Compost: Animal or Vegetable?


Here in Israel we questioned whether to grow our organic vegetables with animal fertilizer or non-animal compost material. Our land is tough, arid, hard earth that has not been tilled in literally thousands of years. Animal compost increases the productivity of the earth twenty fold. Yet we wonder if on a non-physical, vibratory level we are ingesting the goat or chicken remains as if we were eating the animal itself. 

We turned to a local farmer who explained to us that according to Jewish law, humans and animals were created as completely different beings for different purposes. God created animals to enhance our ability to live on the land. They were created as willing and blessed workers for us. Caring for animals and respecting them greatly helps the development of character. The calm submission of animals to the will of their Creator is an effective reminder and model for us, which at some times can be followed.

Firstly, Judaism teaches that humans have a soul (neshama) on a level that animals do not. A human's soul persists after the death of the individual but the lower soul (nefesh) of an animal is extinguished.  Humans are recognized as having an aspect of animalness, which is more or less dominant depending on the human's striving for spiritual purity. Nevertheless, the presence of the human soul is the overriding factor. There is no way a human is ever going to become totally animal-like no matter what the diet. Incorporating aspects of animalness into your bodies through animal compost is not a well founded idea in Judaism.

Jews are permitted to eat the flesh of properly slaughtered fit (kosher) animals. The Jewish practice of removing the blood of an animal before it is eaten is sufficient to eliminate the potential for becoming animal-like when eating animal flesh.

Secondly, concerning the qualities of manure, many people consider dung a filthy thing. The concept of manure as filth is built into our consciousness from our experience using flush toilets.  But actually manure is a valuable resource, without which we would not be alive.

Plants are constantly nurtured by animal manure. Even when decomposed vegetable matter nourishes the plants, that matter has passed through the bodies of bacteria, fungi, and innumerable creepy-crawly bugs. Otherwise it would never get to the form that plants can take up. Are worms less disgusting than goats?

Considering manure as a resource, why not compost the manure of healthy people who eat only organic vegetarian food? This is the way the Hunzas and other sustainable societies have tapped into perpetual nutrient cycling. It's important to remember that if we take nutrients out of the earth in the form of plants, we must replenish them, or our soil will soon become depleted.

In striving for pure food we must not deny the incredible natural, beneficial energies, beings, and systems that were created to sustain us. The earth is earthy, after all, because its fecundity comes from its diversity of beings all working together for the mutual good. 

Thirdly, there are stark contrasts between the use of animals in Israel and in Japan, for example. Japan has a wet, relatively cool climate and a mountainous island geography that cannot support agriculture with large animals. Because the soil is rich and rainfall is plentiful--plant-based organic matter is abundant--there is no pressing need to use animal manure composts as fertilizer. Using large animals as a protein source is not necessary because fish and shellfish are so readily available.

Until their recent secularization, the Japanese abhorred the thought of eating beef. This comes from Buddhism, which in turn had its roots in Hinduism where the cow is considered too sacred to eat. I think this is an example of an ecological necessity evolving into a religious belief.

Summer in Japan is a time of plentiful food. The cold winters are a time of want. That's why fermentation of vegetables is so important in Japan.

In the mountainous climates of Israel, winter is a time of plentiful food while summer is relatively lacking. Here, grazing animals have a unique capacity to make grasses that grow in the wet winter and dry out during the summer into food for people. When they graze, the animals can transmute the energy stored in dried grass into milk or meat, which complement plant based foods during the summer. They make something useful from poor mountain land that is not arable for field crops.

Thus the ecological differences between Japan and Israel gave rise to the different attitudes concerning the benefits of animals. Importing ideas rooted in a different ecology does not make ecological sense here in Israel.

Permaculture training teaches that design principles for sustainable living have to be applied differently in different climates and terrains. I see how the Arabs and settled Bedouin farm on the land near here.  Animals figure quite prominently in their sustainable living patterns.

Turning for help to the US macrobiotic community, Sheldon and I asked some friends for their opinions on this topic. Here is a response from Anne Mark in California, and our farmer’s rejoinder item by item:

Anne Mark:  The spreading of disease such as salmonella can occur by using animal composts. 

Farmer:  Theoretically it can occur, but it's important to clearly distinguish between raw manure and composted manure. The two materials are as different as night and day!  There are many pathogens in raw manure. These pathogens usually live in the environment of an animal's or human's body. Once they enter the outer world, they are vulnerable to heat.  A thermophilic compost pile, which is almost always used in commercial composting, can reach 130-150 degrees F, temperatures at which pathogens die in minutes. They are also vulnerable to cold, and to periods of time in an unsuitable environment. Finally, they are most often just eaten up by the other microorganisms in a compost heap. This is called biophagy.

In some research studies, manure was deliberately inoculated with various pathogens and then composted. The pathogens were found not to survive the composting process in numbers that could cause infection. Once the compost is mixed with the soil, even pathogens that may have survived die off since the soil is so different from the host animals or humans. The research is clear.

AM:  Another problem with using animal material is that the animals are fed all sorts of chemicals that will be prevalent in the vegetation that grows from it. Therefore the humans who consume it can ingest this as well.

BT: The "chemicals" that animals are fed are either pesticide and/or food herbicide residuals, hormones or other drugs. None of these things, with a few glaring exceptions of herbicides in the US, survive the composting process. Compost microorganisms are so amazing that they are known to be able to sanitize nuclear waste. There is no reliable research proving that humans who consume animal material compost ingest those chemicals as well. The complex molecules of these "chemicals" are broken down into elements or simple compounds like nitrates before they can be taken up into plant tissues through the roots. Plants simply can't take up anything more complicated than the simplest molecules.

AM:  Animal "organics" [wastes] create a soil imbalance.

BT:  There is no imbalance.  All composted animal manure (and plant residues) have different proportions of the three major plant nutrients, N, P and K. If compost is analyzed for its nutrient content and nutrient release rate, the soil is analyzed for its nutrient content, and the nutrient needs of a particular crop are taken into account, compost can be applied to the soil in a perfectly balanced way to meet the exact needs of the crop. The same goes for secondary nutrients and micronutrients.  With a lot of careful checking, a farmer can provide a very healthy soil for any particular crop using any organic fertilizer.

I believe that plant compost is healthier than animal fertilizer over the long run because animal manure is not local unless all the animal’s food is grown locally. Anytime organic matter is transported from place to place and then used to amend the soil, it takes nutrients from its original place to the place it is used. If organic material is frequently transported away from its source, then the source soil will be depleted over time and will not be sustainable. It would be better if the nutrients required to enrich local soil were drawn from that same soil as much as possible. 

There is a good book, Veganic Gardening—The Alternative System for Healthier Crops by Kenneth Dalziel O'Brien.  It explains many of these things and how to compost veganically, meaning step by step.  

There are crops known to the bio-intensive gardening community called compost crops. These crops produce organic matter by drawing up the minerals present in the underlying bedrock. Because they have deep roots and the capacity to draw up nutrients they are called "nutrient pumps." This takes a lot of time, soil, and investment in suitable imported seeds. But it can be done!