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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2008

Safe Food and Fertilizer

Food Is a Four-Letter Word

Each year, approximately 110 billion pounds of fertilizer are applied to farm fields throughout the US. Unfortunately, almost one-half of that total is non-nutrient material of unknown composition. The fertilizer industry has acknowledged that about 150 million pounds of hazardous waste end up in the agricultural system each year — wastes from steel mills, tanneries, film processors, and coal-fired power plants that are “recycled,” supposedly to provide some benefits to crops — without regard for the contaminants “along for the ride.” Some of these wastes carry toxins such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, uranium, nickel, chromium, and dioxin.

Ten years ago, Seattle Times investigative reporter Duff Wilson documented this scandal in a Pulitzer-nominated newspaper series titled “Fear in the Fields,” which he later expanded into a book called Fateful Harvest. Wilson’s reporting helped bring the issue into the public consciousness and sparked a national effort to stop the practice. Unfortunately, Wilson got one crucial point of the story wrong. He reported that the fertilizer industry’s system of using hazardous wastes was legal. In fact, it is not.

The use of hazardous waste in fertilizer is subject to regulation just like any other toxic substance and must follow certain standards from “cradle to grave.” In 1985, the EPA passed a regulation that created a loophole for the fertilizer industry; the new regulation allowed toxins to be spread on farm fields provided they met the same treatment standards as wastes that are disposed of in lined landfills. This was a step backward from the more stringent Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984. It also appears to have violated Congress’s intent in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which says that disposing of hazardous waste directly on the land should occur only as a last resort. Obviously, there is a big difference between disposing of toxins in a lined landfill and bringing them into contact with our food.

The fertilizer industry has tried to take advantage of the confusion surrounding hazardous waste disposal by encouraging state regulatory agencies to adopt the EPA’s new regulation. Since 1997, 10 states — Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have changed their statutes to permit using hazardous wastes on farm fields. What was once clearly contrary to many state regulations may now become state-sanctioned habit.

If you eat, you should be concerned about this. The lead and mercury found in these wastes can impair mental functions in children, and lead in diets has recently been linked to dementia in adults. Cadmium is a carcinogen that has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer. Despite the industry’s assurances that toxic metals are not being taken up into our food, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the amount of arsenic in toddlers’ diets doubled between 1984 and 1996.

Contrary to erroneous reports, farmers and consumers are entitled to access records identifying what hazardous wastes have been used in their fertilizer. If regulations were properly enforced at the state and federal level, this information would be readily available. In late 2006, Safe Food and Fertilizer filed Freedom of Information Requests with each of the states and EPA regions, and found that this documentation, required by law, has never been submitted by the fertilizer industry.

Safe Food and Fertilizer is working to stop the practice of the application of toxic fertilizer on our farmlands. Allowing this to happen is a total disregard for environmental health and human life.

   

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