Friday, September 3, 2010

No good deed goes unpunished

If this were an emerging fiddlehead fern, it would look OK, but it's a tomato plant affected by aminopyralid.

I think every social occasion I've been to in the last couple of months has included talk about the local compost disaster. More and more local vegetable growers and home gardeners had been turning to Smit's Compost out on Meridian north of Lynden. Nice guy, reasonably priced local product, and a win-win solution to the problem of dairy manure--the problem being that there is just so much of it. Now that most farms keep their cows confined rather than grazing on pasture throughout the year, the ratio of cows (and cowshit) to farm acreage has risen dramatically. That means fewer places on-site to safely dispose of manure.

A solution is to take the manure and bedding mixture, compost it, and sell it to the community as an organic soil amendment. Several of my gardening friends have been delighted with their product, until this season when it all went bad. Nathan Smit, no doubt unknowingly, got manure from a dairy that had gotten feed from a grower who used an herbicide containing aminopyralid.

Aminopyralid, manufactured by Dow Chemical, and marketed as Milestone and Forefront among other brand names, is in some ways a breakthrough: it's very potent, working with low application rates; it persists in the soil, so it doesn't need to be used often, unlike, say Roundup; and best of all, it seems to be a relatively low risk to humans and animals either through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion. Dow's website says "aminopyralid is practically nontoxic to birds, fish, honeybees, earthworms, and aquatic invertebrates," and the EPA agrees.

But that same persistence and lack of reactivity--it passes through a cow's digestive tract essentially unchanged--is bad, bad news for composters. Local dairy cows ate hay containing aminopyralid, Smit collected the manure and composted it, and his customers put a potent and persistent broadleaf herbicide in the soil for their tomatoes, peppers, and peas.

One of my friends, after her first sowings came up stunted in her newly composted soil, figured maybe she hadn't fertilized enough, so she applied more. Those crops are gone and the soil is contaminated, maybe for years.

My garden hasn't been affected because I make my own compost and don't use manure, but it got me wondering. I use a lot of coffee grounds in my compost bins. Should I be worried about where those beans have been before I pick up the grounds from the neighborhood espresso stand? I've been checking around on garden and agricultural sites and so far I haven't found any red flags. But one little safe garden is not the point. We need safe agriculture, and to achieve that we need transparency about what's in fertilizers.

In 2001, my friend Duff Wilson published Fateful Harvest, a good and scary book about the massive use of toxic industrial waste in commercial fertilizers, and the doublespeak process used to hide that fact from the public. Basically, once an industrial waste product is sold to a fertilizer manufacturer its label changes...from waste to ingredient. And with that new identity comes a new legal status. It no longer needs to be monitored and tracked as a waste product. As Duff established in his research, ingredients that, as waste, would need to be stored in a special toxics facility, can be simply renamed and spread on our lawns and farmers' fields.
Here's a quote from his original Seattle Times story:

"Any material that has fertilizing qualities can be labeled and used as a fertilizer, even if it contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.

The wastes come from iron, zinc, and aluminum smelting, mining, cement kilns, the burning of medical and municipal wastes, wood-product slurries and a variety of other heavy industries."

It turns out manufacturers could pay a fertilizer maker to haul away their mess for half what it would have cost them for their other option, taking it to a hazardous waste facility. The theory was "dilution is the solution," meaning that we could deal with our toxics by spreading them, thinly, over our lawns, golf-courses, hayfields, gardens and farms. Or sometimes not so thinly. Duff bought a box of Ironite fertilizer at a garden store that promised "Will not burn. Even if you apply 2 or 3 times the prescribed amount." It contained 0.5 percent arsenic and 0.25 percent lead, residue from an Arizona silver mine. It is legal under U.S. law. On the other hand, my mom's old standby MiracleGro turned out to be less toxic than the background level found in untreated soil.

No comments: