Is It Time For A Plant-Based Agriculture?

The compost piles and growing beds on Wilt Bonsall’s farm might lead one to believe that he is an organic farmer. However, careful observation would reveal not only an absence of bags of chemical fertilizer, but also containers of bone meal (ground-up bones) and dried blood. Nor will you find a pile of animal manure anywhere. In fact, for the Last twenty years, Bonsall has been farming veganically, a term and method new even to many vegetarians. He’s taken organic growing one step further by purposefully avoiding the use of any animal by-products (see The Khadighar Farm ).

So, who’s even eating organic foods these days? Apparently far more people than ever. Twenty-three percent of shoppers surveyed by Packer, Vance Publications reported buying organic produce in a six-month period. Mainstream supermarkets must recognize this trend because nearly half of them have joined health food stores and co-ops in offering selections of organic produce. Few health or environmentally conscious people would argue that growing our food with chemicals is more desirable than using organic methods. There are many reasons why vegetarians should buy and support organic options. However, we must also realize that our purchases in many cases help support animal agriculture.

Why do organic growers rely on animal-based fertilizers such as manure and slaughterhouse by-products? They are used for their fertilizer value including essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; and manure’s organic matter helps to improve soil structure. Historically, it has been readily available in rural communities for free or low cost, and growers who also raise animals have their own abundant supply. Organic gardeners and farmers view the breaking down of animal products in a garden a natural component of the organic process.

Although commercial organic growers are encouraged to obtain manure from “organic farms,” this is not required for organic certification. Home gardeners are only likely to obtain organic manure if they live in rural areas, but according to Howard Scheps, Master Gardener on the board of directors of Project Grow in Ann Arbor, Michigan, many of them purchase manure originating from non-organic factory-farmed animals.

The exploding population of livestock in factory farms has resulted in a parallel increase in animal waste, and this excess manure is a tremendous problem. Livestock in the United States produce 230,000 pounds of manure per second, and nitrogen from these wastes is converted into ammonia and nitrates which leach into ground and surface water causing contamination of wells, rivers and streams.

“The factory farmer has a waste product that he has to get rid of, and I want him to bear the full cost of the ground, water, and air pollution it creates. If the expense causes him hardship, then maybe he will try something less environmentally destructive such as growing brussel sprouts,” said Scheps. “When we take or buy manure from animal husbandry farms, they profit. When we get it for free, we are at the very least ameliorating their responsibility and burden. Avoiding manure is the most effective ‘free market’ method of forcing ranchers to internalize these caustic and expensive by products (water and air pollution caused by cattle waste) which are described by economists as ‘externalities.’

What about manure that comes from a cow living in a traditional country barn? In order for a dairy farm to be commercially viable, many animals must exist on a limited amount of land and a waste problem will therefore exist. Although the conditions may not be quite as harsh as they are on factory farms, dairy cows are still forced to maintain pregnancy – lactation cycles, and their mate calves are usually sold to veal producers soon after birth. When they are no longer considered productive, most dairy cows are slaughtered for their flesh and skin. When we take manure from these farms, we support the exploitation of animals.

But How Do You Get Your Nitrogen?

The first question that many people ask when thinking about gardening without the use of animal products is “How can we compensate for not using manure?” Bonsall says that asking such a question is like asking a vegetarian how he or she gets enough protein.

Asking the “compensation question” implies that using animal products for food or fertilizer is optimal. Vegetarians know there are many reasons why a plant-based diet is superior to a meat-based diet, and the ethical reasons for veganics are fairly obvious. Many of us, however, are unaware of all of the other benefits associated with using only plant-based fertilizers.

Fertility And Land Utilization

Inch by Inch, row by row

I’m going to make this garden grow

All it takes is a rake and a hoe

And a piece of fertile ground…

(Pete Seeger)

Soil fertility does not originate from animals; it comes from plants at the bottom of the food chain. Nor does human nutrition originate from animals. When non-vegetarians eat flesh, they obtain nutrients that come from whatever that animal was fed. Obtaining nutrients in this manner is not only unhealthy, but also an inefficient utilization of energy and resources. Meat, for example, contains absolutely none of the beneficial fiber from the animal’s diet, and its protein level is too high. Likewise, when grass is “filtered” through a cow, most of its nitrogen is lost in its urine.

Bonsall explained that if you take grass that could go to feed a cow and instead put it directly into your compost pile, then you can get all the nitrogen you need, in addition to other nutrients not even found in manure. Using the grass yields more organic matter than manure, and subsequently more fertilizer. Tapping fertility at its source is simply a more efficient way to obtain nutrients.

Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Gardener (1996), has gardened organically for more than 40 years, the last 15 of which he has used veganic methods. He was given a grant in the early ’90s to experiment with supplying all the fertilizer needs of a commercial organic farm through composted plant-matter rather than animal manure. Through his research, Coleman determined the number of acres of hay needed to fertilize one acre of food crops. He found a one-to-one ratio of compost-producing ground to food-producing land, and this was in Maine, where the soil is rocky and relatively hard to work.

According to EarthSave International, if animal manure had been used instead of hay, then the space required to fertilize that one acre of garden would be approximateLy four times greater. This takes into account land needed for grazing and crops for animals. Overgrazing has led to erosion and the creation of deserts throughout the world. The World Watch Institute reported that each pound of feedlot steak “costs” about 35 pounds of eroded American topsoit. And what about all of that land needed to grow crops for the animals? The huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the production of animal feed crops end up in surface and ground waters.

Accordingly, organic growers who rely on cows for fertilizer require much more land than those who use veganics. And as the human population increases, dependence on animals for food will result in more forests being cleared and wildlife habitats destroyed in order to create yet more room for grazing and crops for animals. Already, more than 25 percent of Central American rainforests have been destroyed in order to create pasture Land for cattle.

There Are Even More Reasons To Go Veganic!

Coleman’s interest in veganics does not stem from vegetarianism, for he is not vegetarian. He maintains that his interest in veganics comes from the practicality of growing his own soil fertility as opposed to relying on an outside source for manure.

Manure from factory farms continues to be sold commercially, but it tends to be expensive due to the costs associated with treatment, packaging and transportation. It is ironic that manure can be costly in spite of its overabundance! Another reason for the high price of manure, says Scheps, is that the public perceives animal manure as a necessity which manifests itself in demand for the product.

According to Scheps, the growing interest in organic gardening and farming is likely to result in a rise in demand for “organic” manure. He believes that this demand may eventually exceed supply, and that it will no longer be available at the current organic / commercial markup price.

Balanced Soil, Healthy Plants

Taking an excessive amount of certain vitamin supplements can lead to an imbalance and increase susceptibility to disease. Likewise, many growers believe that applying an excess of any amenity – plant or animal based – can potentially result in a soil imbalance, leading to unhealthy plants and insect problems. Coleman and Scheps, while not being able to explain why, have found that veganic amendments do not result in the insect problems that typically plague the gardens of their (non-veganic) organic peers.

Homesteading pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing, best known their book Living the Good Life, gardened veganically for decades. Freya Dinshah, Vice President of the American Vegan Society, recalled a gardening class taught by Helen where an organic grower asked for suggestions on how to deal with insects. Helen was unable to provide an answer because in all her years of farming, she had never experienced the problem.

“Overfeeding the soil can be both wasteful and harmful,” wrote Australian veganic gardener and author of From Soil to Psyche, David Phillips, Ph.D., in a 1973 edition of Ahimsa magazine. “To Lay on a heavy thickness of … manure witl only do to the plant what an excess of food will do to the body – it will cause over-stimulated growth for a time, and then the imbalance witl result in pathological conditions.”

Scheps believes that gardeners have the choice to either enhance or control nature. People can control weeds, for example, by killing them with an herbicide. However, this chemical a destroys microorganisms in the soil, which eventually Leads to unhealthy plants that are more susceptible to disease. The alternative that he views as an enhancement of nature would be to use physical barriers to prevent weeds (i.e. mulching, weed mats, cover crop, solarizing the soil), remove the weed, or simply live with it.

Even gardens with balanced soil may have unwanted insects, but Scheps has found that in such gardens, predators of these insects eventually come. For instance, aphids left alone eventually attract ladybugs which eat them. Unwanted insects may even become beneficial, said Scheps. For example, the parsley worm feeds on parsley leaves, but after the larva turns into the black swallowtail butterfly, it pollinates plants.

Likewise, food grown in balanced soil will not necessarily be blemish free. Scheps believes that the issue is a question of economic damage, and he points out that everyone has a different threshold for imperfection. A home gardener might not mind a few little holes in a leaf of lettuce, but a commercial grower is likely to view that same lettuce as unacceptable for commercial sale.

Scheps points out that rotating crops, cover cropping, non-monocultural practices, avoiding chemicals, and constantly adding organic matter are also critical components in a balanced garden.

Health Issues

The manure from most domestic animals harbors intestinal and parasitic diseases, and may contain antibiotic residues. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ruminant animals are known to harbor E.coli 0157:H7 in their intestines, and this can be transmitted to humans via their feces (see E.coli: New Concerns). Even proponents of manure fertilizers agree that especially raw manure poses a health threat, and they advise that it be handled cautiously.

In Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes (1993), describes how Bovine Spongiform Encephatopathy (BSE) may lead to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans via bone meal used in agricultural production of fruits, vegetables, and grains for human consumption.

Dr. Joseph Gibbs, the U.S. government’s chief researcher on BSE and CJD reported on the television news magazine Dateline (3-14-97) that the few people he’s known personally who’ve died of CJD had one unusual thing in common – they all used bone meal. He pointed out that a relationship between bone meal and CJD, however, has not been scientifically validated.

Even though it has not been proven that bone meal is a health threat, The Royal Horticulture Society in Britain now recommends that gardeners wear masks white using this product. In the U.S., the rendering industry (which makes bone meal) has declared the product safe for use.

The Future of Veganics

“The greatest drawback in veganic agriculture today,” said Bonsall, ‘is that it is hard to find information on the subject.” Gardeners are growing veganically all over the world (many of them not even aware of the term!), but there appears to be a tack of communication between these people. English author Geoffrey Rudd coined the term “veganic” almost 50 years ago, and the method was popularized by Rosa DaLzieL O’Brien in the ’40s. Both O’Brien and her son have written books on veganics, but surprisingly, many growers using only plant-based fertilizers are unfamiliar with their works.

Many vegetarians who grow vegetables in their backyard gardens are probably already using veganic methods. It is just about impossible to locate such produce in supermarkets, however, and this is likely the case all over the world. Pauline Lloyd is entering her third season as a veganic gardener in Great Britain, and she said that although organic produce is readily available in her community, the people she knows who grow veganic food do so only for their own use.

Twenty years ago it was hard to find organic produce and vegan shampoo, but these items are now readily available because as the demand increased, the market responded. There are probably some organic farmers who are already growing veganically, although they may not be advertising their produce as such. If these growers start advertising their food as organic/veganic, then it will help stimulate consumer discussion, and result in a demand. Good things are worth working for, and if we not only practice but also educate, then we may someday find kale and cucumbers in the grocery store labeled “V” for veganic.

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