BioCycle May 2010, Vol. 51, No. 5, p. 6
Composters Off Bifenthrin Black List
Three California composters whose products were prohibited from use in organic production by the California Department of Food and Agriculture last summer are off the “bifenthrin black list” following an April 23, 2010 announcement by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
The trouble began when a routine produce inspection by state officials turned up the presence of the synthetic pyrethroid bifenthrin in a sample of live wheatgrass labeled “organic” that was grown in 100 percent green waste compost (see “Certified Organic Compost Under The Gun In California,” March 2010). Subsequent testing found bifenthrin in the compost but not the crop. The farmer switched compost sources two more times, but each time the presence of bifethrin was detected. This led to the barring of Nortech Gold, Grover Wonder Grow and Clean City Compost from organic production and raised the disturbing question of whether any compost that utilized yard trimmings as a feedstock might contain trace amounts of bifenthrin, a common commercial landscaper and more recently residential homeowner remedy for dispersing red ants.
The new directive from the NOP acknowledges that background levels of many synthetic pesticides expressly prohibited in organic production are now ubiquitous in the environment and that these substances may find their way into organic production systems through no fault of the farmer or composter. This is expressly referred to in the federal Organic Rule as unavoidable residual environmental contaminations, or URECs. A letter to all USDA-accredited organic certification agents in California from NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy stated that “the NOP standards are process based and do not mandate zero tolerance for synthetic pesticide residues in inputs, such as compost.” The letter further stated: “Compost that is produced from … approved feedstocks … [including plant and animal materials such as crop residues, animal manure, food waste and yard waste] is acceptable for use in organic production, provided that any residual pesticide levels do not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil and water.”
Said Brenda Smyth, a division chief for CalRecycle, the government agency that oversees the state’s waste management and recycling efforts: “We applaud the National Organic Program and the collaborative process that resulted in a directive providing clarification and guidance regarding bifenthrin residuals in green waste compost. The directive upholds the integrity of organic farming by protecting crops, soil and water while at the same time promoting the use of compost.”
Potential Phosphorus Shortage For World’s Soils
Phosphorus shortages in agricultural soils worldwide threaten to undermine the global food supply, according to an article in Foreign Policy (April 20, 2010) entitled “Peak Phosphorus” by James Elser and Stuart White. They explain the supply of mined phosphorus – and the ancient marine deposits that yield the essential macronutrient – is running out. Initial numbers from the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative indicate that within 30 or 40 years there may not be enough mined phosphorus to meet agricultural demand. Industrial farmers were applying an annual 17 million metric tons of mined phosphorus on their fields by 2008 with demand increasing at around 3 percent a year.
The authors warn that shortages of phosphorus and concentrations of 90 percent of the world supply in five countries – Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan and the United States – could spark international tensions and intense resource competition as the world food supply becomes increasingly threatened. But there is hope, they add. Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be recycled over and over again, and indeed this is what occurs in natural systems. Composted manures and biosolids are known to be high in phosphorus and therefore may play a critical role in keeping this important macronutrient cycling in our farming systems. Interestingly, the article also cites U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning Congress of the potential consequences of phosphorus shortages, including poor yields and nutritionally inferior crops, as early as 1938. Phosphorus is an essential building block of DNA and cell membranes and in humans plays a part in bone formation.
Massachusetts Legislature Rejects Co2 Cap On Renewable Energy
Based on a committee recommendation, the Massachusetts state legislature has opted not to take action on an initiative designed to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from renewable and alternative energy sources (see “Massachusetts Ballot Initiative Could Hurt Biogas Industry,” April 2010, p. 10). While the initiative was aimed at the waste-to-energy industry and what proponents pointed to as the detrimental effects of burning wood and garbage to generate electricity, a legislative Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy said the language went too far in potentially derailing that option as well as other renewable energy strategies such as anaerobic digestion.
“The initiative petition … places severe emission restrictions on a broad range of renewable energy plants, including electric biomass and waste-to-energy plants, limiting our energy choices, harming our state’s economy, and preventing the state from meeting our renewable energy goals,” the Committee’s majority report stated. “Although this initiative petition is well intentioned – limits on emissions from biomass plants are crucial in protecting our environment – the committee believes that the language … is too broad, preventing the development of innovative technologies such as anaerobic digestion, which efficiently converts organic waste (such as food and agricultural waste) to energy.”
Proponents of the initiative have said that woody biomass and waste burning should not share renewable energy tax credit status with wind, solar and geothermal because the former contribute to global warming and burning wood for power encourages deforestation. Noting that state energy officials are conducting a life-cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions related to electricity-generating biomass facilities, including the role of forests in sequestering carbon, the majority report stated: “If the report’s findings indicate to the Committee that action needs to be taken on this issue, it will take steps to enact the necessary restrictions at that time.”
Supporters of the initiative are moving forward with putting the final decision on the ballot. In order to do so they must now go back to the streets to gather signatures to equal at least one-half of one percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the preceding biennial state election. That’s about 11,000 signatures, compared to the roughly 100,000 that was required to get the matter before the legislature.
Renewable Energy Grant Applications For Reap Funds Due June 30th
The USDA is accepting applications for grants and loan guarantees in the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) until June 30, 2010. REAP provides funds to agricultural producers and rural small businesses to purchase and install renewable energy systems and make energy efficiency improvements. Anaerobic digestion and biogas production projects are eligible for REAP funding (as are solar, wind, geothermal, etc.), which is authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill. Funding may also be used to purchase energy-efficient equipment, add insulation and improve heating and cooling systems. In fiscal year 2009, this program helped fund 1,485 REAP projects in 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Western Pacific Islands. More information on how to apply for funding is available in the April 26, 2010, Federal Register or at www.rurdev.usda.gov/BCP_ReapGrants.html.
Starbucks Holding Out For Compostable Cup Nirvana
Gathering together industry leaders including municipalities, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers and retail and beverage businesses, Starbucks convened its second cup summit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) April 22 and 23, 2010. The summit included a live chat hosted by Starbucks Director of Environmental Impact Jim Hanna and Peter Senge, founding chair of MIT’s Society Organizational Learning.
One of Starbuck’s biggest challenges remains – assuring that its recyclable and compostable cups are recycled and composted. Hanna said Starbucks was fortunate to be headquartered in Seattle, a city with recycling and composting infrastructure that doesn’t exist everywhere. He noted the company would therefore take a “city by city approach” to keeping its cups out of landfills. With nearly 17,000 stores in 49 countries, that is no small task. “Our commitment is that by 2012 all of our cups are going to be recyclable and that by 2015 we will have recycling in every store we own,” he said.
Hanna and Senge agreed that a successful diversion program requires changing behaviors, creating infrastructure and thinking outside the box. Hanna pledged Starbuck’s commitment to help facilitate these changes. “We define ‘recyclable’ not by what the cup’s made out of but by our customers actually having access to recycling services,” he explained. “We’ve really set the bar and said, ‘We’re not going to call our cups recyclable or compostable until 75 percent of our customers actually have access to recycling or composting in their homes, in our stores, in public spaces and in their businesses…’ and then we will have reached Nirvana and really call our cups recyclable or compostable – but not until that point.”
USDA-EPA Agreement Boosts Farm Digester Program Funding
U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced an interagency agreement promoting renewable energy generation and slashing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock operations. The agreement expands the work of the AgSTAR program, a joint EPA-USDA initiative housed at EPA that helps livestock producers reduce methane emissions from their operations. “This is a smart way to transform what would be a harmful greenhouse pollutant into a source of renewable energy – and make a profit for American farmers,” said Jackson. “We have the technology and the expertise, all we need now is to act. The AgSTAR program brings real benefits to our air and creates new opportunities for our farming community.”
Added Secretary Vilsack: “The farms and ranches that dot our countryside can contribute greatly to addressing America’s long-term energy challenges, and the partnership we are announcing today will not only help generate renewable energy, but provide new income opportunities for farmers and ranchers.” EPA and USDA’s enhanced collaboration will provide up to $3.9 million over the next five years to help the farms overcome obstacles preventing them from recovering and using biogas. The collaboration will expand technical assistance efforts, improve technical standards and guidance for the construction and evaluation of biogas recovery systems and expand outreach to livestock producers as well as assist them with prefeasibility studies.
About 150 on-farm manure digesters are now operating at livestock facilities across the U.S. By EPA estimates, about 8,000 farms are good candidates for capturing and using biogas. If all 8,000 farms implemented biogas systems, methane emissions would be reduced by more than 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, roughly equal to the annual emissions from 6.5 million passenger vehicles. In addition, these projects could generate more than 1,500 MW of renewable energy. More information is available at www.epa.gov/agstar.
Organics Recycling Integral To Students’ Future City Award
Students from the Davidson International Baccalaureate Middle School in Davidson, North Carolina, traveled to Washington, DC, recently to capture the Best Sustainable Food Production System award given out by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers’ Future City Competition. The question posed to the middle schoolers: “If you were designing a city of the future, how would you ensure the sustainable availability of a safe and plentiful food supply for your population?” In order to feed their fictional city – which the Davidson winners named “Mamohatra” (“revival” in Malagasy) – the students mimicked natural systems, utilized micropropagation techniques and designed vertically integrated hydroponic farms. According to their design strategy, nutrients from organic waste would sustain fish production and other waste materials would either be composted or converted to biobased construction materials. Plastics would be produced from cellulosic biomass.
Other concepts unveiled during the competition included: A microbe developed specifically to convert waste into soil; Microbial hydrogen production, and a food and structural-material supply, based totally on bamboo.
Climate Action Reserve Releases Draft Composting Protocol
The Climate Action Reserve (CAR), a national carbon offsets program, released its Organic Waste Composting (OWC) Project Protocol for public review and comment. The OWC Project Protocol “provides a standardized approach for quantifying, monitoring and verifying greenhouse gas reductions from projects that compost municipal food waste and food soiled paper waste,” states a CAR news realease. “The Project Protocol provides guidance to account for, report and verify greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions associated with the diversion of eligible organic wastes away from anaerobic landfill disposal systems and to composting operations where the material degrades in a controlled aerobic process.” Project developers that initiate composting projects will be able to use the protocol document to register GHG reductions with the Reserve. Comments on the draft protocol are due by 5 p.m. Friday, June 4, 2010. A public workshop on the draft OWC protocol is being held in Los Angeles May 27, 2010. The workshop includes conference call capability. To attend or call in, RSVP via the Reserve website (www.climateactionreserve.org) by May 21.
Compost Application On Potato Fields
Following 11 years of research in the Wilmot Valley watershed, a soil scientist on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, reports that adding compost to the soil helps prevent erosion while bolstering the potato harvest by 10 percent. Linnell Edwards, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, published his findings in the Canadian Journal of Soil Science. In an April 21, 2010 article in PEI’s regional newspaper, The Guardian, Edwards explained that adding compost to the potato field produced a significant and measurable impact on soil properties such as water-holding and drainage capacity. “We found the soils’ physical conditions were improved almost 30 percent with compost,” he said. Increasing the water-holding capacity was the major benefit – up to a 33 percent drop in erosion due to runoff and sediment loss was measured. “That’s because more of the rainfall went into the soil than over the soil,” noted Edwards. “When it goes over the soil it brings sediment with it.”
Compost addition also helped fertility and potentially the plants’ ability to fend off pests and diseases, as evidenced by the higher yields. Increased water-holding capacity likely played a significant part in the increased yields as well, the article noted. Potato farming is traditionally equipment-intensive and, thus, quite hard on soils. The pulverizing of soil particles into smaller and smaller bits and related erosion costs Canada farmers millions of dollars annually.