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Animal Rights Forum

Is vegan farming all it's hyped to be? -

The tradition of farming the land in New Mexico's Espanola Valley had been passed down from Don Bustos's Spanish ancestors, who tilled the same soil centuries before.

But when Bustos realised the traditional farming techniques he was using could harm his children's health, he went organic 15 years ago. Now, Bustos says he has found an even safer method - vegan organic farming without any animal fertilisers or by-products, a technique popular in Europe.

Much like certified organic farmers, veganic farmers use no synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified ingredients. Veganic farmers take it to another level by not using any manures or abattoir by-products. They don't even use organically approved pesticides.

Salmonella and E.coli are bacteria that live in the intestines of livestock and are present in their waste. Livestock waste, or manure, can be used to fertilise fields, potentially contaminating crops with the disease-causing bacteria. Crops can also be contaminated by contact with infected animals or their by-products, including bonemeal and blood meal, which are used as fertiliser as well. Veganic farmers use crop rotations and composted plant matter - or "green manure" - to fertilise their crops.

Bustos (51) was inspired to pursue veganic farming four years ago after listening to then US secretary of agriculture Mike Johanns speak.

"He was talking about ways to protect the safety of our food system, but to me you still have things like E-coli and salmonella from manure," Bustos says. "Now, I use no manures, no bonemeals, blood meal, no pesticides, nothing."

The method, also called stock-free farming, is an emerging concept in the United States.

Stephane Groleau, co-founder of the Veganic Agriculture Network based in Quebec, Canada, says he's aware of only a dozen veganic farms or gardeners in the US. He says the farming method is more popular in Europe because of lack of available land for raising livestock and concerns over livestock diseases transferring to humans.

"In Europe, what we see is that they import a lot of their meat and they don't have as many animals on their land. And animals require a lot of space, so if you have just a smallholding, it's very demanding for the farmer," Groleau says.

Veganic farmers in the US are motivated by the need to protect the environment and human health, says Ron Khosla, who operates a 30-hectare vegan organic farm in New Paltz, New York.

Khosla says the primary source of nutrients on many organic farms in the country comes from manure from confined animal operations, or what he calls "factory farms".

"You think you are getting these clean, happy vegetables, but more often than not they're grown in waste from factory farms," he said. "The animals … were fed non-organic feed laced with hormones and antibiotics. Those products bio-accumulate in the animals and it's present in their waste as well."

Both Kholsa and Bustos say they have a strong customer base that seeks out their produce because of the vegan-growing philosophy as well as an increasing awareness about food production.

"Customers are becoming more aware about how their food is grown and the practices by the farmer who has growing it," Bustos says. "It's the customers that are encouraging us to find ways to become more environmentally conscious and efficient."

Veganic growers say their methods reduce environmental impact by using less land, conserving water and producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The practice, they say, is also cheaper than traditional farming and organic farming.

Experts say veganic farming has yet to be proven as the silver bullet to better growing practices, because of its obscurity on the US farm scene.

"It's a new concept, so the benefits haven't been demonstrated one way or the other, either economically or from a quality standpoint," says Charles Martin, assistant professor at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Centre.

Though misapplied animal manure can cause crop contamination, it is no more common than other possible ways for salmonella or E.coli to appear in the food supply, says Billy Dictson, director of the Office of Biosecurity for the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defence Centre.

"Contamination can happen anywhere, from the field to transportation to field workers to people who come in contact [with produce]," Dictson says.

Walter Goldstein, research director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin, says animal manure has proven quality benefits when growing crops. He says ruminant manure lasts longer in the soil and releases less carbon back into the air than green manure. "The optimal farm is where livestock are integrated into the land, not separated from it," Goldstein says.

Farmers can be certified as veganic by meeting standards set by the Soil Association Certification in England. However, Khosla is working on veganic standards for American farmers through his organisation, Certified Naturally Grown, based in Stone Ridge, New York. - Sapa-AP

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