City Compost Programs Boost Food Security and Social Justice
By Kristen DeAngelis, Gwynne Mhuireach and Sue Ishaq
Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many Americans' relationships with food. To relieve some of the stress associated with shopping safely for groceries and ensure food security, many people are once again planting "victory gardens." This tradition hearkens back to previous generations who cultivated home gardens during both World Wars.
Interest was high even before the pandemic. In 2014 the National Gardening Association reported that 42 million U.S. households – about 1 out of every 3 – grew some kind of food, either at home or in community gardens.
But home gardening isn't always easy. Poor soil quality will hamper vegetable growth and food production. And many gardeners, especially in lower-income communities, don't have access to resources that can improve the soil.
We are scholars who have analyzed the power of microbes in settings that include forest soils and permafrost, the built environment, and digestive systems and agricultural soils. In our view, the time has come for major public investments in a well-known gardening resource: compost.
Microbes make compost by breaking down organic matter, such as food scraps. Compost improves soil health so dramatically it's often called "black gold." Large-scale municipal composting is a public resource that can reduce food waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote better stewardship of our most valuable natural resource: soil.
How Compost Feeds Soils
Healthy soils are living mixtures of minerals, microbes, organic matter, water and air. Unhealthy soils may contain fewer microbes or less organic material. This makes them less active and less helpful for plants. Poor soils have trouble holding water, and are unable to decompose organic material into usable building blocks for new growth.
Making degraded soils healthier requires feeding the microbes. They need new organic matter – plant or animal tissues – that they can break down and recycle.
In healthy soil, some of that food comes from growing plants that fix carbon from sunlight and pump almost half of it, in the form of sugars, into the soil. In exchange, the microbes provide other nutrients that plants can't acquire on their own.
Soil microbes also feed on old organic matter, like leaf litter and dead roots. And new biochemical analyses suggest that when these microbes die, they become part of soil organic matter themselves.
To make good compost, you mix green plant waste, like vegetable peels, garden leaf litter or straw, with brown organic matter like soil or manure. Then, over weeks to months, microbes turn the mix into compost, which looks just like soil.
This process produces heat as the microbes break chemical bonds in the plant matter, releasing energy. Compost piles can reach internal temperatures up to 170 degrees F. The heat kills potential microbial pathogens that can ride along with manure inputs.
When gardeners add compost to soils, the organic matter in the compost acts like a sponge for water. It also is a reservoir for nitrogen, phosphorus and other micronutrients that plants need to grow.
Access to Compost Is an Equity Issue
If compost is such a great resource, why don't more people make their own? In many ways, healthy soil is a luxury. For starters, it takes time to set up a compost pile, followed by continued maintenance – adding browns and greens at the right intervals, watering the pile and turning it over weekly in summer or monthly in winter.
Composting also takes tools and construction materials that not all aspiring gardeners can afford. It requires access to space, and a friendly regulatory environment that allows residents to create compost piles, which can produce odors and attract pests if they are not managed properly.
Factors like these are increasing interest in municipal composting programs, in which a community collects and processes residents' organic materials. These programs typically accept food and yard waste from restaurants, schools, businesses and local residents, and create a large-scale, professionally run composting facility.
Municipal composting saves money for communities by diverting food waste from landfills. It also promotes sustainability by reducing emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas produced in landfills when waste breaks down in the absence of oxygen. And combining lots of different waste sources improves the breakdown of organic materials and generates more nutritious compost.
Many municipal programs allot participants a certain volume of compost in return for the waste they provide. And some offer pickup and delivery.
Growing Compost Programs
We encourage people with the necessary time and resources to try home composting. However, creating and supporting municipal composting is necessary to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food waste and increase access to healthy soil.
Among U.S. cities, leaders in promoting city-scale composting services include San Francisco, Seattle, and smaller cities like Burlington, Vermont. These programs rely on local ordinances that either offer incentives or require restaurants and other large food waste sources to compost food waste instead of sending it to landfills.
Municipal composting needs consumer support to attract and retain funding and other resources. Demands for land, especially in urban settings, can spur city governments to sell underfunded or underutilized community spaces for commercial use – especially if local neighborhoods lack social capital to advocate for themselves.
Promoting community-based food production and recycling waste via composting provides many benefits. It creates jobs, expands access to healthy fruits and vegetables, improves the local environment – especially the soil – and helps mitigate climate change. Best of all, investing in local agriculture helps boost the local economy, especially for those who need it most: people seeking better access to safe and nutritious food.
Kristen DeAngelis is an Associate Professor of Microbiology, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Gwynne Mhuireach is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Biology and the Built Environment, University of Oregon.
Sue Ishaq is an Assistant Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Maine
Kristen DeAngelis receives funding from the DOE and NSF to study soil health, microbial communities and climate change. She is also affiliated with the Massachusetts Healthy Soils Action Plan Working Group as a volunteer and part of the 30-member Work Group of soil and wetland scientists, conservationists, farmers, foresters, and researchers.
Gwynne Mhuireach receives funding from USDA NIFA to explore soil microbial communities in urban gardens.
Sue Ishaq receives funding from USDA NIFA for research on soil microbial communities in agriculture.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- Can the U.S. Slash Food Waste in Half in the Next Ten Years ... ›
- The Global Progress of Composting Food Waste - EcoWatch ›
- Find Out Which U.S. City Shames You Into Composting - EcoWatch ›
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›