The most natural way animal waste gets recycled is by adding it back to the soil. The cattle eat the grass, and they drop their waste. As they move about, the waste gets stamped back into the soil to nourish new growth. Birds that fly over the land, and rodents that scurry past, contribute their mite to enrich the soil. It is a recycling process that takes place in nature without any interference from man.
Learning from nature
Those who tilled the land, and grew food from time immemorial, emulated nature to enhance the yield. The waste generated by their livestock was plowed back into the soil to increase its fertility and water-holding capacity. Before chemical fertilizers became the mainstay of agriculture, animal manure was the main input. Between the years 1840 and 1880 alone, 20,000,000 tons of guano (seabird droppings) was imported from Peru, and scattered all over England and America! Organic farmers who strive for a viable alternative to chemical-laced foods have been trying to return to the roots by following this sound agricultural practice of our ancestors.
Animal waste typically carries many types of fecal bacteria including different strains of Escherichia coli that are known to cause severe, or even potentially fatal, food poisoning. The farmers who use animal manure trust the soil bacteria to destroy these harmful strains, but it’s not a foolproof mechanism. Recent outbreaks of virulent E. coli 0157 H7 strain from fresh salad packs have alerted the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to potential points of contamination. Consequently, even though these cases have not been traced to the use of raw manure in the fields, FDA has given the farmers directives against its use.
Isn’t there a way out?
The FDA has provided two alternatives to farmers. Either they can use composted animal manure or they can wait for more than 9 months before harvesting the crops that has been fertilized with untreated manure. The bad news is that both these options are not viable as far as organic farmers are concerned. Besides that, they consider it a slight to the age-old practices they follow.
Since fresh manure can burn plants, farmers use only aged manure on standing crops. After every application, they wait for at least 4 months to harvest the crops. That should be sufficient to get rid of most of the pathogens, they feel. Many crops have a growing period of less than 10 months, and the new directive takes away the farmer’s freedom to grow such short-season crops.
Fresh manure vs compost
Composting kills most of the harmful bacteria in the manure because the process produces high temperatures within the pile. It also destroys seeds which may pose a weed problem later on. But for an organic farmer, the disadvantages are many.
- Reduced nitrogen content. One of the main advantages of animal manure is its high nitrogen content. Nitrogen is one of the three macronutrients necessary for plant growth. The very process of composting depletes the nitrogen content of the manure. In the wet conditions of the compost heap, the nitrogen gets converted into volatile ammonia, and it is lost into the atmosphere.
- Need for additional fertilization. Because of the reduced nitrogen content in the composted manure, farmers may need to add extra nitrogen to the soil. It adds to the cost. Moreover, organic farmers who have given up on chemical fertilizers don’t have another organic source.
- Expense. Farmers usually source fresh manure from nearby animal farms at nominal cost. In fact, many farms would gladly part with their animal waste if someone would just tow it away. Commercial composts are up to 6 times more expensive than manure sourced locally.
- Availability. Many animal farms may not be interested in composting the waste they produce. When an abundance of useful manure is locally available, it is a waste of resources if the farmers have to mobilize large quantities of composted manure from far-off places.
- Reliability. When a farmer brings in fresh manure, he knows what he is getting. When buying a finished product, an organic farmer may have several concerns about what has gone into its making.
- Use of insecticides. Large amounts of fresh manure, unless it is not disposed of regularly, may attract flies and other insects. If insecticides are used to control this problem, the resultant compost is not suitable for organic farming.
- Chemical additives. The end product of composting may not always turn out as expected, especially if it’s not prepared properly. The manufacturer may add chemicals to amend the pH and balance nutrients, or to kill remaining pathogens.
Can’t you make your own compost?
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Many farmers already do that. They either compost manure produced in their own farms or what is brought in fresh from other farms. But they need:
Time – Proper composting takes several months.
Space – Some agricultural land has to be set aside for the compost heaps.
Equipment – Special equipment like compost turners and temperature gauges are needed.
Labor – Compost-making is labor intensive. The farmer may need extra hands.
The health of consumers is of utmost importance. The slow poisoning they are subjected to when they consume food loaded with harmful chemicals does not get as much attention as random incidents of E. coli infection. The large corporations behind the chemical industries have powerful lobbies to influence policymakers and prevent legislations that affect them negatively. But the farmers, who try to make chemical-free farming a viable alternative, get a raw deal.
The contamination might have occurred due to any number of reasons including faulty cleaning and storage practices. Even when there has been no evidence that raw manure had caused these outbreaks, sound organic farming practices have to bear the brunt of these unfortunate incidents.
Do you support the FDA’s proposal? Tell us in the comments section below.