Tag Archives: TheBigStink

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 2 – Land Use

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

After a bit of a hiatus owing to Bootstrap’s seemingly unbridled growth (1,600 subscribers and counting), I’m thrilled to announce the return of the BiG Stink! As you may recall, I left off in the midst of a whopper of an investigation: Is organic farming better for the environment than conventional farming? There are hundreds of angles to consider to answer that question and I will not make you read through hundreds of posts, but I did chose four specific topics to cover: soil health, land use efficiency, energy use, and chemical runoff.

Last time I defined organic and conventional farming and explored the effects of each farming method on soil health. This time around we’ll delve into crop yields. How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Depends on what kind of food is being grown. Are we talking fruits, vegetables, legumes or grains?

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BSC co-founder Igor and Faith drop off scraps at organic farm Wright-Locke Farm.

When going head to head, organic and conventional fruit production finish in a statistical dead heat. Fruits such as melons, apples, and tomatoes (yes, tomatoes are fruit) have similar yields per acre regardless of farming techniques. In fact, organically grown tomatoes (considered separately from other fruits) were statistically indistinguishable from conventional tomatoes. Oilseeds such as sunflowers and canola performed well under either farming method. Legumes such as peas and beans also had similar yields.

So far so good for both methods when it comes to crop yield; here comes trouble though. Organic grain and vegetable yields are underwhelming when compared to conventional acres. Organic acres of grains such as corn and wheat are 26% less productive than conventional ones. Among vegetables, organic farming yields 33% less food per acre (!). When considering multiple crop types (grains, fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, and legumes), organic crops produce 25% less food per acre overall than conventional ones. That 25% gap is a big deal. One study projected that in 2014 growing all US crops organically would have required farming 109 million more acres of land, an area equivalent to all the parkland and wild-land areas in the lower 48 states.

“While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.”

What is causing the gap between organic and conventional yields? Scientists suspect organic farms produce less food per acre because of nitrogen availability, a crucial nutrient for plant growth. While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.

Don’t count out organic farming just yet! With expert knowledge and careful management, organic farming can equal or even surpass conventional yields. Well-educated organic farmers know when to apply nitrogen sources to achieve maximum growth during peak growing times as well as how to manage soil pH and other factors that could limit organic yields. After 30 years of study, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) found that organic methods can produce just as much food as conventional ones, whether it be a fruit, grain or vegetable.

Let’s go back to the original question: How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Currently organic yields lag behind conventional ones and when it comes to output, conventional is king. That doesn’t mean we should give up on organic agriculture. With better technology and an increased understanding of soil health, nutrient availability, and plant growth, organic farming has been shown to compete with industrial methods. But organic farming still has a lot of work and research to do before it can top industrial systems. Indeed — at this very minute — conventional farming takes the cake when it comes to food per acre.

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The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 1 – Soil Health

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Last time I covered what it means to be “organic” and now I want to know what the label is worth. The BiG Stink asks: Is organic better for the environment? That’s a loaded question with numerous angles and it would take an army of scientists to get to the bottom of it. Since I am not a) an army or b) a scientist, I will cover four specific topics (soil health, energy use, chemical runoff, and land use efficiency) in four different posts comparing organic and conventional methods.  While the conventional versus organic debate will hardly be settled, I hope I can drop some knowledge and get people thinking.

To begin, get to know thy farming method. Conventional farming a.k.a. industrial agriculture a.k.a modern farming is defined by a loose group of characteristics. Conventional farms are typically large scale and cultivate a single strain of a high-yield crop continuously for many seasons. They also are characterized by high energy inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.

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BSC’s John, Faith and Emma visit organic partner farm Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester

Organic farming also has a wide definition. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming “preserves natural resources and biodiversity, only uses approved materials, and does not use genetically modified ingredients.” In order to “preserve natural resources and biodiversity” farmers employ techniques such as crop rotation and low-tillage to promote soil health, use of compost and green manure as fertilizer, and mulching to control weeds. For a more in depth breakdown of what it means for produce to be certified organic check out my previous post, “But what does organic even mean?”

Now that each farming method has a definition, let’s get to the good stuff. When it comes to soil health, how do organic and conventional methods compare? For soil to be deemed “healthy” it must function as a living ecosystem that sustains humans, animals and plants. And what’s the number one need of plants, animals, and humans? Water. The soil of organic crops exhibits better water-holding capacity, better water infiltration rates, and better resilience to moisture fluctuations. What does all that mean? Water, water everywhere. Under organic management, the soil system stores 15-20% more water than conventional methods. Stored water becomes crucial during dry spells or intense rainfall, making crops more resilient to extreme weather.

There’s not just more water down there. Soil handled using organic methods contains more soil organic matter (SOM) than soils subjected to conventional till methods. SOM allows soil particles to bind together which prevents erosion and loss of topsoil. SOM also provides substrates to attach heavy metals and pesticides. The microbes and minerals found in soil detoxify, immobilize, and degrade harmful chemicals and reduce runoff. Finally SOM produces nutrients for microbes that boost plant productivity by freeing up nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium for plant uptake.

What about soil subjected to conventional till methods, continuous monocropping and constant synthetic chemical inputs of industrial agriculture? Can you say dust bowl? Lacking careful management, soils can be stripped of their topsoil, become drought-prone, and, well, turn to dust, no longer able to sustain life.

The comparison of soil health of organic and conventional farming is no contest. Organic methods are superior at maintaining overall soil health in the long-term. Organic farming methods such as low/no-till, composting, use of green manure, and crop rotation produce healthy soils that function as physical support to prevent erosion, as a plant nutrient source, as a water source, and as a chemical repository to prevent runoff. While the conventional versus organic farming debate may never be settled, when it comes to soil health, organic farming has it in the bag.

With soil health behind us, next up the BiG Stink crunches numbers to compare the energy inputs of modern agriculture and organic farming. Stay tuned for the 411 on fossil fuel use during agriculture and we’ll discover where all that energy is spent on a farm.

The BiG Stink: But what does Organic even mean?

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

When you hear organic, what comes to mind? Do you imagine a man in overalls lovingly tending his garden? Enormous produce stickers emblazoned with “organic”? An electric piano? Carbon-based life forms?

The word “organic” has a myriad of definitions, but let’s focus on the term when it’s used around food, specifically when applied to produce (meats and processed foods require their own articles). The straight-from-the-dictionary definition of organic is “grown or made without the use of artificial chemicals.” Pretty straightforward, right? No man-made fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides and you’ve got yourself an organic banana.

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Wrong! The US government (and several other countries) has stringent criteria to be met before a banana can have the “certified organic” sticker slapped on. To be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), produce has to comply with standards for soil quality, pest control, and weed control.

Soil intended for organic crops must not have been treated with prohibited methods for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited methods include use of sewage-sludge based fertilizers (no humanure!) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Prohibited methods also include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, except ones given a USDA pass. There is a list of approved synthetics organic farmers may use under specific circumstances. A quick perusal of the list revealed chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (street name: bleach) and neurotoxin methyl bromide (which will be removed from the list by 2017) that may be used under certain conditions on organic farms.

While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free. Pesticides derived from natural sources are fair game according to the USDA and conventional and organic farms use many of the same pesticides. Furthermore, organic-approved and synthetic pesticides have similar relative toxicity distributions when tested by the EPA.

“While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free.”

Don’t forget that “natural” (as in natural sources of pesticides) has no clear cut meaning according to the USDA or the FDA and the definition is up for interpretation. Because natural is relative, some surprising fungicides and pesticides can be organic approved. Also, natural does not automatically mean safe for consumers or the environment (here’s looking at you, cyanide).

Let’s recap. To receive USDA organic certification, produce must not contain GMOs, must not be treated with humanure, must not be subjected to unapproved pesticides and fungicides, and must be grown on soil that has been free of prohibited items for at least 3 years.

Certified organic does NOT mean produce is free of pesticides, suspected neurotoxins, or synthetic substances. If that’s hard to keep straight, check out this rad video with cute drawings to guide you.

So what was the point of this post? To educate consumers and lift the curtain surrounding America’s organic certification. To emphasize that organic might not mean what consumers think it does. And most importantly, to encourage consumers to always, always do their research, especially when it comes to what goes into their bodies.

The BiG Stink: The Scoop on Poop, Part 2

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Welcome back to The BiG Stink and thanks for tuning in for Part 2 of the ins and outs of composting scat. Last time I covered the merits of composting cat, dog, rodent, and bird wastes but this week is all about your fellow man. So without further ado, let’s talk about composting human poo.

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The story on humanure? It may kill you or it may bless your garden.

There are two reactions to composting human waste; either you think it’s gross or you think it’s awesome. For those of you on team gross, the ick-factor is warranted. Human feces may contain pathogens such as Hepatitis A, norovirus, E. coli, and roundworms to name a few. Also, food contaminated by night soil (untreated human waste) has led to major public health scares in places such as China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Since poop can kill, a little fecophobia is justified.

Given that human feces is packed with pathogens and could be deadly, why would one want to compost it? Turns out excrement is chock-full of nutrients plants need including phosphates, potassium, and nitrogen which are the same ingredients in synthetic fertilizers. Americans are flushing 8 million pounds of poop a year, letting a major nutrient source go down the toilet.

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An example of a composting toilet

There are in fact people collecting their waste and saving it from a watery grave. Dedicated composters are harnessing the power of their poop using specialty composting toilets or by simply collecting their waste in a bucket. Contents of the bucket are transferred to the compost pile and given a generous dose of sawdust to mask odors. After several months of curing, a humanure pile should test negative for coliform bacteria and be safe for use on edible crops. When the pile reaches high enough temperatures to kill off pathogens, it appears humanure can be perfectly safe.

That’s human waste composting at a small scale. What about large scale composting of poo? Mass quantities of human waste are composted in the form of biosolids. Biosolids are the organic materials resulting from the processing of sewage in a treatment facility. Biosolids are NOT sewage. Sewage is the untreated mush from everything we flush, throw down the kitchen sink, and wash down the bathroom shower. Biosolids are produced from a heavily regulated process overseen by the EPA and can be applied to crops. In fact, nearly 50% of biosolids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland.

While a significant portion of human waste is being recovered for fertilizer, many people are concerned that the heavy metals, steroids, and pharmaceuticals found in human waste will make their way into soils and crops.  However, regular testing has found that soils treated with biosolids have heavy metal concentrations significantly below the maximum permissible levels. When tested, biosolids are found to have the same concentrations of pharmaceuticals and steroids as water, soil and human bodies. Which begs the question- if these contaminants already are in the environment, does it matter if they’re in biosolids?

That’s the story on humanure. It may kill you or it may bless your garden. As long as the pile reaches high temperatures and is allowed to cure, pathogens shouldn’t be an issue for home composters (or they can invest in a $960.00 composting toilet). As for biosolids, they contain no more heavy metals or pharmaceuticals than the background environment. My take? Excrement is complicated and one should take it seriously. Tackle the turds at your own risk.

The BiG Stink: The Scoop on Poop, Part 1

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Here at the Boot we accept a wide variety of undesirables. Rotten apples, moldy bread, pumpkins way past their prime and all manner of unidentifiable and rancid brown blobs make their way into our buckets. And we’re thrilled to have them! It’s amazing to watch Mother Nature turn foul ingredients into gorgeous, odor-free black gold. While we’re open to collect just about anything that can go into your mouth, Bootstrap is less keen on what comes out the other end. You know what I’m talking about- numero dos, feces, dung, night soil (that’s a term, I swear).

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Bootstrap’s resident pooper scoopees: Cooper and Kooskia

So why isn’t Bootstrap on the turd train? After all, human waste and animal manure have been used as fertilizer for millennia, so what gives? Well, poop is complicated. Composting food is a straightforward process: throw in some scraps and a dry carbon source, keep the pile damp, turn it now and then and voila, you’ll have compost. Composting excrement is a much more delicate subject. When handling waste, one has to be mindful of bacteria, pathogens and heavy metals. These factors vary depending on the kind of waste: cats, dogs, gerbils, birds, people, ponies. Each type seems to have its own composting quirks.

Let’s start with rodents because they get a thumbs up for composting. Bootstrap accepts the waste and bedding from rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and any other rodent friends. Since pet rodents are herbivores, there is less concern about pathogens infecting compost or plants. In addition, one can safely compost manure from chickens, horses, cows, and other herbivorous animals (even elephants!).

Unlike rodents, cat poop is a big no for composting. Felines can transmit a parasite through their feces that causes toxoplasmosis. An estimated 22% of the US population is thought to have toxoplasmosis and most recover without treatment. However, infected pregnant women can pass the infection to the fetus resulting in eye and nervous system deformities. For the sake of the children, please don’t let the cat poop out of the bag.

So what about Fido? Dogs fall into the yes-and-no category for composting. Because dog waste can be packed with parasites such as roundworms, it is recommended that finished compost be used on lawns and ornamental plants instead of the vegetable patch if you’re a home composter. In fact, there seems to be a niche market for doggy do composters.

Bird droppings get a maybe for composting. In fact, I had trouble finding any definitive answers for avian waste. Chickens seem to pass the test, but concerns were raised over transmission of Salmonella, E. coli, and parasites when I checked out parrots and pigeons. There also was apprehension about seeds in droppings surviving the composting process to become weeds. Composting of fowl scat might be strictly for the birds until I find a good answer.

I covered just about every animal on the ark. Now it’s time for the most contentious pooper of all: humans. Psych. That’s a tricky topic and you’ll have to wait until next time for the low-down on humanure. Keep your eyes peeled for post number two (zing!).

The BiG Stink: On a Power Trip (or just trippin’?)

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

This week “The Big Stink” is all about power. Where’s it coming from? Who’s got it? Who wants it?

On February 9th, the Supreme Court ruled to temporarily block implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan. To be clear, the Supreme Court has not rejected the Clean Power Plan (CPP); it has merely voted that the EPA cannot enforce regulations until justices decide new rules are legal. The Clean Power Plan has multiple objectives but the regulation currently on the hotseat requires states to reduce emissions from power plants by 32% of 2005 levels by 2030. The EPA outlines several strategies to achieve the cuts such as improving efficiency of existing coal-fired plants, shifting electricity generation away from coal toward natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables, and boosting end-use efficiency by consumers to meet regulations.

coal power plant

But does the EPA have the authority to coerce states into overhauling their electricity systems? It’s up for debate. The CPP has become the most contentious and heavily litigated environmental regulation ever. Currently 27 states, utility companies, coal companies and numerous other sectors have launched more than 15 separate cases against the regulations.

“The legal circus surrounding CPP may be getting serious press but it masks that all the hoopla ultimately doesn’t matter.”

Arguments against the CPP have three main flavors. One is all about legal lingo. The current version of the Clean Air Act contains two 1990 provisions (one from the House and one from the Senate) that have conflicting language over whether the EPA can regulate toxic emissions from a “source category”- in this case power plants – that is already covered in another section of the law. Basically, no regulation double dipping.  Another argument is termed “fenceline problem.” Detractors contend the EPA cannot assume states will expand clean energy to meet emission targets because renewables are beyond the “fenceline” of power plants over which the EPA has authority. The final argument is that emissions targets place undue economic hardship on states.

The legal circus surrounding CPP may be getting serious press but it masks that all the hoopla doesn’t matter. The rhetoric that America is thumbing its nose at the international community and the Paris Agreement is overblown. The passing of Justice Scalia and the appointment of a new justice is unimportant. It is irrelevant that not one remaining Republican presidential candidate supports climate change mitigation.


Why don’t all these headlining issues matter? Because a
shift away from coal is already happening. Emissions from fossil fuel powered plants dropped 18% between 2005 and 2015 and coal accounted for a record low of 29% of power generation in 2015. Not even free-falling oil prices prevented a record $328.9 billion global investment in clean energy last year. Twelve states along with several cities are not waiting for a ruling and have already begun to move forward with new regulations.

So does the EPA have power to apply CPP? Do states have the power to manage their own emissions? Beats me. What I do know is money talks and people are putting their coin behind clean energy at unprecedented rates. No matter which way the court rules, change is on the horizon and people are powering it by voting with their dollars.

The BiG Stink: Eating by the Bucket

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Let’s debut “The Big Stink” with something we all do quite often: eating. This everyday activity has been plagued by the endless health claims of fad diets, “superfoods”, and public health misfires. Eggs are evil cholesterol orbs. Acai berries for life. Fats are bad; nevermind, only some fats are bad. This continued intellectual food fight has resulted in a confused public (and I’ll bet some gross meals too).

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“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” -Michael Pollan

Two very different voices have ushered in Round 2016 of the food fight. The first contender stepping into the (onion?) ring was Dietary Guidelines for Americans jointly published every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines are the basis for school lunches, dietitian recommendations, and food labels. They are jam packed with statistics, infographs, and incredibly specific recommendations.There’s also an exhaustive table listing acceptable consumption of macronutrients, minerals, and vitamins. This is all great information, but it wasn’t meant for average Joe to use as a handbook for healthy eating. The Guidelines were created for professionals to advise patients to consume a healthy diet. The message was clear: Johnny Public needs a doctor to tell him what to eat.

A very different message was proclaimed by author and delicious food activist Michael Pollan. In December of 2015 the PBS documentary “In Defense of Food” aired. The documentary, based on Pollan’s 2008 book of the same title, answered the question: What should I eat to be healthy? While the government’s Guidelines relied on a barrage of information filtered through professionals to solve the riddle, Pollan’s entire message was summarized in 7 words- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Boom (well, that last one’s not part of it).

“If it’s a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t.”
– Michael Pollan

Food, Pollan contends, is not the packaged monstrosities found in the center aisles of one’s local grocery. Those things packed with hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn michael pollansyrup, and wrapped in plastic are factory creations, not delicious healthy food. Food is all
the things found around the outside aisles of that same store such as vegetables, dairy products, meats, and fruit. “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” The information Pollan presented is the same found in the Guidelines. He just put an engaging bow on it and added a call to action: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I don’t want to infringe on Pollan’s genius, but I’m gonna put out my own call to action: Eat by the bucket. I’m not suggesting you eat with a bucket at your side or use the bucket for measuring portions. I mean eat things that can go in the BSC bucket. If it grows it goes and everything Pollan and the Guidelines define as healthy food can be tossed in your bucket and composted (minus meat and dairy!). So here’s the unofficial BSC guide to healthy eating: If it’s good for the bucket, it’s good for you. And that’s a food fight knockout.

The BiG Stink: Science, Policy, Environment

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

If you are a parent, sibling, teacher, honorary auntie, citizen of the world, whatever, you’ve come across a kid with a case of the whys. Why are plants green? Why is the sky blue? Why can’t I have a pony? As a kid, I had a terrible case of the whys. Fortunately for my mom, not only was I full of questions, but I had a wild imagination and invented answers before she had a chance to respond. Although everything I concocted later was debunked in the classroom, I was never disappointed enough to give up my “Faith fables.” Science, I discovered, could give me answers I would never have dreamed of (although it has yet to give me a good reason for my pony-less childhood).

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After a long morning of storming brains, Faith and Andy show off the winning title, “The Big Stink!” A blog series is born.

While I may have developed into a first-rate science nerd, other kids didn’t seem to rejoice over photosynthesis and chemistry in the same manner I did. Their lack of enthusiasm continued into adulthood; science was boring, too hard, and didn’t relate to them. Apathy toward science is maddening but understandable because the scientific community is doing a terrible job capturing the public eye. Important research never reaches the right people because the presentation is boring. All substance and no style is dandy for the fellow scientist, but it won’t fly with Johnny Public.

“Apathy toward science is maddening but understandable because the scientific community is doing a terrible job capturing the public eye.”

It seems to me that what we need is science to become a bit more relatable (and maybe even fun!) for the public at large. Thus, I present to you, “The Big Stink,” my biweekly blog series addressing not only science, but policy and environmental issues as well. I hope to kick down the ivory tower of academia and present topics of interest in a digestible manner. Speaking of digestion, stay tuned; this Thursday, we’re kicking off the series with my first post, “Eating by the Bucket,” where I address something we all do quite often, nomming!