The Big O. In the world of agriculture, that means organic, a way of farming that avoids chemical or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in favor of more natural, less harmful methods. No longer found only in health food stores, organic products are increasingly sought after by those wanting a healthier lifestyle.
For many people who already shun meat for ethical, health, and environmental reasons, the idea of growing their own organic fruits and vegetables makes perfect sense. But many guides to organic gardening advocate the use of animal byproducts such as bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, and manurestuff that's enough to kill your appetite.
But thankfully vegetarians and vegans can have their kale and eat it, too, if they follow the principles of "veganic" gardening: using only plant-based materials to prepare soil and nourish crops.
The basics of gardening include preparing and maintaining healthy soil; fertilizing plants with the right combination of nutrients; and protecting crops from pests and disease. All of this can be accomplished without the use of the animal byproducts that unfortunately often links the organic and animal agriculture industries.
"The organic process has become a legal, government-sanctioned dumping ground for waste products from the slaughterhouse industry," explains Jim Oswald, the vegan co-founder of the Institute for Plant Based Nutrition in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Adds Brad Partin, who has grown organic strawberries in California since 1992, "If they can't put it in a hot dog, they sell it to farmers." The leftover blood, bone, offal, hooves, horns, and feathers not directly processed by slaughterhouses are taken by rendering companies to be turned into material sold to commercial farms and gardening supply companies. Blood is spray-dried and turned into meal, which is used as a fertilizer; bones are steamed to separate out any remaining collagen and flesh before being ground into a meal that is spread on fields to add nitrogen. Fish-processing plants sell "squid juice" and other remains that are processed with sulfuric or phosphoric acid to create liquid emulsions or dried into meals for supplemental nitrogen.
In addition to the ethical implications of using slaughter byproducts, objections to such materials also concern health and safety. "The bottom line is blood has a lot of garbage in it, especially from animals who have been pumped up with antibiotics, and I don't want that," Partin says. "I know that the methods they use to dry the blood don't kill all the pathogens." He adds, "We all have a responsibility to produce the highest quality crop we can, and part of that responsibility is the safety factor."
The Organic Materials Review Institute in Eugene, Oregon, is a national nonprofit group that publishes information about materials used in organic food and fiber production, and also conducts scientific research on products used by the organics industry. Its policy director, Brian Baker, admits that although tests are done to detect pathogens in bone and blood meal, "nobody really knows" if agents such as the prions that transmit mad cow disease and related illnesses are present in organic fertilizers. However, he calls the risk of infection from agricultural products "highly remote" compared to eating contaminated flesh.
The use of manure, a byproduct of commercial livestock farms, is also an organics issue because of the fear of E. coli bacteria. There are few regulations on the processing or sale of domestic manure, and degrees of processing (such as heating or aging) vary. Notes Baker, "A lot of it is just shit in a bag."
But Brian Leahy, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, contends, "There's no reason why you need to use any of these animal byproducts." He touts the use of so-called "green manure," plant-based sources of nitrogen. "Cover crops" can also be used to put nitrogen back into the soil. This involves planting legumes (such as peas and bell beans), barley, clover, or other plants alongside regular crops but turning them into the soil while they're at the flowering (and most nitrogen-producing) stage so that they "feed" the harvested plants.
So compassionate cultivators don't have to abandon their ethics in order to grow healthy food. Plant-based materials offer the same nutrients as animal-based products, and are as easy if not easier to obtain and use. Cheryl Long, senior editor of Organic Gardening magazine, says, "The very best way to build your soil's quality and content is to use compost." An article in its current July/August issue explains the soil fertility cycle and how compost provides three key ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Oswald notes that the compost concept dates back to Sir Albert Howard, a British governor in India, who helped pioneer the "Bangalore method" of layering green (freshly cut) vegetation with brown (dead leaves, etc.) to create an organic mix that is eaten by bacteria, which in turn are consumed by protozoa that excrete nitrogen to create nature's perfect plant food. Earthworms, who eat the protozoa, improve soil by virtue of their waste as well as their natural aeration.
As for natural pest control, Oswald advocates "letting nature be nature" and making gardens hospitable for snakes, toads, birds, and other animals who normally feed on insects that can threaten crops. Many insects, such as aphid-eating ladybugs, can be beneficial to gardens. The Organic Gardening web site has an individualized listing of non-chemical pest control.
Oswald encourages veganic gardeners to maintain a "positivist philosophy," and predicts that "[t]he century belongs to vegans and vegan agriculturegive us a hundred years" to get most people eating only healthy, plant-based food by the end of the century.
Just don't serve it on bone china.
Institute for Plant Based Nutrition
333 Bryn Mawr Ave.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004-2606
33 E. Minor St.
Emmaus, PA 18098
Organic Materials Review Institute
Eugene, OR 97440-3758
Vegan Organic Network
58 High Lane
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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