Pathogens in Compost Raise Questions About Consistency and Need for Oversight
Will Brinton and two colleagues have published a paper in the Journal of Food Protection on the occurrence and level of food borne pathogens in market-ready, so-called finished composts made in Washington, Oregon, and California. Their findings contain good news and bad.
The team carried out extensive microbiological testing of composts from 94 facilities making nonsludge compost. The good news was that:
- Only one compost tested contained Salmonella (and not much of it),
- Many of the samples showed essentially no pathogenic bacteria, supporting the generally accepted “conventional wisdom” that properly managed and cured compost is effectively sterilized,
- The California Compost Maturity Index accurately distinguished between composts that were clean and finished, and composts that were not fully cured and contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, and
- Windrow based compost operations, and smaller operations consistently produce relatively clean compost.
There are also worrisome findings in this paper. Enough compost with fecal coliform levels over the EPA standard is made annually to treat over 70,000 acres of cropland. About 6% of the compost samples contained detectable levels of E. coli O157:H7, and 28% of the samples contained fecal coliforms exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency standard for sludge hygiene (<1,000 “Most Probable Number” per gram). Nearly one-half the tested samples contained generally very low levels of Listeria species.
The E. coli O157:H7 levels found in the composts produced by large facilities (>45,000 metric tons per year) were more than 1,000-times higher in most cases than the composts produced by small facilities (<12,000 metric tons per year).
The paper also highlights implications for organic farming. Essentially no correlation was found between fecal coliform levels and composts made with manure versus composts made from nonmanure green wastes. In addition, 6% of the compost samples tested contained fecal coliform levels comparable to those found in raw, noncomposted manure. This finding led the authors to state that:
“…regulation of compost based on known presence of manure, as is done for organic food production facilities, may not adequately prevent crop contamination.”
Source: W.F. Brinton et al., “Occurrence and Levels of Fecal Indicators and Pathogenic Bacteria in Market-Ready Recycled Organic Matter Composts,” J. Food Protection, Vol. 72, No. 2: 332-339 (2009).
Editor’s Note: The organic community has focused much time and attention in the last several weeks on perceived, but very unlikely problems with food safety legislation, especially H.R. 875 (see the Benbrook commentary later in this issue). The very real risks discussed in this important paper by Will Brinton and colleagues have received almost no attention and discussion.
Three large-scale facilities “within important vegetable growing regions” were found to be producing compost contaminated with E. coli O157. This is a problem many, many times more consequential than the spiking of organic liquid fertilizers with ammonium nitrate, which poses risks to reputable businesses and the reputation of brand organic, but not to people or the environment.
Moreover, we now know that large facilities, with large piles as opposed to small to moderate-sized windrows, are much more likely to produce contaminated, improperly finished compost. Plus, economics drives some compost manufacturers to cut corners by cutting the time used to cure piles. Dr. Brinton is confident that well-managed, windrow-based operations curing piles with the proper C:N ratio for at least 90 days produce stable, clean compost, yet he is worried that these conditions may become the exception rather than the rule.
Fortunately, several compost manufacturers are not cutting corners and are producing stable, clean and high quality composts. In addition, scientists are compiling evidence that shows that high levels of microbial activity in well-managed organic cropping systems create conditions not conducive to survival of pathogens in composts, although applying compost with viable E. coli O157 is now and always will be something to avoid at, essentially, all costs.
Strong actions are needed to assure compost safety. The irony is that proper turning and curing does not add that much to the cost of a finished compost, yet absence of either of these essential ingredients could eventually cost the industry millions.
Parental Exposure to Pesticides Almost Doubles Risk of Childhood Brain Cancer
A study of 421 children with brain cancer has shown that a parent’s use of pesticides during the two years before a child’s birth can almost double risk of the children suffering from brain cancer by age 10. The new study was published online February 13, 2009 by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
This finding likely has its roots in epigenetic changes in the development of a child’s nervous system and brain. “Epigenetic” changes can trigger abnormal patterns of cell differentiation and gene expression during pregnancies that go to term and result in a live birth. “Epigenetic” changes happen because of deviant gene expression patterns that alter the developmental and health trajectories of individuals, without altering an individual’s underlying DNA. Hence the label, “epi” (beyond)-“genetics.”
Source: Shim, Y.K. et al., “Parental Exposure to Pesticides and Childhood Brian Cancer: United States Atlantic Coast Childhood Brian Cancer Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives, online 2/13/2009.
Editor’s Note: Chapter 3 in our new report, That First Step: Organic Food and a Healthier Future, focuses on how exposure to pesticides, animal drugs and other environmental contaminants can disrupt normal development through epigenetic mechanisms.
The report includes an Appendix with Dr. Theo Colborn’s updated list of pesticides known to disrupt endocrine system functions. The new list contains 180 pesticides, up from 35 when Theo published her first list of endocrine disrupting pesticides in the path breaking 1993 paper in Environmental Health Perspectives entitled “Developmental effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in wildlife and humans.”
Clean, Finished Compost Delivered to the USDA "People's Garden"
Garden fever is breaking out all over Washington, D.C., triggered by First Lady Michelle Obama’s highly visible vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House.
Over at the USDA, a “People’s Garden” has been planted in soil enhanced by a load of clean, finished compost from Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Rodale Institute. Jeff was headed in the direction of D.C. from Pennsylvania for an NOSB meeting (he is the current NOSB chair), and decided to load the back of the truck up with some of his best. For photos and more, go to the Rodale Institute website.
An (Unpublished) Letter to the Editor by Chuck Benbrook in Response to Two Articles in the March 22nd New York Times
One headline in the 3/22 Sunday Times reads “Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?” (Andrew Martin’s piece), while another asserts “Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not” (Mark Bittman’s story).
The decision by Michelle Obama to plant a White House garden has stirred passions on all sides of the debate over food quality, how to improve childhood nutrition, food safety, and farm policy. Hopefully this attention will lead to actions that spare the American food system from a collapse in confidence akin to the dark days in our financial sector. Such a collapse could be just one or two food safety scares away.
Our Center tracks new science on the public health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming. We agree with Bittman (and Michael Pollan) that eating more plant-based foods that are minimally processed is an essential step toward better health, as is cutting back on calories to match each person’s daily energy needs. Along with these changes, choosing organic foods will also dramatically reduce pesticide exposure and increase by about 30% the average concentrations of vitamins and antioxidants consumed per serving of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.
Both writers on Sunday express skepticism over whether organic food and farming has much to offer, given that organic food accounts for about 3% of retail food sales. It is true that even perfection in 3% of the U.S. food system and diet will leave the nation saddled with all of today’s diet-health and food system problems. But this criticism misses one of the most important benefits of organic food and farming – innovations discovered and refined on organic farms are often quickly picked up by conventional farmers.
Two very different approaches are in play across American agriculture in an attempt to craft a sustainable, safe, and affordable food system for the future. The hi-tech road rests on genetically engineered crops and energy and chemical-intensive solutions to problems often rooted in the scale and design of farming systems. The other road, best exemplified by certified organic farming, strives toward ways to design farming systems more in harmony with nature that incrementally build soil quality and promotes, as a first order of business, plant and animal health.
While the hi-tech road and biotechnology is getting the vast majority of science resources and dominates the American agricultural landscape, it’s the other road that offers the greatest promise of major and sustained progress toward safer and more nutritious food. As the great food debate ripens, a shift in research and infrastructure investments from today’s near sole focus on hi-tech solutions to organic food and farming will pay dividends across the food system and on all types of farms.
One in Five 4-Year-Old Children are Obese
An Associated Press story on April 7, 2009 cited a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that concluded that 1-in-5 four year old children are obese. In addition, the study reported large differences between obesity rates among ethnic groups at this early age. The rate is twice as high among American Indian children, compared to whites.
The Center’s just-released report, That First Step: Organic Food and a Healthier Future, explains in detail how a mother’s dietary patterns during pregnancy can predispose her child to overweight, obesity, and diabetes. The report concludes that organic food and farming can contribute in six ways to reversing national trends toward obesity and diabetes.
Source: Lindsey Tanner, “Study finds 1 in 5 obese among 4-year-olds,” Associated Press, April 7, 2009
Looking for a New Cash Crop
Farmers are starting to pay attention to the potential for income from carbon sequestration credits, although the terms of trade today are not very attractive. Rex Wollan, a Wilcox, Nebraska farmer with 800 acres of tillable cropland, decided to contract his land to the Chicago Climate Exchange in return for $3,000 in carbon credits (average $3.75/acre). The payment will result in an estimated 470 tons of carbon sequestration across the 800 acres, about 0.6 tons per acre ($6.25 per ton C).
Wollan and many agricultural leaders are looking ahead in anticipation to the cap-and-trade program proposed in the Obama Administration’s first budget, which will presumably markedly increase payments per ton of soil carbon sequestered.
Where might this lead? One expert, Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, projects that under ideal circumstances, agriculture could capture one-third of total U.S. carbon emissions. Obama has pledged to cut net emissions by 80% by 2050.
Source: Bloomberg, April 1, 2009
Editor’s Note: This story seems a little like an April fool’s joke, given that $3.00 an acre from the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) likely does not pay Wollan’s property taxes. Clearly, the payment rate for carbon sequestered in the soil is going to have to compete favorably with other economic options for land use, like farming. Wollan’s Nebraska land probably cash rents for well over $200 an acre, and a standard crop-share lease would leave him with one-third of a 150 bushel corn crop, a quantity valued at around $150.00 per acre at today’s market prices.
Wollan’s contract with the CCX calls for the land to be idled, as would enrollment of the land in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Assuming the land qualifies for the CRP, payments would likely fall in the $45 to $55 range per acre. So, just to compete with the low-end CRP payment, the approximate $6.25 per ton price of carbon sequestered would need to increase twelve-fold, to around $75.00 per ton. If the private sector and/or government were to offer that kind of money per ton of net reduction in carbon emissions by the end of 2009, the Obama administration’s goal of a 80% reduction would likely be achieved in a term or two, rather than by 2050.
Ann Cooper Calls for Total Overhaul of School Lunch Program
In a commentary published by Sustainable Food News, Chef Ann Cooper laid out the case for reform of the school lunch program. Access her full commentary on the Center’s website. An excerpt follows.
“I believe that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is in need of a complete overhaul.
The inception of the program was predicated on the fact that there were malnourished children all across the country that couldn’t learn or think. As these same children grew into adulthood, they became a national security liability, because many of them were too malnourished to become an active part of our armed forces.
“Along the decades, the government has set about to assure that nutritious food was being served, and the program came to feed over 30 million children a day with a price tag of over $8.5 billion a year…Another function of the program was promoting large scale agriculture and what resulted was a system at odds, supporting large scale farmers, who often produced food that when consumed as the majority of a daily diet is not necessarily healthy and promoting children’s health.”
Seed Companies Thriving as Chemical Sales Slump
DuPont’s overall sales fell 4% in 2008, while its agricultural division posted a 16% increase, led by higher-priced genetically engineered seeds. Ag business profits are projected to rise 15% over the next five years.
Dow’s ag business sales jumped 20% in 2008 to $4.5 billion, while company profits fell 78%. BASF ag sales were up 9% while companywide gross income fell 3%.
An ongoing campaign to convince corn farmers to plant more seeds per acre is one factor behind rising seed company revenues, and farmer costs.
Until recently, most corn farmers planted between 22,000 and 28,000 seeds per acre, and the average bag of corn seed (containing about 80,000 seeds) would plant between 2.8 and 3.6 acres. Now, Monsanto’s Corn Germplasm Technology Development Manager is telling farmers that yield potential begins to drop off above 38,000 seeds per acre, based on 24,000 comparisons between various Monsanto corn varieties, tested at different seed rates up to 43,000 seeds per acre.
Sources: Associated Press, April 1, 2009.
Sustainable Food News, April 10, 2009.
Editor’s Note: At 38,000 and 43,000 corn seeds per acre, a bag of seed corn will plant 1.9 to 2.1 acres. Many of the triple- and quadruple-stack GM-corn varieties offered for sale this year will cost around $300 per bag, resulting in corn seed costs of around $150.00 an acre at these very high seed rates. Even at the more common, but still high rate of 30,000 seeds per acre, farmers will be spending over $100 per acre to purchase their multi-trait, stacked corn seed.
I look forward to a careful and independent cost-benefit analysis of these new premium-priced corn seed varieties. Given all the other costs necessary to increase corn yields, corn farmers will likely need at least a 50 bushel yield increase to just cover the added costs associated with pricey GM-seed.
First Nutritionally-Enhanced GM-Crop to Hit the Market in 2009
DuPont hopes to begin marketing a GM-soybean variety with enhanced levels of oleic acid in the second half of 2009. The high-oleic acid soybeans have 25% less saturated fat, and a health profile comparable to olive oil, according to DuPont.
Source: “DuPont Tests Market for Healthier GMO Soy Oil,” Reuters, March 17, 2009
Major Pesticide Birth Defects Case Settled
A boy born without arms or legs and with spinal and lung abnormalities will have all medical expenses covered for life as a result of a settlement with Ag-Mart. Carlos Candelario’s mother had been exposed to multiple pesticides in tomato fields in Florida and North Carolina four years ago.
Testimony during the case showed that the company had violated many state and federal pesticide and worker safety laws and regulations. Workers were sprayed when in the fields, and ordered to re-enter fields before the mandatory re-entry interval had passed; up to three-times the maximum amount of some pesticides were applied; and, one field was treated with 18 pesticides that were negligently applied.
Source: Beyond Pesticides blog, March 28, 2009.
The Value of Insecticides
A three-year study carried out by the pesticide industry-funded Crop Protection Institute has concluded that U.S. farmers receive $19 in return for each dollar spent on insecticides. Their analysis suggests that 93% of the U.S. apple crop would be lost without conventional insecticides, and 29% of the national potato crop.
Source: “US study highlights the value of insecticides,” AgLine News, April 1, 2009.
Editors Note: Clearly this study did not consider organic production as a viable option. If they had, the return for each dollar spent on insecticides would have been even higher. This is because organic farmers do apply some NOP-approved, natural insecticides, but far less than the amounts (and expenditures) on conventional farms. The pest management benefits from these relatively low-cost applications made by organic farmers would translate into very significant benefits using the methodology of this study.
"Responding to Contemporary Food Safety Challenges and Placing H.R. 875 in Perspective"
by Chuck Benbrook
H.R. 875, “The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009,” is an important bill because it will serve as the starting point in the effort by the House of Representatives to craft food safety reform legislation. Over the next months, and possibly a year or more, this bill will be subjected to several, and perhaps dozens of hearings. It will be dissected and debated, revered and reviled. It will go through several significant transformations before final reconciliation with the Senate-passed bill. Many sections now in the bill will fall by the wayside, others will be changed only modestly, and some new provisions will surely be added.
The stakes are high for the organic community as this process unfolds, since food safety is one of the paramount issues on the minds of consumers when they wonder whether organic food is worth the premium price charged for it.
The legislative process can be chaotic and unpredictable, focusing intense light on certain issues, while seemingly ignoring much more important provisions. Stakeholders and interest groups will be constantly looking for openings to frame their issues in the most favorable light and make their opponents seem off-base, parochial, out of touch, or unscientific.
Hopefully most people in the organic community have gotten beyond the conspiracy theories about the genesis and impacts of H.R. 875 that have gotten some much ink of late. There is real substance in this bill that will clearly advance food safety for the benefit of all. But like any legislation at this stage of the process, it has its share of half-baked ideas and it misses some key opportunities to provide a solid foundation for long-run food safety progress. Continual vigilance is both needed and appropriate as the legislation makes its way through the legislative process, in order to identify, debate, and hopefully eliminate any potential adverse unintended consequences for organic farmers or food businesses, such as placing CSAs and farmer markets at risk.
In my reading of the bill, I was struck by the narrowness of the definition of “Hazardous Contamination” in Section 3 of the bill. This is probably the single most important passage in the bill. In H.R. 875, “Hazardous contamination” refers to the “presence of a contaminant in food at levels that pose a risk of human illness, injury or death…” The bill offers no guidance on what level of risk constitutes “…a risk…” and this lack of precision is sure to be addressed, since it is virtually impossible to grow and process food without some risk of, for example, pesticide and microbiological contamination, and hence risk.
It is inconceivable that the 111th Congress will establish a new zero-risk, Delaney Clause-like health standard applicable to food contaminants. Congress will likely gravitate toward the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard embedded in food safety laws, and most recently embraced by Congress in the passage of the 1996 “Food Quality Protection Act.”
In refining the definition of “Hazardous Contaminants,” the Congress will almost certainly be urged to expand the language “…human illness, injury, or death…” to encompass impacts during pregnancy on embryos and fetal development, and during the first few years of a child’s life.
By far the most worrisome toxicological impacts of mycotoxins, for example, are developmental. Several of the most common mycotoxins cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities at doses 100-fold lower than the doses necessary to cause other, more commonly studied toxic effects. This is why Congress will be encouraged by public health advocates to add a provision in H.R. 875 describing the factors that the Administrator must take into account in determining whether a given “hazardous contaminant” poses risks that meet or exceed the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard. (A section later in the bill takes a few solid steps in this direction, see below).
The definition of “Food Establishment” has also raised concerns, since some read it as so broad that backyard gardens and farm stands could conceivably fall within it. This concern is unwarranted, since individual farms, ranches, orchards, or livestock operations are excluded. In the report language accompanying the bill, and perhaps in the bill itself, Congress will make it clear that a “food establishment” is a commercial operation where animals are slaughtered and food products are manufactured, stored or transported.
Title III describes how the new food safety program will be administered. Section 201 (b) spells out a key, new provision governing risks from the farm to the plate. The program “shall be based on a comprehensive analysis of the hazards associated with different food and with the processing of different food…”
This section goes on to identify six categories or criteria that the Administrator must use in evaluating comparative or relative risks:
- Sources of risk;
- Potential persistence, multiplication or concentration of contaminants, and hence risk;
- Potential for cumulative toxic effects, multigenerational effects, or “effects on specific categories of consumers”;
- Opportunities to reduce risks; and
- Opportunities for intentional contamination (i.e., bioterrorism).
Provision (4) above is key, and contains language similar to passages in the “Food Quality Protection Act” calling for the unique risks to pregnant women and infants and children to be addressed. While it is admirable that this provision highlights the importance of considering these risks, the bill provides no guidance how to do so. Lacking greater clarity and specificity, different stakeholders will read into this provision either their fondest dreams or worst nightmares. When confronted with such diametrically opposed reactions to a provision, Congress generally accepts the need for greater clarity in what the provision actually means, helping calm unfounded fears or ungrounded optimism.
This focus in H.R. 875 on targeting the greatest relative risks leads to some obvious questions -- Who will conduct the comparative assessment of food safety risks? Will risks be evaluated separately in conventional and organic foods? How will comparative risks be evaluated, drawing on what data?
Section 201 (c) spells out several program elements including registration and inspection of “food establishments,” a term which is defined very broadly and which will surely be amended to exclude backyard gardens and farm stands. Subsection (5) is another key provision that will attract a lot of attention. It calls for a sampling and testing program of food, independent of companies, to assure and confirm on an ongoing basis that “industry programs and procedures that prevent food contamination are effective…and that food meets the standards established under this Act.” Subsection (8) calls for a national system to “…identify products posing the greatest public health risk…”
It is important to stress that these requirements for routine, independent government testing of food safety are wholly new. There are no such programs in place today focusing on microbiological, animal drug, or mycotoxin-based risks; there are programs in place addressing pesticide food safety risks.
There are at least a dozen additional, new, important provisions in H.R. 875 that should help advance food safety, and which will determine how relative food safety risks will be placed into perspective. The organic community needs to participate in refining the bill’s core provisions to assure that the metrics adopted are balanced and science-based.
In addition, for conventional and organic farmers and food companies, the sampling and research provisions of the bill should be viewed as an opportunity to gain better understanding of how food safety risks find their way into the food supply, so that those routes, or entrances, can be shut as tightly as possible.
The organic community has much to gain from the new product testing and research set in motion by H.R. 875, because progress in better defining and quantifying relative food safety risks will often highlight the benefits of organic production and processing. When and where it does not, insights gained will demand new effort and innovation to widen margins of safety and close ever tighter the doors through which food safety risks find their way into organic products.
"In Defense of Corn Ethanol"
by Kirk Leonard
[Note -- Kirk Leonard, an avid reader of “The Scoop,” feels that our coverage of biofuels issues has been one-sided. In the interest of full and fair debate, Kirk was invited to offer his own vision of the role of biofuels. His full commentary is on our website, excerpts appear below.
Leonard is a project manager who works on organic soil amendment production and marketing, biodiesel production, passive and active solar systems, and energy conservation projects. He has been a participant and expert panel contributor to the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels since 2007, and lectured on biofuels at Yale in 1980.]
“The first car Ferdinand Porsche built was electric. The first car Henry Ford built ran on ethanol. The first engine Rudolf Diesel built ran on peanut oil. With a century of petroleum experience behind us, we are getting back to basics. Electric cars and biofuels are coming back, thank goodness.
Biofuels provide a bridge and are a necessary piece of the energy transition we must do to sustain ourselves and our planet…
On GHG benefits, corn ethanol has shown impressive improvements since first being produced in volumes in the 1980’s, and it has never been negative. A recent life-cycle analysis done for the International Energy Agency determined corn ethanol presents a substantial benefit, reducing GHGs, from “well to wheel” by 40% compared to gasoline...
Biofuels are an essential piece of our energy future, as are greatly increased energy conservation and efficiency measures. Developed well, using wastes and non-food crops, focused on marginal or damaged lands, employing organic, low-input and no-till cropping practices, they can provide tremendous energy and environmental benefits.”
EVENTS AND PRESENTATIONS by Dr. Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist
Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet- April 30th, 2009 -- Princeton University's Environmental Health Institute Annual Conference -- Princeton, New Jersey
Organic Summit, 2009 - June 3rd - 5th, 2009 -- Stevenson, Washington
All Things Organic, 2009 - June 16th, 2009 -- Chicago, Illinois
EVENTS AND PRESENTATIONS by Steven Hoffman, Managing Director
Grant Family Farms Annual CSA Tour - June 6th, 2009 -- Wellington, Colorado
LOHAS Forum - June 19th, 2009 -- Boulder, Colorado
Benefits of Organic Food and Farming is Focus of Upcoming Meetings
April 30th, 2009 - Princeton University's ENvironmental Institute anual conferece: Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet - the Challenges of Making More Food ad Fewer Greehouse Gases (April 29 - May 1); Dr. Benbrook will participate in a debate on low-input vs. high-input food production with speakers from Columbia University and Monsanto; Princeton, New Jersey.
June 4th, 2009 - Organic Summit (June 3 - 5); produced by New Hope atural Media; Dr. Benbrook will speak on Peer-reviewed Organic Research along with Dr. John Reganold of Washington Statue University and Dr. May Peet of North Carolina State University; Stevenson, Washington.
June 6th, 2009 - Grant Family Farms Annual CSA Farm Tour; Grant Family Farms, one of Colorado's largest organic farming operations, opens its gates for its annual open house farm tour to its 1200 CSA members, dignitaries, VIPs and special guests; Wellington, Colorado.
June 16th, 2009 - All Things Orgaic trade show, presented by The Organic Trade Association; A session at 10:30 am through noon will assess “Current Research on the Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming” with Dr. Timothy LaSalle, Rodale Institute, and Dr. Kathleen Delate, Iowa State University. At 1:30 that afternoon, Benbrook will serve on another panel addressing “Personal and Health Benefits of Organic: What We Know.” Chicago, Illinois.
June 19th, 2009 - LOHAS Forum (June 17-19); the LOHAS forum is the premier national annual conference covering the $240 billion LOHAS or "LIfestyles of Health and Sustainability" market; Boulder, Colorado.