When Veganism is not Regenerative

When Veganism is not Regenerative

One wish I have for this journal is to share conversations from the front-lines of my life which seem to get repeated like groundhog’s day in the hope that they can become more widely heard with less need for me to say them.  I should also state that I don’t care what you eat.  This is not a “you” conversation, or for that matter a “me” conversation, and so therefore this is not a debate of any kind.  This is a vantage point around how our food is produced, how it impacts the environment, and how it impacts the end users (both the consumer as well as negatively externalized end users like agricultural communities that surround industrial farming, river systems, or wildlife).  These are my observations.    

The belief that veganism is better for human and planetary health is one of the more popular trends of our time, and is now being pushed by government, media, and industry.  As an American, I live in the absolute headwaters of a seemingly never-ending waterfall of diet fads that have swept the World over the last half century (no surprise, in lockstep with the spread of industrial farming and food processing).  As a person who has grown vegetables by hand, I am shocked that people are able to make this intellectual leap without wondering, “but wait…what’s in a vegan burger patty?”  The idea that “beyond ingredients”, which are grown in a chemically-laden industrial monocultures, harvested by large machinery, processed in a factory, homogenized, modified, stabilized, preserved, colored, flavored, and plastic wrapped, could somehow be a healthy option for a human to consume or for a planet to sustain is ludicrous with even the briefest of consideration.  

Let’s start with industrial vegetable production.  I won’t waste the time explaining why industrial, monoculture, and chemical farming is bad for the environment, farm worker, or end user.  If you don’t agree with that comment, then this article may not be for you.  I am going to jump directly to Organic vegetable production, which, if anything, is the thing vegans must be relying on when they propose ideas like veganism being the healthiest option on grounds of animal welfare or environmental welfare.

If you have ever driven the highway systems of California, you will be confronted with endless rows of monoculture crops like you would not believe–straight to the horizon in both directions–standing single crops (apple, berries, almonds, grapes, etc) in a light brown dirt (hard to call it soil) that gives off the impression of being a desert if not for the robotically oriented rows that line the canvas.  If you look closely, you will notice that many of these endless acres are in fact Certified Organic. 

The Organic Certification is not an ethos-driven certification process.  If anything, it is a process of defining the absolute bare minimum on how to produce crops without using certain of the harshest chemicals.  But at the end of the day, there are Organic fertilizers, Organic Pesticides, Organic Fungicides, Organic Herbicides, and likely a handful of other Organic ‘Cides.  The “cide” part of the word means that this product intends to kill something, and so, there is an untold amount of cross-species death that comes from monoculture vegetable production.  If you are a only interested in larger animals when it comes to animal welfare, then it should be noted that I am not just speaking of plants, fungi, lizards, and insects when I am talking about things being killed to produce vegetables.  Untold numbers of wild animals are killed directly through the daily practice of industrial agriculture (death by machine, death by trapping, death by poison, death by shooting), as well as indirectly (primarily through modification of the local ecosystem and impact to native habitat).  

Let’s assume for argument’s sake, that despite the truth which seems to prove otherwise, you can in fact produce Organic vegetables on an industrial scale without slaughter to wildlife, I would then want to discuss what exactly goes on at Organic farms.  As an example, what is Organic fertilizer made of became one of the first questions I had as a young farmer’s apprentice.  Because everyone knows “you are what you eat”, and every farmer knows their crops are “what their crops eat”.  I think people who endorse veganism as a means to reduce mistreatment of animals will be surprised to learn that Organic fertilizer is made from factory farmed blood, bone and feather meal.  In other words, their vegetables are literally grown of and from waste streams of the industry they are aiming not to support in the first place.  It is, I am sure, a shocking revelation for some to discover.  I have met only a handful of very small Organic farms in America who are actually “vegan” in their farming method, not relying on such products in any way.  

Interestingly, Biodynamic farms (which are sometimes looked down on for their use of animal intestines, stomachs, bladders, horns and skulls in the process of making “the Biodynamic Preparations”), are one of the only farming methods in the country that does NOT rely on factory farmed byproducts as their fertility source.  On our Biodynamic farm the only source of fertility (besides biodiversity, rain water, wildlife, straw, mulch, fungi, and the occasional alfalfa) is grass fed compost inoculated with the Biodynamic Preparations.  When you are utilizing grass fed compost you are utilizing a freely available and completely healthy decomposition of clean grass, prepared by the cow’s incredible stomach, without any harm to the animal whatsoever.  Organic fertilizer, however convenient, relies on the tortured life of an animal in confinement eventually being ground into powder.  And yet, our vegan friend’s eating “Beyond” products and advocating for animal welfare must not be aware of this, otherwise I am certain they would fight for improved animal husbandry practices alongside us. 

Which brings me to the “animal problem” itself.  The solution of having less (or no) animals in our farming system is as counterintuitive as blocking the Sun.  We have solved for the wrong problem.  The question is not how to save the environment by reducing cattle, the question is why are we raising cattle in factories?  Animals raised on pasture, in sunlight, with their family, exposed to all weather conditions, in touch with the Earth, are generally raised without any need for medication, without any real sickness or diseases, result in nutrient profiles that are incomparable to their factory raised peers.  I have witnessed likely 100 or more immaculately operated small and medium sized small animal operations that are not only producing health-positive results for themselves, their land, their herds, and their community, but they are (re)defining what it means to be regenerative–they are literally adding more beauty to the land through their work on the land.                     

It is not a matter of what, it is a matter of how.  The entire debate over farming, health, veganism, paleo, etc seems to miss the boat.  How are these things being produced?  And why?  If we want to find millions of acres of pasture land for millions of head of livestock to graze and restore what remains of our Great Plains, we likely have to first start by unwinding millions of acres of industrial non-food stuffs which are currently being grown for processed vegan snacks, meats, and no-eggs (or whatever they call it).  That’s the beauty of a regenerative system, it can take this compost of an idea and turn it into something abundant!

In terms of how to know what is truly in your food, you need to speak to the farmers and brands that you source from.  Certified Biodynamic farms are one of the few groups who as a whole are not utilizing store bought products, including Organic ones.  That said, even still, you would want to inquire with the source as to their methods.  

Organic means nothing to me anymore, other than some level of confidence that it might not have synthetic chemicals on or in it.  You want to find Organic food (yes, at a minimum), but you want to find it from a small to medium scale grower or brand who has a larger ethos on environmental welfare, farm worker safety, health and nutrition than do the multinational food companies that dominate the global (industrial) Organic market.  These products are Organic in name but not in Spirit, and they likely do not meet up to the images you have in your mind around cleanliness and nutritional integrity when you think of Organic. 

Animals raised humanely on pasture, in community, expressing their natural tendencies, and harvested in a respectful, even sacred manner, can restore the land and encourage good health in a community.  A system of industrially processed vegetables and vegan foodstuffs negatively impacts the community and environment that surround these fields and processing plants, resulting in low quality, hard to digest nutrients, and externalized negative costs onto wildlife and others.  Organic vegetables, unless otherwise stated, are overwhelmingly grown from factory farmed non-organic animals (aka, Organic fertilizer).

I hope this serves as a helpful light into stepping away from labels and simply thinking critically about how and where your food comes from, the differences between farming methods, and what sources are right for your family and your dollars.