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John-Paul Maxfield aims to put nutrients from food waste back into the soil

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Hector Mata/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A worker carries a trash can from an organic pile of refuse at the Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center in Simi Valley, Calif. Urban areas produce huge amounts of food waste that are treated as trash and sent to a landfill. But their nutrients could be put to use enriching farm soil.

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The United States has a topsoil problem.

About 75 percent of it is gone, primarily because the large, single-crop farms that dominate American agriculture rely on chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to produce their harvests, depleting natural soil systems in the process.

John-Paul Maxfield thinks compost can help solve this problem. Environmentalists love compost for several reasons, including that it helps divert waste from landfills – the world's largest source of human-produced methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But for Maxfield, composting organic matter isn't so much a waste-reduction issue as it is an ecological and agricultural one. He wants to create a market solution to get compost back into the soil.

He's part of a small but growing community of people and companies around the country that recognizes the lifecycle of the food supply, and the need to link the production of food with what happens to the scraps of food after it is consumed.

"We have been losing topsoil across the planet at an alarming rate over the past 50 years, largely due to poor agricultural practices," Dan Sullivan, managing editor of BioCycle magazine, said in an email. "Amending our soils with compost, basically recycling organic waste back into the earth just as natural ecosystems such as forests function, is really the only way we can correct that damage."

He said he's starting to see a transition even on conventional (nonorganic) farms from petroleum-based farming to compost, largely because of increasing costs of petroleum, but also because the advantages of compost are becoming ever-clearer.

"Compost use improves water infiltration and storage capacity, thereby protecting agricultural lands long-term from drought, while chemical farming tends to dry out the soil, deplete nutrients over time, and cause erosion," Sullivan said.

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