November 21, 2019

Feature Interview: Stéphane Groleau of the Veganic Agriculture Network

In brief, veganic farming aims to grow organic food for human consumption without animal inputs, in respect for the environment and the biodiversity. There’s no one approach. It can be done on a small-scale (garden, containers) and large-scale (commercial farms, greenhouses) and for any culture (vegetables, herbs, grains, fruit trees) and using different techniques. Moreover, we should always adapt our growing method with the surrounding environment.-Stéphane Groleau, Veganic Agriculture Network

Banner: Veganic Agriculture Network

Stéphane Groleau is the cofounder of GoVeganic, a Veganic Agriculture Network established in 2008 promoting plant-based farming and gardening in North America. A vegan since 2001 who also recognized a lack of information in French, particularly in his home region Québec, he launched the French website www.veganequebec.net and in 2003 launched  www.vegeculture.net, the first French website about vegan organic farming and gardening.

Since 2004 he has been a writer for Growing Green International, the magazine of the Vegan Organic Network. Also in 2004, after studying organic farming in college, he embarked on a nine-month journey in Europe to visit and volunteer at vegan organic farms and communities. He has translated the Stockfree Organic Standards, the certification standards for vegan organic farms, into French and since 2004 has held many talks about vegan organic farming including in the U.K., France, Canada and United States (ie. Vegetarian Summerfest, Montreal Végane Festival, Estivales de la question Animale).

Photo from conference talk: Stéphane Groleau

Stéphane also maintains www.vegeculture.net, a Francophone reference site on organic vegan agriculture and www.globulesverts.org, as a film-maker directing eco and vegan oriented short films. He co-launched Lundi Sans Viande, the French Canadian version of Meatless Mondays focusing on ethics, health, and the environment, and is the environmental advisor for the movement and the webmaster of www.lundisansviande.net. He is involved in a wide range of eco and vegan organizations : Friends of the Earth Quebec City; student eco-organizations; Montreal Vegetarian Association; Craque-Bitume, Accorderie (local service exchange system); Portneuf Environmental Film Festival. And to top it all off, he is also an accordionist who built the world’s first vegan accordion, using leather alternatives, vegan glues, and eco-friendly varnish!

Stéphane places great focus on vegan advocacy locally in Quebec city, continuing to give talks about vegan farming and gardening as well as alternative cooking techniques, Meatless Mondays, using beans and grains and more.

Interview with Stéphane Groleau

You have an intensive history and presence in the vegan movement. Can you share more about your background and work?

Stéphane: I’m a long-time vegan ecologist (almost 20 years). I grew up on a dairy farm and studied anthropology and organic farming. Concerned about the state of the planet, the health of people and the living conditions of animals, I’ve been involved in several organizations and have co-founded different movements.

An issue I realized early was the lack of information in French, the official language in the province of Québec. Since I’ve been vegan, my other concern has been to challenge criticism against veganism. Can we live without animal food? Can we grow food without animal inputs? This led me to filmmaking, writing articles for various magazines, creating websites, doing talks, organizing monthly vegan potlucks, doing booths in events, etc.

Among other things, I co-directed the first documentary on vegetarian/vegan food in Québec, ‘A Veggie Meal’; translated the book ‘Permaculture, A Brief Introduction’ (Graham Burnett, Écosociété) and co-founded the Québec movement Meatless Monday and the Veganic Agriculture Network. As a musician, I also built the world’s first vegan accordion.

‘Permaculture, A Brief Introduction’ (Graham Burnett, Écosociété)
Translated by Stéphane Groleau

When and with whom did you found GoVeganic?

Stéphane: I co-founded the website Veganic Agriculture Network and the website www.goveganic.net in 2008 with Meghan Kelly. The goal was to have a presence on the internet and show that there are people over here interested in veganic farming and gardening. Our goals were to bring knowledge about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of veganic, and to create a network with farmers.

When were you introduced to the concept of veganic farming?

Stéphane: Around the year 2000, I was vegetarian and read about people arguing against vegetarians/vegans saying that a vegan world can’t be possible without animal manure to grow food. This sparked my interest in the subject and I wanted to see if that was true or not. Searching on the internet, I found the Vegan Organic Network (http://veganorganic.net), a UK-based organisation that publishes an international magazine (called Growing Green). This helped me to learn about the concept, the issues with farming and to find examples of farmers and gardeners. I also collected many related books of interest and took courses (permaculture, self-fertilizing garden, etc.).

Stéphane in Austria with Helmut Butolen in 2004
Photo: Stéphane Groleau

I then studied organic farming and oriented my homework on the subject. This led me to visit farms in Europe and in the United States. In the meantime, I started to experiment with different gardening approaches in the community garden and in the countryside. Then, I moved to the city and started to experiment with urban-veganic gardening (in containers).

In brief, veganic farming aims to grow organic food for human consumption without animal inputs, in respect for the environment and the biodiversity. Amongst the animal inputs, we find livestock manure, slaughterhouse by-products (blood meal, bone meal, feather meal), shrimp compost, etc.

Can you share a bit about your time in Europe at vegan organic farms, as well as insight and perspective on the current vegan agriculture network in Europe?

Stéphane: In 2004, I took a nine-month journey in Europe to visit and work on different farms, eco-villages and communities interested to grow food without using animal inputs. I traveled in the UK, Germany, Austria and France.

There’s no one approach. It can be done on a small-scale (garden, containers) and large-scale (commercial farms, greenhouses) and for any culture (vegetables, herbs, grains, fruit trees) and using different techniques. Moreover, we should always adapt our growing method with the surrounding environment.

Recently, there has been a good development and exposure to the veganic movement. There is a new accredited certification, Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture, that is spreading in many countries in Europe: http://www.biocyclic-vegan.

That is adding to the certification Stockfree Organic already implemented by the Vegan Organic Network.

First garden in a community garden
Photo: Stéphane Groleau

As you are based in Québec, and so involved in the local agricultural community there, could you share a bit about the vegan agricultural network in Canada and, more broadly, North America?

Stéphane: In the U.S., there are great initiatives going on. There are many veganic farms. The organization Seed the Commons did a great job to network and make a map of the farms on their website: http://veganic.world. Scholars are getting interested in veganic farms; for example, Mona Seymour and Alisha Utter who are conducting a research on veganic farms, writing papers and doing lectures. https://experiment.com/

The Rodale Institutes have been conducting a 40-year trial comparing organic manure, organic legumes and conventional farming: https://rodaleinstitute.org/

With the climate crisis and veganism becoming mainstream, veganic will necessarily become more popular and essential.

In Canada, we have great initiatives too. The small farm La Ferme de L’Aube grows seedlings, seeds and produce. They published a report showing better productivity than with organic or conventional farming: https://humaneherald.org/2019/.

With the growing interest in urban agriculture, we see more and more vegan gardeners starting to garden and, at the same time, they become interested in how to grow food without animal inputs. We also have the company One Degree Organic https://onedegreeorganics.com

On his balcony
Photo: Stéphane Groleau

Any comments or insight on veganic agriculture, globally/ within other world regions— Asia, Africa, South America?

Stéphane: There are initiatives all over! The organization A Well-Fed World has programs in different countries to help citizens and farmers grow food for human consumption without animal inputs.

In a vegan world, with veganic farming, we would need less land and we could stop deforestation. The diversity of plants, the avoidance of chemicals, and the presence of biodiverse settings would be very beneficial [to the Earth/protecting the environment]. Planting trees and growing vegetables using permaculture techniques, instead of rearing animals, would also help [to] fight desertification.

Veganic Booth
Photo: Stéphane Groleau

There are a lot of myths about farming, which I look forward to talking with you about later this year for a podcast, but to begin with: the perception that we need manure for farming. This is basically dispelled by the reality of vegan agriculture, but can you share a bit more about the basic awareness needed to break down this idea, that we need manure to farm?

Stéphane: The myth of animal manure in agriculture is very similar to the myth of [animal] protein in the diet. Just like our body doesn’t need animal protein, the plants don’t need livestock manure. For our body, it’s the amino acids that are needed, and those building blocks are present in all organic material. For the plants, it’s the nutrients that are needed to build tissues. Manure, from farmed animals, works to feed the plants because it contains nutrients, but it’s not necessary. Plants don’t mind if the nutrients come from manure, plants, rocks, etc. The plant doesn’t eat manure or organic material directly, it has to be broken down into basic elements. In certain cases, plants have symbiotic relationships with fungi and bacteria to get nutrients.

Important: Livestock animals don’t create any nutrients, they simply concentrate, in their manure, nutrients that they get from the plants they eat. We can directly use the plants instead of passing the nutrients through the animals.

Moreover, the manure doesn’t need to come from farmed animals. There are already millions of microorganisms in the soil that produce manure just by living there. We should see the soil as a big animal to pamper.

An issue with manure is that, by using it, we stay dependent on animal exploitation, mostly factory farmed. In veganic agriculture and gardening, we want to promote a way of farming that isn’t dependent on the exploitation of animals or slaughterhouses.

There are a lot of alternatives to manure. The first thing [we need] is to change our perspective and look at the soil as a living organism. We need to feed and protect that soil. So, [that means] bringing organic material (mulch, compost, green manure), protecting it from erosion and drought by having plants growing in it most of the time, avoiding compaction and tilling, etc.

Melanie, Jimmy & Stéphane Groleau at Veganic Agriculture Booth booth at Montreal vegan festival
Photo: Stéphane Groleau

Is vegan always biodynamic?

Stéphane: Biodynamic is a particular approach of farming that uses special ingredients (preparations), often made using animal products. It also tries to follow an astrological calendar to decide when to plant and work in the fields. The philosophy behind biodynamic is to see the farm as a living organism where all aspects are interrelated and the whole aiming toward self-sufficiency.

There are veganic farmers that consider their farm biodynamic (i.e. The Langerhorst family in Austria). Though, I would say that veganic agriculture is closer to permaculture than biodynamics. But, I think the general idea of interconnectedness in biodynamics is valuable.

What are some other myths that you perceive as critical in addressing when presenting the concept of vegan agriculture? Also any comments on the terms vegan vs. veganic?

Stéphane: There are different words being used. The main idea is to grow food in a vegan, organic way. In North America, veganic has been mainly used and is less prone to attack since “organic” [produce] is regulated. ‘Stockfree’ has also been used to avoid the term vegan which could sometimes alienate farmers.

People have to realize that, if we bring in manure, it means that we are depleting the land somewhere else. We should aim to produce all the fertility onsite.

For the environment, we know we need to eat less (or no) animal products, because we need to reduce (or stop) the number of animals raised. So, we need to start now to think about other ways of growing food. The first thing is the way we farm. We need to avoid losing the nutrients that are already present in the soil. This can be done by covering the soil, no or reduced tilling, a living soil and plants growing there (ex. green manure).

All food waste should go back to the land. So, we should compost everything and bring it back to the soil. We can grow nutrients onsite using green manure (in particular, legumes that can get nitrogen from the air). We can also use mulch to protect the soil and, as it decomposes, it will feed the soil. We can produce biomass to make compost or mulch. Compost teas can be used to increase the soil activity. There are also complementary products that can help: rock dust, soymeal, liquid seaweed, and other non-animal products.

Visit the Veganic Agriculture Network online at (www.goveganic.net)

Feature & Interview by Annika Lundkvist at Pacific Roots Magazine Editorial Desk

Editor’s Note

Welcome! Launched in Summer 2019, Pacific Roots Magazine is a platform devoted to global issues of animal advocacy, animal sanctuaries, environment, green city initiatives, veganic agriculture, sustainability, plant based food & more. We welcome you along for the journey as we explore, learn & develop further awareness about this home we call Earth.