Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Does vegan farming work?

Koryama proudly shows his carrots. The leaves are not very impressive, but the roots are. He grows according to the Shizen Natural Farming concept, which essentially is about not applying any fertilizers, manures or composts. They claim that yields are somewhat lower than organic farming but that taste is superior. I can at least confirm that taste was very good.
Koryama pulls a very decent carrot!
Having grown vegetables myself for 32 years on rather poor soils, I am not particularly easy to convince that it is possible to do this without major soil building. This can be in the form of green manures and, at least on poor soils, some addition of e.g potash or phosphorus-rich minerals if not animal manure is admitted. Having promoting organic for 35 years I am also aware of how easily an alternative thought is dismissed, so I agree with myself to be open minded.

I ask Koryama if he applies the method for the Japanese staple food rice also, but no, this was only for fruits and vegetables. However, fruit and vegs are greedy and spoiled crops, so in my opinion, if it works for them, it should also work for other crops. The soils of Koryama, in Narita in Japan, are volcanic and I believe very rich, so it is of course possible that he is still “mining fertility”. But he has farmed with the method for more than 30 years, so one can’t easily say that he will soon run out of nutrients. His crops are sold by the Shizen Organic and Natural Food Ltd. They sell for the same price as organic and are also certified organic. His yield is lower but he says he can sell lower grades to the clients that want his produce and in addition he doesn’t have to buy any inputs, so it compares quite well with “normal” organic, for which he is also certified.

My starting point in thinking is that the various production systems that mankind developed over centuries have been rather well adapted to the ecological conditions where they developed. That is why the Mediterranean production system is quite different from the system in Western Europe or in the river valleys of India. But even if they were different, there were no systems without animals. And if all these systems had animals there were probably some quite good reasons for it. Even in India, where they supposedly are vegetarians (a truth with big modification) their system has been very much based on keeping cows and buffaloes – they are the worlds biggest milk producer and the biggest beef exporter!

Natural systems also have animals and plants mixed. We can’t easily integrate wild animals in our crop production systems, as they mostly will destroy the crops. Humans are not a replacement for the grazing animals, as we can’t break down cellulose. Animals also eat a lot of stuff that we don’t want to eat. Not only people, but also a lot of soil micro-organisms like animals, or at least their droppings. So for my simplistic mind, that prefers mimicking nature, an ecologically sound system is most likely to have animals.

I have seen other farms who have basically been independent from brought in compost, manure or other fertilizers, e,g. grain farms having rotations with a lot of legumes and green manures. But in most cases the same farm get a better yield – and far better economy – by introducing animals in the production system. This was essentially what happened in Europe some 150-200 years ago. Before that, most farms grew grain crops in almost monocultures, but the soils were exhausted and yields low and land was let fallow, every second, third or fourth year. With crop rotations including clover-grass and similar, farmers could suddenly both produce more grain and meat and milk from the same area.

It is possible that the same can be accomplished with a crop rotation where the legumes and grasses can be used for other purposes, e.g. for biogas production. But also here, it seems that it in almost all cases makes more sense to feed the animals and make biogas from the manure, in which case you can make better use of bio mass. If you think it is immoral for humans to keep domesticated animals this is irrelevant, and you would argue that there is no major difference between my argument and the arguments people use in favour of factory farming. Well, I do think there is a difference, because my discussion is about an appropriate way to produce food for 9-10 billion people with as small ecological footprint as possible, and keeping animals in a way that respect their animalness. This means that we need to use resources smartly.

Perhaps the vegan culture will develop such systems in the future. Perhaps I will then stop eating meat. Meanwhile, I hope we don’t have to hear the stories about that meat-eating, as a principle, takes away food from people. That is simply not true (and if you don’t believe that read some of the blog posts listed below).

Some reading:
Proponents of vegan farming:
even my mama grows vegan-organic

Some of my posts on meat production:
Producing meat (for export) or food for the people
The complicated story of meat


1 comment:

  1. Dear Gunnar Rundgren,

    I do appreciate your proud introduction as a farmer (it would have been more likeable if you had omitted the 'former' !)

    Having been in the industry for more than three decades, I do feel that farming is the most noble profession in the world. Not the farming that some greedy ones adopt for making money. But the farming our parents and grandparents used do for their own consumption. My father was a school teacher, but more than that he was a farmer. He was too close to the soil and that was his hobby. He used to make all the vegetables and the food that we needed from our three acres of land in Kerala, the green state of India. He seldom used the chemical fertilizers or the insecticides for most of the time.
    The easy money and employment in the non farming sector in the cities are killing our farms in my country due to movement of people from the rural areas to the cities. And the dislike of common people to do physical work in the soil is growing.
    Something has seriously gone wrong with our planning !