When I first heard the question, “In your opinion, is buying organic fruits and vegetables vegan?”, I was truly confused and dismayed. For a second I thought that maybe my interlocutor didn’t know what veganism is, or even that all edible plants are vegan. But he was a recognized consultant in the field of nutrition. So I asked him shyly, “What do you mean?” And this was when I first learnt about blood and bone fertilizer, which is made from slaughterhouse by-products and is allowed to be used in certified organic production.
My second question was – why does no one know about this?!
IT ALL STARTS WITH NITROGEN
Combined with light and carbon dioxide, nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for plants. Plants need nitrogen to grow. It’s used to produce proteins, nucleic acids and chlorophyll. A deficiency of nitrogen leads to the destruction of chloroplast that we observe when older leaves are yellowing. Nitrogen as a gas, which is 78% of the air, is chemically inaccessible to plants. It means that plants cannot extract it from the atmosphere. Even though soil contains a lot of this important element, approximately only 5% of it includes NH4+ cation (well known as ammonia) and NO3- anion, which are accessible for plants.
Fertilizers used in traditional agriculture, commonly known as ‘chemistry in our food’, contain three main macronutrients: nitrogen (responsible, as I mentioned, for leaf growth), phosphorus (which helps fruit to develop), and potassium (that enables water to move in plants).
WHAT ELSE DOES NITROGEN DO?
The constantly increasing amount of nitrogen fertilizer being added to the soil infiltrates the atmosphere as nitrous oxide N2O. This gas, with carbon dioxide and methane, are the three most important greenhouse gases that contribute the most to global climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion.
Nitrogen-rich compounds are the major contributor to the serious oxygen depletion of many coastal zones of oceans, lakes and rivers. Aquatic ecosystems respond to nitrogen fertilizers by causing the eutrophication phenomenon, which is a violent increase of phytoplankton and algae. Eutrophication leads to the appearance of dead zones in the world map of aquatic ecosystems. I live next to one of them, on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
These are only two examples of environmental damage caused by nitrogen fertilizers. No wonder people who care for our planet say, “No, I’m not going to buy it.” The alternative to traditional agriculture is organic agriculture, where using nitrogen fertilizers is forbidden.
But nitrogen is necessary for plants to grow, so organic agriculture found an alternative. Absolutely legal.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE BY-PRODUCTS FERTILIZERS
Blood meal and bone meal are dry powders usually made from the blood of slaughtered cows and pigs. Blood meal is very rich in nitrogen and bone meal is a high-phosphorus fertilizer. Blood and bones are the main waste products of meat and dairy production, and organic agriculture found a way to use them. Both are allowed to be used in certified organic agriculture, so gv on food with the labels: ORGANIC and BIO. Blood and bone meal were also used to feed livestock kept in organic farming until bone meal was identified as a factor leading to BSE – mad cow disease. The explanation for using blood and bone meal is that these two fertilizers are natural, they’re not artificial, they’re not ‘chemistry in our food’.
But I have serious doubts. And if you’re aware of the conditions of factory farming you probably have them too. Consider all the antibiotics and hormones given to animals to cause their abnormal growth. These medicines infiltrate the soil and feed the plants, as is the case with animal manure, which was proven to transport antibiotics. These drugs can accumulate in plants and end up on our plates, especially in spinach, tomatoes, and radishes, which we eat raw. Over time this can lead to us overusing antibiotics, which reduces their ability to cure infections. So those of us who refuse to eat animal products for health reasons are still being exposed to harmful substances by consuming plants grown using animal based fertilizers.
Personally, I’m a vegan mostly for ethical reasons. I don’t support the industry which exploits animals and leads to their constant suffering. Slaughterhouse by-products on the agricultural market have become a calculable product. Paradoxically, the conclusion is that by purchasing organic veggies fertilized with blood or bone meal bought from butchers, people who consciously refuse to eat meat support factory farming. It’s totally not what we had in mind when choosing a plant based diet and healthier, organic eating.
Have you heard about veganic agriculture? As far as I know it’s getting more and more popular in USA and Canada, but unfortunately not yet in Europe. Veganic is the abbreviation of vegan organic agriculture. When buying veganic crops and products we can be sure that no slaughterhouse by-products were used in the production process. Moreover, veganic agriculture is never associated with stock farming, nor with any other form of animal exploitation. If you’re a citizen of United States or Canada, for more information go to Go Veganic Network, where you can find a list of farmers who grow their crops according to veganic principles.
Also, there’s always a reliable and safe solution to be sure what we’re really eating. The longer I’m vegan, the more animal components I find in products around me. Reading and understanding the labels is a must when we want to know what we really eat. On the other hand I’m becoming more and more aware of how huge the slaughterhouse by-product market really is. The only way to learn how your organic veggies and fruits were fertilized is by asking the producers. So go for it and ask distributors about blood or bone meal used for growing organic plants.