News Feature | March 6, 2014

Whole Foods Bans Sludge Fertilizer

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Whole Foods is taking a stand against sludge.

The natural and organic grocer "is dictating what kind of fertilizer the farmers that grow its produce can use. Specifically, the company recently confirmed that the produce rating system it's launching in September will prohibit produce farmed using sludge," NPR reported

Sludge is a fertilizer created from treated municipal waste. "And though many farmers gladly accept sludge to enrich their soil, it's a product with a pretty big PR problem," the report said.

The debate over the safety of sludge is pretty polarized.

Many utilities hold that sludge is safe. "Chris Peot of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority states that biosolids are very safe. According to him, sludge doesn’t pose a risk to anyone eating produce grown with it—and he’s constantly testing it. While it does contain faint traces of metals, that doesn’t mean it can’t be managed safely with vigilance," the Daily Meal reported.

But some activists take the opposite view. "If human wastes were the only thing entering the sewage treatment plants, then sewage sludge would be a relatively safe, nutrient-rich fertilizer that could be safely returned to the land. However, sewage treatment plants also inevitably receive industrial and household toxic wastes," Natural Life magazine argued.

A small group of activists claims that biosolids threaten the health of produce. They say it is "full of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals. They argue that when farmers use biosolids to nourish their soils, they're putting consumers at risk of getting sick," the report said.

The Sierra Club, for instance, opposes the practice of composting sludge. The environmental lobbying group said it is against "using contaminated toxics-containing or pathogen-containing waste as a compost ingredient. Such wastes would include, for example, coal ash, spent foundry sand, industrial sludges, and municipal sewage sludges." 

How does the EPA handle the sludge issue? When the agency developed the standards for biosolids, "it identified the chemicals and metals that are the greatest risk to human health and the environment and set strict concentration limits on them," according to NPR.

Here's how Whole Foods explains its decision: "Whole Foods spokeswoman Lindsay Robison [said] that biosolids were banned in the name of transparency and being consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, which doesn't allow the material on fields where any certified organic product is grown," according to NPR. 

"But, she adds, the company's new biosolids ban won't actually impact any of the company's growers because, as far as the company knows, none of them use the material," the report said. 


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