything is linked and affects everything else….
    If you feel that on a vegan diet you are not causing the death of any beings – you are sadly mistaken as anyone who works on farming/growing will attest….
    Apart from the bugs killed so people can get your veg to you – there are always some in the veg who die too – nothing can be done on this planet without death – it is a part of life. (olive oil for instance -they will have the olive worm in them – you see them as they are processed….sad but true!)
    Keeping the soil healthy is the most important thing (imho as a grower/tutor for 30 odd years!) this can be done without animal imputs – but better with them. Animals, plants, insects – all work together to make a brilliant system – perhaps we should do more observing – rather than our humancentric manipulating…! We are a part of this system……

    9

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  9. I am also completely with ‘C’est moi’, well put and thank you for saying this.
    However kindly we treat the animals in the field, in the end we kill them, few die a good death and I doubt any of them want to die. Just ask yourself, would you want this done to you if perchance our planet were invaded by some giant alien or other species against whom we had no defence. No, of course not, so why do we do it to them? Some might say it is better to give them some life than none at all, but I wonder about this, especially as most suffer so much when they die, in ways we do not understand or acknowledge.

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  10. Manderjee writes “Organic farmers where soils are most healthy rely on animal manure to fertilise their crops instead of greenhouse-gas emitting nitrogen fertiliser.”. At least one experienced organic farmer begs to differ! Ian Tohurst has been producing fruit and vegs organically for more than three decades without ever using manure nor any other animal input nor any synthetic fertiliser, nor other chemicals. His farm is a model of improved soil hearth (he started with very poor soil) and biodiversity, whilst being very productive. He says this:

    “Farmers have been misinformed about the value of bringing animals in. They could do far better, far quicker, if they concentrated on green manures and managed those in a more positive way. “The argument of building livestock production in the name of building fertility does not hold at all. We’ve shown on our farm we’re able to grow a significant amount of vegetables without bringing fertility in – and that includes from livestock. We’ve been subject to many studies over many years. We’ve been able to show quite clearly we can produce an awful lot of food with a very low carbon footprint. That’s primarily because we don’t import land in the form of compost or manure.” https://livefrankly.co.uk/food-drink/veganuary-vs-regenuary-good-bad-common-ground/

    Tolly, as he is nicknamed, explains elsewhere that if he was to use manure he would need an extra 20-30 acres just for that, over his existing 17 acres (at 15’53” here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42eB0vQ3P-A&feature=emb_title )

    Tolly is not the only one. There is a fast-growing community of ‘veganic’ growers proving that manure is not needed for fertility. Here is just another example from the US: https://civileats.com/2019/07/10/a-maryland-grain-grower-takes-regenerative-agriculture-to-the-next-step I could list many others!

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  11. Plant’s don’t have brains or nervous systems. They react to stimuli but the cannot choose, prefer and run away as sentient beings do. Seen the difference between a slaughterhouse and a strawberry harvest? By the way by consuming plants directly you actually use less of them than if they are fed to animals first and then consumed by you. So if you care about plant sentience then going vegan is best.

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