Should Vegans Eat Organic As a Rule?

As a vegan who’s usually on a tight budget, I’ve usually eaten conventionally-grown produce rather than organic. But I’ve long wondered if vegans really should eat organic as a rule, to be ethically consistent. Recently I finally did some research on the subject.

So, should vegans eat organic? It’s up to you. While conventional farming can harm animals, some say organic farming is even worse. For human health, too, it’s unclear if organic is better. Many vegans believe that “veganic” (vegan organic) farming is the best long-term solution.

In this post, we’ll look at how organic farming works and how it stacks up through a vegan lens. Hopefully, it will help you decide for yourself whether you want to eat mostly conventional or organic as a vegan. I’ll also cover how veganic farming works, in case you’re curious about that option.

Organic Food: Not As Vegan-Friendly As You’d Think?

Usually, people go vegan for roughly three different reasons: animal rights, human health, and the environment. So if we are assessing whether organic food is the more “vegan-friendly” choice to make, we would look at those three factors. Surprisingly, I found a lot of arguments out there for why organic food actually fails to deliver on all three of these issues.

First, let’s define organic. defines organic food as those produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). So, do these changes in production help us meet vegan values?

Does Buying Organic Food Support the Animal Agriculture Industry?

The truth is that organic farming today actually relies on the animal agriculture industry. For this reason, some vegans actually argue against vegans eating organic. That surprised me.

In organic farming, manure, bone meal, fish, and blood meal are used as fertilizers. Even an organic farmer who only grows plants will end up paying nearby animal farms for their manure to spread on her fields. Because of this, many vegans point out that buying and eating organic food contributes profit to the animal agriculture industry.

Contributing to the profits of the animal agriculture industry is the last thing vegans want to do, as one of the main points of being vegan is removing your financial support from animal agriculture. So some vegans boycott organic food for this reason alone.

Is Organic Food Healthier Than Conventionally-Grown Food?

Many people believe that organic food is cleaner, healthier, and more pure. While I did find some reports that antioxidant levels are higher in organically-grown produce, I also heard claims that larger meta-analyses suggest that these differences are not clinically significant.

Organic farming still uses pesticides, just not synthetic pesticides. To be labeled as an organic farm, you can still use “natural pesticides.” But some of these “natural pesticides” are supposedly even less safe. Copper-based pesticides are often cited as an example of this. Even though they are “natural,” they are still toxic in high amounts.

That said, the amount of pesticide residues found on any food, conventional or organic, is quite low. One study found that organic foods had 1/3 the pesticide residues of conventionally grown produce. However, even the amounts of pesticides found in the conventional foods were about one million times lower than the thresholds at which carcinogenic effects have been observed.

I read that organic produce sometimes has worse heavy metal contamination. I also read that the animal-based fertilizers on organic farms can also contribute to problems with antibiotic resistance. And organic food is also more likely to be recalled for contamination with pathogenic microorganisms like E. Coli and Listeria. All of these could be blog posts of their own if you wanted to get into the nuances.

But based on this information, it seems like organic food is probably not better for human health overall, or not by much. For your own personal health, it’s probably much more important just to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, no matter how they’re produced.

Is Organic Food More Environmentally-Friendly?

This is a subject that you could probably read several big books about and still feel like you’re just scratching the surface. But it sems that the environmental benefits of organic farming are not as great as many people assume.

It seems that organic farming tends to contribute more to eutrophication, which is the pollution of bodies of water with excess nutrients from fertilizers and the like. This can cause algal overgrowth and problems in the ecosystem.

Organic farming also seems to have a greater potential for acidification of bodies of water through pollution. Since conventional farms can rely on more use of herbicide sprays, organic farmers also rely more on tilling, and this can have negative environmental impacts, as well.

Lastly, organic farming tends to have lower yields, so it’s a less efficient use of our land. As world populations rise and climate change brings droughts and flooding to different areas, high yields may become more and more important. Using lower-yield farming methods requires more deforestation to meet the same total food needs.

So overall, there doesn’t seem to be great evidence that organic farming is better for the environment than conventional farming. By many measures, organic tends to be worse for the environment. In my research, this page was by far the most helpful source, as it seemed to be balanced, nuanced, and in-depth, drawing practical conclusions from hard data.

Vegan Organic Farming: Is It Possible?

In veganic farming, you don’t use any of those animal-based fertilizers (manure, blood meal, bone meal), so you don’t support the animal agriculture industry financially.

Some people express concerns about whether veganic farming is scaleable. These people think you can’t get enough nitrogen in the soil without animal-based fertilizers. But advocates of veganic farming will point out that there are nitrogen-fixing plants that can synthesize plenty of usable nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and fungi.

I’m not an expert in the subject at this point, but supposedly you can simply plant nitrogen-fixing crops into the fields during the off-season—this is called a “cover crop”—or you can even plant the nitrogen-fixing crops into the field at the same time.

But in any case, organic farmers don’t need to use animal waste as a fertilizer. There is no magic ingredient in animal manure that you can’t get from nitrogen-fixing plants and fertilizers made from those. The animals got their nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing plants originally.

So veganic farming is not limited to the level of personal gardens or community plots. One Degree is a profitable company whose cereals or breads you may have seen in grocery stores—especially if you ever shop at Whole Foods Market or health-food stores.

One Degree has a network of veganic farmers around the world who have successfully adopted this model. These include sizable farms (thousands of acres) that harvest their crop with combines and semi-trucks full of grains.

Unintentional Rodent and Insect Deaths In Any Form of Farming

Some people might say that since small rodents and insects will die in any kind of farming, no form of farming is fully vegan. But most people would also admit that ethically speaking, causing unintentional deaths is not the same as intentionally causing avoidable deaths. We will always inevitably cause some injury and death to small creatures in our food production, even if we survived completely off our own garden.

Let’s hypothetically say you wanted to minimize the number of accidental rodent and insect deaths caused by your diet. Vegan is still the best choice since animals need to eat a bunch of plants to stay alive.

It’s less efficient to eat higher up the food chain. For water use, land use, and for avoiding insect deaths, too, if that’s a concern of yours—it’s most efficient to eat plants directly, rather than feeding them to an animal and then eating the animal.

Vegan Permaculture: The Most Sustainable of all?

If you really want the most sustainable, ethical form of farming, it might be vegan permaculture. I don’t know if vegan permaculture will ever be able to produce enough to sustain the earth or if it requires too much of a departure for us to achieve it on a broad scale in our lifetimes.

Vegan permaculture seems like a drastic change from the conventional monocrop farming that is dominant today, more drastic than veganic farming in general. But vegan permaculture may be the ideal long-term solution for working with nature, harnessing natural biodiversity, and using predator-prey relationships to balance pests and control yields.

I won’t dive into the details here, but do a search on “vegan permaculture” sometime if you’re curious about all the possibilities for radically restructuring the way we grow food. My initial concern is that vegan permaculture may be far more time intensive than the other options, and so it may require that a greater percentage of the population become farmers again.

The Many Definitions of Vegan, and What They Say About Eating Organic

After looking at all these different farming methods to choose from—organic, conventional, veganic, and vegan permaculture—let’s now return to asking what it really means to be vegan in the first place.

New vegans and non-vegans can struggle to pinpoint the differences and the overlaps between veganism and other healthy or sustainable diet movements, such as gluten-free, paleo, local, or organic. Part of this may be due to the lack of clarity about what “vegan” exactly means.

Defining Vegan As Something You Do

If you asked 100 people on the street, I’m guessing most people would define veganism as something you do, defined by what you consume (or don’t consume). Specifically, most people would probably define veganism first as a plant-based diet, a diet without animal-derived foods.

It is also commonly understood that most vegans will not buy leather, wool, or silk for their clothing, or they will only buy these second-hand. And it’s sometimes understood that many vegans boycott circuses or zoos that confine and exploit animals, too.

By these common understandings of being vegan, eating organic versus conventional is simply not relevant to being vegan. You can eat organic or not, and it doesn’t affect whether you’re vegan or not.

Defining Vegan As An Ethical Principle

But another way of defining veganism is not by looking at what you do but what principles are guiding your actions.

When people cite definitions of veganism, usually they cite documents from the Vegan Society or from Donald Watson, who originally coined the word “vegan.” These documents often speak about veganism as “a movement to end the exploitation of animals by humans.”

To say that veganism is “a movement to end the exploitation of animals by humans” can have more implications than simply the diet and lifestyle changes listed above in the other definition.

So this broader definition of veganism, based on a principle of ending exploitation, can lead to many different interpretations and arguments about what vegans should do exactly. And these arguments might include whether to eat conventional, organic, veganic, or what. This is why we can have a whole big blog post about why organic food is or isn’t vegan.

Defining Vegan for Yourself

You might not be sure exactly what being vegan means to you, and that’s fine. But you can probably see how different definitions of veganism can lead to different conclusions about what kinds of farming methods are ideal or how strict to be about which ones you consume.

So you may want to reflect on what veganism is really about for you, how much you’re willing to dedicate to it, and so on. That understanding will then inform the specific decisions you make about organics and more.

Vegans Can Eat Conventional, Organic, Veganic, or Whatever

When it comes down to it, there is no firm rule about whether vegans should eat organic or not. You can find arguments on either side. If any of those arguments are compelling to you, then you can commit to being an all-organic vegan or a never-organic vegan. But it’s not required to be vegan.

Like I said in the beginning of this article, I typically eat conventionally-grown food, but sometimes I eat organic. I mainly just buy what is cheap and available to me because I’m usually on a tight budget. I would like to buy more of my fresh produce from farmer’s markets, but I rarely feel like I have the time and money to do so.

Maybe I’ll make another post sometime exploring the details of GMOs specifically and whether it’s worth making a commitment to non-GMO foods as a vegan. My suspicion is that the data may be similar as found in this post and that the hype may be more than the actual impact.

So, should you eat organic as a vegan? You can decide for yourself. It’s really not a make-or-break issue in my opinion.

Two More Recommendations for Your Plant-Based Journey

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