Hidden Dangers of Compost
If you have been to any Urban Farmer meetings you have heard me harp on compost and it’s hidden danger. What’s the deal with this war on compost? Here is a full explanation plus the name of the OMRI certified sources that I have found in the Bay Area, so far.
This is a depressing, long post. Read it when you are in the right mood. I don’t enjoy these bleak topics, but I can’t put a spin on sewer sludge. With this warning out of the way, here is the story of compost.
Making Your Own Compost
There is nothing more wholesome than turning your kitchen and garden waste into compost. It’s the ultimate Reduce, Reuse, Recycle story. Most backyard farmers are not as successful as they’d like to be making compost. Keep at it, with time and experience you will improve. In fact as you will see in a minute, it is more important than ever that you make as much compost as possible.
The amount of compost you need depends on your needs, Let’s say a family of four has an organic backyard farm of 250 to 300 square feet plus one or two fruit trees. Can they make enough compost to meet the needs of this tidy farm? Practically speaking, I have not seen any family that is making enough compost to keep up with the above farm. This is not to say that our hypothetical family is incapable of making enough compost. All I’m saying is that I have been to a lot of backyard farms and because of a host of reasons the production is not there.
For a quick and simple answer, you will find plastic bags of “organic” compost at any local nursery or big box garden centers. However this solution is plagued by the typical industrial food problems. Compost made somewhere, by someone you don’t know, with stuff you have not seen, wrapped in plastic and shipped to a local shop. You know the story.
Beside the large carbon foot print of bagged compost, packaged compost often lacks the key ingredient, microbial life, that you want in compost. The air-tight, plastic-wrapped compost, having traveled in trucks, sitting for days under the hot sun is a graveyard of microbes.
On the cover of packaged compost, you will easily find the word “made with organic ingredients” in bold print. What does that mean? “When it comes to food production, the word “organic” refers to the way foods are produced and handled. Food labels that include the word “organic” mean the food was produced without the use of conventional synthetic pesticides, fungicides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic engineering or irradiation.” The labeling requirements for the term “made with organic ingredients” is much looser. To qualify 70% of ingredients must be organic. In the case of compost this is an easy threshold to meet. This 2 minute video explains the problem with the bagged compost succinctly.
A typical 3 cubic feet bag of store bought compost costs between $8 to $15 per bag. If we use the lowest price and attempt to buy a cubic yard of compost (our farm above will use more than a yard per year) then the cost is around $72 per yard. That’s about twice the cost of bulk compost.
Safety, Safety, Safety
If packaged compost is bad for you and the environment, has diminished microbial population and is twice as expensive as bulk compost, you should then run to the local soil yard and buy bulk compost. Right? Yes, but not so fast.
Every year, around Earth Day, my beloved City of San Francisco gives free compost to city residents. Well-meaning residents fill their buckets with free “black gold” and spread the stuff all over their backyard and front yard and places where children play. They are unaware that cities like San Francisco loaded with toxic sludge, having no place to dump the stuff, burry the sludge into the compost.
I wish I was making this stuff up. Please read, “Independent Scientific Testing Finds Toxic Contaminants in San Francisco’s Free ‘Organic Biosolids Compost‘” and be sure to read the comment by Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist with Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine).
To summarize, this compost is mixed with things that homeowners, hospitals and factories put down the drain. It includes human feces (for most part biosolids is a fancy term for feces and sludge), detergents, antibacterial agents, a wide array of pharmaceuticals, plus chemicals which are known to be endocrine-disrupters.
And if you think this problem is unique to San Francisco, think again. Toxic sludge is a national problem, has a national association in Washington DC with lobbyist and EPA behind it.
Cities are not only giving sludge to residents, they are encouraging industrial farmers to spread the stuff on their land. Suffice to say if your city has a sewage plant, it has a sludge problem.
What to Buy
Buy only bulk compost that is OMRI certified. OMRI certification requires compost maker to monitor the compost and submit samples to independent testing labs, frequently. While this is no panacea, it’s the best solution available. (the ultimate solution is for you to grow enough cover crop to make all the compost you need at your site.)
End of depressing post.