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What Model of Agricultural Waste Management Do We Have to Offer Our World?

January 3, 2014

The beginning of a new year offers an opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. What model of agricultural waste management do we in the Fraser Valley have to offer the world? A similar question was posed to me a couple of weeks ago by a professional who was developing a sustainable community strategy for an agriculturally intensive area in another country. The question was actually more specific: “do you have a model for composting that can be used in other agricultural areas in the world?” It was followed up with the second question of: “How is composting done in the agriculturally intense Fraser Valley?”

There was an assumption implicit in the question. The assumption was that composting of excess agricultural waste is a strategy for sustainability. Is this true? If it is true, why isn’t it happening in the agriculturally intense Fraser Valley? What model of sustainability with respect to agricultural waste management does the Fraser Valley have to offer the world?

This conversation is also introspective. I have worked towards sustainability in agricultural waste management in the Fraser Valley for 23 years. How well have I done? How am I helping to make a safe and sustainable environment for our children and others in the world who share our planet?

In order to answer whether we in the Fraser Valley have anything to offer to the world in terms of a sustainable agricultural waste management models, I will do three things:

1. Consider applicable observations regarding our agriculture and food around the globe.

2. Address how agricultural waste management impacts some of these observations of food production and sustainability.

3. How are we doing with agricultural waste management in the Fraser Valley?

Observations Regarding Agriculture and Food Production

There are many observations regarding agriculture and food production around the world. Here are some that are global in nature, but also impact us in the Fraser Valley:

1. Food safety – microbes. We see increasing incidences of microbial contamination issues around our food. Worldwide, we are implementing Good Agricultural Practice to attempt to reduce risks.

2. Food safety – pesticides. Do we really need an increasing amount of pesticides on my food – are there alternatives? Worldwide, there is increased interest in agroecology and other farming methods to reduce the use of pesticides.

3. Food security – A significant amount of our valuable agricultural land is degraded. We also see that almost half of our organic matter in our soils has been lost – how does that affect our capability to produce food? How do we restore and maintain the quality of our soil, including our soil organic matter?

4. Water quality – we see that manure and fertilizer management can negatively impact water quality. How can we balance our need for healthy food with protecting our ground and surface water resources?

5. Air quality – How can our agriculture and forestry absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide? How can we reduce air and water quality impacts of gaseous emissions of ammonia, methane and other gases from agriculture?

How does agricultural waste management affect sustainability?

1. Animal manures contain 50% or more of the nutrients that were fed to the animals. How can we recycle these nutrients to reduce cost and environmental implications of producing nitrogen from fossil fuel, and mining of our finite resources of phosphorus and potash? How can we recycle the other micronutrients that are so important for enzyme production that produces healthy and sustainable food?

2. Animal waste contains bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, among other microorganisms that may potentially cause contamination of vegetable and fruit crops through contaminated ditch water or from raw manures used to fertilize crops.

3. Agricultural wastes from field production, horticulture, greenhouse production and from animal production may contaminate ground and surface water, such as nitrate contamination of drinking water, and eutrophication of surface waters.

4. Agricultural wastes contain organic matter that is crucial for local healthy and sustainable food production from our soils, which also promote healthy microbial communities that provide resistance to disease.

5. Agricultural wastes may contribute to air quality concerns, specifically ammonia emission from animal agriculture. Methane emission is also a factor – however, most of the methane comes from the animals themselves in the case of cattle, not animal waste.

What model does the Fraser Valley use for agricultural waste management?

All of the above observations and impacts of agricultural waste management are relevant to agriculture in the Fraser Valley. Most of them had been documented and addressed already in the early 1990s with funding from British Columbia and Canada.

I would suggest that two significant questions that we have to address regarding agricultural waste in the Fraser Valley are:

1.  How will we sustainably manage the excess nutrients produced from agriculture, particularly from animal farms that import most or all of their feed?

2. How will we address the potential microbial contamination of vegetable and fruit crops?

The current model being promoted in the Fraser Valley for agricultural waste management is anaerobic digestion.  Although anaerobic digestion does not address how to manage excess nutrients, and only partially addresses potential microbial contamination of crops, the hope is that somehow there will be enough economic profit from anaerobic digestion that will allow agriculture to voluntarily manage nutrients and microbes. (Many areas concerned about excess nutrients place restrictions on land application rates, and then allow the market to determine whether anaerobic digestion is a good waste management option to meet these requirements).

Opportunities for sustainable agricultural waste management exist where solutions are required. Recently I considered an opportunity to obtain heat energy and create organic fertilizer from one of the types of agricultural waste produced in the Fraser Valley. What I realized when I started inquiring, that if no parties, including the BC Ministry of Agriculture, the BC Ministry of Environment or the Agricultural Land Commission are expressing concern regarding agricultural waste management, there is very little opportunity for developing solutions. I have had to suggest that the potential investors look for better opportunities.

I think that we have the setting, the resources and the ability to create some excellent models of sustainability to pass on to future generations and to other areas of our world. We have intensive animal agriculture and intensive crop production occurring on a very vulnerable aquifer that provides drinking water to communities in both Canada and the US. How can we develop a model of sustainability that encourages the agricultural production while protecting the aquifer? We have large animal farms in close proximity to intensive vegetable and fruit production that requires clean water for irrigation. How can we manage our agricultural wastes to protect irrigation water? These are only two examples of the opportunities that exist for us with agricultural waste management in the Fraser Valley.

Opportunties for sustainability - how can we improve our organic waste management to reduce the discharge of E. coli into the irrigation water for our blueberries?

Opportunties for sustainability – how can we improve our organic waste management to reduce the discharge of E. coli into the irrigation water for our blueberries? (a discharge of >15,000 MPN E. coli/100 mL water to an irrigation ditch from an MOE regulated facility is considered by some to be high).

Each one of us has a desire to somehow make a difference in our world – it gives our life meaning. Whether we want to create sustainable models of waste management that can be implemented by others in the world is likely more a question of how we view the world and our place in it.

Given the global questions of food quality and food security, there are many areas who are hungry for the hope of opportunity for sustainable agriculture waste management. My own goal is to create models of sustainability in keepng with international priorities such as outlined by the United Nations

“205. We recognize the economic and social significance of good land management, including soil, particularly its contribution to economic growth, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and food security, eradicating poverty, the empowerment of women, addressing climate change and improving water availability.” (United Nations 2012)

“agriculture must not compromise its ability to satisfy future needs. The loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water are issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture.” (United Nations 2010)

References

United Nations. 2010. Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf

United Nations. 2012. Rio +20 – The Future We Want. http://www.globalagriculture.org/fileadmin/pics/weltagrarbericht/Bilder_Global_Agriculture/TheFutureWeWant.pdf

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