Feces, It’s What’s for Dinner

Photo of an ecosan latrine in Malawi courtesy of my friend Sarah Bramley.

Eventually, we’ll all eat our own poop.  We won’t eat it straight up mind you, but I think it’s only inevitable that we will get back to using our excrement for its god-given purpose: fertilizer.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) recently released a study showing that increasing urbanization in the developing world is feeding more intensive agriculture, which is in turn irrigated by more intensive effluent from exploding cities.  This is creating all sorts of nasties like elevated levels of roundworm, bacterial infections and diarrhea.  My wife and I live in the tropics in western Kenya, and I can promise you that the above are to be avoided at all cost.  If you’re under five, they are often lethal.  If you’re not, they are bad for long road trips and inevitably lead to visiting dubious medical facilities.

The IWMI study found that 85 percent of the 53 cities analyzed in developing countries discharged at least partially untreated water into their local waterways.  This is not hard to believe, living (and eating) in Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria.  We have an amazing array of tropical produce, but we also have recurrent cholera outbreaks.

It’s easy to think that this all calls for achieving in the poorer corners of the world the same practice that we in most of the developed world have of flushing and forgetting.  Our waste goes to nifty treatment facilities and then gets dumped in our streams and oceans—far superior.  This solution is nothing more than potentially a stopgap that gets us nowhere near sustainability.  It’s worth checking out information on the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which my own poop contributed to when I lived in Atlanta.

Salon ran a nice series of excerpts from a new book on feces called The Big Necessity by Rose George.  One of the articles describes the difference between fecal-philiac societies, like China where they’ve been using their offal for fertilizer for thousands of years, and fecal-phobic societies like ours in the U.S., where we generally think of it as a stinking time bomb to be flushed as quickly as possible.

Despite the proximity of food and feces in Kenya, people here are also very feces-phobic.  Several non-profits have tried introducing ecosan (ecological sanitation) toilets in the area where I’m working.  These toilets generally try to recreate the production-waste-fertilizer cycle, turning smelly poop into lumber or mangos.  For the most part, they cause a lot of problems.  It requires significant training in order not to expose yourself to the aforementioned nastiness.  More fundamentally, people generally don’t want to do it. Toilet culture seemingly is one of the most private and hardest parts of culture to change.

Still, I can’t escape the feeling that we’ll all be doing this in the not-too-distant future.  We’ll be forced to abandon our finicky attitudes.  In the end, we all poop, we all eat and there’s an obvious solution here.  Our feces are meant to be fertilizer. How we get it back there is a purely technological and cultural problem.

To put it in a less appetizing way, we’ve got to find a way to start eating our poop.

How much is sustainable worth to you?

Photo from the BBC.

Photo from the BBC.

Recently, on my way back from Nairobi, I got into a conversation with my cab driver on the cost of maize.  The price of it has skyrocketed recently.  In Kenya, where maize is the staple grain and a huge percentage of the populace spends more than half their income on food, this can mean serious suffering and malnutrition.

It’s a common argument among sustainable food activists that Americans spend far too small a percentage of our income on food—about 10 percent in 2006 according to the U.S. Department of Labor.  This puts us at the bottom of the list with most countries spending a far larger percentage, many two or three times as high.

Spending more money on food is all well and good for those of us likely to read books about the food system written by New York Times writers, but what about the average American?  There are two sub-questions.  Can Americans spend a larger percentage of our income on food, and will we? The answer to the first is undoubtedly yes.  Unlike Kenyans, there are a lot of areas where we can cut back.

For the answer to the second, I’ll turn to you.  How about it?  To reach French levels of expenditure (and presumably food quality), we’d have to spend roughly an extra $60 a week on food.  That’s more than the entirety of our entertainment costs.

To get to brass tacks, are you willing to trade in your weekly Netflix delivery (and throw in your Wii while you’re at it) for your weekly CSA delivery?

Guest Blogging for change.org

Hello all.  To think about important issues other than sustainable agriculture for a moment…

I just wanted to post a short announcement that I’ll be guestblogging for the humanitarian relief blog at change.org on and off over the next few weeks while my friend Michael who runs it is…well, he’s in Kenya doing some research.  Go figure.  I posted an entry today, and I’ll be back there again starting on December 10th.

Chinese toxins in African food

And now we strike a bit closer to home.  This post from La Vida Locavore on Melamine in Africa has been opened on one of the tabs of my browser, sitting like a stain for three days.  Apparently Chinese dairy products have made it to African shores, a place where governments are ill-equipped to deal with testing, recalls or consumer information campaigns.

Though the post discusses data from Nigeria (very far away from me) showing presence of melamine in a variety of foods, I–and everyone else anywhere in Africa reading this–know that it goes much, much further.  Cheap Chinese goods are as common here as malarial mosquitoes, and the port of Mombassa in Kenya is a lot closer to China than Lagos.

While Kenya produces plenty of its own milk products, it wouldn’t surprise me if Chinese dairy products somehow managed to find their ways into many of the processed dairy products.  At the least, China is a major exporter of fertilizer, which often has melamine in it.  Overall, Chinese goods have replaced so many of the local ingredients here because, despite cheap labor, things like awful transport or water supply infrastructure often make production costs in Africa higher than China.

My wife and I try to cook with mainly unprocessed ingredients, but the reality is that you are going to eat other things in restaurants or at friends’ houses occasionally.  It makes me mad that we’ve almost certainly eaten melamine, but it makes me even angrier that plenty of poor people here are eating the stuff and might very well never even know about it.

Ruminants should eat grass

And so, today I’m going to ask that you take action (and it won’t cost anything).  But first, let me make the case (and let others do it as well).

Who wants to head over to the confined animal feeding operation?

Who wants to head over to the confined animal feeding operation?

It’s an open secret that organic doesn’t quite mean what it used to.  As is always the danger, once you make a standard over a serious business government-enforced, it’s now political. The plus side is that you now know exactly what that means.  Or do you? Organic has certain definite meanings (e.g. no pesticides or herbicides), but there are some serious loopholes that industrial organic producers have used to cut corners on costs and on our health. Time Magazine ran a story on this issue (for an interesting comparison of organic and buying local, see this Time story or this from Treehugger).

One of these loopholes has to do with standards for pasture grazing livestock.  Cows are ruminants, and ruminants are supposed to eat grass.  If they don’t then they have health problems and get sick and are frequently raised in crowded feeding operations which cause huge pollution and ultimately bad health.

It turns out that current organic standards require “access to pasture” but no guidelines on what this means.  So, in practice, industrial organic producers often feed their cattle with grain just like non-organic farmers do in confined feeding .  This probably makes your organic milk or meat not quite what you thought it was.

Movements then, have been under way to make organically raised livestock mean something more.  New proposed rules would require that 30 percent of dry nutrition for livestock come from pasture grazing and that the livestock would spend at least 120 days in said pasture.

Now for the action you can take.  Not only were the organic standards on livestock grazing changed, but the overall organic standards are proposed to be overhauled.  The Cornucopia Institute, which raised this rucus in the first place, has called for the USDA to extend the period for comments from 60 to 90 days to allow farmers and consumers to really digest the huge range of changes and give informed comment.  If you care about this issue, it would be well-worth taking a moment to SUPPORT THEM BY CLICKING HERE AND FOLLOWING THE LINKS to ask that the comment period be extended.

In the meantime, a great way to make yourself heard in this debate is to check out Cornucopia’s report card on various dairies before you buy more dairy products (five cows is the best rating).


In our collective postprandial slump following the Thanksgiving holiday, I will take a moment to reflect on my meal.  My meal was rife with misdemeanors and perhaps some fellonies.  The New York Times today reports on the growing international cranberry market.  Was I part of this carbon fest?  Yes I was.

Very somber over our unsustainable indiscretions.

Very somber over our unsustainable indiscretions.

Thanksgiving here in Kisumu was celebrated pot-luck style with U.S. government staff from Walter Reed and the CDC, other less official Americans like my wife and I and a whole host of other internationals in the Walter Reed guesthouse.

And so, in a fit of emotional nostalgia, I did spoon some of the cylindrical cut-outs of canned cranberry “sauce” onto my turkey and gravy.  Did I feel guilty looking at the ribbed impressions of the can still evident on the jello-mold serving of “fruit?” A little bit.  Like I said, emotional nostalgia.  Another of my indiscretions was pecan pie (no pecans in Kenya).

Because I was worried about my karma, I hopefully offset these transgressions by:

  1. Also eating some passion fruit pie–very local! Yes, I ate three deserts…don’t judge me, it’s Thanksgiving.
  2. Taking spicy cornbread made of local chilis and ground maize as my contribution.
  3. Using the fact that I ate cranberry “sauce” and pecan pie to help make my parents feel better about the fact that I had Thanksgiving 7867.23 miles away from home.

The above are really all excuses for laziness.  I could have boycotted the U.S. Thanksgiving and made our own local extravaganza.  But I didn’t.  And so I move on with a slightly hypocritical taste in my mouth.  Or maybe that’s the taste of the metal from the cranberry “sauce” can.

Soil is life

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”- President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Not great for growing mangos in.

Not great for growing mangos in.

I used to have one of those armbands (you know, a knock-off Lance Armstrong one) that said “Water is Life.”  When I was in Cairo two years ago, a man in the bazaar told me that it says something to that effect in the Koran as well so I gave it to him (Koran 21:30 if you’re curious).  We’re used to thinking about water and even air as life.  Possibly because we don’t interact with it much, we typically don’t worry about the soil as much.  Topsoil, though, is just as essential to human existence, and we’re destroying it at an incredible pace.

I came across a site called Culture Change that had an interesting post by Alice Friedemann on why cellulosic ethanol and biofuels are ultimately going to make us reach “peak soil” much faster.  Overall, I think a lot of the stuff on that site is pretty doomsday and pessimistic, but Ms. Friedemann’s overall points and well-researched argument should serve as a significant call to action.  Though she picks apart the case for these fuels in many ways, her basic point is that farmers will need their residual crop “waste” to replenish top soil rather than turning it into ethanol.  We’ll essentially be turning from drilling for oil to mining the source of our food supply.

In his last book, Collapse, Jared Diamond draws lessons for the present by examining what factors determined the failure or success of past civilizations.  For every civilization he examines, the health of the soil is a primary cause.  Depletion of soil led to a severe Malthusian catastrophe for many of the societies he examines.  He cites some alarming statistics.  Iowa one of the major world breadbaskets, for instance, has lost about half its top soil in the last 150 years.

I sometimes worry that we get caught up in what seem to us to be relatively frivolous questions that only the wealthy can worry about: Should we buy the organic apples or the conventional?  But if we want to ask the question, how urgent is sustainable agriculture, the answer is clear.  It’s as important as our own survival as a civilization.