The increasing use of sewage sludge as fertilizer for your food is an under-publicized and often hidden threat.
Sludge is the toxic mix that is created by our municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Just about anything that is flushed down toilets or that ends up in sewers is in this sludge; the pollutants in sludge come not just from household sewage, but also from every hospital, industrial plant, and stormwater drain.
For a long time, sludge was simply dumped in the oceans. Over time, it became apparent that this was an environmental and human health disaster. An alternative solution has been pushed since the 1980's by the U.S. government. The EPA determined that a good way to dispose of treated sewage sludge was to legally distribute it as a cheap alternative to fertilizer.
Unsurprisingly, scientific analysis of the poisons in sewage sludge shows it's the wrong, and dangerous, solution for U.S. farmers and communities. Unfortunately, many American farmers and gardeners are unknowingly using sludge-derived "compost," which is given away free in many cities throughout the United States.
As a result, farms and homes across the country have been unknowingly spreading hazardous chemicals and heavy metals on their fields, lawns and gardens.
Meanwhile, Michael Mack, the chief executive of Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness giant that makes pesticides, is waging war against the organic movement as a whole. He argues that, "Organic food is not only not better for the planet. It is categorically worse."
"If the whole planet were to suddenly switch to organic farming tomorrow, it would be an ecological disaster," he said. Pesticides, he argued, "have been proven safe and effective and absolutely not harmful to the environment or to humans."
Of course, Mr. Mack dismissed the notion that Syngenta, a company that sold nearly $12-billion worth of "crop protection" technologies last year, felt threatened by the organic movement.
If you’re looking for a compelling reason to switch to a primarily organic diet, the fact that it is free from sewage sludge fertilizers is a very good one. Sewage sludge, or “biosolids” -- as they’re referred to with a PR spin -- began being “recycled” into food crops when, ironically, it was realized that dumping them into rivers, lakes and bays was an environmental disaster.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that about 50 percent of all biosolids are recycled to land. This sludge is what’s leftover after sewage is treated and processed.
Your first thought may be the “yuck factor” of human waste being used to fertilize your food, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time a paintbrush gets rinsed, an old bottle of medications flushed, or solvents are hosed off a factory floor, it ends up in the sewage system.
So it’s not surprising that a past analysis of sewage sludge by the Environmental Working Group found:
Over 100 synthetic organic compounds including phthalates, toluene, and chlorobenzene
Dioxins in sludge from 179 out of 208 systems (80%)
42 different pesticides -- at least one in almost every sample, with an average of almost 2 pesticides per survey sample
Nine heavy metals, often at high concentrations
And it was sewage sludge that was partly blamed earlier this year for contaminating the White House lawn, and Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden, with lead.
This toxic sludge has been masterfully spun by PR masters into an acceptable, even “green,” fertilizer. Even San Francisco, arguably one of the “greenest” cities around, has been distributing toxic sewage sludge to homeowners and schoolyards and calling it “organic compost”! Nevermind that in 2008 its sludge was found to contain industrial chemicals, disinfectants, phenol, pesticides and solvents.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) has recently petitioned San Francisco to stop this “compost” giveaway, lest it contaminate backyards and communities with toxic chemicals, but the sludge is still being widely used all across the United States.
If you want to get the real dirt on how this toxic sewage sludge has become such a popular fertilizer, I strongly encourage you to read Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. It’s written by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the authors of one of my favorite exposes on the PR industry, Trust Us, We're Experts, and does not disappoint.
What is Going On With the State of Agriculture in the United States?
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and the once respectable business of farming in the United States is a perfect example of how true this statement can be.
Gone are the days when farmers grew food according to the laws of nature, with a deserved respect for the Earth and its resources. Nowadays, with the exception of the small but growing movement of organic and sustainable farmers, it may surprise you to learn that farming -- once the symbol of all that’s natural and wholesome -- creates some of the worst pollution in the United States.
That’s because most “farming” today is nothing like the small farming of our ancestors. The Farm Sanctuary points out that farm animals produce 130 times more waste than humans. And agricultural runoff is the primary reason why 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are polluted.
Meanwhile, in areas where animal agriculture is most concentrated (Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois and Indiana round out the top five states with the most factory-farm pollution) bacteria known as pfiesteria is common in waterways. Not only does pfiesteria kill fish, it also causes nausea, memory loss, fatigue and disorientation in people!
Aside from the pollution, factory farms use vast quantities of resources. According to FactoryFarm.org, industrial milking centers that use manure flush cleaning and automatic cow washing systems, go through as much as 150 gallons of water per cow per day!
Energy costs are even steeper.
A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that industrial farms use an average of three calories of energy to create one calorie of food. Grain-fed beef is at the top of the list of offenders, using 35 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food! And this does not even take into account the energy used to process and transport the foods, so the real toll is even larger.
The Agribusiness Giants are Getting Out of Control!
On top of the environmental assaults, you have agribusiness executives like Michael Mack, the chief executive of pesticide manufacturer Syngenta, making outrageous statements like “Organic food is not only not better for the planet, it is categorically worse.”
His entire argument was based on the premise that organic farming takes up more land than non-organic farming for the same yield.
He obviously must have missed the recent study that examined a global dataset of 293 farming examples, which found that in developing countries organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms. And a review of 286 projects in 57 countries found that farmers who used "resource-conserving" or ecological agriculture had increased agricultural productivity by an average of 79%!
“It is clear that ecological agriculture is productive and has the potential to meet food security needs … Moreover, ecological agricultural approaches allow farmers to improve local food production with low-cost, readily available technologies and inputs, without causing environmental damage,” Lim Li Ching, the study’s author, writes.
Really, the question we should be asking ourselves shouldn’t be ‘Can organic or sustainable farming feed the world?’, but ‘How can food production possibly continue as it is?’
When I hear someone extolling the virtues of “modern” agriculture and wondering how “organic” or “sustainable” farming could possibly be the solution, I maintain that the fact we have come to accept inefficient, industrial practices, including dousing our food with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as a viable way to grow food is the real wonder.
And then I always look at the source, which in this case is a pesticide giant CEO … which makes his motives very clear, indeed.
How Can You Find Safe Food for Your Family?
There are still safe food options out there, but it does take a bit of digging to find them. Your local grocery store is generally NOT going to be the best source for healthy, fresh food.
So, short of starting your own sustainable farm (which you can do on a small-scale in your own backyard), you can find safe food options by supporting sustainable agriculture movements in your area.
Make it a point to only buy food from a source you know and trust, one that uses safe and non-toxic farming methods. This will do your health a major favor and support the small family farms in your area. You’ll receive nutritious food from a source that you can trust, and you’ll be supporting the honest work of a real family farm instead of an agri-business corporation.
Further, knowledge truly is power, and the more people become informed, the faster it will prompt real change to come about. Several wonderful movies that will give you an excellent overview of the problems with modern agriculture, which I highly recommend you watch and share with your friends and family, are: