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Natural Awakenings Boston

Composting to Build a Sustainable Food System

Apr 02, 2012 06:39AM ● By Igor Kharitonenkov


The conventional agricultural system in the United States is riddled with unsustainable inefficiency, both economically and environmentally. According to a study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, it takes an average of seven to ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce just one calorie of food energy in the current system. Fresh produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate, consuming nonrenewable resources, and synthetic, fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticide runoffs are polluting American waterways. Add rising energy prices and a growing population to this scenario and it’s clear that the nation’s current food system is in dire need of sustainable solutions.

One answer lies in composting, which recycles biological waste and turns it into fertilizer. By harnessing the natural resources and labor that went into the initial production of food, composting saves materials and money. Before industrial farming took over, farmers used compost to supply soil with the nutrients needed to grow crops. When modern farms turned to synthetic, fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yields and produce cheaper food for the masses, the need for a healthy soil base was abolished. Today most crops are dependent on synthetic fertilizer and some won’t grow without it. The resulting unhealthy soil loses water retention ability, speeding up erosion and contributing to draughts.

The use of synthetic fertilizers has downstream effects as well. Nitrogen rich fertilizer and pesticide runoff that ends up in the Mississippi River travels down to the Gulf of Mexico, where an 8,500 square mile “dead zone” has formed near the Mississippi Delta. The area now teems with overgrown algae, eliminating an ecosystem and destroying local fishing industries.

The use of organic waste to grow food reestablishes a more natural cycle of crop cultivation and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers. Soil erosion would be minimized, as compost enhances the texture and structure of soil, enabling the ground to retain nutrients and moisture. In the case of contaminated soil, composting degrades and, in some cases, completely eliminates wood preservatives, pesticides, and both chlorinated and non-chlorinated hydrocarbons.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, just 2% of the 40% of edible food that is wasted every year is composted. Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware that composting offers a tremendous opportunity to support the environment and conserve resources while making our communities more sustainable and our food systems more efficient. Composting gives significant new meaning to the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Igor Kharitonenkov is the Marketing Director for Bootstrap Compost. For more information visit or call 317-985-1288. Follow Igor on Twitter @IGORoamnreport or email [email protected].