Country Matters By Arrowsmith: You Are What You Eat

A muckspreader, responsible for a lot of the pong you may notice around farms.

Over the last few months, Country Matters has talked about fire and water, and it seems appropriate to take the opportunity to discuss earth and air – the other two of the four ‘elements’ that were considered fundamental to life on Earth since the earliest civilisations of Greece, Rome and even India.

One reason for thinking of both the air and the soil has been the practice of ‘muck-spreading’ on newly ploughed fields around Ciren, after the harvest. It has been interesting to try to identify what ingredients have made up the different ‘pongs’ to which our noses have been treated recently. The scent of horse manure is a delight for many rose gardeners, chicken waste is also a favoured natural fertiliser.  Farmers often have lagoons of liquid slurry which is recycled on the same farms from which it came, and a country-person’s nose can often identify the healthy products of pigs or cattle, and – increasingly – human sewage slurry.

There are strict rules applied to how muck can be spread to our fields, and care must be taken to ensure that sewage in particular is treated before use, and tested so that the correct balance of nutrients can be spread as appropriate for the existing soil and the intended crop to be grown. It may come as a surprise to know that the UK imports human sewage slurry from the European Union – specifically from the Netherlands.  It may be less surprising to learn that the spreading of treated human waste is illegal in the Netherlands, amid concerns that some undesirable ingredients might be present with the potash and phosphates which are the desirable components of sewage.

The argument has been advanced that human waste might contain residues of antibiotics, and antibiotic resistant bacteria, plus other poisons and substances harmful to people, including microplastics and the indestructible products such as fire retardants which can enter the food-chain and may affect children’s ability to concentrate, amongst other potential damage to people eating crops grown on arable land after muck-spreading.

Even manufactured nitrogen rich fertilisers are strictly controlled to try to prevent damage to freshwater fish, and there’s a closed season on spreading these from October to the end of February in the UK. In any event spreading should not be carried out near surface water, springs, wells and boreholes.  University Environmental Scientists and Greenpeace UK warn that human waste in particular might lead to the growth and spread of ‘superbugs’. They also claim that the UK government haven’t yet studied the effects of spreading human waste as a part of food production.

We’re accustomed to washing fruit and vegetables before cooking and eating them, but the same can’t be said for animal fodder. Some animals will undoubtedly be eating their own waste as part of the food cycle. Of course, whatever they eat will become part of their meat and dairy products. 

There’s a new method of disposal of human bodies, considered to be much more environmentally sustainable than burial or cremation.  Called ‘aquamation’, the process of alkaline hydrolysis produces a sterile liquid which can be disposed of by pumping it into sewage.  Microplastics will still remain unaltered during ‘aquamation’. But there’s an extent to which it might mean that not only are we what we eat, but we eat what we are.

Some years ago, a local man who lived out in an isolated house off the public sewage ‘grid’, had a love affair with a young woman. His infidelity was discovered by his wife when he died of a heart attack when he was with his ‘mistress’.  When his widow received the urn containing his ashes following his funeral, she flushed the contents down the lavatory, not realising that – as they had a ‘soakaway’ system – he’d remain forever in the grounds.

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