Friday, April 10, 2015

Are your veggies vegetarian?

In this article, Shamini examines what lies within the soil where vegetables are grown. You may be surprised. Most vegetables are not exactly 'vegetarian' in nature.

By guest contributor Shamini

What kind of a silly question is that? Of course veggies are vegetarian. Duh!

Not. It depends on individual perspective and acceptance.

I really enjoy going to the grocer to see an array of colourful vegetables neatly arranged. They look so pleasing to the eye. The colours, the freshness, the scent of fresh vegetables. Sometimes I make trips to markets just to see these fresh colourful produce.

I recently started growing my own veggies on my tiny little patio. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I was expecting a Jack-and-the-beanstalk-experience. Drop a couple of seeds and voila, my vegetables grow overnight. I had to do a lot of research, bugging people sometimes and also came across many ‘owh’ moments. Such as, the amount of space needed to grow them. That was a big problem to me. I don’t have a big open garden with a flat land to grow my vegetables. My apartment is on a hill and I have to climb at least 30 steps uphill to get to the main door. Whatever space there was, is already occupied by other flower plants, shrubs and fruit trees (I never got a chance to try any fruit as the parrots, cockatoos, squirrels and bats eat them all). So not having ground space was a major issue for me. Other ‘owh’ moments; you cannot grow them next to other big plants as the bigger guy will absorb all the water and nutrients, seedlings will take at least 3-4 weeks to grow, then another 8-12 weeks before you can get your first harvest, I needed so much more soil and pots than I initially thought, I would need fertilisers as well, I need to water them every day (sometimes twice if needed), that I will have to tolerate garden lizards, earth worms and creepy crawlies, the list goes on.

So one day I bribed my friend with a scrumptious breakfast of 2 slices of three-day-old bread and dragged her (I needed her car actually) to the local warehouse store to get things started for my BIG project of growing beetroot, buk choy and rainbow carrots. First things first, we need soil. We walked down the unending aisle of various types of soil and fertiliser (nope, not gonna talk about the stench). I noticed almost all the bags of soil were labelled Blood & Bone (B&B). I assumed it was a brand or certain range of soil. Ignored it. Being a newbie, I approached one of the Experts (more like grab hold of that poor innocent lady before another person does) and started bombarding her with the gazillion questions I had about embarking on this.

With a big ready-to-help smile, as we walked to the other end of the aisle, she advised what I need to get, which type of pots (no ground space, so opting for teeny tiny pots), how to grow them, what fertiliser is required, what vegetable ‘vitamins’ required and so on. We stopped at the end of the aisle and she slapped a big bag of soil labelled Blood & Bone and said you’ll need this. Curious, I asked her what’s B&B. Animal blood & bone. You mean real, real blood and real, real bone? With a raised eyebrow she said “Uh-huh”. I cringed at the thought that the soil had blood in it. I could almost immediately imagine fresh animal blood and crushed bones added into the bag of soil (I’m sure it wasn’t done just literally, it must have been treated in some way, but my over-active mind couldn’t stop but visualise literally blood poured into it). Honestly, I gave her the longest “ewwww” and the worst twisted face I could give. Why on earth would you add blood? I said no, no, no. I’m vegetarian! I want to grow my vegetables organically. I can’t have blood in my soil. That’s disgusting!!

Apparently having B&B and fish meal in the soil whether it’s for growing flowers, trees, fruits, or vegetables, is a norm is Australia. Some organic version still had B&B in it. The B&B comes from abattoirs and slaughter houses. It’s added to soil to make it ‘richer’ and ‘healthier’. It’s good for growing seedlings too. I said no thanks, I’ll take the organic soil without B&B in it.

I’ve not always been a vegetarian. I decided to become a vegetarian 16 years ago. 3 years later I went back to eating fish and chicken. But I was never a big fan of eating non-veg from young and maintained a similar vegetarian diet 99% of the time and having an earful from my dad once in a while for not eating meat. I moved to Australia in December 2012, and decided to become a vegetarian again and lead a healthier lifestyle (that didn’t stop my dad from lecturing me over the phone!). Why? Apart from health reasons, I became more and more nauseous with the sight, taste and smell of meat. For ethical reasons as well, I decided not to eat meat any more. So learning that my veggies here are grown in soil that has blood in it, made me squirm. That means, the veggies I’m eating here are not really vegetarian. It was grown in soil that has B&B mixed in it. That’s crazy. Switching to organic vegetables isn’t gonna help because even organic soil / farming has B&B in it. Do vegetarians here know about it? What about the Jains and Buddhists who practise very strict vegetarianism, do they know their veggies are grown in B&B soil? What about vegans? Do even the non-vegetarians know? I’m from Malaysia and I’ve never heard of B&B added to soil. This entire concept is totally alien to me. A couple of calls to organic farmers in Singapore & Malaysia confirm that it’s not a practice there.

Feeling dissatisfied with my recent discovery, couple days later I called up an organic farmer in rural NSW to have a chat. Apparently not all organic farmers use B&B but some do. Different farmers have different regime. John explained that there isn't a rule set by the government, thus farmers are not required to declare or identify it on packaging, or in any of their marketing/ advertising efforts. In addition, B&B is also not a prescribed ingredient (as in a "must have") in growing veggies. That is why some use it, some don’t. You will never be able to tell the difference between a vegetable grown in B&B versus one that's not. John gave me a piece of advice; if you don’t want B&B in your veggies, don't buy organic then. I said, what?! He further explained that B&B is expensive, and it’s mostly used in organic farming. Commercial farming uses chemicals because they can’t afford B&B. But then again, it's not the standard. Some still use and some don't. John doesn’t use it on his veggies, but use it for his fruit trees instead. I asked why? “Oh, B&B stinks so badly when it rains and my dog would dig out the veggies and soil. That’s why.” (!!)

Impact of Blood & Bone on your health

The whole principle of organic farming is to use products that are organic in nature that feeds the soil itself. A healthy soil will produce healthy veggies, without the use of chemicals. Hence, that's why people / farmers use organic compost, mushroom compost, B&B, etc. The B&B doesn't get into the veggies apparently. The B&B feeds the soil - the blood for its nitrogen (for leaf growth) and the bone for its phosphorus (for root development). It’s meant to slowly release the nutrients into the soil. It promotes micro-organisms and encourages earthworms. According to John, there’s only a 0.000001% of the blood getting into the veggies.

What are the health impacts? How can B&B make the soil healthy in an “organic” way when there are so much of antibiotics and growth hormones injected / fed to animals? That stays in the blood stream and you transfer that back into the soil and use that to grow your veggies. Some chemicals must have been added to treat the B&B before adding into the soil. Again, how organic is the organic soil then?

It differs if animals die and disintegrate and returns to soil, like squirrels in farms, birds, insects, etc. That’s a natural process of nature. “Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems. Everything dies, and without the processes of decomposition and decay the world would quickly become not only overflowing with the remains of dead plants and animals, but also would experience a decline in new growth, due to a shortage of nutrients, that would be locked up and unavailable in the dead forms.” ( This statement made sense. Rather than adding chemicals, by composting you allow nature to take control and do what they do. It feeds new growth. But is adding just B&B from abattoirs the same?


The concept of permaculture is basically creating an environment that mimics nature and I believe this is a very sustainable way of producing food for future generations to come. I had the pleasure of chatting with the very pleasant President of Permaculture Sydney North, Margaret Mossakowska.  Being a vegetarian herself, she understood my concerns of having B&B in the soil of veggies. There are certain minerals that’s required which is only available from animal products such as phosphorus. But instead of entirely depending on it, she use chicken feathers as an alternative. If you’re concerned about growth hormones and antibiotics that could end up in the B&B, and if you’re not opposed to B&B, there’s an option of getting B&B from a company who only uses road-kills of wild animals. Wild animals don’t have that problem of injected hormones and antibiotics, so you get a ‘cleaner’ & ‘safer’ version of B&B. If you absolutely do not want any animal by-products, then you need to look at Vegan Organic Farming. Sadly, there aren’t that many around and quite difficult to get veggies from a vegan farm which is mostly small scale. Margaret has extended an invitation for me to join an upcoming meeting to meet other enthusiasts alike to discuss this further. She said; “people are your resources”. Talk to them to learn more about this and how you can grow your veggies the way you want and decide what goes into it.

A hugelkultur raised garden bed

Let’s break this down to something easier to understand. In conventional agriculture / farming; get land > sow > add soil > plant seeds > chuck in herbicides, pesticides, whatever-cides > plant grows > harvest.  In permaculture; get land > sow > add soil > plant various types of plants, fruits, vegetables > plant grows > harvest. Quite similar, but not. Different vegetation bring different bugs and fungi; if you don’t use any pesticides. Having these growing in the soil it keeps the soil healthy without the use of any chemical. You also have animals on the farms like goats and chicken. For example the chicken provides labour (scratch over beds after crops are harvested), fertiliser (chicken manure for soil) and pest control (eats bugs). They eventually die and return to soil and feeds the soil back. Different plants require different nutrients. When they die and decompose, they give back different nutrients to the soil. Water used here are harvested from rain. Bees and butterflies pollinates your plants. Birds will eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. So everything in permaculture has a role to play. Everything turns out done in harmony with nature. There isn’t always a need for B&B.

How can we get our veggies grown clean and free from any animal derived matter?

  1. Grow your own veggies. (At least you know what goes into it and have a control of it.)
  2. Buy your veggies from Vegan Organic Farms. (But this is quite restrictive, how accessible are they in your area?)
  3. Hydroponic method of growing veggies (but this require adding a lot of nutrient solutions into the water. Would that equate to adding chemicals?)

When I found out about the B&B, for a week or two I totally avoided veggies and only ate beans and legumes. Looking at veggies reminded me of animal blood and I felt so yuck. But then after some time I just gave in. I’m a vegetarian and I need my veggies. I have accepted that some veggies (probably almost all) are grown on B&B soil. So if I want to avoid B&B entirely I shouldn’t go for organic veggies. I’ll have to settle with commercial farmed veggies which may have chemicals and pesticides and at times B&B too. Unless, I grow my own veggies in my little patio at home.

The decision to embark on this little project has taught me so much and has connected me with so many people. I’m also looking into doing a short stint in a farm in the near future to learn more about organic farming, vegan farming and permaculture.

So, when you next purchase your veggies, ask your grocer, “Are your veggies vegetarian?”

About the Author
Shamini works in emergency medical response and currently resides in Sydney, Australia. Through her work, helping people has been a great motivation to her, in addition to bringing another purpose to her life since it aligns with her values and provides her with a chance to make a difference. She is also into crafts, arts, cooking, hiking, long drives as well as having a strong interest in spirituality. She has plans to continue growing her own vegetables at home and getting more involved with permaculture.

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