Soil

Soil is the Solution, or the most important environmental story I’ll ever write

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

I first published this post as part of the the Climate Change SOS Blogathon on Daily Kos, featuring a lot of prominent thinkers in the climate movement like Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, and Richard Heinberg. It was also republished on the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin.

Sven,

toptubershands“Soil is the Solution” might be the most important environmental story you’ll ever write. It is part of the solution to our environmental challenges. The story belongs on the front of the NY Times and on 60 Minutes.

– Email from Robert Reed, composting manager at Recology, San Francisco’s waste management company

This is a story of hope and possibility in times of great turmoil and struggle.

A few months ago I was working on an article about San Francisco’s pioneering efforts to become the world’s first zero-waste city by 2020.

Chronicling this journey toward a current nation-leading 78 percent waste diversion rate, a major focus of the story was on the city’s mandatory composting program that has played a huge role in keeping over a million tons of food scraps, plant trimmings, soiled paper, and other compostable materials from clogging up landfills and releasing methane into the atmosphere.

I was particularly interested in the idea of the food cycle, and it was heartening to see just how far along the City by the Bay has come in closing it: each day 600 tons of sloppy goodness from hundreds of thousands of residents, businesses, and over 5,000 restaurants gets shipped to a local state of the art composting facility, from where it returns to residents’ dinner tables in the form of fresh, organic foods grown by local farmers who use the city’s nutrient-rich compost as fertilizer.

It wasn’t until after the story was published that I was alerted to the most remarkable and possibly game-changing discovery about urban compost: its potential to offset 20 percent and perhaps as much as 40 percent of America’s carbon emissions!

Please follow me below the tuber curtain to dig a little deeper…

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Shortly after the article went live I received an email from Robert Reed, composting manager at SF’s waste management company Recology, telling me how much he enjoyed the piece, but that there was one benefit of composting that I had failed to mention. He said that vineyards and farms were now using San Francisco’s compost not just to grow fruits and vegetables, but to grow cover crops that pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

These were his exact words:

That is remarkable and a partial fix for climate change. If everyone did it and if we planted more trees on marginal soils, we could offset 20 percent of America’s carbon emissions!

He also sent me some photos and descriptions that illustrate how this method has been applied by local farmers who’ve been planting cover crops with SF compost…

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Cover crops being grown at Chateau Montelena with San Francisco compost. Please note the way the crops are planted between the rows of vines. The 8-foot-wide hallway, between the rows of vines, is previously unused agricultural space, high-quality ag space. Vineyard crews drill holes in the floor of the vineyard and put cover crops seeds in the holes. Then they apply compost made from food scraps collected in San Francisco over the floor of the vineyard.

Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy of Recology.

Now, I had heard plenty about planting trees and forests to absorb CO2, but it takes a lot of open land to do that, so if indeed we could use already existing and unused farmland to sequester carbon, that would truly be a win-win situation. Working for one of the most serious (no)-waste management companies in the world, I trusted that Robert wasn’t just making this up, but he insisted I didn’t take his word for it and connected me with the people who have been studying and working with compost and cover crops for years.

First I got in touch with Fulbright Scholar and former Rodale Institute Research Director, Paul Hepperly. In his research, Dr. Hepperly found that applying food scrap compost to one acre of land can add 12,000 pounds of carbon to the soil in one year, taking it out of the atmosphere, while conventional farming — tilling the land, using commercial fertilizers, etc. — releases 3,700 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per acre per year.

In a nutshell, what happens is that these cover crops like mustard, beans, anise, or wild iris grow long roots that carry carbon 14 inches into the soil. The nitrogen-rich urban compost itself also retains carbon, provides carbon to the soil, and helps enable the earth to store carbon.

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Vineyards in Northern California apply compost made from food scraps to grow cover crops such as mustard and beans. That stimulates microbial activity and helps turn farms into carbon sinks.

Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy of Recology.

According to Dr. Hepperly, one of the big problems with our present approach to the greenhouse gas issue is a lack of a holistic perspective. While we’re trying to find ways to reduce emissions we have not looked at the enormous potential that sequestration of carbon and nitrogen in our soil has for counteracting not only agricultural emissions but the emissions for transportation and industrial sources.

To illustrate this point, all you need to do is look at the current dismal 3% nationwide composting rate. What this means is not only that we’re letting 97% of our food scraps needlessly fill up landfills across the U.S. and release methane into the atmosphere, but we’re squandering a huge opportunity to use a simple natural food cycle to pull loads of carbon back into the ground. Not to mention the restorative effect of returning carbon and nitrogen to our eroding topsoils and nutritional value to our food. It’s full circle!

Here’s what it looks like when soil is getting nutrient-enriched from cover crops versus when it isn’t…

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These hallways offer a very good location to grow cover crops. This photo shows two vineyard tracts, one planted with mustard using this technique. The other without. These crops deliver two charges or carbon 14 inches and deliver nutrients 14 inches into the soil. The first charge comes from carbon we are able to preserve in the finished compost. The second is carbon that cover crops pull out of the atmosphere. The nutrients are nutrients in the food scraps that we preserve in the finished compost.

Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy of Recology.

As amazing as this is, it didn’t seem like rocket science to me. I mean, long before industrial agriculture and chemical fertilizers created the illusion of flawlessly chiseled vegetables magically appearing on Walmart shelves, farmers and the general population alike knew that compost is one of the most precious, life-giving resources on earth. My mom, who grew up in a rural area of Southern Germany, has always treated compost like gold. Any amateur gardener covets her food waste like a Momma Bear her cub.

So how did we get to a place where we’re throwing away over 97% of all our food waste?

I got some of the answers to this question from Bob Shaffer, an agronomist based in Glen Ellen, CA, who’s been compost-consulting with vineyards and farms all over California and Hawaii for many years and who is one of the main liaisons between Recology and the Northern California agricultural community. A former farmer himself, Bob told me that the practice of applying compost to cover crops is not only catching on among small farmers concerned about erosion and producing high mineral value food, but among big players like General Mills eager to restore their soils ravaged from decades of chemical fertilizers.

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Agronomist Bob Shaffer shows long roots of a mustard plant. The roots carry nutrients and carbon deep into the soil. By composting 620,000 tons San Francisco residents and businesses returned nutrients to local farms and sequestered, or put back into the soil, 18,400 metric tons of CO2. Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy of Recology.

“We take our most precious land and we raise crops at great cost. We take our best people — well trained farmers, scientists, universities — into a system raising that food. We use chemicals and all that junk to raise it. Then we transport the food 2000 miles — another great cost — and then we cook it and throw much of it away!

If we allow this to go on any longer, not only are we poisoning ourselves with methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, we fill up our landfills, which we don’t have any room for, and we’re not getting the most precious thing that we raise, high mineral value food, back into the soil where it belongs. Now that’s a full-blown crisis.”

– Bob Shaffer

The problem now, according to Bob, is that while Recology produces about 150,000 cubic yards of compost annually and supplies more than 200 Napa Valley wineries, the demand for this precious resource is getting so high, the dismal 3% national composting rate is causing severe shortages.

On one hand, this is exciting, as it shows that more and more growers are realizing the great benefits not only to their own soils and crops but their unique position in being part of the solution to climate change. Bob told me that some of the larger Big Ag companies like General Mills are even beginning to produce their own compost by designating entire fields to growing giant grasses like Miscanthus, switchgrass, and Arundo donax that not only sequester carbon in their deep roots but whose cuttings make for great nutrient-rich composting material. “We’ll grow our own carbon,” he says. It’s a win win, because we don’t have to transport it, we don’t have to buy it, it puts carbon back where it belongs, back into the plant, and we chop the plant, compost it, and composting is the process that stabilizes carbon and nitrogen.”

And yet, the scope of composting programs around the country is still so miniscule that we are missing one of the most natural and promising opportunities right before our eyes to sequester huge amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

While San Francisco has led the way in showing what’s possible with a mandatory composting program and a state of the art composting facility…

The composting program alone has diverted one million tons of waste from landfill disposal. By reducing methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced in landfills and by sequestering carbon in the topsoil of local farms, the program has created a total carbon dioxide equivalent benefit of more than 305,944 metric tons – equal to offsetting emissions from all vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge for two years (greenhouse gas offsets based on a protocol set by the Climate Action Reserve).

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Landfills no. Farms yes. San Francisco residents and businesses have placed 1 million tons of food scraps and plants in green bins collected at the curb. Recology turned that feedstock into 600,000 cubic yards of finished compost that is applied to local farms and vineyards. Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy of Recology.

…many municipalities poised to start their own composting programs find themselves running up against not only a perceived “yuckiness” factor among residents but a maze of arcane composting regulations that make it difficult to build new composting facilities. And no surprise, big pharma and producers of chemical fertilizers are lobbying against new facilities.

To all the people involved in municipal composting, this movement to drastically ramp up urban compost production to use as cover crops is the great untold story in the fight against a warming planet. As the devastating effects of climate change are manifesting at an ever increasing frequency and the calls for action are getting louder and stronger, we have an incredible opportunity to educate Americans about the relationship between soil, food, health, and climate and advocate for the common sense policies that will create urban composting programs, modern composting facilities, and an increasing number of farmers who use cover crops to restore their soils, and with it, the earth’s ecosystem.

As for me, I have pitched this story to a number of major publications, with no response so far. I may not be the most credentialed writer to tell this story, but I know it needs to be told, so we can start getting the word out on this holistic, common sense, and all around beneficial solution to climate change.

Last I heard from Paul Hepperly, his research showed that it could be possible to offset up to 40 percent of greenhouse gases by utilizing more holistic farming practices.

Someone please tell the New York Times and 60 Minutes…

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Sven Eberlein, aka citisven, is a freelance journalist who writes about all kinds of futuristic stuff like biking, walking, and talking to the neighbors. He often wonders about where the “away” is for the things we throw and would love to follow a burrito from his favorite Taqueria to a Bay Area farm and back. He can be reached by New York Times editors, 60 Minutes producers, and all other compost enthusiasts here or here.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

9 Comments

    • wow, that is so incredibly cool! Mikayla is indeed inspiring, and adorable! I’m wondering if you have tried to connect with Will Allen’s Growing Power, they’ve done all kinds of community agriculture programs and they specialize in Red Wigglers!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, I’ll keep my eye out on mypetwormyworm.info for sure!

  • I live in LIvermore, CA, just east of San Fran, where we have an easy composting program established. Livermore is surrounded by vineyards that are doing the same practice you’ve pictured above. Once a system is set up, it is surprisingly easy to use with little thought or effort. The key is organizing a full circle system.

    Fantastic article!!

    • Yay Livermore! I’ve heard that the vineyards are really booming there, and so glad to hear they’re working with compost and cover crops, Monica.

      Thanks for stopping by and reading, the post really caught a nerve, almost all positive, over at Daily Kos, where it got hundreds of comments.

  • To hear of such a talented writer having trouble getting such an important story out there makes my head spin. I believe one of the reasons for the lack of interest is that people don’t have a visual picture of the problem. Landfills are tucked away behind berms and fences, buried like military waste in the hopes it will be forgotten, the shear volume of it unimaginable and never shown. Plus, for a long time I thought landfills WERE compost sites, where decomposition was encouraged. I now know how wrong that is. Has anyone ever dug out a core sample, like the stuff of glaciers, and shown the world the ancient banana peel that lies in waste among the plastic and sofa cushions, forever removed from the cycle?

    • Thanks Ruth. I think one of the more practical problems may also be that I have a hard time getting the pitch to the right editors. Some of my pitches probably landed in their slush pile, and some other publications don’t even have an editorial contact page. So it’s a little bit of a game of who you know, just as with so many things. Now I do have some connections and I’ll probably be able to write about this some more in other publications, but the real big hitters with wide circulations seem to have very tight gatekeepers. While I was holding out for a while I just started feeling like the story needs to be told and so I put it out there. Maybe some big magazine will get on it and have one of their staff writers pursue it. That’s fine with me, the more the merrier.

      And yes about landfills, they are out of sight out of mind, and no they don’t compost, everything just gets thrown in big plastic burrito tarps and then they just fill layer upon layer of organic and non-organic materials. I’m sure people have dug out samples. From what I hear, a lot of stuff never decomposes in a landfill, like you could pull out a newspaper from 100 years ago and read it.

  • Great story Sven…don’t sell yourself short! I’ll take your passion and commitment over the so-called credentialed writers. Which does beg the question…why isn’t such a great idea not a bigger deal? A local friend turned me on to this issue by trying to compost his household food waste and a neighbor took exception to his compost pile and turned him into the health department for trying to attract pests! Clearly, this is an opportunity for more education. Reading the article I kept jumping a head and wondered why crops for capturing carbon aren’t planted more universally and could this be another reason to grow hemp? Thanks for your links which answered a question I had about how San Francisco actually collects this biodegradable gold.

    • Thanks Al… I do think I could do a pretty decent job at writing this story, I think the hurdle is more of a “who you know” issue than actual qualification. Or it could simply be that compost is just not sexy enough for editors to deem it a story that would sell. Obviously, and as you point out, there is still a huge mental hurdle that this society has when it comes not only to food waste but waste in general. It’s the whole “stash your trash” mantra, out of sight, out of mind. There’s something almost taboo about the things we throw away, as if it weren’t part of the planet and of ourselves.

      I think the reason this is not (yet) happening on a larger scale is because a) we’re still debating in this country whether climate change is real, and b) we’ve become so removed from the natural cycle that the most obvious and natural solutions seem too far away to grasp. I think people are more likely to imagine big techie space shuttles sucking carbon out of the air than using long-established natural processes. But I do think this will become a bigger story in the next few years, this is just the beginning. If nothing else, I can say I was ahead of the time. 😉

      I’m not sure about hemp as a cover crop, I’ll have to check into it. I think it depends on how deep the roots are. Let me know if you find anything out about that.

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