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Re: Response to Reiten

About three weeks ago, Joel Reiten sent an e-mail defending the studies used by the Compost Task Force to make their initial recommendation about compost tea.

I e-mailed him back with my comments about what was incorrect in his information.  He has not responded.   

Mr. Reiten was at the Washington Tilth Producers conference in Yakima, WA on Nov 8, where I presented information about the NOSB decision and E. coli in compost tea.  He disagrees with the US Geological Survey that water cannot hold more oxygen than the USGS says is the MAXIMUM amount of oxygen that water can hold, given temperature and air pressure. 

I'm pretty sure that USGS scientists know what they are talking about, especially since the data are on their website, in a nice black and white table.  According to  this USGS information, the oxygen data in the BBC Lab study are not possible, given the temperature and elevation at which the studies were performed.  This makes the BBC Lab study that suggested that E. coli grew in aerobic conditions in the Growing Solutions machine highly questionable.

At the meeting, Mr. Reiten then started screaming at me that I didn't know what I was talking about.  I invited him to discuss his opinion with me after the meeting, since it was not useful to the majority of the people in the room to have to listen to a screaming person.   

Mr. Reiten's response was to yell at me that my words proved that I wasn't interested in open and free discussion.  Free and open discussion with someone yelling and screaming at me? 

I pointed out to him that I have been freely and openly discussing my data and information since last April, when the Compost Task Force came out with their first recommendation.  Something had to be done to show that the studies used as the basis for the Compost Task Force's recommendation did not apply to compost tea and that in fact, there was no evidence in the BBC Lab study that the tea stayed aerobic through the entire brew cycle. 

Anytime since last April, Mr. Reiten could have responded to my comments in any forum he chose.  He could have presented written information from whatever expert he wished, but instead he chose to attempt to intimidate me in a public forum. 

I suggested that his actions clearly showed that it was him, not me, that was not interested in open and honest communication. 

Another person at the meeting then asked to read something that they thought indicated that E. coli grows aerobically.  He read a lab protocol about thioglycollate broth (I think that was what he said, I might have mis-heard).  When a broth like this is autoclaved, the gasses in the broth are driven off, leaving the broth at extremely low dissolved oxygen levels, typically lower than 1 to 2 mg oxygen per liter.  The broth has to be shaken in order to introduce enough oxygen - between 4 to 6 mg oxygen per liter - so E. coli, or other human pathogens, have adequate, but not too much, oxygen in order to grow. 

This broth also typically contains antibiotics, and thioglycollate, which inhibit the growth of many organisms.  The person reading this protocol thought that having to shake this broth and add oxygen back in order to grow E. coli was an indication that E. coli grows aerobically.  Not the case. 

The protocol merely supports what I have been saying.  In the lab, when we want to enumerate E. coli, we set up conditions that let it grow.  But in the real world, we use aerobic conditions, with all the consumers, inhibitors and competitors to remove E. coli, and other human pathogens.  Thank goodness these organisms cannot grow when out-competed, inhibited and consumed by aerobic organisms, or the human race would have died from these diseases long ago. 

In the meeting, other questions were then asked.  The session ended and I stayed in the room for nearly an hour, talking with a number of people.  Mr. Reiten never came to speak with me, although he had ample opportunity.  In fact, the person who asked about the thioglycollate stayed around with me, hoping that Mr. Reiten would show up so we could have a talk.

SFI had a booth at the meeting, so Mr. Reiten knew where I was and could have talked to me at any time over the next two days.  I saw Mr. Reiten several times while I was working at the SFI booth.  He never came to speak with me, and I never found him when I was free from the booth. 

Mr. Reiten has never responded to my personal e-mail to him, to the two e-mails I sent to SANET which showed where he was incorrect in his points made in his e-mail to SANET, or to my request to speak together in a non-confrontational manner after my presentation. 

If I am incorrect in my understanding, then show data to correct any misunderstanding.  There is no need to scream, no need to be confrontational. 

Show me data.  I have discussed only data.  I have indicated that BBC Lab should respond to questions about their study.  The study by Duffy et al. can be dismissed as not applying to compost tea, because no one seals a compost tea maker, which is what they did in their study. 

The fact that Mr. Reiten has not presented data from his expert which he spoke about in his e-mail to SANET, the one he said had proof that the water in a Growing Solutions compost tea brewer is supersaturated at all times with oxygen, suggests to me that his expert does not in fact exist.

Anytime that Mr. Reiten would like to make good on the proof that he said he had, the rest of us would listen.  We have all waited for him to show that data since he made that claim in his e-mail and at the Washington Tilth Producers meeting in Yakima, WA. 

Enough time has passed.  Show your expert and  your data, Mr. Reiten, or apologize to the readers of this list, and to the people at the Washington Tilth Producers meeting, for attempting to mis-lead all of us.  

Mr. Reiten's scene at the Washington Tilth Producers meeting occurred the same day that the NOSB indicated that they did not accept the Compost Task Force's recommendations about compost tea.  They did NOT institute either the limitation on sugar, molasses or soluble carbon materials, or the rejection of compost tea because of the danger of E. coli.

Clearly reason, not hysteria, prevailed. 

In a previous post, I commented that properly-made compost should not contain E. coli, and thus an across-the-board restriction on all compost tea (the second Compost Task Force recommendation, but written by Wil Brinton) was not justified. 

OMRI has ruled that as long as the compost is certified organic (and is therefore reasonably E. coli and human pathogen free), and all the materials going into the compost tea are certified organic, then the compost tea is certified organic. 

That is essentially the recommendation that OMRI made to the NOSB before the Compost Task Force made their recommendation.  I am glad to be able to support OMRI in this, just as when I heard about their likely recommendation over a year ago. 

When rumors of a moratorium on compost tea were circulating last year, I knew that the USDA was probably not involved in calling for a moratorium, because the recommendation by OMRI to the USDA seemed sane and likely to prevail. 

And then rumors of the BBC Lab study and the Albany CA, USDA lab study started popping up.  Clearly someone was angling toward putting some regs on compost tea. 

Just after that, we came to an understanding with the people suggesting a moratoriium.  The official ruling by the EPA is that if a compost tea seller makes pesticidal claims for tea, then they have to do the testing to show bio-pesticide action or be subject to legal action.  So, compost tea sellers, make no pesticide claims for compost tea, or do the EPA testing. 

I thought things were well-settled, the OMRI recommendation had gone forward so the USDA was heading in the right direction, and then the mess with the Compost Task Force blossomed and the poorly designed studies, the one by Duffy, and the one by Bess, were presented at the Biocycle meeting in Ohio.  And regardless of whether Duffy et al had their friends review their manuscript before presenting, it does not change the fact that neither the Bess nor the Duffy papers were peer-reviewed.   Biocycle does not peer-review the papers in their magazines, or in the proceedings of their meetings.

Ah well, we all know what happened from there, and it's water over the bridge and all that. 

Adoption of the OMRI position as official policy by each organic organization might be reasonable, however.

I understand from the NOSB minutes that they are considering re-convening the  Compost Task Force, and I have volunteered to be part of that Task Force should it be reconvened.  However, re-convening the Compost Task Force at this time may not be necessary, if the NOP adopts the OMRI recommendation.

SFI is now working on how one can be assured that compost tea is E. coli- and human pathogen-free, EVEN IF a not-properly composted, E. coli containing (and thus potentially human pathogen containing) compost is used.   

One of the foremost requirements for having a compost or compost tea free of human pathogens is having an adequate number of bacteria, FUNGI, and PROTOZOA.  Nematodes if possible as well.  Proper temperature or passage through an earthworm digestive system, and adequate moisture and oxygen are also necessary. 

Fungi grow just fine in true compost tea, unlike bacterial teas from machines where the tea goes anaerobic, that do not extract fungi adequtely or whose added food resources kill the fungi.  Thus it is a good idea to test compost and tea for the presence of the necessary organisms. 

And beware those machines where the manufacturers say that fungi do not grow in tea.  There's good indication that if fungi aren't present and active, then the tea went anaerobic and possibly grew E. coli, if E. coli was present in the starting materials. 

Is the reverse true, that if active fungi are present, that E. coli will not be present?  No, tea can hover around the 5.5 to 6 ppm range, allowing E. coli survival and maybe growth and at least some active fungi still be present.  So, is there an AMOUNT of active fungi that is indicative?  I think so, but we have to tie this down and make certain in case-after-case before I'll publish that in the scientific literature!

Testing for the biomass of active fungi is the easiest way to determine whether the proper set of orgnaisms is present.  If you have active fungi, then most likely you have the bacteria and protozoa you need to suppress disease organisms, retain nutrients and build soil structure to hold onto water in soil better. 

Plate counts CANNOT reveal the presence of active fungi in tea, or compost or soil.  Plate counts do an excessively poor job of determining total fungal biomass as well.  They generally miss at least 99%, and usually more, of the fungal community.  And they certainly do not tell you active biomass.

At SFI, we're being reasonably successful at reducing E. coli in manure-based compost that has not been adequately composted.  We also have reduced high E. coli levels in compost to low, low levels in compost tea.  But, please be aware that reasonably successful does not mean 100% of the time! 

But the concern only has to be with manure-based compost.  Other composts should not be contaminated with E. coli, and even if somehow they were, proper treatment, such as aerating the compost properly for a few weeks, or making aerated tea with the compost, will drop E. coli and other pathogens to below detectable levels.  But manure-based materials are different and need to be tested.

Materials like citric acid, garlic oil, orange oil, tannic acid, juice from nettles (Biodynamic preps work!), and similar materials can reduce E. coli and thus other human pathogens.  We need to keep working on the proper amount of these materials to add so that pathogens are killed but the beneficial organisms remain healthy. 

But please note that in order to do acceptable assessment of E. coli, the lab you send samples to for assessment needs to obtain the samples within 8 to 12 hours of when you removed the samples from the tea or compost.  Unless samples can get to SFI within 8 to 12 hours, and we know in advance they are coming, it would be much better for you to send samples to local microbiology labs for E. coli assessment.  Check with your local water treatment plant for where they send their E. coli samples for assessment.

Ask your compost supplier for E. coli data showing that their compost is E. coli free.  If you are going to buy organically certified compost, you should reasonably expect that they have documentation that they have done a good job.  They should at least supply temperature and turning information for the composting cycle.  If you don't know what the proper turning cycle is, please e-mail us at SFI and we'll supply you that information.  Be forewarned, we'll charge money for that information ($10; it can be faxed or mailed).  SFI is a small business and we have to stay alive.

I'd be glad to talk with anyone about the tests done (and paid for) by SFI.  It's a shame for others to re-do what we have tested.  There is only one exception to this statement that I'll talk with anyone; there is only one person, and per his demand, his associates, with whom I will not communicate. 

People who will not communicate calmly and openly and who cut communication with others, retard and prevent advancement of the science of composting, compost tea and sustainable agriculture. 

Communication is key.  Much as some people don't want to acknowledge it, we're all in this together, and the only way to forge ahead is to be honest with each other.  
Confrontation is not required, if the people involved are honest in their desire to know and understand. 

Please excuse me for the long post, but it didn't seem to work to split this one up.

Elaine Ingham
President, Soil Foodweb Inc.