Biosolids - More Than Chicken Feed

Having an optimistic nature, I had thought the announcement at the close of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) was great news. One notch in the belt of environmental protection for global humankind.

The preparation for Paris had been formidable.  The fifth IPCC Assessment Report represented the collective wisdom of some 831 scientists around the world. It was followed up by an acclaimed accord signed by 195 nations, a powerful step forward.  At last, we can point to evidence that, applying the collective wisdom of the world’s smartest scientists and policymakers, humankind could think through all the angles and find consensus on a way forward.


Soon after the close of COP21, pundits spoke. On one end of the spectrum of reactions, Ted Cruz claims the entire exercise is a power and money grab by liberal politicians. On the other side, the “father of climate change awareness,” James Hansen, was saying: ““It’s just b******t… There is no action, just promises. … As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Pundits aside, compared to other major issues confronting human survival, global climate policy has robust science and political support behind it. What is more, the  urgency of global action seems to smack the world’s population in daily newscasts and smartphone newsfeeds. Yet, as we know with the science of biosolids, science is not enough to compel change and action. Politics, diplomacy, advocacy and justice are involved in advancing the cause.

A global climate agreement should be just a starting point. I introduced in a commentary several months ago the paradigm of Planetary Boundaries. Climate change is but one of nine planetary boundaries, and not necessarily the most urgent.  The Stockholm Resilience Center gave higher urgency to nutrient releases and issued grave alarms to toxic chemical releases, loss of biodiversity and threats to freshwater. I made the point that biosolids management is one tool for simultaneously addressing these several planetary boundaries.

Importantly, the mission of biosolids management – human and environmental health protection with resource recovery – is a shared mission with manure management, and manure is the inadequately-addressed “residual” of the urgent need to feed humanity.  

I would like to think that today’s biosolids solutions give guidance to solving planetary boundary challenges posed by manures.  But environmental and health issues posed by modern agriculture’s response to expanding and changing food production demands are too complex and interwoven to fit into our profession’s linear problem-solving approaches.

Take, for instance, the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Chickens are widely seen as a solution for feeding tomorrow’s 9 billion people. The GreenBiz article Mapping the future of meat — and what it means for sustainability , explains that “at any given point in the year, there are 19 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs and 1 billion sheep on the planet — more than three times the number of people. And these numbers are set to rise as the human population grows and more people shift toward a meat-based diet… Poultry is — and will remain — the dominant form of livestock on the planet.” National Geographic’s on-line photo-essay, Feeding the World, includes a picture of caged chickens with a caption: “At Granja Mantiqueira in Brazil eight million hens lay 5.4 million eggs a day. Conveyor belts whisk the eggs to a packaging facility. Demand for meat has tripled in the developing world in four decades, while egg consumption has increased sevenfold, driving a huge expansion of large-scale animal operations.”

But, chickens can make consumers sick.  I caught the recent podcast from Reveal which explored investigated chicken-borne Salmonella.  The episode is “Farm to Fork: uncovering hazards in our food system.”  The United States is far behind some European countries in standard-setting and industry best practices in raising, slaughtering and distributing chicken, which is partly why an estimated ONE MILLION Americans experience salmonella illness annually (not for bed-time reading: Salmonella enterica Serotype Enteritidis: Increasing Incidence of Domestically Acquired Infections .) The U.S. is second only to Israel in per capita chicken consumption (OECD publishes the stats: 63.5 kilograms/capita-year to our 45.5, followed, interestingly, by Saudi Arabia at 43.5), yet we are way behind on food safety. As Reveal revealed, organic, range-free chickens are no less likely, and may be more likely, to be contaminated as chickens from the mega-processors.

Chickens can get sick—very sick and very fast.  This past year was the worst on record for HPAI, that is, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  Fall to 2014 to summer 2015 witnessed the loss of 50 million poultry to HPAI, in the mid-West, as an economic loss exceeding $3 billion.  This coming year, the Atlantic states, particularly Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, are bracing for similar losses of fowl and funds (see the Lancaster online newspaper article.) This devastation may not have really come to the forefront of your consciousness, but, after all, if you were a poultry farmer would you want nightly news images of millions of bird carcasses being piled into composting heaps?  That would not be good for business. But some specialty journals carried the story, such as National Geographic.  

Do you feel reassured knowing that the federal government is on top of this issue? I refer you to the USDA’s Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Response Plan— the Red Book. However, I gleaned from the  response plan this sobering note: “However, it is worth acknowledging that there are HPAI strains circulating in poultry that are of significant concern to public health, such as H5N12 and H5N6.”

Apparently, sick chickens may make humans sick, very sick, with influenza.

I imagine that you are also thinking, a lot of chickens means a lot of manure. With the help of Purdue’s Poultry Facts and Ohio State’s Poultry Manure Bulletin 804, I estimated that each chicken is responsible for about 13 pounds of poultry litter in modern production houses. Figuring about 50 billion poultry grown and harvested annually world-wide, that is over 500 billion pounds of litter, and the number is growing.  

Do we humans have a plan for managing this litter? Again, Hah!  Given the propensity of chickens to carry diseases with catastrophic effects for human and bird health, not to mention issues of nutrient enrichment that so wrap water quality regulators in knots, you would think so, right? But according to a 2014 review article by researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, one of the major poultry growing states, the answer is NOPE. The authors write in: Microbiological safety of chicken litter or chicken litter-based organic fertilizers: a review,  “…it is still not clear whether the fate of such fecal indicator bacteria properly represents the responses of various human pathogens…. Therefore, future studies should focus on evaluating pathogen survival for different treatments using a wide range of conditions commonly encountered during build-up or composting.” Apparently, some chicken and human pathogens are at risk of breakthrough from today’s litter treatment and disposal practices.

Of course, this is just chicken s__t.  You can add to this the bovine, swine and sheep operations world-wide, and risks of mismanaged residuals multiply many fold. Today the global focus is on greenhouse gas  emissions; tomorrow’s focus may well be on manures.

Climate change has claimed a global audience and forum, but forecast consequences of mismanagement of residuals are no less urgent. We in the biosolids community of practice have not well served humanity and Earth in our complacency with a comparatively easy job, with its robust technologies, sharp-edged regulations, and focused science. The urgency of global sustainability warrants that we enlarge our engagement with the world -- that we connect to a larger realm of residuals and wastewaters and that we deploy more than science and engineering skills. If we brought advocacy, debate, imagination, education, justice, resilience, and diplomacy to our work, the kind of skills at work in Paris this month with climate change, then the business of biosolids would be more than chicken feed.