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Holy Shit: The Secret Behind Creating Truly Sustainable Food

If you're into food, you've got to embrace manure. Like it or not, the bowel movement after all, is the foundation upon which the sustainable food movement stands.

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Focusing on manure specifically, the misconception is not so much that bodily waste can cause disease, which can be true if people are totally stupid about it, but that society at present doesn't understand how comparatively easy it is to avoid that danger. The chances of getting sick from contact with barn manure or properly handled human manure are negligible in the first place, but the point is that the hygienic harm associated with manure is easily avoided by individual involvement, intelligence, common sense, and proper management. People don't want to accept that responsibility. They want to flush it and forget it. Just letting manure age for a year practically guarantees that it has no pathogens in it if it ever did. But of course there might always be that one chance in a billion when it still does. You take far more risk than that just eating in a restaurant, where, health inspectors have told me, they sometimes find more E. coli bacteria on the tabletops than on the toilet seats.

MG: What makes manure such an incredible fertilizer?

GL: First I want to be clear that by manure I mean not only the feces and urine itself, but the bedding or absorbent material mixed with it. The bedding, most commonly straw with animal manure or sawdust in human dry toilets, is nearly as important as the excrement since it reduces odor, soaks up the urine and adds bulk to the feces so that the material is easier to handle and preserves the plant nutrients better until the material is applied to farmland or garden.

Manure so defined can supply all the nutrients including trace elements that plants need to grow healthfully in most soils and situations, plus adding organic matter to become humus in the soil. It accomplishes soil enrichment safely. No commercial chemical fertilizer adds organic matter to the soil like manure does. For the farm that has its own livestock and chickens, manure is free for the loading and hauling. As purchased fertilizers become more and more pricey, this benefit alone makes manure incredibly valuable. It can keep a farm truly sustainable and a farmer less susceptible to outside forces seeking to take his money and his land away from him.

MG: Has our culture always been fearful of using manure as a soil enhancement or is this something more recent?

GL: Europeans settling America brought with them a respect for the value of manure and the management practices necessary to enhance that value. (In Switzerland, even in more recent times, farmers carefully aged their barn manure, along with their own manure, in big compost piles out in front of their barns where everyone could see it. The bigger and more neatly square or rectangular were the stacks, the richer and more successful the farmer was thought to be, sort of the way, in our culture, we leave the Porsche parked conspicuously in the driveway.) But in America, early farmers were under the delusion that the soil here was infinitely rich and did not need any kind of fertilizer. When that became obviously and painfully wrong, efforts were made to return to the careful stewardship of manure practiced in Europe and Asia. But at almost the same time, purchased chemical fertilizers became commonly available. Given the choice, and lacking the modern machines that make manure handling much easier, few farmers, beset with all kinds of tedious labor, opted for labor-intensive manure management. A leading farm magazine just a few decades ago ran an article declaring that manure was not worth the hauling. Some years later, the magazine contritely printed a retraction.