Humanure and vegan organic growing systems

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By Graham Burnett

Currently VON’s policy for those seeking stockfree certification is to disallow the return of humanure to the soil: “Humanure (efficiently composted) and urine from vegan humans, and other detritus from the vegan household, may or may not be used, but is not permitted in commercial growing” (GGI 33 page 9, my emphasis).

For some at least, the reasoning behind this is ideological, arguing that it is important to demonstrate the possibility of growing viable crops and maintaining soil fertility without the need for any animal-derived inputs at all.

Sharon Neumann LeMay: “The thing that troubles me about humanure is that it is manure, and veganic gardening is supposed to prove manure is a totally unnecessary amendment to the soil. If we believe in veganic gardening, why do we think we are better off by adding manure when that contradicts the core tenets of how veganic agriculture can thrive without any animal inputs?”

On the other hand, some growers who are seeking to obtain a livelihood from vegan organically certified produce find the ruling restrictive. Elaine Avery: “Unfortunately when we are talking about a VON system we can’t include any human waste as we are demonstrating that no animal products are necessary (and human wastes are classed as animal products), which is easy to do, but it’s a difficult one as human resources are part of the natural cycle and should be given back to the earth not turned into poison … Although we do understand that people will turn around and say ‘see, you do need animal products to maintain fertility’, we feel that VON is missing our vital role in the cycle of life and is not looking holistically at the issues, making our by-products problematic waste instead of the valuable resources they should be.”

From my permaculture perspective

My view from a permaculture perspective is that if humanure isn’t returned to the soil as part of the fertility cycle it then becomes a ‘problem’, exemplified by current industrial society’s attitude to human waste as something shameful and dirty that needs to be hidden from sight. Thus vast amounts of energy and infrastructure are devoted to its ‘disposal’ so that we don’t have to worry about it impinging into our sanitised lifestyles.

But, in reality, when we grow and harvest edible crops we are removing valuable nutrients and biomass from the soil, which we then eat and process through our digestive systems – what doesn’t get assimilated into our bodies as food to build our cells or fuel us is passed out the other end. It’s then flushed ‘away’ with water of drinking quality, necessitating the construction of sewage treatment plants to make it safe. Here it is processed by removing pathogens, and prevented from causing further problems such as adding excess nitrates to our water courses, or ending up floating about in our oceans or ruining our homes when sewage systems overflow during flood events.

Treebog at Plan-It Earth in Cornwall, surrounded by hazel planted for biomass harvesting

At the same time we have the problem of replenishing those nutrients lost from our agricultural soils, which in turn we ‘solve’ by mining and importing fossil fuel based artificial fertilisers.

Thus it seems churlish that, rather than demonstrate opportunities for whole and closed loop system design thinking, the VON Standards currently exclude humanure on the grounds of being ‘an animal product’ when the relationship to the production of these ‘wastes’ is not exploitative (as would be the case with captive livestock, etc). In fact ALL healthy soil is technically the product of animal (and plant) ‘wastes’, broken down and processed by life’s ecological web, whether it’s the droppings of foxes, moles or birds that happen to be visiting our growing plots, or worm casts, or other excretions of insects and soil fauna, or the carcasses of animals that naturally die and are broken down by fungi and bacterial organisms. Do we see vegan organic systems as standing outside, rather than being a part of, such natural cycling of nutrients and energies?

A policy of excluding humanure on the grounds of being an animal product not only feels dogmatic (and serves to reinforce the views of critics who argue that vegans see themselves as somehow ‘separate from’ or ‘above’ nature), but it also seems to be about creating more work and problems for ourselves. Rather than the simple and obvious solutions-based thinking of using compost toilets to recycle fertility on the land directly, the grower has to then devote time and energy to find other ways of getting rid of it, and at the end of the day it’s got to end up SOMEWHERE.

Personally I’d prefer it to be incorporated into my soil, feeding bacteria, fungi and the roots of my plants, rather than meet it bobbing about in the river Thames next time I fancy going for a swim!

Pragmatic reasons against

There are of course other more pragmatic reasons for the VON ruling on the use of humanure in commercial settings, 14 GGI 38 Winter/Spring 2017 as certified stockfree grower Iain Tolhurst pointed out: “The issue of humanure is a tricky one. EU regs do not allow its use in organic production, primarily due to the fact that a lot of people are contaminated with antibiotics, contraceptives and other nasty medications which can create havoc with soil fauna and biological systems. If it can be shown that it is uncontaminated then, yes, it should be used, but most waste collection systems mix too much pollution in with the material …”

Treebogs might be one elegant and low maintenance solution to the vegan humanure quandary, particularly on growing sites that may be visited by members of the public (where it will be very difficult to monitor toilet users’ intake of antibiotics and the like).

A treebog system is basically a low-tech dry toilet, surrounded by nutrient hungry plants such as willow trees, converting urine and faeces to biomass, which can then be cut as fuel or chipped and composted, generating nutrients ‘second hand’ rather than the humanure going directly onto the soil.

VON’s position on humanure by David Graham, Chair of VON

The current position is that its use is not allowed under Soil Association and EU regulations. If tests being carried out show that all harmful pathogens and heavy metals are removed (by ecological systems) this regulation may change and humanure be permitted in organic farming. The use of human faeces is an important discussion in the offing.

It should be noted, however, that it has been demonstrated that vegan organic farming, in which green manures, compost and mulching have been used for more than 20 years, creates and maintains healthy soil that in turn makes healthy bodies.

Farms that have composting toilets and animal sanctuaries are advised by VON to use the faeces on non-vegetable areas and land not certified by VON. Our position on this issue is pragmatic, not ideological.

The firms turning poo into profit

This was the title of an article on the BBC website in November 2016: “Treating and dealing with it is an expensive and time-consuming business. Yet instead of seeing human excrement as something to get rid of, some firms are now managing to turn it into something useful and even profitable. Northumbrian Water is one company that is now a recognised expert in the use of what it calls ‘poo power’ – using human waste to generate gas and electricity. The water firm was the first in the UK to use all its sludge – the goo generated after raw sewage has been treated – to produce renewable power.” Read more at and No flush movement