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Does Fertilizer Matter?


June 25, 2024 by Hope Gardens

“…we are all influenced, to a greater extent than we are usually prepared to admit, by social consensus. We think along the lines laid down by others, follow paths already trodden. We see what others see, and ignore what they ignore. We might argue passionately about the small number of issues on which the spotlight falls, but, implicitly, and unconsciously, we agree to overlook other topics, often of greater importance.”

George Monbiot, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Consuming the Plane

What’s wrong with fertilizer?

What we consume has intense ramifications for the natural world. Humans have drained Earth’s resources: gobbling up fossil fuels, acreage, water…and most of that in the name of animal-based foods. And then there’s the price our planet pays to grow all the food that our livestock eats.

But what about the food our plants eat?

Organic vegetables must be grown in organic fertilizers to be certified organic. And all certified-organic fertilizers are made of rendered animal carcasses, as well as various kinds of manure and guano.

More and more, the dregs of factory farming, rendering, bio-fuel production, and bio-composting are marketed to consumers as high-quality fertilizers and soil amendments. They are labeled as “green,” “organic,” and “eco-friendly”…then sold at a premium. But what’s really in these organic fertilizers? 

The practice of using animal by-products in fertilizer has been around for a long time. I remember my grandmother using blood meal and bone meal on her tomatoes back in Lancaster PA. It’s what good gardeners knew to do.

Today feather or poultry meal is the most common ingredient in organic fertilizer. In fact, it’s so popular that Foster Farms has their own fertilizer company called, Organic Farms® Fertilizer. And I use that registered trademark because I think it’s important to see how the Ag industry is trademarking words in advertising, effectively removing them from the lexicon. Because we know there’s nothing “organic” or “farm” about a CAFO’s dead chicken remains feeding the “largest producer of poultry-based organic fertilizing materials in the Western U.S.” They don’t deserve to be called an organic farm. They just don’t.

As of this writing, the bird flu has affected more than 90 million birds in U.S. commercial flocks. Foster Farms website says “in the unlikely event that a flock is exposed to significant disease, the farm site would be immediately quarantined and controlled with the assistance and guidance of the USDA, state agricultural officials, and local agencies. Any disposal of infected birds would involve humane euthanasia guidelines and they would not be used for human consumption.”

In the Ag industry, there seems to be a loophole between food meant for human consumption and fertilizer meant to grow food. That’s true in the structure of the regulations (USDA vs. CDFA) and also in the perception of how fertilizer is used.

I know from 15 years of urban farming and home garden consulting, that fertilizer can often be on plants. And for organic gardeners, like me, as well as the hundreds of kids I teach gardening to, the ultimate indulgence is eating produce right off the vine. So for me, organic vegetable garden fertilizer should be safe in small amounts if ingested by humans. But that’s certainly not the standard. In fact, I struggle to find any standards.

As far as I can tell, after the animals are trucked to the renderer, it is the renderer’s responsibility to make sure the materials are properly distributed based on certain protocols. But it’s murky how accountable the renderers are. That makes we wonder when they cull these infected herds or flocks and the animals are sent to the renderer…is someone really watching that those infected animals don’t end up in fertilizer? Or are they allowed in fertilizer? I can’t say for sure.

Rendering is an industry that has been around for over 100 years. There are vivid descriptions in the often-cited Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. But never have so many animals passed through the rendering system. And from reading their industry periodicals, renderers are only looking to expand. So why are their practices so unknown?

veganic african blue basil and bees so you don’t give up hope

The fact is cruelty and injustice gets woven into the fabric of our lives, like using bone meal and blood meal in the vegetable garden was my grandmother and my shared history. Life becomes by constant exposure: invisible.

I liken it to seeing a homeless person laying prone on the sidewalk. Are they alive? Are they dead? We don’t even stop to check.

Something can happen right in front of our face, in plain view, but somehow we can no longer see it for what it is. In regards to food especially, the price of cultural belonging and convenience is so high, we join in a common blindness.

I can use my own personal journey as an example. It took many years of researching the subject of organic fertilizer for me to accept veganism. Until I was willing to own my own life choices, I somehow could not see or accept certain truths. Turns out that’s one of the aspects of a vegan lifestyle I find so compelling. For me it’s a commitment to living without the veil, without the societal bias that keeps thinking limited. I can see what’s happening and not hide from it.

With the veil lifted, I started to fully realize what a nightmare agriculture is for the natural world…as well as for the billions of animals enslaved, tortured and slaughtered every year. That’s a truth and a statistic that’s all around us, but it’s a hard reality to feel.

For me, as a professional gardener, I handled organic fertilizers all day long. I used my bare hands to mix these powdered rendered animals together. I poured organic fertilizer into schoolchildren’s hands without any real idea what those animal products were. I trusted that organic label.

The truth of what is in organic fertilizer was so shocking and appalling, I had to take time to process my grief and shame about the animal products I bought and recommended. And the next thing I had to do was create my own animal-free fertilizer formulations.

I began to talk about this journey in my workshops and the look on my adult students’ faces…they were as shocked as I was. Even vegetarian and vegan friends were completely clueless about how organic vegetables are grown.

Most people believe that committing to a vegan lifestyle is a guaranteed way to opt out of the worst parts of animal agriculture, but sadly that is just not the case. In fact, the more organic your food choices, the more animal-fueled your diet is.

While traditional farming uses chemicals or synthetics to deter pests and fertilize plants, organic farming rejects chemicals and instead uses biological controls on pests and weeds, and natural fertilizers to feed plants. Sounds pretty good. But organic is not a meaningful distinction in garden products.

For example, I now know that even organic pesticides are harmful to a large number of insects. And that has negative ramifications for the whole natural world. So truth be told, organic pesticides are not the eco-friendly solution they are marketed to be. Similarly, I realized that organic fertilizers are not as safe or wholesome as they appear to be. The reality is organic animal fertilizers are not ethical, renewable or sustainable. So how are they organic?

As a professional gardener in Los Angeles for 15 years, I embraced organic philosophies. I taught my students that organic food was safer and cleaner and that the farming techniques were more reputable and harmonious with nature. I said it was safe to eat off the vine. I could not have been more wrong.

It’s not poop.

It’s an understatement to say that farming has changed. The idyllic farms and animals featured in our Little Golden Books as kids haven’t been a reality for generations. Most livestock animals don’t graze on fields. Farmers no longer grow their own alfalfa or hay for their animals. Instead massive feed companies supply either corn- or soy-based or animal-based livestock meals.

When these grain or animal-based feeds are fed to livestock in CAFOs, it causes the animals to expel a liquid sewage that is too toxic to apply directly to farmland. The liquid manure is stored in massive lagoons which – when not leaking into waterways – can be tented and converted into biofuel, for which “farmers” receive tax breaks or other cash incentives. After the gas is removed, what’s left in the lagoon pits is then made into organic fertilizer. This is a relatively new practice. The biological and ecological ramifications of using these recycled materials as organic plant food is unknown. But what we know so far doesn’t look good.

Rendering: the quiet industry.

In 1880, Chicago meatpackers first got the idea to sell their tankage – poultry scraps leftover from processing – to farmers as fertilizer. The modern practice of rendering as we know it started in Germany before WW1 but the general practice probably dates back to the Middle Ages.

rendering in germany

Today, slaughterhouse waste, expired meat from grocery stores, bones from consolidated butcheries, rancid grease from restaurants, roadkill, as well as diseased and dying livestock, are trucked to rendering facilities that boil and then bake these animal inputs into organic garden fertilizer.

In many ways, organics is not that different from chemical fertilizers. Miracle Gro, always known for its bright blue chemical powder fertilizer, is also the biggest seller of organic garden fertilizer through their line of Miracle Gro Organics. In fact, even Martha Stewart herself now does their commercials.

Another popular figure in the vegan and gardening communities makes commercials for Espoma, the U.S.’s oldest organic meat-based fertilizer company right in front of his vegan audiences. He holds his bag of Plant-Tone fertilizer and shows how he applies it to his vegetable garden, but his followers are none the wiser. It’s hard for me to watch. These are smart people willing to trade their values and mislead the public for money from meat-based fertilizer companies.

The message I’m relaying is that all organic fertilizer companies are extensions of Big Ag. Period.

The producers of fertilizer will follow the trends wherever they lead. Especially when animal-based fertilizers are as cheap and effective as chemical ones. The fact that both harm the environment really doesn’t play into it.

And a thought on that word “effective.” I recently read an article where a renderer describes livestock as “rich in plant nutrients.” I thought, what a fucked up way to look at an animal. Seeing animals as wholly commodities, smacks of oppression. Like a waste pipe, abuse overflows from animal agriculture into violence against all people, including enslavement, trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, white supremacy, torture, sadism and other forms of violence. No wonder it’s the quiet industry.

Not happy meals

Animal-based fertilizer products are called simply “meals” but include many different kinds. Some like bone meal are made primarily of butchery remains. Another popular meal called feather meal comes directly from poultry processing. Blood meal comes mainly from slaughterhouse floors. And there are still many other offensive products that go into organic fertilizers, like horse & hoove meal, or fish and crab meal. There’s still organic tankage today – the original organic fertilizer. This mix of animal liquids and solids found at the bottom of the transport or rendering tanks has an OMRI approval for organic garden use. The OMRI seal is the gold standard for rating organic garden products worldwide…and tankage has one. As does organic bat guano fertilizer. How can you determine bat guano is organic? Because it come from organic bats?

When regulators and certifiers and industry get together, they decide what is safe and appropriate to be called organic. They make the rules to benefit themselves. Regulations are not based on the consumer’s desires or the safety of the product or the impact on the environment. The criteria for organic is based strictly on profit.

an example of traditional organic fertilizer

Is organic organic?

There’s an argument to be made that these organic fertilizers really aren’t organic. At an international rendering conference, leadership from an European organic soil amendment company that utilizes meat and bone meal (MBM) was quoted as saying that while demand for organic fertilizers is growing, a potential hazard for the industry “is that consumers may want the ingredients in organic fertilizers themselves to be organic.” I think we may.

When I unknowingly gave kindergartners rendered animal dust to add to their strawberry patch, I had no worries about organic fertilizer’s safety and integrity. I trusted that organic label. I assumed the sources of the individual inputs were organic. Now I have to ask myself: when it comes to organic fertilizer, how do you trace the source?

In the U.S. meat importers are not required to put a country of origin sticker on meat making it impossible to identify or track imported meat. So how could that expired supermarket meat that gets rendered into fertilizer meals be considered organic…if you don’t even know the country of origin. In 2009 the COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) measure, which was a consumer-led labeling law, was amended into USDA guidelines, but by 2013 beef and pork was removed from those restrictions. So how can fertilizer companies track the source of their fertilizer?

It’s not safe

Livestock are given antibiotics as growth-improvers preemptively. Using antibiotics in this way has given rise to many strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can threaten human life as these bacteria make their way into our bodies through contaminated soils, water, plants…and fertilizer. These pathogens can enter our bodies and colonize, making us resistant to life-saving antibiotics. These pathogens along with forever chemicals have been found in many different organic fertilizers

In addition, livestock diseases like mad cow disease aka Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) are not regulated in regards to fertilizer. In the U.S. in 2008, the FDA released its Feed Ban Enhancement that amended regulations to provide additional protections against BSE. This amendment prohibited the use of high-risk cattle material in livestock feed. Materials defined as CMPAF (Cattle Material Prohibited from Animal Feed) could already not be fed to cattle, but this amendment expanded it to all animal species. I make a point of this because in a question and answer period about this Feed Ban Enhancement, the FDA representatives explicitly said: “this rule does not place any restrictions on the use of CMPAF as fertilizer.”

You see, fertilizer, even vegetable fertilizer, is not under the purview of the FDA, or the USDA. Fertilizer is under state control. Every single fertilizer is licensed and regulated on a state-by-state basis by each state’s Department of Agriculture.

So each U.S. state has its own rules about what can and can’t be in organic fertilizer. And yet revered mouthpiece of organic fertilizer OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) uses federal data from the NOP (National Organic Program) which is under the USDA as the benchmark for what is considered organic. But the NOP doesn’t regulate fertilizer. So how do they come up with guidelines? What does that say about the validity of what is federally considered organic in fertilizer and how international certifiers label our organic products?

You can see where fertilizer can fall through the cracks of oversight and regulation. And the repercussions could be serious. BSE has been a complicated threat for decades but today, we must contend with new developments in regards to the avian flu. H5N1 has now been found in cattle herds in six states, as well as in a dairy farm worker – the second person in America ever documented. H5N1 can survive in poultry manure. Consumers need to know that vegetables don’t get viruses on their own.

Are organic vegetables vegan?

Veganism asserts a desire to not cause harm to other organisms. But the fact that our entire organic diet is still reliant on animals is a big problem. How can any food we eat be considered vegan if it got its start in a bed of ground-up animal suffering? I think veganism should begin at the roots with plant-based fertilizers. And not only is that good for the animals, it’s good for the planet and my fellow gardeners.

Stay tuned for more insights into the veganic gardening and plant-based regenerative movements.