Organic Isn’t Vegan

Organic Not VeganEDIT (8/28/2017): My views on Organic have adjusted a bit recently to be more charitable towards the practice. Certainly the appeal to nature includes animals and precludes “unnatural” technological solutions. That contrived dichotomy can have harmful implications as I write about below but I don’t mean this to be anti-Organic necessarily. A post on that is in my queue. ]
You can hardly swing a bunch of kale without hitting a vegan product that is certified organic these days. Why is this, I wonder? I mean, we should all know by now that organic farming is just like regular agriculture except it uses what is “natural” as its measure. What is naturally derived, without humans (who themselves are a product of nature, BTW), isn’t a guarantee of safeness or goodness. Organic agriculture uses pesticides, isn’t healthier, and not necessarily better for the environment than modern agriculture. But what does this have to do with veganism?

Vegans are typically astute ethical consumers who carefully weigh the consequences of their purchases. They are careful to reduce the chances of participating in any form of animal exploitation mostly by avoiding certain products. There are products made from animal bodies themselves, like flesh. Products that are made by animal bodies, like milk. And animal-derived products that, while not ingredients of a final product, are used in processing (for example, bone char filtration in the sugar-making process). As I’ve written in the past, this can go on to an absurd degree, but I’d concede that, in general, vegans focus is on the most obvious animals products. And, by paying such close attention to these details, many vegans feel that they are ‘voting with their dollars.’

And then there are organic products with their health halo, which might lend a glow to vegans’ ethical calculations in their consumer decisions. Many vegans seem unaware how this label tramples upon their cause. Let’s look at some of the issues:

Vegans love to advocate their cause because it means fewer animals are being slaughtered with each new adherent. Lowering the barriers to entry is something many vegans would support. But, since organic food limits itself to a relative standard of natural purity, there are added costs in producing organic food. Modern biotech agricultural solutions can help reduce expensive inputs and labor for farmers, thereby reducing cost to consumers. Inexpensive, tasty vegan food options are a win for the cause. If there were a vegan product that tasted just as good and cheaper than the animal version, what consumer wouldn’t opt for the vegan version? Because organic foods are more expensive, this makes veganism that much less possible and practical1 for no good reason at all.

Animal Care
While vegans avoid animal products altogether, they also care about welfare issues and wish to reduce animals’ suffering. For organic farms though, antibiotics that provide relief for sick animals & vaccines made with genetic engineering to protect them from disease are not allowed. Instead, health practices for animals in their care rely in part (or mandatorily first) upon quack homeopathic remedies. It’s one thing to make a personal choice to employ such remedies upon yourself, but to impose that upon another creature without regard to proven scientific efficacy is a despicable practice no vegan should stand behind. Withholding modern medical treatments from animals within organic’s care is worse than the unnatural bogeyman. It’s cruel and unjust, it’s not vegan.

Plants require nitrogen. Specifically, plants that are farmed for people to eat require nitrogen-containing fertilizer. Even though our atmosphere contains a whole lotta nitrogen, plants can’t use it unless it’s “fixed” into a form that is available to them biologically. Agriculture struggled with finding abundant sources of nitrogen until we figured out a way to harvest that from the atmosphere. But this synthetic fertilizer is not natural enough for organic, so it is forbidden. Much organic-allowed fertilizer is in the form of animal parts such as fish, blood and bone meal, and cow manure. The manure is interesting because the only reason it has nitrogen in the first place is because it’s in the non-organic feed. Somehow nitrogen becomes more natural once it’s passed through the bodies of animals so they’re cheating on their own standards. Is your head spinning yet?

If animal-derived products used in processing like bone char with sugar or isinglass with beer is a vegan issue then maybe Veganic is the only option. But that I think is the wrong direction and misses the point of veganism. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the use of non-animal-derived inputs while maximizing the outputs? To do that we should implement every tool at our disposal but that’s not the way organic rolls. Manure-based fertilizer is animal-derived, not vegan.

Genetically modifying organisms has already proved useful in medicine by replacing animal-derived insulin for diabetics with a synthetic one made with genetically modified bacteria. Vaccines made through GM plants or insect cells instead of chicken eggs is another example of how this technology can help reduce reliance on animal products.

In matters of agriculture though, this technology can provide unique sources for nutrients that vegans may lack. An example like omega-3 biofortified grain can both make it easier to get that nutrient from food without supplementation and also offset sourcing from fish. Many farmers use broad-spectrum insecticides, which kill indiscriminately, regardless of whether or not a bug is harmful to the crops. Plants that are genetically modified to produce their own narrow-spectrum pesticide, like Bt corn, kill fewer insects by targeting only those that pose a threat. Or what about avoiding killing insects altogether by creating a plant that can emit an odorless pheromone that scares away pests? We’re just scratching the surface as to what this technology can bring, and vegans would do well to embrace genetic modification. Genetically modifying crops to produce nutrients that are commonly derived from animals, or to reduce our reliance on pesticides, will reduce needless animal deaths.

Genetic modification is a safe, precise form of plant breeding, yet is deemed unacceptable by organic standards. Scrambling plants’ DNA to force random mutations with radiation or chemicals is just fine by them though. Are you noticing a pattern here? Supporting organic is a missed opportunity to leverage technology to grow the vegan movement.

Nutrition Supplements
While the research on DHA is still coming in RDs are recommending DHA supplementation for vegans to err on the safe side. Usually this nutrient is acquired from the flesh of fish but science has figured out a way to bypass the middle-fish and go straight to the sources: algae. It’s too bad that this isn’t natural enough for Organic. They recommend getting it from fish instead. Fishes are animals last time I checked. Not vegan.

The inefficiencies of eschewing modern technology means organic farming falls more and more behind modern agriculture in terms of yields. Getting less product from the land requires taking more land away from local wildlife to match the yields of modern farming. Doing more with less is a driving factor for agriculture and who doesn’t want that? Using genetic modification we could, for example, engineer plants to even be more efficient with nitrogen. Fungicides, composting, tillage are other practices that aren’t quite environmentally ideal. Striving to leave a small footprint as well as affect fauna as little as possible should be a concern for all vegans.

Veganism Trumps Organicism
Vegans may mean well when they buy organic products, but this dubious designation should be better scrutinized to discover how it undermines and cashes in on the vegan cause. What’s needed are rational decisions and sound scientific policy, not mythical “natural” appeals of faith-based agriculture such as Organic. By its very definition, Organic is a set of limitations. There is nothing organic can do that modern agriculture can’t yet there is a whole lot organic limits itself from. The “conventional” vs organic divide is a false dichotomy and causes unnecessary confusion, harm, and stunts progress for the movement. If veganism is a credible and noble way to live why is there this organic label slapped on most of the vegan products? Why are vegans being unfairly burdened with this tax? How is that helping the animals for which the cause is supposedly focused upon? Vegans are being suckered and their pockets being picked by BigOrganic Agribusiness. Ditch those archaic organic products already and support safe, innovative, and accessible food products for all.

The point I’m trying to make here though isn’t so much that organic itself is any less or more vegan really, but that the dogma must stop. Ditch the baloney!  It’s time vegans use their heads along with their hearts and make smart, reasoned choices for the considerations of their earthling cousins. If exploiting animals is natural enough for organic standards then maybe vegans should reconsider their bedfellows.

Further Reading:
Henry I. Miller exposes the disappointing truth about organic agriculture. | Project Syndicate
Organic Pesticides | The Farmer’s Daughter USA
Some Common Organic Fertilizers EARTH-KIND Gardening | Aggie Horticulture

  1. “possible and practical” qualifiers of veganism as defined by the Vegan Society

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