Prairie Dog Science: Curb Side Food Waste, Kitchen Scraps, Green Cones, Composting & Heavy Metals!

Diogenes the Dog

I’d like to take a little time to put it straight.  Searching for the truth is hard work.  Most of us are a little lazy.  We are busy and we may prefer to put our trust in others who we want to believe in assuming they will tell us the truth.   Socrates encouraged the youth to think and was accused of corrupting society.  Instead of thinking about a subject deeply we rely upon those we trust to give us the answers……….and going against the standard may make you less than popular.

We put our trust in our leaders, in our government, in our experts to give us the best advice.  How do we know they are giving us good advice?  Are we being told the truth?

Perhaps we should take a little advice from the great Greek Philosopher Diogenes who always had a way of putting those who were vane and pretentious or powerful in the right place.  He was loved by many because he could with wit and comedy make the point.  He was nick named by Athenians “the dog” (The Greek word for dog is “cynic”).

Diogenes’ teacher, Antisthenes, who was a Socrates pupil, founded the Greek school of cynicism.  It was Diogenes who trusted no one and who became one of the great cynics.  Diogenes said that there was only one good, namely knowledge; and one only evil, namely, ignorance.

Perhaps he is better known for his walking about the streets of Athens in broad daylight waving a lantern announcing he was searching to find an “honest man”.

It seems all too often we can get the answers if we just make the effort to get it right.  But we are easily fooled.  And when we are lead astray, the damage can be truly devastating.

A good example of how far astray we may be led is the simple story of the obsession to rid the land of prairie dogs.  Here the ranchers who would have never succeeded had it not been for the government stepping in to pay for the poisoning of prairie dogs got what they wanted……..a nearly complete eradication to our detriment.  The government officials relied upon hearsay instead of sound science.

Prairie Dog Science

Prairie dogs once occupied nearly a fifth of the land defining North America and their subterranean towns swept across the Great Plains of North America as far as the eye could see.  They were a keystone species of great ecological relevance and their frequent cropping of the grasslands to a level that allowed them to see predators resulted in rich vibrant and succulent forage.  It fed huge buffalo, elk, pronghorn, deer and antelope herds that where ecologically in check.

In the late 1880’s ranchers begin poisoning the prairie dogs because they thought they were reducing the forage that cattle could otherwise have taken had the prairie dogs not groomed the land.  Some thought it was best to eradicate the prairie dogs.  It proved initially too expensive and the ranchers would not have succeeded in this effort had it not been for the government stepping in.

The U.S. Biological Survey (a precursor to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service) bought into the rancher arguments that range land productivity was being reduced by 50 – 75% because of prairie dog interference.  All out war was declared on the prairie dog and they now occupy less than 2% of the land once occupied.

Because the government relied upon hearsay rather than scientific facts, the land was forever changed and taxpayers lost a fortune poisoning prairie dogs.  Common sense might have helped had it been applied.  The fact is that the prairie dog produced a range of grassland that was far superior to that which was acquired after the poisoning.

I’d like to make a few predictions and comments.

Composting and Green House Gases

The EPA announced that carbon dioxide release and emission is a danger to human health and bad for the planet on April 17, 2009.  All contributors should be held accountable and make an effort to reduce or eliminate their emissions.

No longer are the arguments that composting is a sustainable natural, or good for the planet practice valid.  More than 50% of the carbon is released into the atmosphere along with nitrous oxides, ammonia, heat and water vapor.  Does it make sense to send food waste back to compost?

Food waste can be far more rapidly processed by anaerobic fermentation at home and industrially where it is then buried in the soil and rapidly degraded to produce a rich nutrient soil.

Does it make sense to send food scraps in tiny bins to the curbside to stand in the heat for a week before it is picked up and delivered to a composting facility miles away for subsequent processing?  Does anyone think vermin…rats and insects will leave those bins alone?

I believe in a few years people will look back and wonder… “What were they thinking when they set aside good land that could have been used for other purposes”…..sending waste to be composted.

Kitchen Scraps & Green Cones

I don’t know about you…….but it makes me a little uneasy if my neighbor can opt out of using curbside pick up by putting food and kitchen scraps into his compost pile.  Once we were told not to put meat or dairy products into compost.  Why not?  We all know what happens.  It will putrefy.  Rats will be attracted.  It produces a smelling gas polluting mess…..not good for any garden and definitely something you don’t want in your neighbor’s garden.

Some people have recommended using Green Cones that are supposed to “compost” kitchen scraps.  Some municipalities are suggesting this is a good alternative way of treating food waste.  I think you should come to your own conclusions about this method of disposing of food waste.

How good is the science behind the Green Cone?  If you look at the statements of how it is supposed to use the sun’s heat to cause oxygen to circulate and get to all the waste put in the cone…….all sounds good.  But take a closer look at how it is constructed.  The waste is dumped into a basket sitting at the bottom of the cone, under ground with no mechanism for oxygen to flow through the rotting waste.

Anyone who has tried to compost waste material knows full well it has to be turned frequently to get adequate oxygenation.  But there is no turning in the Green Cone.  Food scraps are just tossed into the cone landing in the pit at the bottom where the rotting commences.

Composting requires temperatures of 110 to 140 F ideally to adequately convert plant debris to compost.  There is no heating at the cone’s base coming anywhere near these temperatures. The cones above the ground; the rotting waste is in the pit below the cone.  Has anyone measured the temperature in the pit?  How hot is the air in the cone on cloudy days?

When I asked the “scientific writer” who repeated the claims of the manufacturer of Green Cones to please show me some evidence supporting the claims that it is composting the food waste, the WEB master told me they were going to take the page down instead of providing me with any documentation.  It appears that the claims were not peer reviewed by any scientific panel of experts…..but there are claims that this is a good way of treating food waste.  This sounds a lot like the prairie dog science to me.

I believe the evidence is totally lacking.  Another claim is made about killing microbes.  As a scientist who has for many years worked with microbes, I know what it takes to kill microbes effectively and the conditions appear more likely to support the growth and spread of microbes to me.  We’ve got a warm dark and moist environment with lots of food material to support growth.  Putting all food scraps in this cone including meat will in my opinion promote microbial growth.

I asked for evidence that Salmonella and E. coli would not survive in the Green Cone as was claimed.  I received one single study where 6 samples were tested for the presence of E. coli or Salmonella after the Green Cone had been in use for a period of time.  None was found so it was concluded that the Green Cone gets rid of these organisms.  Most people know that is not a statistically significant study and a single study would not justify concluding the Green Cone is safe at eliminating these dangerous microbes.  I’d like to see them spike the rotting pile with a known pathogen and then test over time to see how long it takes for it to be eliminated.

There is a bit of good news.  It has to do with soil microbes.  Fortunately for us the microbes that inhabit our soils are very effective at killing many microbes.  Buried pathogens can be destroyed.  I don’t want to get too morbid….but animals and humans too do get buried……..and those microbes are certainly rendered useless by soil microbes over time.  Most of our antibiotics come from soil molds, fungi, and microbes that have inhibitory or killing activity against invaders.

Tests have been done on pathogenic E. coli and it is known that if you bury these organisms in the soil they can be killed.  But it can take a very long time if the microbial count is high. They can also hitch a ride in protozoa extending their survival quite significantly so it is better to not let them get started if at all possible.

The difference between letting something rot on the surface or in a pit and burying it is great.  When you bury something in the soil microbes can get at the food and inhibit other microbes like E. coli or Salmonella.  When rotting material sits in a pit or on the surface, the rain can carry those cultivated rotting masses of waste with their microbes to lakes, ponds, rivers, and waterways where they may overwhelm the local flora.  I don’t think this is what we want.

I’ll take the Diogenes position.  I’m going to remain cynical about these claims.  I hope my neighbors concur.

Compost Temperature Sterilizing?

Here is another laugher that commonly gets repeated again and again by people who should know better.  Frequently composters will state that you have to get the temperature high enough to “kill” the bugs.  They imply that running a compost pile at the high temperature will kill microbes.  The temperature “sterilizes” the pile.  I hear it all the time.

Many commercial composting facilities even suggest you would not have to worry about pathogens because the high temperature of composting will kill the organisms.

Let’s think this one through for a moment.  If the temperature was high enough to kill microbes the composting (done by microbes) would stop.  You could not get compost.  You need those microbes to make compost!

Obviously the compost temperatures are not high enough to “sterilize” anything.  The best argument one could make is that it is a kind of pasteurization process.  You might reduce some microbes but most will survive just fine…thank you very much.

True pathogenic organisms (those that can harm humans and animals) are very tenacious and can survive very high temperatures.  It is for that reason the autoclave was adopted as a standard way of sterilizing medical devices and equipment.  It requires temperatures of 212 F and pressure to adequately destroy most microbes.  And these conditions must be sustained for a period of time to get effective killing.

Next time you hear a master gardener or an official tell you composting kills the microbes…..ask them if they would like to have their doctor sterilize the instruments using similar temperatures before their next medical procedure.

This brings forth another concern and puzzle that remains to me a mystery.  There are a lot of smart people around who should know better.  Most health departments in the city and health inspectors know perfectly well that it takes a lot higher temperature to kill microbes.  They know a lot about epidemics and how they get started.  Why do they remain silent when such statements are publicly made by officers and officials trying to assure the public that all is right……don’t worry about “bugs”.

I am certain these officers mean well, but they are repeating statements (hearsay) that are simply untrue.  Isn’t it the responsibility of educated people to provide guidance about these matters?  It’s more prairie dog science.

Heavy Metal!

I’m really talking about Lead, Arsenic, Copper…….the metals that cause problems when people ingest them.  They are bad for your health.  Have you ever wondered how they get into the soil?

Of course there are a lot of ways this can happen, but many people don’t realize how many heavy metals are found in off the shelf ordinary fertilizer.  You are getting a lot of extras when you buy a bag of fertilizer.  Based on these findings I would be very concerned about using any fertilizers in my vegetable garden.

Realize that all those lawn clippings and shrub clippings that went to your recycle bin ended up at the commercial compost facility.  Even if you didn’t use fertilizer, the heavy metals from your neighbor’s yard ended up in the compost cycle.  Compost is supposed to be tested for heavy metals before it can be sold.   Okay…….can I be sure?  You should be your own judge.

The problem with heavy metals is that they accumulate and concentrate.  With each load brought into a site, the process of composting results in a build up of the non-volatile heavy metals.  The only way to be certain that things are safe is to test adequately for contamination.

If you process your food scraps on your own land and do not use compost from the commercial facilities unless you are certain it is free of heavy metals, and you don’t use those badly contaminated fertilizers, then you won’t accumulate metals in your vegetable garden.

I’m sorry to say that even with bokashi…..there are prairie dog scientists.  Often I hear advocates raving about the benefits of rice bran over wheat bran without documenting scientifically why this would be true.  The bran is the food stock sustaining the microbes while they are safely stored before they are put on the food waste.  Ironically tests have shown rice bran but not wheat bran is moderately contaminated with arsenic.  Oxides of arsenic when ingested are known carcinogens and there appears to be nearly a linear relationship between renal cell carcinoma and the level of arsenic in the water supply.

I hope I’ve made the point that good science is essential.  We’ve got to ask questions and be especially skeptical when it comes to matters that affect our health and our climate.  What on the surface sounds reasonable may just turn out to be prairie dog science.  Diogenes would be right at home…even in today’s world.

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