According to a survey conducted by the National Waste & Recycling Association, 28% of Americans compost their food scraps. This number is growing- in fact, of those surveyed who do not compost, 67% said they would be open to trying composting should collection services become more easily accessible. It’s clear that composting in the US is taking off- as Mugatu would say, “that compost...so hot right now.” Although composting may be new to many people, the practice of composting has been around for a long time. Just ask your grandparents about composting- many of them can probably remember a time when having a compost pile outside of the house was just a normal part of life.
So you know your American history and probably your Texas history too (remember the Alamo, y’all), but have you brushed up on your compost history lately? As it turns out, our favorite fertilizer has a pretty interesting backstory.
Of course, it’s important to note that composting is simply the human-facilitated decomposition of organic matter. And that decomposition has been happening in nature for, well, billions of years. But the purposeful creation and use of compost started a little later. For a long time, the composting process was approached as a crude, imprecise means of recycling and reusing farm waste to fertilize crops. The earliest recorded composting methods record back to Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). In his writings of natural history, he outlines the first composting practices. Pliny’s version was simple: you piled up waste and unused organics and let them sit for over a year. He didn’t know why it worked, but somehow it turned smelly waste into usable fertilizer.
There are references to composting in the Bible, the Talmud, ancient Arab writings, medieval texts, and Renaissance literature. Here in North America, both Native Americans and British colonists used compost to grow food. Farmers in New England used thousands of pounds of dead fish mixed with mud and plant material to create fertilizer (that can’t have smelled nice). Some of our first Presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were proponents of composting! Washington enthusiastically experimented with different composting systems at Mt. Vernon and wrote in his diary: "A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold." And Jefferson once wrote in a letter: “when earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance & of the best quality.” Sounds like these Commander-in-Chiefs were on to the benefits of compost even before science was!
Although we now know that the composting process is biologically complicated, understanding the science of composting wasn’t exactly a priority for many people. Over the last 2000 years, farmers have used compost to help fertilize crops and help plants grow strong and healthy. They did not know how or why it worked, but it did, so composting practices were passed down over generations of farmers. Composting has been around for thousands of years, but it was only within the last hundred or so years that scientists began to investigate the biological processes that turn food waste into fertilizer.
By understanding why and how decomposition occurs, researchers can hone in on possible ways to improve composting. Who wouldn’t want better compost and healthier veggies? In the early 20th century, farmers like Sir Albert Howard (known as the father of modern organic farming) applied new knowledge of microbiology to compost practices and started producing some of the most nutrient-dense compost of all time. He helped pioneer modern composting by developing the Indore Method. He promoted organic farming throughout his life and helped spread composting advocacy across the world. Remember, composting reduces waste, reuses organic materials, and promotes healthy, organic, sustainable agriculture!
But not everyone was like Sir Albert. Beginning in the late 19th century, agriculture started to become industrialized and chemical fertilizers became the norm. A number of factors brought about the advent of chemical fertilizers. One was the discovery that plants need nitrates- forms of “fixed” nitrogen gas plants can use- to grow larger, more quickly, and more abundantly. Another was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. New machines allowed scientists like Fritz Haber to develop energy-intensive methods to artificially fix atmospheric nitrogen. And because one consequence of the Industrial Revolution was mass movement from rural areas to cities, fewer farmers had to feed more people- meaning farms had to produce more food, faster. The biggest drawback of fertilizing with compost is that it takes dedicated people and hard labor to maintain healthy compost piles. Chemical fertilizers provided an easier way to grow more and grow faster. However, they’re also full of icky substances that can be harmful to both the environment and human health. Excess nitrates seep into bodies of water and cause algal blooms, ammonium nitrate can be highly explosive under the wrong conditions, and most of the chemicals used to make these fertilizers come from non-renewable resources, including natural gas.
Their long term ecological effects weren’t clear during the first few decades of chemical fertilizers’ widespread use, but the indications of its negative side effects were obvious to Sir Albert. In his famous book An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert writes: “Artificial [fertilizer] lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals, and finally to artificial men and women.”
The first generation of chemical fertilizers hit farms in the mid-19th century. There were extremely successful, but at a significant cost to the Earth’s future. As farmers tried to grow more and more, soil’s humus, the essential top layer made up of decomposed matter, was routinely getting wiped out by over-farming, poor drainage, and erosion. Chemical fertilizers do not add organic, carbon-heavy matter back to the soil like compost does. Farmers were ravaging their fields of all the organic material that had been supporting life for thousands of years.
Chemical fertilizers have caused soil depletion, groundwater contamination, soil acidification, fungi depletions and other grave environmental problems for over 100 years. These problems have become so serious that the United Nations has declared 2015 to be the “International Year of Soils”. The goal of this designation is to raise awareness about the fact that healthy soil provides the foundation for, well, everything- all food and therefore all human life. Soil is considered a nonrenewable resource, and according the UN, about 33% of Earth’s soils are moderately to severely degraded- thanks, in part, to chemical fertilizers and intensive agriculture. Though it may help plants grow fast and resilient, chemicals do not provide the organic humus that many plants have been accustomed to growing in for thousands of years. And damaged soil is difficult to remediate. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Because it is all-natural and nurtures soil instead of destroying it, compost is the superior plant fertilizer. And as our understanding of composting grows, we’re learning how to make the process of composting easier and more widespread.
Here in Austin, composting, building soil, and growing food organically are becoming easier than ever. There are plenty of ways to get involved with creating healthier soil for our city and planet. You can sign up to compost at home, purchase a community garden plot, or volunteer at an urban farm. If you’re already involved with a local green space, consider becoming a CompHost and letting us help you build a thriving compost system. And if you work in a restaurant or office, we’re always accepting new Commercial Members- we’re happy to work with you one-on-one to make your workplace greener.
Although they weren’t sure how how exactly ‘black gold’ came to be, our ancestors knew that decomposing organic material could make some amazing, 100% natural fertilizer. And with modern research and experimentation, it’s entirely possible that making and using compost could soon be just as easy as using chemical fertilizers. But for now, more and more farmers and gardeners are harnessing compost’s unique fertilizing properties to grow better food in the most Earth-friendly way possible.
The science and history of compost is as rich and robust as some of the stuff our CompHosts make in their piles! It’s pretty crazy that what was once the best fertilizer for the ancient Romans is still the best fertilizer for today’s farmers and gardeners. But hey, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it- just compost it!
Drew Wehrle is a former Pedaller and compost guru now working for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Lauren is the Compost Pedallers' Communications Intern. She is also a Geography student at the University of Texas who's really into words, kind of obsessed with dogs, and seriously enthusiastic about coffee.