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Know the West

Vegan food may not be as “vegan” as you think

Plant-based food processing collides with the ugliest side of animal production.


Meat lovers may be forgiven if they feel like the wagons are circling around beef, their protein of choice.

Steak eaters are told that livestock production is implicated in greenhouse gas emissions, that meat is a possible cause of cancer, and that it contributes to malnutrition in poor countries. Anti-hunger activists point out how much human food could be grown with the resources currently devoted to raising animal feed. There’s also the uncomfortable reality that killing is harsh, causes animals to suffer and is arguably unnecessary. Many people don’t want any killing done on their behalf.

Which is why a growing number of eaters are seeking out plant-based foods. Veggie burger technology is exploding, and tasty, vegan mayo is making Hellmann’s nervous. Once easily mocked, Tofurky has become much more than just pretend turkey, and veggie- and nut-based “milks” are the backbone of a plant-based food industry recently estimated at $3.5 billion.

A Concentrated Animal Food Operating System.
Socially Responsible Agriculture, Flickr user.

Alas, vegans, I’ve got bad news for you. Even if your plant-based foods themselves don’t contain the flesh of animals, most were produced in operations that used manure, blood meal, bone meal and other animal products. So if that tomato you got at your farmers market or the lettuce that came from Whole Foods were produced thanks to an earthy cocktail of blood, bone and excrement, how animal-free is that salad?

These aren’t just any animal products we’re talking about, either. These soil amendments that we peacefully spread upon our permaculture plots are byproducts of the ugliest side of animal production – confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. When you buy compost made mostly from manure, you aren’t exactly getting poop from grass-fed cattle. Collecting that would be impractical. Even the poop used on organic farms comes from feedlots, animal auctions, and other places where random animals are confined together. Bone and blood, meanwhile, comes from the slaughterhouse. 

“You can be vegan as long as the rest of the world is eating their animals,” explained Will Bonsall, a farmer in the mountains of Maine, who says he’s one of the few vegans in the world who actually eats a 100 percent plant-based diet. By growing all of his food himself, Bonsall can vouch that it’s animal-free. But any vegan who buys her food is going to have blood on her hands, Bonsall says, not to mention bone and poop.

He and his family of four live almost entirely off an acre-and-a-half-sized garden. It’s not only animal-free, he says, it’s practically input-free. He creates all of the fertility he needs from plant compost, wood ash and other local sources.

Bonsall is one of the few farmers on this side of the Atlantic practicing what’s known as animal-free agriculture. In the United Kingdom, where the vegan movement is older and stronger, there is even a "Stock-Free" certification program.

On this side of the pond, Bonsall’s animal-free diet isn’t available to people who aren’t prepared to walk the talk the way he does. His fellow veganic practitioners are also subsistence farmers, and he isn’t aware of anyone doing it commercially in the United States. But if the demand for truly plant-free food were there, he says, the supply would surely rise to meet it. And it shouldn’t be more expensive than animal-based plant food, he says. It should be cheaper, as it’s more efficient.

A cow, he says, in its daily routine of living and breathing and moving, will use 90 percent of the energy in its feed. By growing food to eat that cow, most of the energy you’ve created is getting wasted. “You’re taking the doo-doo that’s left over, the remaining 10 percent of the plant energy that animal consumed, and feeling proud.”

But while he finds the energy and resources that animal farming drains from the system to be unnecessary to the point of being unethical, he has no problem with killing things. He’s not, as he as he puts it, a “bunny hugger” vegan, and he regularly shoots animals to keep them out of his fields, because, being plant-eaters, the deer are his competition. “My enemies are vegans,” he says. “And my friends are the vegan-eaters.”

“We kill animals if we have to,” he says of this garden violence. “But it’s stupid to eat them as food.” Instead of eating these deer, or giving away the meat, Bonsall drags the bodies into the nearby woods to attract coyotes. And that, he says, keeps the deer nervous.

“Meat is a second-hand food, just like manure is second-hand fertility.”   

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.