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

Back to Earth

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Review by John Curtis

Celebrating 40 years of Tolhurst Organic, this book brings together Iain’s articles from various sources (including the Tolhurst Organic newsletter The Onion Oracle) from 1980 to 2016. The illustrations are lovely, and there is a list of people who sponsored them.

Iain had previously worked on a large conventional dairy farm, which made him decide to go vegetarian and to pursue organic horticulture instead, starting in 1976. It’s not always been an easy ride for Iain – desperation and near financial ruin occasionally feature.

 The first article is ‘Strawberry Success’ from November 1981. Iain had just moved to Moor View Farm, a 5.5 acre plot of land in Cornwall, 800 feet above sea level and exposed to winds, with 70 inches of rain per annum and very acidic soil. Early articles are strawberry-based, the farm being mostly devoted to organic strawberry growing, although other veg crops were grown too, eg carrots, potatoes and brassicas, to provide a crop rotation.

The move to stockfree

In a 1987 article, ‘stockless’ is mentioned for the first time, when Iain describes his five-day tour of stockless farms in Germany. Stockless means a farm with no livestock although, unlike stockfree, it doesn’t preclude the use of animal manures and animal by-products sourced from outside the farm.

Tolhurst Organic’s gradual switch to stockfree is fully explained in the August 1999 edition of The Onion Oracle: “We do not use any manure from conventional farms or organic farms. We operate a livestock-free system relying on green manures for fertility building … We have recently discovered that the potting compost (approved by the Organic Standards bodies), which we use to raise some of our plants in, contains some slaughterhouse waste for nutrients. This waste would probably come from animals that would have been fed some GMO ration; all conventionally reared animals are fed a mixture of cereals, some being soya and maize, which is now all mixed with GMO soya and maize. We shall have to cease using this compost as will every other compost user (all the growers in the UK are affected by this). At present there are no potting composts available that are organically approved and free of animal products. This is a big problem to all growers. We shall be experimenting with alternative materials which will be costly and time consuming. It will certainly mean that our production of some crops will be difficult and possibly impossible until we can develop suitable compost. We do use around six tons of horse manure that we compost.”

In 2003 Iain’s article ‘Organic and Vegetarian?’ appeared in The Organic Grower magazine, and was reproduced in Growing Green International in 2004. The pace accelerates, with The Onion Oracle of June 2005 discussing VON’s stockfree standards. In 2006, there’s a ‘Going Stockfree’ article in the Soil Association’s Organic Farming magazine. Then in 2008, the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Clean Slate magazine has an article ‘Box Schemes and Beetle Banks’, where Iain mentions stockfree and “stolen acres”, the latter referring to some organic growers who effectively steal fertility by using non-organic manures from farms that often buy in cereals to feed their livestock.

An abundance of fairly bad weather

The weather, mostly bad weather, often features, and Iain describes himself as “the ultimate weather bore”, which is very understandable given the number of different crops grown, most of them outdoors. Tolhurst Organic started their business in 1976, which was the year of the great drought in the UK, where Iain tells us that there was no rain from 25th April to 15th September. 1987 is a prominent year too, where a hurricane hit the south of England and destroyed some of their crops and a brand new polytunnel. 2007 was a bad year with a very wet summer, the worst year so far, but 2012 capped this when both spring and summer were very wet and cloudy, causing a large loss in yields, great difficulty harvesting crops, and for the first time slugs became a problem. Iain makes the point that he prefers droughts to flooding – you can easily add water if it doesn’t rain, but you can’t take if off if it floods.

The book starts with strawberry growing, but this was stopped abruptly in the 1990s when they had serious problems with verticillium wilt, a fungal disease. Things turn full circle in 2014 when Iain decides to re-introduce strawberry growing, helped by a recently developed green manure – Caliente Mustard.

Iain makes it clear throughout that rotation and green manures are the key to fertility management. There’s a thorough discussion of this in ‘Planning your rotation to enhance quality’ in a Soil Association horticulture symposium in 2005.

Organic horticulture farmers will find the book of great interest, and gardeners too I think. For instance, there’s detailed advice on asparagus growing, netting against birds and insects, growing squash, growing strawberries, growing runner beans, and making your own compost for potting on seedlings. There are detailed articles on what earthworms actually do for your soil, implementing beetle banks, and coping with wireworm and leatherjackets. The level of detail, and Iain’s practical experience with these, is something you would struggle to find elsewhere.

A few of the articles are taken from VON’s Growing Green International magazine, but the vast majority are from other sources which aren’t available for free, so by buying this book VON members will have access to information not already available to them.

Growing fruit and veg often involves getting things wrong to begin with until you’ve refined your ideas. The same is true for the naming of Tolhurst Organic’s newsletter from which a large amount of the book material is taken from. The first newsletter that appears in the book is called The first newsletter published by Tolhurst Organic, the second The Broccoli Bugle, then it’s The Parsnip Post before they finally settle on The Onion Oracle from 1996 until the present. After a few false starts, I think they ended up with the right name choice.

Back to Earth is a compilation of Iain Tolhurst’s articles written for various magazines, websites and media. In essence, the book reflects the processes and developments of organic horticulture in the UK during the last four decades (1980-2016). This is the time when conventional agriculture in the UK turned, gradually, to organic farming (hence “back to earth”) and, more recently, when stockfree organic farming secured its place among innovative resilient farming methods.

The aim of the book is to share with professional growers and agricultural students, as well as the wide public, the wonderful but hard experiences of a full-time grower, a member of the organic farming movement, and an inspiring teacher.

The contents portray developments in the marketplace, organic growing techniques, regulations and standards, all intertwined with political circumstances and international market trends – plus a wealth of practical advice for growers.

The book ends with a story, in which Iain Tolhurst reflects on his lifetime experiences, lessons learned, and gives his thoughts for the future.

David Graham, Chair of the Vegan Organic Network which part-funded the book, confirms Back to Earth is “an account that celebrates successes and learns from less successful experiments in sustaining life in the soil, without which there would be no life on earth”.

For Iain Tolhurst himself, the book is a profound account of personal achievements, not without a fair share of struggle (desperate at times), but overall positive.

In hardcover, the book is beautifully illustrated by Irish artist Isobel Baldwin, using images from the farm.

To order your copy for £24.99 plus postage, visit the Vegan Organic Network website:

National Food Strategy: Call for Evidence- Animal Rebellion’s Response

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The UK’s food and farming systems are in crisis. A transformation of our farming and fishing 1 sectors is essential if we are to address the climate, ecological and societal challenges ahead. 2

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss, soil, air and water degradation, eutrophication, flooding, deforestation, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and species extinction. The UK is not on track to meet its climate 3 change targets. 4

Every year in the UK over a billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. The 5 suffering of these animals is incalculable and unjust. We agree with the Government that 6 intensive farming generates significant and avoidable environmental problems but you can’t restore the natural environment without ending corrosive animal agriculture. 7

Fishing also presents a catastrophic threat and many fishing communities in the UK are 8 economically deprived and trapped in a dysfunctional system. 9 10

Farming of animals is environmentally and ethically harmful and economically unsound. 11 Farmers are in crisis but pressure on livestock farmers will only intensify as population 12 growth increases demand for meat and dairy. These demands are not sustainable. 13 14

Future food insecurity due to climate change risks societal breakdown, mass displacement and poverty and climate change is already affecting food security. 15

However, the consumption of healthy, sustainable diets present major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions. 16

Animal Rebellion state we must transition to a plant-based food system to avert climate breakdown and end animal farming and fishing with urgency. 17

We suggest the following solutions:

1. Incentivise plant based business The number of vegans in the UK has increased significantly and vegans and 18 vegetarians could make up a quarter of the British population in 2025. Plant-based businesses have seen a significant growth and represents a huge economic opportunity for food providers and farmers. Heather Mills’ “vegan northern 19 powerhouse” is already bringing investment into northern England. Government 20 should incentivise sustainable plant based start-ups and investment. 21

2. Shift subsidies away from animal agriculture and towards protein crop cultivation Between 2016-17, £70 billion in subsidies were paid to resource intensive, high-polluting factory farms. Farms grazing livestock rely on subsidies for 90% of 22 profits while the figure is only 10% for fruit farms. The price of meat and dairy is 23 below profitable levels. Many farmers in Britain are finding it hard to make a living. 24 Brexit and the loss of these subsidies threatens these sectors. We support moving 25 subsidies and incentives towards sustainable protein crops such as fava beans, oats, peas, hemp seed, and sweet lupin. Tollhurst Organic vegan farm presents a 26 successful example of model shift. 27

3. An Agricultural Revolution 70% of farm animals in the UK are kept in factory farms, where their lives are spent in overcrowded barns, cages and farrowing crates. There are over 800 US-style mega 28 farms which subject animals to prolonged and cruel distress. Our current 29 agricultural system promotes technology and output over animal rights and environmental preservation. Justice for animals is central to this revolution as we 30 stop artificially breeding animals to transform farming into an agroecological industry which works in harmony with the land and renews instead of draining resources. 31

4. Commit to growing more fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses in the UK to increase food self-sufficiency Food poverty in the UK is growing, but we already grow enough food to feed the 32 world, however, much of this is used to feed livestock. UK farming provides less 33 34 than 50% of the food eaten here and more than 90% of fruits and vegetables are imported. Land used to grow animal feed and suitable land under pasture land 35 should be repurposed for crops for human consumption only. National self-sufficiency would result in a CO2 reduction of 3,236 million tonnes or 9 years of current UK emissions. We must stop importing soya feed responsible for deforestation in the 36 Amazon. 37

5. Make healthy food affordable Food and health are inextricably linked. A high consumption of red and processed meat represent the second biggest risk factor for mortality in the UK . Eating more 38 fruit, vegetables and fibre has a bigger impact on health than just eating less meat or dairy . Antibiotic resistance is exacerbated by the use of antibiotics in farmed 39 animals. We urge the government to extend initiatives like the Food Foundation’s 40 Peas Please project and the VegPower campaign, as well as launching new ones. 41 42 The growing demand for plant-based alternatives present a significant opportunity to increase good health outcomes. Public money and VAT relief should reflect the 43 value of plant-based foods.

6. Public procurement of plant-based food Catering services in public institutions like schools and hospitals should offer plant-based alternatives. We envisage free plant-milk in schools and plant-based menus in government canteens. The Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering (GBSF) guidelines should add further provision for choices made on animal welfare and fish sustainability. The only food system which addresses these points 44 is a plant-based one.

7. Signposting for citizens 32 See separate reference & evidence pages 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 4 The public need to be better informed of the impact animal agriculture has on health, environment and animal welfare. It must be more expensive and socially unacceptable to make choices that are damaging. We submit that CO2 warning on food packaging as used now by Oatly milk and a traffic light system to indicate 45 climate/animal welfare impact of our food should be rolled out nationally. We support the ‘Signposting for Citizens’ recommendations in Imperial College London’s research. 46

8. Citizens’ Assemblies on healthy and sustainable food People often feel disenfranchised from decisions made by public bodies and making healthy food choices can be difficult. A citizens’ assembly with a mandate to study the scientific evidence and enact changes is vital in giving people agency in their food system as well as education strategies on plant-based cooking. 47

9. Safeguarding farmers through the transition Defra doesn’t provide the necessary guidance to enable farmers to adapt their business . The government should immediately put in place an economic and 48 strategic framework to ensure a just transition for farmers and allow them to plan for the future. Peer-to-peer support should be available in addition to finance and fair 49 prices so they can save and reinvest. The Vegan Organic Network, The Vegan 50 Society’s ‘Grow Green Project’ and Transfarmers should be consulted as 51 52 examples of successful transitions to plant-based agriculture.

10. Rewilding and justice for farmed animals. Since 1945, the UK’s natural habitat has been destroyed. Rewilding the land we 53 use for animal farming to native forest would reduce carbon dioxide by 4,472 million tonnes, offsetting 12 years of current UK CO2 emissions. We would free animals 54 currently held within the farming system to live out their natural lives in animal sanctuaries.

National Food Strategy- Animal Rebellion References and Evidence:

Researchers find multiple effects on soil from manure from cows administered antibiotics

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For the study, researchers analyzed ecosystems exposed to manure from cattle given no antibiotics and manure from cattle given a common antibiotic, as well as a control sample not exposed to manure.


Use of antibiotics is under heightened scrutiny due to the increased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. While the primary focus is on more stringent use of antibiotics in medical settings, the use of antibiotics in the livestock sector is gaining increased attention.

A new study led by Colorado State University and the University of Idaho found multiple effects on soils from exposure to manure from cows administered antibiotics, including alteration of the soil microbiome and ecosystem functions, soil respiration and elemental cycling.

The team also saw changes in how plants allocated carbon below ground and take up nitrogen from the soil. In addition, they observed a decrease in ecosystem carbon use efficiency. This means that when antibiotics are used, less carbon is stored in the soil and more is lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The study, “Prolonged exposure to manure from livestock-administered antibiotics decreases ecosystem carbon-use efficiency and alters nitrogen cycling,” is published Oct. 9 in Ecology Letters.

Carl Wepking, the lead author and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at CSU, said the findings give him “pause” due to the widespread use of antibiotics.

“There’s no environment on earth that is free from the effects of antibiotics,” he said.

In the U.S., 80 percent of antibiotics are used in livestock production. Globally, livestock antibiotic use is projected to increase by 67 percent by the year 2030.

For the study, researchers analyzed ecosystems exposed to manure from cattle given no antibiotics and manure from cattle given a common antibiotic, as well as a control sample not exposed to manure. All of the manure samples were collected from standard dairy operations maintained by researchers from the Virginia Tech Department of Dairy Science.

Previous research on this topic found researchers injecting antibiotics into manure, then adding it to the soil, or adding raw antibiotics to the soil, said Wepking. The design of this study offered a much more realistic and applicable design.

The research team also used a pulse-chase experiment, a technique to examine elemental cycling, focusing on the manure’s effect on whole ecosystems. Scientists took samples over the course of seven days, and found that in the presence of antibiotics, carbon traveled into the above ground plant material, to the roots of the plants, into the soil and respired back out as carbon dioxide much faster than any of the others.

“There was much less of that new carbon retained in the system compared with other soils we sampled,” explained Wepking, who also serves as executive director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, which is housed in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU.

It’s often thought that manure is a helpful fertilizer, and that it adds nutrients and carbon to soil but this benefit might be offset if antibiotics are administered to livestock.

While more research is needed, Wepking said given the study’s findings, people may want to consider the effects of antibiotics in the soil when using manure as fertilizer.

“Research is expanding more and more, to look at antibiotic exposure and resistance in agricultural landscapes,” said Wepking. “It’s already well-documented that overuse of antibiotics is a problem for humans, and that we are running out of effective antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Based on this research, we have learned that antibiotic use also has environmental effects.”


Co-authors of the study include Michael Strickland and Jane Lucas (University of Idaho); Brian Badgley, John Barrett, Katharine Knowlton and Sarah Shawver (Virginia Tech); Kevan Minick (North Carolina State University); and Partha Ray (University of Reading).

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it’s rapidly disappearing

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Susan Cosier

Without efforts to rebuild soil health, we could lose our ability to grow enough nutritious food to feed the planet’s population

 The Sarigua desert, west of Panama City, Panama, seen after overgrazing by livestock and the loss of topsoil through erosion. Photograph: Tomas Munita/AP

The world grows 95% of its food in the uppermost layer of soil, making topsoil one of the most important components of our food system. But thanks to conventional farming practices, nearly half of the most productive soil has disappeared in the world in the last 150 years, threatening crop yields and contributing to nutrient pollution, dead zones and erosion. In the US alone, soil on cropland is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished.

If we continue to degrade the soil at the rate we are now, the world could run out of topsoil in about 60 years, according to Maria-Helena Semedo of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Without topsoil, the earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and feed people plunges. Not only that, but the food we do grow will probably be lower in vital nutrients.

The modern combination of intensive tilling, lack of cover crops, synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use has left farmland stripped of the nutrients, minerals and microbes that support healthy plant life. But some farmers are attempting to buck the trend and save their lands along with their livelihoods.

“We never want to see our soil unless we go looking for it,” says Keith Berns, a Nebraska farmer whose land hasn’t seen a plow in three decades.

He and his brother, Brian, began the practice of no-till on their 2,100-acre corn and soybean farm when they learned it could increase the carbon, nutrients and water available in the soil. Their farm is in a particularly dry area of the country, and keeping moisture on their land is a top priority. For every 1% increase of carbon, an acre of land can hold an additional 40,000 gallons of water.

Once they stopped tilling, the Berns family saw organic matter in the soil increase, which can have the added benefit of making foods grown in the soil more nutritious.

Organic matter, a section of soil that contains decomposing plant or animal tissue, serves as a reservoir of nutrients that microbes can feast upon while they provide nitrogen to growing plants and sequester carbon. The more organic matter, the more organisms the soil can support.