Night soil: Kenyans feeding on Sukuma wiki grown in raw sewage

While some city residents have become farmers either by design or default depending on the residential area one resides in, cheap is proving to be life threatening as farmers are now using raw sewage for farming. This means much of the vegetables especially sukuma wiki (kales) on sale in Nairobi are highly contaminated and pose a serious health risk to consumers.

A visit to the sewage collection point in Njiru, Nairobi by Linda Shiundu of revealed the effluence deposited there is always tapped and used for farming by farmers living. The farmers who wished to remain anonymous said instead of waiting for the rains, they would rather take advantage of the 75,000 liters of untreated sewage disposed daily to water their crops. They do so by digging trenches from the deposit site channeling the semi solid human waste into their farms which they use to water the crops and as manure. They mainly grow vegetables like sukuma wiki, spinach and other crops like bananas. Sewage deposited at the sewage collection point around Njiru area is always trapped by farmers living around the collection center and use for planting. The vegetables later on find their way into the market and in to the plates and stomachs of many unsuspecting residents. The vegetables later on find their way into the market.

Despite the health risks posed by the exposed raw sewage including, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting and even death, open food kiosks are also run next to the disposal site. The kiosks are normally flooded with drivers who bring in the hundreds of lorries daily to deposit the sewage.

Less talk, more action: Food safety seminars not cutting it

I gave up on the conference thing about 10 years ago.

And started videoconferencing talks that people, I guess, really wanted me to do.

night.soilIt’s a long way from Kansas or Australia to, anywhere.

Kerala University of Health Sciences Vice-Chancellor M K C Nair told The Indian Express, it is time to go beyond discussions and talks.

“It is time to act. We just listen to the suggestions during discussions and seminars. But we don’t take any pain to implement it. In the case of foodborne diseases, it seems that people, including myself, are yet to stop consuming unhealthy food. It is something related to our mindset. If people still consume chemical-infected vegetables despite the news reports about its adverse affects it is because they are yet to take the issue seriously.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but Nair also suggested that the only way to avoid consumption of contaminated vegetables is to raise a vegetable garden in every house (and no doubt use night soil).

The contradictions.

Is it safe to use compost made from treated human waste?

During a visit to a large, international city, I was hanging out with a public health type, who pointed out some row housing visible from the building we were in, and each one seemed to have a decent-sized garden. He said those gardens supply a lot of the produce to the high-end restaurants in the city. And they all use night soil.

Human poop.

Eliza Barclay of NPR reports that any gardener will tell you that compost is “black gold,” essential to cultivating vigorous, flavorful crops (why do they write with dick night.soilfingers?).

Barclay was excited the U.S. Composting Council was connecting community gardeners with free material from local facilities through its Million Tomato Compost Campaign.

I signed us up last month, and was promptly contacted by Clara Mills, the environmental coordinator for Spotsylvania County in central Virginia. Mills volunteered to deliver a dump truck full of compost to our garden from her facility, an hour away. It sounded too good to be true. Then one of my fellow gardeners noticed the source of the Spotsylvania compost: biosolids, or human poop that’s been treated and transformed into organic fertilizer.

About 50 percent of the biosolids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland through a process that is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even so, some people – including the Sierra Club — remain skeptical of the use of this waste product in food production. They worry that heavy metals, pathogens or pharmaceuticals might survive the treatment process and contaminate crops. So what’s an urban gardener to do in light of mixed perceptions about whether it’s OK to use poop to grow your food?

First, remember that for thousands of years, before the invention of synthetic fertilizer in 1913, many farmers utilized their decomposed sewage, sometimes called “night soil,” to replenish the soil with nutrients lost in farming. The Chinese were especially adept at using human waste this way – one historical account notes that in 1908, a contractor paid the city of Shanghai $31,000 in gold for the privilege of collecting 78,000 tons of human waste and carting it off to spread on fields.

When growing cities required that sewage be piped outside of the city, the practice dropped off and attention turned to improve wastewater treatment to avoid polluting waterways. Raw waste is, of course, nasty stuff, and only useful after all the dangerous bacteria have been killed off, either by heat or anaerobic digestion.

But the sludge was still piling up in landfills, so scientists began testing how to use it in agriculture safely; the waste was a free source of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, afterall. And letting it sit in landfills or incinerating it created its own night-soil-collector-on-way-to-work-armed-with-long-spade-and-basketsenvironmental issues. By the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency created strict standards with two tiers for biosolids still in use today. To sell Class A biosolids to farmers and gardeners, facilities have to ensure that there are no dangerous heavy metals or bacteria in the end product.

The ick factor, however, has not faded entirely.

Bowing to public feedback, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided in 2000 to prohibit the use of sludge in the National Organic Program. This was in spite of the fact that “there is no current scientific evidence that use of sewage sludge in the production of foods presents unacceptable risks to the environment or human health,” USDA spokesman Samuel Jones tells The Salt.

A handful of activists have also sounded the alarm on the widespread use of biosolids in conventional agriculture. They allege, among other things, that the EPA-approved treatment of biosolids doesn’t address all the possible contaminants in the waste.

Maybe, but I’d rather have poop treated using science than some backyard night soil.

Spanish lettuce watered with raw sewage – 2005 preview to German E. coli O104 outbreak?

In May 2005, hundreds of people in Northern Europe became sick from lettuce grown in Spain that was watered with human sewage.

As reported by Eurosurveillance, the rare multiresistant Salmonella Typhimurium DT 104B caused an outbreak of 60 microbiologically confirmed cases in May 2005, widely distributed across southern and western Finland. The isolates had an identical pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and antimicrobial resistance pattern (ACSSuT); also, 80% of the confirmed cases were in females and 45% were in people aged between 15-24 years (range 7 to 53).

Hundreds were also sickened in the U.K. The Daily Mail was direct: “Drought-hit Spanish farmers have been using household sewage to water lettuce.”

Spain’s environment minister at the time said, "When they don’t get irrigation water they turn to other kinds of water."

Farmers from Beniel, in south-east Spain, told the El Pais newspaper, "The water we receive is not enough, so we are forced to mix it with the sewage from our own homes."

Farmers’ leaders in the Murcia region insist it would be wrong to view all Spanish produce as unsafe based on the behavior of a few growers.

Francisco Gil, a local union leader who grows peppers, said at the time, "That is like calling all Englishmen drunks just because one or two of them can’t hold their drink.”

So assuming German health types are correct and Spanish cucumbers are to blame for an E. coli O104 outbreak that has killed five and sickened over 600, it reinforces a food safety basic: know thy supplier – and know what they are doing when the auditor or inspector isn’t around, which is 99.99999 per cent of the time.

Night soil? Or ruminant soil.

Backyard gardens supplying fancy restaurants in L.A.

During a visit to a large, international city, I was hanging out with a public health type, who pointed out some row housing visible from the building we were in, and each one seemed to have a decent-sized garden. He said those gardens supply a lot of the produce to the high-end restaurants in the city. And they all use night soil.

Human poop.

I wonder what kind of controls those fancy restaurants in Los Angeles are employing as the availability of backyard entrepreneurs for meat and produce increases.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times,

Locking up his station wagon, the one with the scratched paint and unpaid bills covering the floor mats, Cam Slocum crossed the parking lot and stepped into the kitchen of the swanky French restaurant Mélissein Santa Monica.

A cook set down his knife and walked over to greet the stranger. Slocum held out a Ziploc bag filled with lettuce.

"Hi," said Slocum, 50, his deep voice straining to be heard. "I grow Italian mache in my backyard. It’s really good, only $8 a pound. Would you like to buy some?"

A few feet away, chef de cuisine Ken Takayama glanced curiously at the lanky stranger in jeans and a worn plaid shirt. He’s heard this sort of pitch before (Takayama didn’t buy any).

"Every day, every week, it’s something new," Takayama said. "You name it, they have it."

Since the economy took a dive three years ago, Takayama and others say they’ve seen more and more people showing up unannounced at restaurants, local markets and small retailers, looking to sell what they’ve foraged or grown in their backyards.

No one keeps track of the number of people selling their homegrown bounty, but scores of ads have cropped up on Craigslist across the country, hawking local produce, home-filtered honey and backyard eggs.

Laura Lawson, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says the trend harkens back to the U.S. depression of 1893, when cities encouraged owners of empty lots to let unemployed people farm them and sell the excess produce.

She said that changed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when civic leaders, reluctant to create competition for struggling farmers, advocated gardening for food — not profit.

In Los Angeles, it’s unclear whether such entrepreneurship is legal: A 1946 zoning ordinance allowed "truck gardening" but didn’t define what that meant or identify what could be grown for sale in residential areas. Because of the ambiguity, the city has shut down some backyard enterprises, but not others.

An outcry by urban farming advocates last summer prompted Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti to introduce a motion dubbed the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, which would allow people to grow "berries, flowers, fruits, greens, herbs, ornamental plants, mushrooms, nuts, seedlings or vegetables for use on-site or sale or distribution off-site."

The city’s building and safety department has stopped enforcing the old ordinance for now. The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance Friday.

No mention of microbial food safety.