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Why Can’t We Have Plant-Based Plants?


April 18, 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 of course, food. And then there’s the price our planet pays to grow all the food that our food eats. And I don’t just mean animals. I mean the food our plants eat.

You see, all organic vegetables are grown in animal by-products. And all organic fertilizers are made of animal carcasses. More and more, the dregs of factory farming, rendering, bio-fuel production, and bio-composting are marketed as high-quality fertilizers and soil amendments, labeled as “green,” “organic,” and “eco-friendly” and sold at a premium. But what’s really in these fertilizers?

The practices of using animal by-products has been around a long time: my grandmother used blood meal and bone meal on her tomatoes. Feather or poultry meal has been the most popular ingredient in organic fertilizer for decades and fish meal has enjoyed popularity as a foliar feed for the modern urban farmer. So this isn’t an unusual practice. Using every part of an animal for profit was mainstream literature over 100 years ago in Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.

The fact is cruelty and injustice gets woven into the fabric of our lives and our shared histories and becomes, by constant exposure, ironically, invisible. Something can happen right in front of our face, in plain view, but somehow we can no longer see it for what it is. The price of belonging and convenience is so high, we join in a common blindness.

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. That’s why I love that quote at the beginning by George Monbiot. He’s describing the veil and one of the way it stays put. That’s what is so compelling about veganism. It’s a commitment to living without the veil, without the societal bias that keeps thinking limited. It’s seeing what is happening and not hiding 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 rendered animals together. I poured fertilizer into schoolchildren’s hands without any real idea what those animal products were.

The truth was so shocking and disgusting; 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 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, we organic gardeners now know that organic pesticides are harmful to a large number of insects with many ramifications for the natural world…not exactly eco-friendly. Similarly, I realized that organic fertilizers are not as safe or wholesome, or eco-friendly, as they appear in their marketing. In fact, animal fertilizers are not ethical, renewable or sustainable.

As a professional gardener in Los Angeles for 15 years, I embraced organic philosophies. I taught my students that organic food was safer, 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. (See more on that story here.) 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. More on that here.

Rendering: the quiet industry.

The main method in which agriculture produces organic garden fertilizer is through the kind of rendering described in Sinclair’s 1906 novel. 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.

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 than chemical fertilizers. Miracle Gro now has an organic line that is wildly successful. 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 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.

I’m kidding, of course. Not about the organic bat guano, but the organic bats. See 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.

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 even when the animals aren’t sick. 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 ‘08, 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, and 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 pervue 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 the 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. 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. The fact that our entire organic plant—based 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.