So I've been thinking about manure a bit (unfortunately).  It started when I made my latest attempt to plant a vegetable garden.  Last time I tried this, I wound up with a very tired daughter, 3 green beans, one tomato, and a gigantic cucumber.  I wanted to do better, so sprang for the cattle manure at the garden shop. 

On the way home, the stench in the car stimulated thoughts about whether the manure was really a good idea.  Though putting manure in soil doesn't feel like putting a hamburger in your mouth, it isn't much different.  You are supporting the meat industry when you pay for byproducts of the meat industry. 

Which got me thinking:  should vegans buy organic vegetables?  It seems not, unless they're specifically marked "vegan" and grown in soil enriched by vegetable matter.

Which got me thinking some more: why not human manure?  There's no shortage of it.  In a vegan utopia, would that be the solution to the problem of soil enrichment?

This seemed really pie-in-the-sky, but then I went to a lecture about genetically modified food.  Dr. Pia Vogel gave a very balanced presentation of the pros and cons of GM agriculture, industrial agriculture, and organic agriculture.  A worry about organic agriculture is that farmers are starting to fertilize with human manure.

They are?  The organic vegetables at Whole Foods are grown in our crap?  Yes, she said that the city of Houston takes sewage and turns it into organic fertilizer pellets. Now, from what I can see, the stuff is not actually being used yet on organic farms.  The Houston crap is spread on grazing land and used in landfills.  But apparently there are companies that do sell human "biosolids" to organic farmers and gardeners like me.

Eww? Dr. Vogel said we should worry about human poop containing drugs, hormones, and antibiotics we consume.   So: not actually such a good idea.  But animals are fed all that stuff too, except the very small number raised organically. So using animal manure isn't smart either, unless you happen to have your own private cow.

Horrifyingly enough, it's starting to look like the perfectly ethical gardener would skip all the manure, and choose between low-yield vegetable compost and inorganic fertilizer. Or even make use of GM crops (some day available to gardeners?), which can be easier on the environment.

The head spins. Meanwhile, the garden has been planted.  It turns out the stench was not from the cattle manure, but from composted cotton plants we had bought as well.  All odors have now disappeared and we have shoots!  This year I am bound and determined to have a vegetable garden that actually yields vegetables.

By any means necessary!


Anonymous said...

So I'm a vegan and I don't see any objection to using manure for gardening. I think its fine for several reasons, but let me run one by you. This is how I feel about all animal byproducts (bone char in sugar, etc.): commercial quantities of these things only exist because we have a commercial meat industry. Demand is not sufficient on its own such that extra animals are being (or would be under other circumstances) raised inhumanely or killed just to obtain their manure/bone char. Reducing consumption of byproducts might quite literally have no impact on the number of animals raised in unhappy conditions.
Ergo, if we are going to have a meat industry any way, why not use the whole animal? Seems wasteful not to. And part of being vegan is caring about the environment and conserving resources, etc.
I claim that if the vegan movement ever became successful enough that factory-farming went into a steep decline, there would be substitute inputs for bone char and fertilizer that would arise to meet demand.
This is based on basically zero empirical knowledge of where manure and bone char, etc. come from (maybe there are terrifyingly sadistic farms where they just raise cows to get their manure and then torture them to death but don't sell the meat? Doubt it, but I don't really know).
Good argument? Bad argument?


Jean Kazez said...

Here's what I was thinking (but I don't know for sure that I'm right)--If I pay for a very abundant byproduct like manure, that extra profit for the company allows it to sell meat for a little less. When prices are lower, people buy more. So buying cattle manure could increase the number bred and killed, even if the manure would just go to waste if you didn't buy it. Just speculating...

Wayne said...

Jean- holy beejeezus.... I'm already on board with consuming animal by-products, because in some ways I can't avoid them (gelatin coating in my medications, bone char in sugar, leather in my belts and shoes.... okay I could avoid probably the last three... but not in a reasonably comfortable way. I've also heard that bone char might be in the inks used to print my textbooks that I use.... so...)

But you seem to have a good argument here against utilizing manure, if by-products are morally objectionable. If by-products merely subsidize like you're suggesting, and its a significant subsidy, then there might be some serious grounds against organic veggies.

Maybe I need to spend some more time thinking of a reasonable defense for by-products.

btw I think all waste that ends up being fertilizer must be heat treated to kill e.coli, including human waste. So it may be distasteful to think about it, but there is nothing wrong with it. Heat treating also kills any weed seeds and such.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess its really an empirical question that neither of us have the expertise on. I kind of suspect that profits on manure are not high (they might even be zero?) and that they don't really subsidize meat sales but I don't have any evidence to support that belief. And I think it would vary among different byproducts.

I'm also not sure that the interaction of the sales price of two products by the same producer can be predicted so easily. It may just be that the price of meat is completely set by the interaction of the supply and demand curves for meat and is independent of other profit sources for the cattle rancher. And by the same logic, it might "support" the meat industry to buy vegetables from a producer who raises cattle in one field and grows carrots in the next one. Following that to its conclusion leads to boycotts of a lot of companies in a way that may not be feasible. At the very least, it seems to me that the implications of these things are sufficiently unclear that there is not a positive obligation on vegans (or those persuaded by their logic) to forego certain meat byproducts.


Jean Kazez said...

David, I agree--I really don't know. It would be great to get some input from an agriculture economist. What you see about carrots (etc) makes a lot of sense.

Wayne, I wonder about the issue of hormones, antibiotics, etc, that are in both human and animal manure. Do they really retain their potency, even after all the heat-treating, processing, etc?

I hate the way ethics in this area requires so much empirical knowledge!