Manuring and Composting

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Livestock manures are the most traditional and widely recognized organic fertilizers. Under ideal circumstances, livestock enterprises are integrated into the whole farm operation, and manuring becomes part of a closed system of nutrient recycling. This is still strongly encouraged in organic operations. In reality, however, crops and livestock production are often divorced from each other, and manures must be imported.

This has created some concerns in the organic community, since much manure is now generated by large, industrial agriculture feeding operations called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Not only are there concerns about contaminants (heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, hormones) but many in the organic community also object to any "partnering" with this segment of conventional agriculture, which is considered at odds with the environmental and social values represented by organic farming.

Nonetheless, the National Organic Program does not differentiate between CAFO and other livestock manure sources. However, the NOP regulations do require that livestock manure not contain any synthetic substances not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.

Another issue that has grown up around manure use in organic farming relates to food safety. At a time when concerns about microbial contamination are high, there are questions about the risks associated with manure use on food crops. A focus piece on the February 2000 television news program 20/20 was especially controversial. The segment suggested that organic foods were more dangerous than other food products in the marketplace due to manure fertilization. (22) The reporter ignored the fact that conventional farms also use manures. Were all the manure generated annually in the U.S. (about 1.4 billion tons) applied only to organic farm acreage (estimated at roughly 1.5 million acres in 1997), each acre would receive about 933 tons. (23) Furthermore, certified organic producers have strict guidelines to follow in handling and applying manures. The National Organic Program regulations require raw animal manure be incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles, and be incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles.

One of the best means of handling manures is composting. Composting stabilizes the nutrients in manure, builds populations of beneficial organisms, and has a highly beneficial effect on soils and crops. Compost can be produced on-farm by a number of means. Additional products from composts, such as compost teas, have special applications in organic agriculture.

Human manures are expressly forbidden in certified organic production. This includes composted sewage sludge (also called "biosolids"). The organic community made its opinion on this quite clear when the USDA's first draft of the national rule (December 1997) proposed allowing the use of sludge in certified production. It was counted as one of the "big three" targets of protest, along with food irradiation and genetic engineering. The prohibition of biosolids would have been disconcerting to Albert Howard, who decried the failure of cities to return their organic wastes to the countryside. Such recycling was, in his mind, a key aspect of sustainability.(7)

What Howard had not taken into account is the almost universal contamination of urban wastes

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