Healthy soils, Community and Planet, Biocycle Conference 2011

The plenary sessions of the Biocycle Global 2011 conference in San Diego this week focussed on healthy soils, communities and planet. This topic has been a key objective of the Biocycle organization for 50 years. The two keynote speakers explained how soil is key to most of our ecosystem functions including water purification, food production, and the global carbon and nitrogen cycles. Without healthy soil, we don’t have life. Without addition of organic matter to our soil, we don’t have healthy soil. Composting and recycling organic matter is an important way of recycling organic matter and improving the health of our soil.

Symphony of the Soil is a fascinating web based documentary on the importance of our soil. I recommend it.

A debate unfolded during the plenary sessions – should biosolids be recycled into the soil? One viewpoint is that biosolids (solid residual from wastewater treatment) may contain unknown and untested chemicals that may negatively impact our health, and should be kept out of our soil ecosystems. The main reason for this is that we do not regulate what we through in our toilet, nor do we know the contents of some of our industrial wastewater. The other viewpoint is that biosolids compost contains carbon and plant nutrients, increases water holding capacity and productivity of soil, and has produced incredible ecosystem improvements in mine sites. The net benefit outweighs any risk.

We need to keep this dialogue going – we need to understand and be comfortable with risks, and keep them in perspective. In 2009, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment published a report called “Emerging Substances of Concern in Biosolids” outlining substances that are not currently tested for, and the potential implications of some of these compounds. This report concluded that there may be substances of concern in biosolids, and that the general public needs to understand this. It also cites reports showing that a composting process reduces the concentration of some of these substances.

My own community produces a soil produced from raw biosolids. The website promoting this soil suggests that it has been tested and has been is completely safe for vegetable production. It meets the guidelines for the products that are required to be tested, but we know that there are many other compounds that we deposit into our toilets that are not tested for. I have some unease about recommending this product for vegetable production, although some communities have done this successfully for years. I do not have the same unease with using biosolids compost for landscaping, turf or other non-food growing applications. Biosolids reuse has had incredible benefits in soil and ecosystem restoration and should be promoted for that use.

We all have to be comfortable with the risks that we take with all of our activities, food we eat, and places we go. …

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2 Responses to Healthy soils, Community and Planet, Biocycle Conference 2011

  1. John Stauber says:

    To begin with, to have an honest debate stop calling it “biosolids.” As I revealed in my book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! in 1995, that is a PR euphemism chosen to avoid debate and to fool people into putting sewage sludge on their farms and gardens. No food should be grown in sewage sludge. The “regulations” are a joke. For more information check out our website FoodRightsNetwork.org .

  2. Maureen Reilly says:

    The ‘Sewage Sludge Question’ is still before us.
    Should urban sewered wastes be used to fertilize agricultural soils?
    Home gardens?

    Looking at the big picture: we see the need to protect agricultural soils from industrial wastes, from toxins that can impact crops, groundwater, wildlife, soil biota like earthworms, and microorganisms in the soil that transform soil nutrients into plant available nutrients.

    Already soil is under assault from engineered crops that draw heavily and deplete the soil. Over-pumping groundwater is leaving agricultural land vulnerable to drought (think Ogallala aquifer). Already our food contains less nutrients than it did 30 years ago.

    Some, like Sally Brown, argue that because sewage sludge contains some soil nutrients that we should overlook the risks in spreading the unknown levels of toxins found in sewage sludge on our agricultural lands.

    We have already seen farms destroyed by sludge, livestock killed by sludge, PCB sludges spread on school yards, PFOS sludges in Decatur, groundwater contamination from sludge spreading, well contamination from sludge spreading, even wrongful death suits settled by sludge spreaders.

    But Sally Brown says that people who oppose growing food in sewage wastes are ‘eco terrorists’…and BioCycle magazine gives her money and magazine space to say it.

    Hats off to Stauber, to documentary Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia, and others, for speaking up against the contamination of our food, and our soils. And special thanks to them for holding open the spirit of open dialogue against an industry who wants to spin sludge into our spinach, call sewage sludge ‘soil’, and get us drinking toilet to tap.

    Maureen Reilly
    Sludge Watch

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