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Why It Matters

Food and Transportation

Today, it is not uncommon for food to be shipped across continents via different modes of transportation. In 2005 alone, $120 billion of agricultural products crossed US borders. The idea of fresh produce has taken on a false meaning. The average American foodstuff travels 1500 miles before it is consumed. By the time that produce reaches your kitchen, it can hardly be called fresh, resulting in reduced quality.

Another concern is that of emissions that this process results in. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the average developed world diet uses 256 liters of fossil fuel (derived from transportation). The emissions that result means unnecessary contributions to climate change and pollution.

holding produce

We believe in supporting local sustainable agriculture to reduce the threats posed by the large, globalized food industry. In buying and supporting local produce, the distance the food has to travel is greatly reduced, ensuring less carbon emission and a better quality product at the dinner table. Additionally, the practice of composting actually sequesters carbon in the soil, meaning that it can help to reduce existing pollution from vehicles or other pollutants.

Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides

A common misconception is that chemical fertilizers and pesticides are an easy and relatively inexpensive fix for a suffering garden. The truth is, the use of these strong chemicals provides instant gratification for the wilting, pest-laden plant, but has an inefficient, highly adverse effect in the long term. Chemical fertilizers supply plants with an extremely potent dose of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), which is quickly released into the ground. The main problem with the use of these fertilizers and pesticides is the failure to treat the source of the problems: poor soil quality.

Harsh chemicals act like a salt when used to treat a plant; they dry out the plants and soil, which could potentially lead to more damage or even death for the plant. Inorganic fertilizers also lack key nutrients besides NPK that are necessary to improve soil quality. Among these are carbon and organic matter that replenishes the soil after repeated plantings. The soil fertility is actually reduced by the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.

What typically results is an inefficient, unsustainable cycle that never fully solves the root problem. When the soil is poor, the plants are unhealthy. When the plants are unhealthy, they are more susceptible to pests. When pests threaten the plants, pesticides are used. When pesticides are used, the amount of organic matter and fungi in the soil is reduced. When the amount of organic matter and fungi in the soil is reduced, fertilizer is used, and the cycle continues.

Additionally, excessive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides in gardens can pose immediate danger to the consumer—the quick availability of the strong blast of harsh chemicals could lead to toxic buildup of these chemicals in the produce, meaning the consumer is literally ingesting toxins.

Given the poor quality of the soil, much of the applied fertilizer never even makes it into the plants themselves. Corn, for example, only absorbs only about 30% of what's sprayed on the field. The remaining fertilizer might get washed away by rain and run off into water supplies, or evaporate into the atmosphere, which brings pollution to the environment. Nitrous oxide (a clear, colorless gas, about 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) is released during the breakdown of the nitrogen found in these fertilizers and is a threat to the safety of our water supplies.

The pollution resulting from the synthesis of synthetic ferriliers is also environmentally devastating. During the production of a typical commercial NPK fertilizer, dangerous quantities of nitrous oxide are produced. In fact, 50 million metric tons of it are produced annually, and it is responsible for about 6% of the damage known to cause climate change.

Another harmful byproduct of fertilizer production is phosphogypsum, which is a virtually useless by-product in the production of phosphoric acid from phosphate rock. For every 1 ton of phosphoric acid that is produced, 4.5 tons of radioactive phosphogysum are produced. It is stored in stacks that can reach up to 1 billion metric tons in size, and since there is no practical use for the material, it just remains there, leaving its dangerous uranium and radium components exposed to air and water. In Central Florida, one of the major phosphoric acid producing areas, the industry generates about 32 million metric tons of phosphogypsum each year, which equals the combined weight of approximately 6.4 million elephants.

in the garden

For these reasons, it is of key importance to find alternatives to commercial chemical fertilizers. There exist alternative organic fertilizers, including bone meal, fish emulsion, animal manure, and compost. The process of composting is also highly beneficial to the environment. By recycling food resources, it keeps waste out of landfills, where it would decompose in an anaerobic manner and produce methane gas. The completely natural decomposition process creates a product that is organic and nutrient-rich, and one that will improve the soil's levels of organic matter and microorganisms, as well as its ability to retain water. The slow release of nutrients that compost provides for soil also reduces the risk of toxic buildup, and ensures a longer, healthier life for plants.

The Perils of Waste Transportation and Incineration Compared to Compost as a Fertilizer

As urban landfills are filling, trash is being sent to rural communities. However, putting organic materials in landfills is a major producer of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

The process of incineration of waste reduces the volume of waste products, but has extremely dangerous byproducts that harm the environment, threaten human health, and render incineration an inefficient means of waste management.

in the garden

A more efficient and environmentally-conscious approach to the disposal of organic materials is composting. On average, Americans throw away about 230 billions pounds of food waste per year, which will end up in landfills. This food "waste" is actually a valuable resource in the process of composting, and could be used to benefit the environment. Aerobic decomposition of organic matter means there is little or no production of methane, carbon dioxide, or nitrous oxides. In fact, compost piles are known to have the opposite effect, and serve as a bio-filter and a carbon sink, meaning they absorb carbon in the air, and have the capability to biologically degrade pollutants.

Additionally, using compost in agriculture eliminates the need for synthetic commercial fertilizers, as it improves soil quality by adding microorganisms and other organic matter to nourish the soil and allow it to better retain water and nutrients. Compost use can also prevent soil erosion, stabilize pH levels, clean the soil, all while avoiding fossil fuel usage and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

For more information and inspiration about educational experiences that will help to ensure a sustainable future, please visit Hands To Earth.

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