Tag Archives: Ecology

Crowdsourced Compost

Entropy, as someone once said, can be a beautiful thing. Or at the very least, if no one said it, I have now typed it.  Indeed, one of the most beautiful bargains of the earth is that the dirt births edible plants for humans, and whatever part of those plants humans don’t eat can, under natural circumstances, turn back to dirt (this of course also applies to the humans themselves).  I am of course referring to the wonderful process of biodegradation and the associated practice of composting.

In this first installment of a series which seeks to truly capture the essence of this blog’s lofty subtitle, I want to propose a way for harnessing this natural process to do some good and maybe even make some money.  All comments welcome!

The Problem(s)

Erosion of topsoil in Africa.  In case you were unaware, it’s pretty serious.

Trash.  Just mounds of trash, everywhere. Because Africa is urbanizing so quickly, and waste management systems tend to be chaotic,  underfunded or non-existent, the trash piles up in public places where children play. Interestingly though, in the garbage heaps of the developing world, vegetable matter is the largest constitutive category.

The Idea

Set up centres where people can sell their organic waste (vegetable stalks, fruit peels, eggshells, etc.).  Because good composting requires a proper mix of “browns” and “greens,” the price that would be offered might fluctuate from week to week based on the needs of the particular composting facility.  It would also be helpful to find a native species of worm (or some other creepy crawler) that can help to speed up the transmission of waste back to soil.  Here’s one particularly striking creature.

The resulting compost could then be sold to farmers in the region to work into their fields.  BUT, because farmers would most likely be not only buyers of the finished product, but suppliers of inputs (the inedible parts of plants like stalks, leaves, etc.), they could choose either to receive a monetary payment when they bring in their waste, or credit that entitles them to a certain amount of compost.

I think the ideal place to start with these composting centres would be provincial capitals and regional trading towns.  There would still be a local population high enough to generate lots of waste, but the facility might be accessible to more farmers.


Squeamish about locavores

If you are a devotee of the local food movement, you are probably already gearing up to leave a scathing comment on this entry.  Relax.  I myself am a frequent patron of farmers’ markets, and a gardener, and I wrote part of this from a local coffeeshop in Milwaukee. But as it’s currently (still) winter here in the upper Midwest, it’s rather difficult to eat anything that’s locally grown unless it’s either a) very spoiled or b) rutabaga.

And all of this leads me to wonder: is the local food movement sustainable? I am well aware of “food-miles” and all the reasons that buying local is good, but I also have a variety of concerns, which can basically be grouped into three categories: Dietary, Ecological, and Socio-Political.

First, some things just can’t be grown locally.  Living in Minnesota, there is no way, no matter how much I was willing to pay, that I could find locally-grown tea or local mangoes.  Some might say that these are luxuries,  but my point is that it’s rather hard to eat a healthy, balanced diet if you’re consuming only locally-produced  food.   As Jesus said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “One cannot live on rutabaga alone.”  Indeed, humans, especially in temperate climates have had to look beyond their own back yard to meet their dietary needs since the beginning.  Mobility and seasonal relocation were crucial elements of hunter-gatherer society in the Paleolithic Era.  After the Agricultural Revolution, it didn’t take long for humans in the Neolithic Era to start trading with other settlements.   So even the first humans weren’t strictly locavores.

My second, and perhaps broader concern is ecological.  As I’ve said, there are some crops, depending on where you live, that just can’t be grown locally.  But a trickier category is plant species that can be grown locally, but probably shouldn’t be.   There are plenty of stories about invasive species, but let’s talk about dandelions.  Dandelions have now become naturalized in many parts of the world, but they are not native in most places, including North America.  It was European colonists who brought the dandelion to the Americas, because back in Europe, the dandelion was a garden vegetable that had many culinary and medicinal uses.  Now obviously importing dandelions from Europe was not a viable option,  so the Colonists wanted to grow their own dandelions.  But the dandelion behaved rather differently in this new climate than it did in the gardens of England.  It’s aggressiveness and hardiness has made it the omnipresent weed that now blankets North America every spring.  This might

Always fresh, never imported

seem like an extreme example, but it highlights the uncertainty and danger of introducing invasive species into an environment to which they are not native.  If the local food movement wants to encourage consumers to buy locally whenever possible, the boundary of what’s “possible” needs to clearly defined.

Finally, there are some rather troubling socio-political dimensions to the local food movement.  I think it is no coincidence that the local food movement in the US has risen to prominence during a time of economic hardship, when nationalism usually runs high.  While the far right has anti-immigrant xenophobia, the hipster left seems to now have its own brand of food nationalism.  My wariness of food isolationism is informed by my brief experience in the developing world.  When I was in Uganda, I saw lush land teeming with food: fruit trees, tubers so big they were pushing up the ground, and all manner of grains and legumes.  A man from a village we were visiting told us that the people are rich in food but poor in income because they don’t have markets to sell their goods.  A crucial aspect, therefore, to lifting poor farmers out of poverty is insuring market access, and in many places, local markets can’t absorb everything that farmers produce, so the farmers’ best hope lies in exporting surplus. Erecting philosophical trade barriers (which is how the local food movement essentially functions) is contrary to this effort.

But was it locally grown?

Additionally, I find it ironic that many proponents of the local food movement are also proponents of Fair Trade.  The very logic of fair trade is that rather than just responding to prices and incentivizing a race to the bottom among producers, consumers can actually use their buying power to incentivize more ethical practices by producers in countries without legal systems that protect workers from exploitation.  Locavores essentially forfeit any leverage or influence over unfair practices outside of their immediate geographic area.

I’ll say it again: I think there is a lot that is right and refreshing about the local food movement.  But it is still a very nascent movement, and the extent to which it deals with these questions will be the true test of its viability and sustainability.