The Fire Chief Project: Coming soon to a health food store near you?

The organic food community has taken an anti-biosolids stance. Maybe it’s time clean-water professionals intervened.

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First Whole Foods made it a policy not to buy produce grown using biosolids. Now other health food purveyors are falling in line. Among the latest: the Easton (Pa.) Farmers’ market. As clean-water professionals, do you just let it happen? Or do you make an effort to give a different side of the story?

As reported on LehighValleyLive.com, an online extension of The Express Times newspaper, the Easton Farmers’ Market Winter Mart presented “Sludge Diet,” a video documentary about the adverse health effects of applying biosolids (which they of course call “sludge”) to farmland. If you were to guess that this documentary paints a less than favorable picture of biosolids, you would be very right.

According to the newspaper article, “Sludge, or biosolids, is made of mostly human waste and can contain other materials and disease-causing microorganisms. Class A doesn’t have the pathogens but Class B can contain them.”

The leader of the Easton market told the newspaper that the organization has guidelines that prohibit farming practices like using genetically modified organisms and irradiated seeds, and that customers are asking “harder and harder questions.”

She learned about issue from – you guessed it – people who are strongly against biosolids: members of a group called Sludge Free UMBT and a town supervisor from Lower Mount Bethel Township, which considered but rejected an ordinance to ban the land application of biosolids.
The 52-minute “Sludge Diet” video was shown to the Easton group by United Sludge-Free Alliance of Berks County; a question-answer session followed.

Easton market representatives say that they are “concerned about the lack of scientific research done on sludge as well as its makeup” and are “seriously thinking of not allowing farmers to use the sludge to grow their products,” according to the news story.

Next could be an amendment to the market’s bylaws to include a prohibition of sludge-grown produce. “But our first step is to educate our customers about this hazard,” the market’s director told the newspaper. “We’re all about offering transparency and allowing our shoppers to make their own informed choices.”

And right there is an opening for clean-water professionals to enter a dialog. Of course, a member of the profession isn’t going to be able to turn organic food advocates in favor of biosolids just be showing up at a meeting. And one can argue that bans of produce grown with biosolids won’t make much of a dent anyway, because the vast majority of biosolids are applied to animal feed crops and forests, and used for landfill cover and mine reclamation.

But what happens to acceptance of beneficial biosolids use when well-educated and passionate people – as many health food advocates are – have negative perceptions? In that event they are more inclined than they otherwise would be to question or outright oppose any use of biosolids on farms and the landscape.

The most interesting statement above is that there is a “lack of scientific research” on biosolids. The reality is that among fertilizers and soil amendments, biosolids are probably the most studied and certainly the best regulated product on the market. Would it make a difference if health food advocates who oppose biosolids knew just that one fact? I think it would.

So, what will you and your team do when and if a health food store or farm market in your community holds a meeting to discuss a ban on produce grown with biosolids, or to show a documentary like “Sludge Diet”? Will you read about it in the paper and just watch it pass? Or maybe you’d consider going to the event and at some point raising your hand to say, “Hello, I’m John/Mary Jones from the Any City Clean-Water Plant, and I’m here to share what I know about biosolids from my research and experience. I am happy to answer any questions.”

That takes courage, I’ll admit. But it could be courage well rewarded. If you decide to take on this challenge, or if at some time you have already done so, I would be glad to hear about the results. Share your experience in an email to editor@tpomag.com.

Remember, you’ll never achieve the status of the fire chief as long as some people in your community believe you may be peddling poison.



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