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Whole Foods Bans Produce Grown With Sludge. But Who Wins?

Whole Foods Bans Produce Grown With Sludge. But Who Wins?

Pros and cons to using biosolids as a crop fertilizer

If you've ever shopped at Whole Foods, you've probably noticed that some of the foods it sells claim all kinds of health and environmental virtues. From its lengthy list of unacceptable ingredients for food to its strict rules for how seafood is caught and meat is raised, the company sets a pretty high bar for what is permitted on its coveted shelves.

Now, Whole Foods is dictating what kind of fertilizer the farmers that grow its produce can use. Specifically, the company recently confirmed that the produce rating system it's launching in September will prohibit produce farmed using sludge.

Sludge? This doesn't exactly sound like something you'd want near your food. Also known as biosolids, it's a type of fertilizer made from treated municipal waste and derived, in part, from poop. And though many farmers gladly accept sludge to enrich their soil, it's a product with a pretty big PR problem.

You see, for several years now, a small group of activists has claimed that biosolids are toxic and full of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. They argue that when farmers use biosolids to nourish their soils, they're putting consumers at risk of getting sick.

But scientists who study sludge and waste experts say that this form of fertilizer actually delivers big environmental benefits.

The de facto leader of the sludge opposition is John Stauber, author of the 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.

Last week, one of the three groups Stauber founded, the Center for Media and Democracy, posted an article cheering the Whole Foods decision and claiming credit for pressuring the company into it.

Whole Foods spokeswoman Lindsay Robison tells The Salt that biosolids were banned in the name of transparency and being consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, which doesn't allow the material on fields where any certified organic product is grown. But, she adds, the company's new biosolids ban won't actually impact any of the company's growers because, as far as the company knows, none of them use the material.