Does Environmentally Sustainable Farming Require Domesticated Animals?

Most of the vegetables and fruits consumed in the US are grown using fertilizers made either from fossil fuels or from the byproducts of farmed animals. Some farmers eschew both in favor of plant-powered soil amendments. Farming organically without raising or using any animals or animal products is a practice known as veganic (vegan organic) or stockfree organic agriculture. This style of farming is often downplayed by media as a niche endeavor relevant primarily for vegans looking to consume food produced in alignment with their values.

However, for anyone involved in the animal protection movement or the movement for food systems transformation, this method of food production deserves a second look. Stockfree organic agriculture can have intersectional benefits for animals, the environment, and human health. Especially now that climate scientists increasingly call for drastic reductions in meat production along with transition away from fossil fuels, should veganic farming play a more prominent role in a sustainable future?

Questioning the Role of Animal Products in Organic Farming

Between 1910 and the mid-1970s, farmers, writers, and restaurateurs in the high-income nations, disillusioned with the rising reliance on synthetic fertilizers and agrichemicals, popularized various approaches to organic farming. Organic development during this time drew heavily on traditional practices employed by farmers in the Global South, along with historical forms of agriculture in the Global North, improving soils without the use of synthetic inputs.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, several organic farming organizations began in Europe, the US, and Australia. These groups joined together in 1972 to form the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and launched the establishment of the first legally mandated organic standards.

Since then, dozens of countries have implemented organic farming regulations, with permitted practices varying between national standards. Organic food production is based around ecological processes and generally avoids synthetic inputs for crops and antibiotics for livestock. Instead, organic fertilizers are commonly made of animal manure, blood meal, bone meal, feather meal, or fish meal. Mixed arable and livestock farms following organic methods will often use the manure of their own animals to help grow their crops. Arable-only farms, on the other hand, source their animal-based fertilizers from livestock producers.

Ruminant animals such as cattle produce significant amounts of methane through their digestive processes (enteric fermentation). Using the manure of these animals as fertilizer in an organic system creates fewer additional harmful GHG emissions than the collection of manure into storage lagoons in conventional farming, but organic farming systems aren’t necessarily environmentally benign. Run-off from manure causes harmful algal blooms and acidification of downstream water sources. Under certain circumstances, these impacts may be worse from organic farms than from conventional farms that use synthetic fertilizers.

Additionally, when organic farms import animal-based fertilizer from outside the farm, they also support industrial livestock farming and its associated harms such as deforestation, air pollution, and methane emissions from cattle. The National Organic Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture, allows organic farmers to source manure from non-organic intensive farms, with some restrictions, as does the Organic Standards of the UK’s Soil Association.

The Benefits of Farming Without Animal-based Inputs

Beyond the organic/conventional farming dichotomy is animal-free agriculture. Popularly known as ‘veganic’ or ‘vegan, organic’ agriculture, farming without synthetic or animal inputs is also known by the more technical and neutral term stockfree—or stockless—organic agriculture (SOA). This term may hold more appeal to some farmers who want to employ veganic techniques but do not necessarily identify with vegan diets or lifestyles. Biocyclic[1] vegan agriculture is an additional term used by the International Biocyclic Vegan Network, which states that in this method, “Special emphasis is placed on the promotion of biodiversity, healthy soil life, the closure of organic cycles, and on systematic humus build-up.”

In 2007, UK organization Vegan Organic Network (VON) established a set of standards that state that minimizing tillage and using a “well-designed” crop rotation system is also key to SOA. According to Veganic World, a project by the US nonprofit Seed the Commons, most veganic farming is not only motivated by a desire to avoid animal products but also by the goal of  building and maintaining soil “fertility over time through a holistic systems approach, rather than by merely adding a fertilizer.”

The concept of animal-free organic food production isn’t actually new, having a long history in certain forms of indigenous farming. For example, in traditional Mesoamerican milpa agriculture, corn, beans, and squash have long been grown together in the same field to boost the fertility of each crop without the need for animal manures, while extra nutrients are provided through swidden[i] practices. In other SOA systems elsewhere, the soil is fertilized using plant-based composts and mulches as well as green manures—crops that are grown specifically to help improve soil health and structure, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes like alfalfa and clover. These green manures also cover what would otherwise be bare soil in winter, helping to minimize soil erosion.

This combination of plant-based fertilization and holistic management makes SOA both low-impact and potentially hugely beneficial to the climate and biodiversity.  It requires around 100 times more land to produce a kilocalorie of beef or lamb compared to directly plant-based foods such as root vegetables. Considering the land required for feeding animals, whether on pasture or through crops converted to animal feed, an organic arable farm that uses animal-based inputs indirectly requires more land to produce its crops than an analogous one that does not depend on livestock farming. By neither keeping livestock on-farm nor using the byproducts of animals farmed elsewhere, SOA can help to reduce the amount of land required to produce food, potentially freeing up significantly more space for other uses such as the restoration and rewilding of natural habitats.

The other aspects of veganic agriculture—minimizing or avoiding tillage, using cover crops and green manures, and practicing crop rotation—make up many of the elements of ecological, climate-friendly agricultural systems identified by Project Drawdown, an organization that evaluates climate solutions, such as protecting soil, reducing emissions, sequestering carbon, and making the land more resilient to climate shocks like droughts and excessive rainfall.

How Widespread is Stockfree Organic Agriculture?

Globally, the number of farmers practicing SOA methods for explicit climate or animal welfare reasons is still small. Veganic World has a directory listing dozens of farms around North America and over a dozen more in countries including France, India, Indonesia, and Mexico. VON lists more than 20 veganic farms in the UK and Ireland, while a study in the journal Sustainability found that, as of 2016, there were approximately 80 farms in Greece and Cyprus and 21 in Germany, where biocyclic vegan network organizations advise farmers and promote the practice of biocyclic vegan agriculture, a specific kind of SOA.

Opportunities for Reducing Barriers to Stockfree Production

Given the apparent environmental benefits of SOA, why does it remain such a niche method among commercial farmers in the highest-income nations? One reason is the lack of training opportunities for new farmers or those wanting to transition. “There’s a complete lack of education for veganic farming,” says Nassim Nobari, co-founder and director of Seed the Commons. When new commercial farmers start out, she says, “if they’re going into organics, which is already a minority, they’re being taught that you use manure, and you use blood meal, and that’s just how you do it. And then on top of that veganics is not only about inputs, right, there’s other things as well to it,” as indicated by VON’s veganic standards. Seed the Commons works to address this issue by promoting veganic farming by providing educational resources and bringing together farmers and others interested in veganic farming to share knowledge and insights.

Another barrier to the more widespread uptake of veganic/stockfree organic agriculture among commercial farmers is the current shape of the debates around sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Since the release of the documentary Kiss the Ground, there has been a surge of interest in grazing as a sustainable alternative to industrial food production. Proponents of this type of farming have responded to calls for a global shift to plant-based diets by arguing that it’s the way animals are farmed that matters most for sustainability, not farming crops vs. farming animals. Animals, particularly cattle, grazed in ‘holistic’ or ‘rotational’ systems, they say, are, in fact, the key to restoring soil health and fighting climate change.

While rotational grazing may provide environmental and animal welfare improvements over conventional industrial animal agriculture,[2] the claim that animals are necessary for optimal soil health is disputable and assumes that farming without animals can only be done with the help of synthetic inputs—something that SOA clearly refutes. “What has happened in these circles,” says Nobari, “is that they’ve created a false dichotomy between sustainability through ecological farming and veganism. It’s not true that you can’t farm organically without domesticated animals.” So how does SOA farming fare in practice?

The Ecological and Harvest Benefits of Stockfree Organic Agriculture

Despite abundant peer-reviewed comparisons between organic and conventional farming, the peer-reviewed research into SOA’s environmental benefits and yields compared with other types of organic farming remains limited. Existing studies are positive about SOA’s benefits and potential for playing an important role in the future of sustainable food production. Researchers have suggested that stockfree organic farming can form the basis of an agricultural model that produces abundant food while respecting animals, people, and the natural environment, through “conservation agriculture-based veganic agroecology.”[3] Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies at Loyola Marymount University Mona Seymour describes SOA as “a promising approach to agriculture that is sustainable and regenerative.”[4]

Field trials by researchers at the University of Athens have shown that, compared to soil that was untreated or had been treated with synthetic fertilizer, soil produced by veganic methods had the highest yields for sweet potatoes and tomatoes.[5] A ten-year study in ‘stockless organic crop rotation’ found both variable potato yields and yields of spring and winter wheat and spring beans that were above average for organic food production in the UK.[6] Additional support is needed for farmers interested in veganic farming, and research can help illuminate the benefits and tradeoffs of SOA for farming communities, human health, and long-term soil fertility.[7]

Case Studies of Stockfree Organic Farming

Farmers, meanwhile, have been proving just how successful SOA can be. Johannes Eisenbach is an olive-grower in Greece, profiled in the Guardian in 2019, who pioneered plant-based composting methods[8] that led to the development of the Biocyclic Vegan Standard. OikoBio is a certified biocyclic vegan farm in northern Greece that grows peaches, nectarines, pears, cherries, pomegranates, figs, walnuts, apricots, and vegetables such as Hokkaido squash, potatoes, cabbages, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, and peas. Visiting the farm for the Guardian, Patrick Barkham wrote of its “unusual” abundance “of bird and insect life,” with “birds sing[ing] in thick hedges” and a “luxuriant field of broccoli danc[ing] with scores of large white butterflies.” On only half an acre, the farm produced 1,500kg of zucchini in one season.

In the UK, Tolhurst Organics is a 19-acre farm in South Oxfordshire producing 120 tons of vegetables a year, having operated without the use of any grazing animals or animal-based inputs for the past decade and without any synthetic inputs for the past 30 years. The business reports its total yearly carbon footprint as around 8 tons—the same as the average UK household—and an increase in on-farm biodiversity. With over 1800 meters of hedgerows and putting some parts of the farm aside for nature, Tolhurst Organics says that it has reduced pest attacks on its crops by creating a “healthy balance of predators feeding on pests and maintaining nature’s equilibrium.”

Over in the US, one of the more well-known larger-scale veganic farms is Woodleaf Farm in Oregon. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, grains, and mushrooms are grown on 141 acres of the 211-acre plot, providing diverse habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife, including predators. The presence of animals on these farms is notable because, as Nobari argues in a recent paper, “a conflation has been made between “having animals in our ecosystems” and the presence of farm animals” raised for their products, so “it is important to insist that the absence of farm animals is not an absence of animals.”

In Auroville, India, an ecological restoration project run by nonprofit Sadhana Forest helps local villages to grow their own sustainable, plant-based food. The fertilizer used on these farms is not entirely plant-based but is created using human waste through compost toilets. This type of fertilizer can help farmers “work toward a closed-loop fertility system,” as Meghan Kelly, co-founder of the Vegan Agriculture Network in the US, puts it, by cycling back “nutrients from the foods they consume.” Sadhana Forest’s larger project of restoring ancient coastal forest with indigenous trees around the villages works in harmony with improving local food security and sovereignty and now has similar projects running in Kenya and Haiti.

There is no single route to becoming a stockfree organic farmer. Helen Attlowe, who started Woodleaf Farm with her late husband, has said that she evolved from organic agriculture to SOA and learned over the years to use different techniques such as no-till “to get to an economically sustainable, minimal-input, farming with nature system.” A recent survey of SOA farmers in the US also found that farmers follow many different routes to veganic agriculture. Seven interviewees had transitioned from organic farming, nine had started out as farmers practicing SOA, and one had switched to SOA after farming conventionally.[9]

SOA is not without its challenges. The US survey mentioned above found that “All participants mentioned facing challenges that any ecological/organic or small farm might face, such as herbivore pressure, weed and plant disease management, poor soil, and time and financial constraints.” Sourcing animal-free products such as compost was also cited as a “pervasive” challenge, and “veganic-specific knowledge” such as “fertility for crops, in terms of nutrient cycling as well as optimal nutrient sources,” was difficult for many interviewees to acquire.

It should also be acknowledged that replacing livestock farming in the Global South in arid and semi-arid lands where crops cannot be grown could challenge cultural identities and food security. Additionally, no set of farming practices can single-handedly deliver a transition to a kinder, more equitable, more sustainable food system without supportive policy measures and a broader reckoning with systemic forms of oppression in food production.

Conclusion

Stockfree organic farming deserves more attention from food system advocates and funders, researchers, campaigners seeking climate solutions, and anyone working to reduce the suffering of farmed animals in industrial animal agriculture. Though more research into its climate and ecological benefits is still needed, existing evidence already paints a compelling picture, contextualized by the clear need to scale back industrial animal farming worldwide. It is time for veganic farming to stop being written off as a solely vegan concern and be taken seriously as a scalable alternative to our unsustainable animal-based food systems.


[i] Swidden agriculture refers to the practice of using fire to clear vegetated or forested land for a short period before letting it recover, a traditional land-management practice of many indigenous peoples worldwide which campaigners argue has been incorrectly lumped together with the unsustainable slash-and-burn permanent land-clearing technique often used by commercial farmers and ranchers to encroach illegally into forested areas.


[1] Stefan Mann, “Could We Stop Killing?—Exploring a Post-Lethal Vegan or Vegetarian Agriculture,” World 1, no. 2 (2020): 124–34, https://doi.org/10.3390/world1020010.

[2] Tracey A. Colley et al., “Delta Life Cycle Assessment of Regenerative Agriculture in a Sheep Farming System,” Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 16, no. 2 (2020): 282–90, https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.4238.

[3] Laila Kassam and Amir Kassam, “20 – Toward Inclusive Responsibility,” in Rethinking Food and Agriculture, ed. Amir Kassam and Laila Kassam, Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition (Woodhead Publishing, 2021), 419–30, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-816410-5.00020-7.

[4] Seymour M., ‘Understanding Veganic Agriculture’ in Hawkins I. W. (ed.), Promoting Biodiversity in Food Systems, 2019

[5] Lydia Eisenbach et al., “Effect of Biocyclic Humus Soil on Yield and Quality Parameters of Processing Tomato (Lycopersicon Esculentum Mill.),” Bulletin of University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine Cluj-Napoca. Horticulture 76 (June 1, 2019): 47–52, https://doi.org/10.15835/buasvmcn-hort:2019.0001.

[6] W. F. Cormack, “Crop Performance in a Stockless Arable Organic Rotation in Eastern England,” Biological Agriculture & Horticulture 24, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 1–20, https://doi.org/10.1080/01448765.2006.9755005.

[7] Mona Seymour and Alisha Utter, “Veganic Farming in the United States: Farmer Perceptions, Motivations, and Experiences,” Agriculture and Human Values, June 7, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-021-10225-x.

[8] Axel Anders and Johannes Eisenbach, “Biocyclic-Vegan Agriculture,” Growing Green International 39 (2017): 32–34, http://www.biocyclic-vegan.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/article-1.pdf.

[9] See endnote 7.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

Recent Posts