The German “Förderkreis Biozyklisch-Veganer Anbau e. V.”, Berlin (Association for the Promotion of Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture), is a charity that represents concrete, practical solutions for a future-oriented agriculture. The association promotes the biocyclic vegan idea of farming in German-speaking countries.
We spoke to Anja Bonzheim, a representative of the association, about the advantages and current developments in biocyclic vegan farming and the work of the association.
Mrs. Bonzheim, you work for the Association for the Promotion of Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture which promotes biocyclic vegan farming. This form of cultivation is still relatively unknown. Can you explain to us what distinguishes an organically grown carrot from a carrot that comes from certified biocyclic vegan cultivation?
Fruits, vegetables and cereals do not contain any animal ingredients, so by definition they are vegan. But when it comes to the desire of many people who follow a vegan diet to avoid animal suffering and animal husbandry altogether, these products generally do not fully meet their expectations.
Conventionally produced fruits, vegetables or cereals are often sprayed with pesticides that damage or even kill pollinator insects and animals in the soil and water.
It is true that plant-based foods from organic farming do not cause this ecological damage, but they are often fertilised with manure and slurry from commercial livestock farming or slaughter waste from conventional slaughterhouses (often not even from Europe). The use of such slaughterhouse waste (horn, hair, feather, blood and bone meal pellets) is also permitted in organic farming, as it is an inexpensive waste material and readily provides nitrogen for the plants. This means that although vegan products are vegan as far as their composition is concerned, their production continues to rely on commercial animal husbandry.
This means that biocyclic vegan is a better form of organic?
You could put it that way. In 2017, the Biocyclic Vegan Standard was approved by IFOAM, the international umbrella organisation of organic agricultural movements, and included in the IFOAM Family of Standards. This means that growers who operate in accordance with this standard can be checked and certified by an independent control body.
The quality seal “Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture” stands for vegan production right from the field and makes this additional product quality identifiable on the market. If it was previously impossible to identify what kind of fertilisers were applied on these farms, a label now confirms that only plant-based compost, green manure, mulch or other plant-based fertilisation methods were used.
Apart from the vegan approach, the Biocyclic Vegan Standard contains very high requirements with respect to the protection against contamination from neighbouring conventional fields, many principles known from permaculture, such as mixed culture or compost management, and the basic idea of establishing a stable, healthy ecosystem and good soil fertility. Compared to other organic farming association guidelines, the Biocyclic Vegan Standard is indeed stricter with regard to soil, water and biodiversity protection. In addition, biocyclic vegan operations have a fantastic climate balance.
In your opinion, is there any interest in this product quality from the consumer side?
When I tell consumers that organic vegetables are fertilized with slaughterhouse waste, they are usually shocked and ask me about the alternative, even if they themselves are not vegan. The health risks of these pellet fertilizers are high, they can be contaminated with germs, antibiotics and heavy metals. There is still a lack of knowledge in this area that needs to be overcome.
Climate change is also becoming an increasingly important issue for people. With growing public awareness about the fact that animal husbandry accounts for a large part of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (14.5% FAO) and that there is an urgent need to find new solutions in agriculture, it is expected that there will be a strong upsurge in interest. It needs pioneers and ambassadors to disseminate the information that biocyclic vegan agriculture is able to bind carbon through the consistent build-up of humus and produce healthy food without having to rely on animal husbandry where the development of greenhouse gases is abundant.
So far, three organic farms in Germany have been certified according to the Biocyclic Vegan Standard. Why are there presently such a small number of biocyclic vegan operations in Germany?
There is great potential for biocyclic vegan agriculture. About a quarter of organic farms in Germany operate without livestock, although in most cases they use animal fertilisers. The Biocyclic Vegan Standard, however, has only been in place for two years. Therefore, first of all, the biocyclic vegan agriculture must become better known at all levels.
In addition, organic farmers have to move away from the dogma that animal husbandry is an elementary component of a circular-flow economy. Circuits can also be closed very easily with plants. This requires agricultural operations to change their nutrient management in the long term and fertilise using plant-based methods. This may include mulching, the recycling of vegetal fermentation residues from a biogas plant or, in the ideal case, in-house composting. Plant material must be used directly for fertilisation; fodder legumes, such as clover grass, or grain legumes, such as field beans, may no longer be sold as animal feed, but should rather be used for composting or as mulching material. In this way a part of the operating income is lost, which will create a gap in the short-term. In the long term, however, we know from experience that intensive compost management increases soil fertility and plant resistance to such an extent that yields improve.
In addition, it is the aim that operations which label their products with the Biocyclic Vegan Quality Seal will obtain a better price that reflects the farming approach they have opted for. At present, a clear signal from the trade is still missing. Labeled products are only placed on the shelves of supermarkets and retail chains if purchasers know what stands behind the biocyclic vegan product quality. In addition, however, it is equally important that there are well informed consumers who are familiar with the label and can make the appropriate purchase decision. If agricultural operations cannot be sure that the label will be recognised and demanded on the market, they will be more reluctant to accept additional inspections and expenses. It is therefore essential to provide information at all levels. I think it is a matter of time until biocyclic vegan agriculture will become mainstream-compatible and ubiquitous – seeing the many benefits it offers.
What is the role of the association?
We are a non-profit association responsible for the promotion of biocyclic vegan agriculture in German-speaking countries. On the one hand, it provides consumers and retailers with information about the new Biocyclic Vegan Quality Seal and the background of biocyclic vegan production. On the other hand, the Förderkreis also acts as a point of contact for producers who are considering conversion and certification according to the Biocyclic Vegan Standard. These companies are supported and advised throughout the entire transition process. Furthermore, the Förderkreis sees itself as a political lobby organisation and as an institution which bundles research results and experiences from agricultural practice, making them available to the general public, thus raising awareness and providing information.
What are the possibilities to support biocyclic vegan agriculture?
The processing industry can demand raw products from biocyclic vegan agriculture and start producing the first processed products such as tofu or noodles that are consistently vegan and organic. Retailers can begin to include biocyclic vegan products in their offer.
The easiest way to promote this method of cultivation as a consumer is to become a member of one of the existing biocyclic vegan associations like the German Förderkreis see the list of contacts on the website of the International Biocyclic Vegan Network www.biocyclic-vegan.org), or to set up similar initiatives in other countries. With more supporters, we can work much more effectively. It is also important to talk about the topic and to make society more aware of the fact that vegetables, which are commonly considered to be “vegan”, are actually often fertilised with slaughterhouse waste, but that there is a sensible alternative to this. We are happy about people who would like to get involved in our work, help to inform agricultural operations and other businesses or give lectures in their university or vegan club. And of course, about people …
One last question: Could biocyclic vegan agriculture feed the world?
Absolutely! Giving up livestock farming would liberate an enormous amount of land which is currently (in a very wasteful manner, I think!) used for the cultivation of animal feed. From a global point of view, this is the largest part of all arable land. The conversion rate of plant-based calories, however, if they take the detour via the animal, is extremely poor. In other words, we are very wasteful with the nutrients we have at our disposal. If we were to grow food that could be consumed directly by us humans, and this in using mixed cropping systems with a large variety of crops (just as the vegan diet requires!) and in accordance with the biocyclic vegan requirements, many more people could be fed. A prerequisite for this, of course, would be a change in consumption patterns.
Furthermore, the use of biocyclic humus soil for soil revitalisation and improved soil fertility can lead to higher yields which in turn will allow more people to be fed. Biocyclic vegan farming has the potential to be applied worldwide. At first, in my view, those countries that already are aware of the problems of animal husbandry need to rethink and start living a different kind of agriculture.