Mongolian “Bone Factories”
In the first few months of 2010, severe winter weather killed nearly a quarter of Mongolia’s livestock. Not only was the event disastrous for many herders’ livelihoods, but the resultant piles of rotting carcasses polluted soil and water resources, posing health risks to surviving animals and humans. The United Nations administered a four million-dollar cash-for-carcass burial program to supplement the cleanup efforts of herders and the government. Although I research winter disasters, I had never considered alternative strategies for carcass disposal. Then I got the chance to talk about my research on Mongolian TV, and a businessman who saw the program—I will call him Batbayar—got in touch to share his “bone factories” solution.
Few locals or foreigners are aware of Mongolia’s small number of “bone factories,” which turn animal remains into bone meal and tallow, laundry soap and livestock feed. Nevertheless, such operations in Mongolia date back to the socialist period (1924–1990), during which time the country underwent rapid modernization along Soviet lines. A Mongolian friend of mine who grew up in the 1980s remembers being tasked by her school to collect bones that she believes were then processed into “some kind of fat” that could be used in soap. Batbayar, who owns multiple bone factories at present, feels that their potential role in mitigating the economic and health impacts of livestock mortality to winter disasters could be significant, and laments that such large quantities of useful animal remains currently go to waste. If small factories existed throughout rural areas, they would provide herders with incentives to clean up carcasses following a disaster. As an extra benefit, they would also offer supplemental income to rural Mongolians who slaughter and butcher animals on a regular basis.
Domestic and regional markets for bone products already exist and could probably be expanded. Bone meal is an alternative to chemical fertilizer, and the Mongolian government is emphasizing agricultural intensification. China, South Korea, and Japan could also potentially take in large quantities of Mongolian bone meal for farming. As well as being used to enrich soil, the meal can provide the supplemental calcium required in poultry laying operations. And as mentioned above, bone fat can be used in soap, animal feed, and more.
Bone factories in Mongolia can be put in perspective through comparisons with rendering plants elsewhere. The Unites States relies on such operations to get rid of enormous quantities of slaughterhouse waste, expired meat, euthanized pets, zoo animals, road kill and more. They process not just bones but also flesh, fur, etc., and produce bone meal, tallow, and additives for pet food, livestock feed, and even human food, though regulations strictly define which inputs are allowed to be used for which intended outputs. Mongolian bone factories are not, on the other hand, comparable with Indian “bone factories,” illegal operations that process human remains into classroom skeletons for use in first-world educational facilities.
While the idea of bone factories strikes some Mongolians as repugnant, others that I have spoken with believe that they perpetuate the Mongolian tradition of using every part of a slaughtered animal. As well as consuming all the edible meat and organs, rural families typically save the hides of slaughtered goats and sheep to sell on trips to the city. Animals that die of natural causes, however, are generally left to nature and scavengers, but there are exceptions. Mongolians harvest the valuable fleeces of lambs that do not survive the spring, which will line the next year’s winter robes. (Slaughtering lambs is forbidden.) During winter disasters, some herders in my research area in the Gobi Desert have collected the skins of dead goats and sheep, and even used the dead animals’ meat in soups for the remaining animals. (Meat and dairy products are considered to be good nourishment for weak and hungry livestock.) While bones from slaughtered animals as well as deceased animals are typically treated as garbage, at least after any marrow has been sucked out, they are sometimes put to various traditional uses. The ashes of burned bones can be used as dietary supplements for livestock. Exposing livestock to the smoke of burning bones is also considered to provide health benefits. A book entitled Getting through Hard Times: Advice for Herders, published in 2010 by the office of the governor of Bayankhongor Province, D Amarsanaa, states that “it’s very good to ‘smoke’ horses with cattle bones (especially those with marrow) and to smoke cattle, sheep, and goats with horse bones.” Finally, specific bones, such as sheep ankle bones and scapula, are used for recreation and divination.
Mongolian tradition provides precedents for putting all parts of an animal to use, and using existing factories as models, rural Mongolians could establish small operations throughout the country, if they so choose. Batbayar is spreading the word on potential income generation from bones and carcasses left over after a disaster. Development organizations that encourage rural Mongolians to create small businesses to generate supplemental income have so far not specifically promoted bone factories. However, I would not be surprised if rural entrepreneurs were to invest in such operations, or if the government were to offer funding for pilot projects. Although I cannot claim to know that rural bone factories would be a success, it is useful to think about alternatives to expensive cleanup operations, and plans that offer to turn waste into profit seem especially promising.
Annika Ericksenis a doctoral candidate at the Universty of Arizona. Her interests include environmental and applied anthropology. Her dissertation work focuses on the politics of responsibility in post-socialist Mongolia and is funded by Fulbright-Hays, the American Center for Mongolian Studies, the American Philosophical Society, and the Philanthropic Educational Organization.