By Meghan Kelly. Meghan is co-founder of the Veganic Agriculture Network of North America. www.goveganic.net

When promoting plant-based growing, we are sometimes asked by curious newcomers: Why avoid manure? Isn’t it part of natural cycles? Akin to the buffalo on the plains? Here is an example of how I respond to this type of query, through exploring the connection of plant-based growers with the natural world, as well as calling into question the use of manure:

As a plant-based grower I’m happy to see animals living freely as part of natural ecosystems, which would include them leaving droppings here and there. Veganic growers often set aside untouched tracts of land for nature to take its course, as well as incorporating habitats for free-living animals near the fields and gardens (to encourage birds, butterflies, bees, snakes, and so on). So veganic growers aren’t trying to exclude animals from the system, but we choose not to purposely breed and raise animals for our use, nor use products from animals that have been bred by other people.

Breeding and raising animals tends to create a conflict of interest that compromises the well-being of animals. This can range from the extreme and systematic animal abuse that is seen on large-scale factory farms, to small-scale organic farmers I’ve met who regretfully say “I wish I didn’t have to send the animals to slaughter, but I can’t afford to keep animals that have stopped producing.” It’s very rare that we meet a 20-year-old cow, even though they can easily live this long. And if someone wanted to collect manure to spread on a field, making this efficient would likely necessitate that the animals live in a relatively small space rather than having a sizeable range, which would also compromise their interests. So personally, I choose to grow using only plant-based techniques, while also creating habitats for free-living animals, as I think this is the best way I can put my respect for animals into action while also growing the food I need.

What is ‘natural’? When we talk about “natural cycles” I think it’s important to recognise that all agriculture involves some level of imitating natural cycles, and some level of diverging from natural cycles. As easy as it is to say “manure is part of natural cycles”, I think it’s also clear that gathering tons of manure in a truck and spreading it on a field once or twice a year diverges quite a bit from the slow and steady process of a diversity of animals participating in a natural ecosystem. On the other hand, when we use plant-based amendments of leaves, chipped branch wood, hay mulch, green manures, and so on, we’re imitating nature by feeding it with plant-matter, such as happens in a forest or a meadow. These are natural processes that are often overlooked in manure-heavy organic farming, though obviously the application of these methods by humans still diverges quite a bit from what would happen in a truly natural ecosystem.

A blackbird brings some natural fertility. Photo: Jakub Halun

I think we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about what we call “natural”, especially if it’s used as a justification for certain actions. Taking subtropical chickens from Asia, selectively breeding them to meet the desires of humans, raising them in North America or Europe, and collecting their droppings to spread on fields once a year: not quite so natural. Preserving habitats for indigenous birds that live in your area – that’s helping to re-instate the natural.

Animal droppings can be a natural part of our farms and gardens. When we use plant-based amendments, especially as mulch, they feed the soil food web, and the worms and micro organisms that live in the soil create micro-manures. Veganic systems recognise that animals and their daily functions are a part of natural systems, and take the approach of co-existing and collaborating with free-living animals. And if we really want heaps of manure, we’re a prolific source: home gardeners can refer to the Humanure Handbook to learn more about a truly human and humane source of manure (www.weblife.org/humanure).

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 29 (Summer 2012), p16.