Part 1: VON (Vegan Organic Network)
This is the first in what we hope with be a regular series of articles where we interview people who are making a very positive impact for veganism. For this article, we spoke to several of the people involved in VON. We asked them why they are vegan, how they got involved in VON, what their role is in VON, and what they've got planned for VON. Interviews by John Curtis.
I was seven at the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, and was evacuated from London to a farm in Cambridgeshire. It was a mixed farm, with animals, fruit and horticulture. The farm manager encouraged me to go to agricultural college when I was older. I followed his advice and later studied at the Writtle Institute of Agriculture. Still later I obtained a degree in social science at Manchester University where I taught for some time.
There was conscription in the UK until 1959, and in 1955 I became a conscientious objector. For this I was sent to prison for a year. I thought that if war is wrong, then non-violence should be extended to all life, so I became a vegetarian at this time. My mother was already vegetarian and there were strong political and trade union beliefs in the family. After reading about Vinoba Bhave's Land Reform movement in prison, I hitch - hiked to India in 1956 and worked with him and the Gandhian movement. I was also involved with the Direct Action Committee and Committee of 100, who were opposed to nuclear war. For this I spent a considerable time once again as a guest of Her Majesty.
Back in Britain, my wife Jane and I started a family, and when the children were growing up we decided to grow our own food vegan organically. We had a big garden at our home in Manchester so we dug it up. We have five children and eight grandchildren, all either vegetarian or vegan.
My wife and I became vegan about 30 years ago because of the ethical inconsistency of vegetarianism with its dependence on animal by-products. I don't wish to sound critical of vegetarians since they are, hopefully, taking a first step as we did. Veganism was, for me, only a part of an holistic outlook which embraces ecology, non-violence, and respect for all beings.
In 1996, after many years of being involved in the direct action movement, Free Schools, the Campaign Against Corporal Punishment, anti-racist and other forms of community activity, I felt that we should try to organise a serious movement and publication that methodically and systematically promoted vegan organics. So in 1996 I, my wife Jane, and David Stringer - an experienced horticulturist - started VON.
Our aim is to get farmers to grow food without animal products and chemicals. We discovered that there were already some vegan organic commercial farms - Dave of Darlington and Iain Tolhurst, for instance, who are now both active VON supporters. We've made enormous strides since then.
VON's next step is to establish an education, research and demonstration centre to put stockfree farming more prominently in the public domain. Only when we have a centre with fulltime workers, with regular training and education courses, with demonstration grounds and a commercial box scheme will we be able to make a significant impact on the structure and ethics of food production. Many farmers because of Foot and Mouth Disease, BSE etc. will be considering converting to organic growing. We want them to know there is another option - vegan - organics. Stockfree, disease free and cruelty free.
I've always seen VON as international. We have members in most of the continents. We helped to finance and set up Regenwurm, the Austrian VON. They recently had a 3-day conference in Germany which 300 people attended. We have contact centres - vegan farms - in the US, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, with others in the pipeline.
The priority now for VON is to acquire a centre. The Movement For Compassionate Living has given us an enormous boost by passing on a legacy of £70,000 for this purpose. We need to raise a further £300,000. You can help us to do this, and stop the obscene slaughter of the one thousand million animals, that are killed each year in this country alone, for food.
I've always been concerned about animals. My grandparents were farmers, and when I was five I used to let the hens get out - I suppose my empathy with animals started there. From the age of twelve I helped out at the RSPCA kennels.
I became vegetarian eleven years ago, at eighteen, because I did not want to eat animals. Three years later I became vegan because of the inconsistency of vegetarianism - I was effectively paying livestock farmers by buying eggs and dairy, and I was also aware of the cruelty involved in milk production. The thing that has helped me to remain vegan is my interest in farming and an awareness of the very inefficient resource use of feeding grains to animals, and grasslands which could be growing trees instead - far more sustainable. The GM soya issue, is to me about raising feed grain yields to feed more people, especially in the developing countries, more animal based unhealthy diets. There's also the unfairness of the triple subsidies which are propping up the livestock industry: (1) feedgrains, (2) meat, dairy, (3) the tax payer ends up picking up the bill for the health scares and the water consumer pays for all the pollution incidents with slurry. Horticulture gets no subsidies at all even though it is very labour intensive and provides people with jobs.
Four years ago I was doing a Masters degree and my funding ran out so I needed to find some work. By chance, I got a job on an organic farm. This boosted my enthusiasm for horticulture. My MSc was in Environmental policy, and I chose my dissertation to be 'Environmental Auditing of Organic Farming' where I began to appreciate just how much fossil fuel goes into the keeping of livestock, particularly cattle.
I was awkward about using animal manures when working on the organic farm. I saw VON (Vegan Organic Network) listed in the Animal-Free Shopper and made enquiries. I ended up having a two-hour phone conversation with David Graham, one of the organisers! I'm now an active supporter of VON.
As well as my voluntary work for VON, I'm the Community Food Projects Officer at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. The aim is to make biodiversity relevant to ordinary people, by training and supporting community groups to do their own composting and food growing. I like self help initiatives - it is no good waiting for someone else to make things better.
The main aim of VON is to promote the uptake of vegan-organic, also known as stockfree-organic farming, amongst farmers. We are currently involved in writing standards. In the same way that the Soil Association have standards that have to be met before farmers and product makers can use the Soil Association symbol, we are soon to achieve a similar certification for Stockfree Organic produce.
Exciting times are afoot. VON has just received a substantial grant to write the world's first "Stockfree-organic resource book" giving practical advice to gardeners, allotment holders, market gardeners and farmers as to how they can grow without GM, chemicals or animal inputs. There's lots of information around on organic growing, but the vast majority promotes the use of animal manures and slaughter house by-products. This manual will be very practical and will show clearly how to grow fruit and vegetables, and will also cover growing green manures, a subject often discussed with very little practical advice on how to use. It will include lots of photos. Other countries will hopefully write their own editions relevant to the different growing conditions that they have.
Interest in growing organically without using animal manures and by-products is increasing. Supermarkets are not keen on the use of manures for organic produce because of bacterial contamination problems. VON holds up the Tolhurst box scheme in Reading and the Growing Green box scheme in Darlington as examples as to how vegan farming should progress.
My wife Diana and I went vegetarian in 1970 out of compassion for other creatures and for the health benefits. While vegetarian, we cut down on eggs and milk, but still ate a reasonable amount of cheese. It was more difficult being vegetarian in the 1970s than it is being vegan today. People would ask daft questions such as how can we get enough protein, and they found it all rather strange! We later became more aware of the environmental benefits of veganism, and became vegan 10 years ago. We had tried to be vegan before, but we found the practicalities very difficult then. It's so much easier now. Back in the 70s you even had to go to a healthfood shop to buy wholemeal bread. Supermarkets and other shops didn't sell it. About the only things supermarkets sold for us were lentils and dried peas.
Our awareness of the environmental benefits increased when we joined VON (or VOHAN as it was called at the time.) We were on holiday staying at the self-catering accommodation at Vegfam in Devon and were given a VOHAN leaflet there. We had already had an allotment for over four years where we had been growing vegan-organically - we didn't want to use animal manures, Blood, Fish & Bone, etc. We joined VON in September 1998 and got in touch with the organiser, David Graham, who happened to live nearby. Our involvement has grown ever since. To begin with we took the VON magazine to healthfood shops to see if they would sell it, then we started writing articles for the magazine. We then helped to set up the Vegan Organic Trust (VOT) - the charity arm of VON. We are both trustees. Because we want a demonstration and education centre, it makes sense to become a charity, otherwise the property would be in the name of a private individual, which causes problems when that individual dies. There are also tax advantages - we can claim the tax back from the Inland Revenue on the amount that many donors give us.
Two years ago we bought a PC, and I now help produce the organisation's magazine, Growing Green International. I also look after the website in conjunction with Ecocities (www.ecocities.net) the vegan web designers. I also look after the account books and other admin for the charity, but this is done on paper - I don't trust computers for that! Diana is writing a cookery book 'Vegan Rustic Cooking' which VOT will publish shortly and which will hopefully bring in some money for the charity. Before I retired, my career was in Personnel management. Now, my involvement in VOT sometimes feels like a full-time job!
The demonstration centre we are all trying to set up for VOT will comprise at least 10 acres of land with buildings and planning permission. Recently, the Movement for Compassionate Living received a legacy of £80,000, and they've generously agreed to donate £70,000 to the VOT centre project, subject to some conditions. The idea of a centre for vegans and vegan-organics is a tremendously worthwhile project which will need more money to buy what is needed in the North West (where many of us are based), so we plan to do some fundraising and appeals for funds to add to what has already been raised. We have now obtained a very welcome grant towards the cost of publishing the Vegan-Organic Growers Resource Handbook from the Cyril Cordon Trust Fund, of which Harold Bland is a Trustee.
For information about VON and the centre project contact David Graham, Anandavan, 58 High Lane, Chorlton cum Hardy, Manchester M21 9DZ. Tel: 0161 860 4869. Email: email@example.com. Website: www.veganorganic.net. Send MOSS centre donations to David Graham (address above). Cheques/POs payable to 'Vegan Organic Trust'.
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