Dec 19

Agribusiness as Usual (pay no attention to that man behind the subsidized curtain!)

The idea that organic farming just can’t work on a national or global scale is so often presented as a self-evident, undeniable fact that I tend to believe it.

Cherry tomatoes growing in my roof garden.

So as I go about trying to make healthy, ethical decisions about my own food consumption, I sometimes see myself as part of a privileged few who get to make such choices, while resigning myself to the fact that there’s no way the world is going to go organic — even if it would be better for people and the planet.

But three articles I’ve encountered in the last few weeks have been good reminders that just because something is repeated long and loud doesn’t make it so. Sometimes Toto just needs to pull the curtain back to remind us that we’re listening to puffed-up pronouncements from the great and powerful Wizard of Big Ag.

ONE. In a terrific Dec. 5 piece at TheAtlantic.com, Organic Can Feed the World, Barry Estabrook (Tomatoland) takes on the agribusiness claim that organic farming is a idealistic undertaking (and maybe even a dangerous idea!) and that we must rely on industrial farming to feed the world. Estabrook pulls together a lot powerful evidence to turn the oft-repeated claim that organic can’t feed the world on its head.

I’m not going to quote Estabrook’s piece here. It’s not long, wonderfully well written, and worth a few minutes. Read it here.

TWO. Then I came across a recent Forbes Q&A with angel investor Ali Partovi, who is investing in a number of sustainable agriculture projects. It’s a really interesting interview that covers a lot of ground, but I was particularly intrigued by Partovi’s thoughts about pasture-based livestock production. First, this:

Domestically, the factory farm and corn systems go somewhat hand in hand. The corn system feeds the factory farms, but the factory farms are what create a lot of demand for the corn. I guess the area that I find particularly enticing is to enable scalable pasture-based livestock production. Whether it’s a single company or a series of companies or the equivalent to a larger scale Niman Ranch. Essentially, the more we can transition to eating animals raised on pasture directly, the more we will be able to reverse some of the negative impacts of both factory farms and the corn based system.

And then Partovi went on to say:

From every conversation I’ve had, it seems to me that grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised livestock more broadly, is a huge opportunity for capital investment. The market is not developing as fast as it should because there’s not enough capital flowing into it. This is a classic problem whenever there’s a rapid-growth opportunity in a traditionally slow-growth, capital-intensive business. I experienced the same thing first-hand when I invested in early Zappos: the company was posting insanely rapid growth, doubling every year, but it was always on the verge of running out of money because it didn’t have enough capital to keep its warehouse stocked with shoes. The same situation applies for many pasture-based ranchers and livestock operators: they are seeing meteoric growth, and they don’t have enough money to expand their herd and land fast enough to keep up with demand. And in both cases, the typical investors are hesitant because they’ve never seen a shoe store or farm that needs so much capital to grow so rapidly. As a result, supply of pasture-raised meet and dairy consistently lags behind demand, which means there’s a systemic shortage. This causes prices to be artificially high on a product that should really be cheaper because it doesn’t involve all the fossil-fuel inputs or waste-management issues.

I think there’s a particular opportunity to build a national grass-fed beef brand. Beef is really a seasonal food, because cattle have the most fat (and flavor) right after peak grass season. This puts grass-fed producers at a disadvantage, because at the wrong times of year grass-fed beef will be leaner (and less flavorful), whereas corn-based factory farms have trained people to expect prime beef year-round. There’s an opportunity to overcome this via regional diversification, because different parts of the country have different seasonal variations. A national brand could provide grass-fed beef that’s “in season” year-round by drawing cattle based on regional variations in peak grass seasons. This wouldn’t be 100% “local,” but it would involve far less transportation than shipping corn to feed cattle.

I find Partovi’s take on this really intriguing. These days, when I do eat meat, I only eat grass-fed, sustainably raised beef, pork and poultry from suppliers like Polyface Farms and Tallgrass Beef (best hot dogs ever!). But even more than with grains and veggies and fruits, I tend to think: well, this can never go to scale. Americans won’t pay for it. And we consume way too much meat for it to be feasible.

But Partovi’s analysis, in which he compares grass-fed beef producers to his experience investing in Zappos, opens my eyes to new possibilities. He sees opportunity for investment and innovation. He sees supply and demand. He sees systems and networks and solutions.

THREE. In Can Danilo Atilano Feed the World?  (Winter 2012 Earth Island Journal) authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh provide a textured, thoughtful on-the-ground account of how rice farmers in the Phillippines are learning to employ and embrace zero-chem farming techniques, and then they relate what they observe back to the big question: can organic feed the world?

The full article is worth reading, but these paragraphs, in particular, get to the heart of the matter:

Small-scale farmers using agroecology approaches can produce ample and accessible food for the world’s people. So, the question is not really if farmers like Atilano can feed the world. The question is whether eco-friendly, smallholder farmers like him will get the support they need to feed the world.

Picture the contest over the future of food and farming as a shifting battlefield with many players. On one side, agribusiness firms, some development agencies, technocrats, and academics like Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, continue to push the myth that only agribusiness plantations can feed the world. Their battle cry: Countries should shift fertile lands to “efficient” and “modern” large-scale export crop production, even if it means increasing food imports to feed their people.

On the other side are policy experts like de Schutter and hundreds of millions of small farmers and consumers. Groups representing about 200 million small-scale farmers in 70 countries have united in La Via Campesina, a movement that promotes “food sovereignty,” by which they mean “defending small-scale farming, agroecology and local production.” They, in turn, are supported by thousands of community and consumer groups – such as the Slow Food movement, whose 1,300 chapters in 153 countries support small farmers, co-ops, and community-supported agriculture across the world.

The outcome of this war over the future of food depends on two things: who wins the policy battles over food, and what personal food choices each of us makes on a daily basis.

So how I choose to eat does matter because it is part of a bigger battle — I’m not living in some organic la-la land.

And yes, organic can feed the world, but forces lined up on the side of industrial farming have a lot of power — including the ability to shape public opinion by propagating conventional wisdom about conventional farming.

But just saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. Even if you have a big Wizardy voice.

I’ll let the Scarecrow have the last word.

Dorothy: How do you talk if you don’t have a brain?
Scarecrow: Well, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking don’t they?


Nov 20

Tweeting and Blogging about The Atlantic’s Green Intelligence Forum

One of the highlights of the forum was a conversation between Chris Paine (left), director of Revenge of the Electric Car, and Alexis Madrigal, senior editor for The Atlantic. (photo credit: Max Taylor Photography)

On November 16 and 17, 2011, I was the on-the-ground correspondent for The Atlantic’s fourth-annual Green Intelligence Forum, live-tweeting the event from @sustainablePOV and using Storify to create a live-coverage event timeline.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts related to the event at the Powering Energy Progress blog on TheAtlantic.com. The blog is sponsored by Shell, which was also an event sponsor.

Read my blog posts inspired by the Green Intelligence Forum (new posts will appear through mid-December): Powering Energy Progress Blog at TheAtlantic.com

 

 

 

 

Nov 13

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Two things I’ve encountered recently have me thinking about sustainable living through the lens of sustainable dying.

First, there’s this delightful TED talk from artist Jae Rhim Lee: “My mushroom burial suit.” It’s under eight minutes, and I recommend watching if you haven’t seen it. In short, she has developed the concept for a burial process that uses a body suit that would be infused with spores from edible mushrooms that have been “trained” to break down a person’s body (she’s been using her hair, skin, and nail clippings as a growing medium).

Not only would this speed along an organic breakdown of the body after death, but part of the advantage of using mushrooms, as Lee explains, is that they neutralize toxins like BPA and heavy metals that accumulate in our bodies and that are returned to the environment when we die. “Our bodies are filters and storehouses for environmental toxins,” she says. And of course in our culture (America and most of the Western world, as far as I know) we tend to fill bodies with more chemicals after death. Not good.

On a similar front, NRDC’s OnEarth recently featured a Q&A with Sarah Murray, who has a book out called Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre – How We Dignify the Dead, about death rituals around the world. This interview highlighted just how troubling many funeral/burial practices are from an environmental standpoint. Here’s a snippet:

Anybody who’s interested in sustainability will tell you it doesn’t make sense to put this stuff into the ground. You cannot imagine the range of things you can buy at the big funeral expos. You look at these huge, seven-gauge steel coffins lined with silk and nylon with special drawers for your mobile phone, and you realize it’s all just going into the ground. As one environmentalist put it, essentially, a cemetery is a landfill.

Murray also talks about options for natural burial — no chemicals, no steel coffins. But of course there’s still the problem of the environmental toxins already present in our bodies, which once again highlights the power of Lee’s idea for a mushroom burial suit.

And while cremation may sound like an eco-friendly alternative to burial, apparently it’s fairly problematic (carbon emissions, etc.). Another option described by Murray is intriguing:

There’s this new technique that a couple of states are doing. One company is calling it ”resomation.” Another calls it “alkaline hydrolysis.” Essentially, you go into an alkaline bath, and it dissolves your body. It’s what would happen if you were just buried in the ground, but it does it in a bunch of hours. And it doesn’t use all the energy it takes to cremate you. You’re not being embalmed, so it doesn’t use all the chemicals. You’re not being buried with a huge steel box. It does leave you with some ashes, so if you still want to have a scattering ceremony, there are bone fragments. And then the mortar into which you’ve been dissolved can be used as fertilizer. So you can put me out on the fields to fertilize a few crops. That sounds kind of promising.

With 7 billion people on earth and counting, rethinking our burial practices is an important issue, in and of itself.

But this topic also relates to a larger issue that I’ve been pondering, which is how to shift behaviors and change systems to allow for and encourage more sustainable ways of living.

Not that long ago, death was not an “industry” — people were buried naturally because that was the only option, and the fact of death was more intertwined with daily life. As an undergrad in the mid-80s, I took an interdisciplinary course called “Death and Dying” where we looked at the history of death and dying through various lenses of literature, film, social sciences, etc. The big take-away form that course was this: modern-day Western culture is really screwed up about death, and our fear and discomfort around death run deep.

We’ve medicalized dying and turned the handling of the dead into something we pay professionals to do, rather than a final caring act carried out by loved ones (I know there are exceptions to this around the world and even in our culture, but for the vast majority of Americans, the established system for dealing with the dead is never questioned). Death, even a relatively peaceful death in old age, is scary and bad and distasteful — and because we aren’t confronted with death as often as people used to be, it’s easier to avoid death as a natural part of life.

When you look at a topic as profound and personal as death and think about how to begin to shift behaviors and expectations, I think it provides a framework for thinking about how to shift behaviors and expectations around more mundane daily decisions and social rituals that relate to sustainable living (biking or using public transportation; using cloth diapers instead of plastic; eating sustainably grown food; etc. etc. etc.)

One of the things I find most interesting is how deeply ingrained current behaviors can be — even if not that long ago (a decade, a generation, a century) the more sustainable choice was the status quo.

For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about gardening, and how my grandparents on both sides had large vegetable gardens that helped put fresh, delicious food on the table. However, that knowledge was not carried on by most members of the next generation in my family — why garden when you have the modern conveniences of grocery stores and fast food? why garden when it’s no longer a necessity for survival? — which means most of my generation did not grow up with an inherited familiarity of how to grow our own food (although I did, thankfully, grow up knowing what a tomato should taste like…so there’s that).

Of course gardening and death are part of the same amazing cycle, and our attitudes about death speak to our connection to the earth, or lack thereof. I definitely agree with Murray that a process that would accelerate the natural cycle of returning my body to the earth as fertilizer is pretty attractive — and it’s kind of amazing how hard our culture works to forestall this natural cycle.

I think one of the things that’s appealing about very old graveyards is the knowledge that while the markers are still there, the bodies below truly are ashes to ashes and dust to dust. So when a body pumped full of embalming fluid and encased in an expensive hunk of steel is lowered in the ground, I have to think: how did we get here? And how do we relearn what we’ve lost?

Oct 28

Roger Doiron on Subversive Plots

This TED talk from Roger Doiron (Kitchen Gardens International) is really fantastic — funny, smart and inspiring. He begins by framing food as a means of power (yes!) and saying that gardening is a gateway drug to other kinds of “food freedom.”

Doiron pulls together a lot of great information, including this eye-opener: in order to feed the world’s population, we will need to grow more food in the next 50 years than in the past 10,000 years combined.

I have some connections brewing in my brain between this talk and some other things I’ve read recently…but for now, just sharing the video.

 

Oct 27

Rebirth of a Blog: The Sustainable POV Backstory

Three years ago, I started a blog called Sustainable Brain as a way to provide annotated links to articles and other resources about sustainability (broadly defined). More than anything, the intent was to keep a log for myself – a running compendium of ideas and information that I found valuable and could refer back to over time.

The effort was short lived. After a few months, I allowed the blog to languish. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t get in the habit of blogging at least once a week. I’ve read and seen lots of great stuff about green issues and sustainability in the interim, and I wish I had some record to remind myself of the things I found most interesting and helpful. And, of course, the intention of blogging would have increased my vigilance about seeking out new information and processing stuff *now* rather than saving it for later.

So, I’m back. This time, the blog is hosted (rather than residing on the WordPress host), and that required a renaming so I could get an available domain name and Twitter handle to match. Thus “Sustainable POV” was born. I actually like the new name better, especially the play of meanings — both having a Point Of View that’s about sustainability, and finding a way to have a POV that is, itself, sustainable.

Twitter is a good addition to this mix, as it allows me to follow scientists and experts and journalists who know a lot more than I do, and tweeting also allows me to track interesting links every day — and then I can pick and choose which things I think are blogworthy.

As was the case the first time around, I largely see this endeavor as a way to track my own exploration of ideas and information. If others find it helpful and I’m able to contribute in some small way to the conversation, so much the better.

Thanks for visiting my born-again blog.

— Amy

 

Sep 29

This Old Recyclable House (Jon Mooallem, NYTimes Magazine, 9/28/08)

Yesterday, the NYTimes Magazine featured an in-depth look at “deconstruction” — tearing down old houses and buildings in order to reclaim virtually 100% of the building materials. It’s an intriguing concept — with complicated economics and market forces at work. On the surface of it, demolition is faster and cheaper. But deconstruction could contribute in significant ways to sustainable building practices. To start with, we could keep an amazing amount of stuff out of landfills.

Here are a few paragraphs:

A quarter of a million homes are demolished annually, according to the E.P.A., liberating some 1.2 billion board feet of reusable lumber alone. For the most part, this wood has been trucked out to a landfill and buried. Remodeling actually ends up generating more than one and a half times the amount of debris every year that demolishing homes does. (America generates a total of 160 million tons of construction and demolition debris every year, 60 percent of which is landfilled.) The Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who spent decades excavating landfills, has estimated that construction and demolition debris, together with paper, account for “well over half” of what America throws out. He called it one of a few “big-ticket items” in the waste stream actually worthy of the debates we have over merely “symbolic targets” like disposable diapers.

At the same time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, new construction consumes 60 percent of all materials used in the nation’s economy every year, excluding food and fuel. Few of those resources are renewable. Older homes are among the last repositories of old-growth timber, like heart pine or cypress, and keeping even the most mundane building materials in circulation at the end of a house’s life preserves their “embodied energy” (the energy expended producing and shipping natural resources in the first place) instead of drawing new resources to replace them.

“This is a manufacturing process,” Guy told me. “That’s the way you should look at this. We are making building materials.” In fact, the aim of deconstruction has always been more socioeconomic than environmental: employing local people to harvest a stock of low-cost materials so that lower-income homeowners and rental landlords in the same area can afford to maintain their properties. Denhart talks about houses as being part of a community’s collective history and wealth. Deconstruction maintains and redistributes that wealth.

Smart stuff, and well written. Read the article here: This Old Recyclable House

Sep 14

Mark Svengold: “Wind-Power Politics”

This great in-depth look at offshore wind power in the NYTimes Magazine (Sept. 14) tells the story of Bluewater Wind, the company that is building a huge offshore windfarm in/for Delaware.

The story is told against the larger context of the quickly evolving world of wind power, with a focus on the political forces at work behind the scenes (in the case of Bluewater Wind, the public was 90% in favor of their plan, but it was then stalled — and ultimately scaled back — by political leaders in the state).

The author, Mark Svengold, pulls together many of the threads I’ve been following about windpower into a snapshot of where things stand and where they appear to be going, including the promising potential of windpower in the U.S. Here’s a snippet:

While it’s true that wind is still a tiny part of the energy picture — just 1 percent of the total electricity portfolio in the United States and 3.3 percent in Europe — more than a quarter of the 20,000 megawatts of the world’s new wind capacity last year was installed in North America, where all the global wind-energy players have set up shop, lured by the low U.S. dollar and the high rate of returns. ….In the continental United States, resources are vast — with more than eight thousand gigawatts of potential electricity blowing overhead. “The amount of wind energy potential in this country,” says Walt Musial, a principal engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center, “is bigger than the national grid itself.”

Of the things I’ve been reading about wind power, I’d probably recommend this article most highly because it provides a big-picture overview while telling a compelling story about a visionary company.

Read the full article here: Wind-Power Politics

Sep 03

Tom Friedman: “And Then There Was One”

In the September 2 New York Times, Tom Friedman says of John McCain:

With his choice of Sarah Palin — the Alaska governor who has advocated drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and does not believe mankind is playing any role in climate change — for vice president, John McCain has completed his makeover from the greenest Republican to run for president to just another representative of big oil.

…and explains why it it matters — and should matter to Republicans as much as anyone else (because in our global economy, being green isn’t just for tree huggers):

…renewable energy technologies — what I call “E.T.” — are going to constitute the next great global industry. They will rival and probably surpass “I.T.” — information technology. The country that spawns the most E.T. companies will enjoy more economic power, strategic advantage and rising standards of living. We need to make sure that is America. Big oil and OPEC want to make sure it is not.

It’s a smart column. Read it here: And Then There Was One

Sep 02

“Beyond Carbon: Scientists Worry About Nitrogen’s Effect” (Richard Morgan, NYTimes)

Australia's 470 men's crew negotiates its way through the algae during training on June 24. (Source: ABC News / AAP: Australian Sailing Team)

Remember those huge algae blooms in China that mucked up the water for the Olympic sailing events? The culprit was nitrogen.

An article in the Sept. 2 New York Times looks at concerns about nitrogen, and it’s a good reminder that climate change is complicated — yes, reducing carbon is critical, but that many other things need to be in balance for our world to be healthy.

Here are a few paragraphs that set up the issue:

Public discussion of complicated climate change is largely reduced to carbon: carbon emissions, carbon footprints, carbon trading. But other chemicals have large roles in the planet’s health, and the one Dr. Giblin is looking for in Arctic mud, one that a growing number of other researchers are also concentrating on, is nitrogen.

In addition to having a role in climate change, nitrogen has a huge, probably more important biological impact through its presence in fertilizer. Peter Vitousek, a Stanford ecologist whose 1994 essay put nitrogen on the environmental map, co-authored a study this summer in the journal Nature that put greater attention on the nitrogen cycle and warned against ignoring it in favor of carbon benefits.

For example, Dr. Vitousek said in an interview, “There’s a great danger in doing something like, oh, overfertilizing a cornfield to boost biofuel consumption, where the carbon benefits are far outweighed by the nitrogen damage.”

And here are some troubling numbers that show how agribusiness contributes to nitrogen imbalances:

Fertilizer use is largely inefficient. With beef, only about 6 percent of nitrogen used in raising cows ends up in their meat; the rest leeches out into air or water supplies. With pork, it is 12 percent; chicken, 25 percent. Milk, eggs and grain have the highest efficiency, about 35 percent, or half of what, in the metric of report cards, is a C-minus.

Finally, a good analogy:

Reactive nitrogen competes with greenhouse gases that have greater public awareness. “But it’s like looking at malaria and AIDS in Africa,” Dr. Rabalais said. “They’re both problems. And they both need vigilant attention.”

Read the full article here: Beyond Carbon — Scientists Worry About Nitrogen’s Effect

Sep 01

Book Review: The Golden Spruce

I’ve just finished reading The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant (2005). It tells the story of Grand Hadwin, who sawed down the Golden Sitka in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The tree was a unique Sitka Spruce with golden needles — a “freak of nature” that shouldn’t have survived, but had — that was sacred to the Haida people.

I picked the book up because it had an Into the Wild appeal (a book I’ve read twice, as well as seeing the movie). And there are some similarities between the main characters. However, Vaillant weaves a much larger story around Grant Hadwin and the Golden Spruce, providing wide-ranging background on the cultural and geographical history of British Columbia, the history and beliefs of the Haida nation, and the evolution and impact of the logging industry.

This story takes place at a complicated intersection of culture and commerce, and it’s really a story about sustainability and how our insatiable need for wood has destroyed virtually all the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. It also seems to me that the lessons of the Golden Spruce have parallels in our use (and misuse) of other natural resources.

There were a lot of facts that I found fascinating, like this tidbit:

As early as 1605, samples of white pine from Maine were being sent back to England for testing by the Royal Navy, and by 1691 England’s “Broad Arrow Policy” was in effect. Reflecting the wholesale audacity of the times, this highly unpopular decree stated that any trees twenty-four inches or more in diameter located within three miles of water were automatically the property of the king. Lest there be any confusion about whose woods these were, the royal mark of the broad arrow was blazed on their bark. The marked trees were considered so valuable that mast ships — custom built to accommodate long timbers — traveled in convoy with armed escorts.

It was this search for trees for ship’s masts (who knew??) that first led the British to plunder the old-growth of the Pacific Northwest. But it was the advent of the chain saw after WWII, accompanied by ever-more-efficient methods of felling trees and extricating them from the wild, that tipped the balance and led to wholesale destruction of old-growth forests. Vaillant provides fascinating descriptions of the dangerous life of loggers, and of the machines and methods that were developed over the last century (which continue to make logging an incredibly dangerous profession).

What the chain saw and its mechanical attendants — the bulldozer, log skidder, and self-loading logging ruck — have done is reduce the great trees of the Northwest down to objects that a man of average size and physical condition can fall, buck, load, and transport. Today, a tree ten feet across the butt can be felled in ten minutes flat, and bucked up in half an hour. Afterward it is a matter of moments for a grapple yarder — essentially a huge mobile claw on caterpillar treads — to pick up the multiton logs and load them onto a waiting truck (no need for a spar tree anymore). In theory, then a 200-ton tree that has stood, unseen, for a thousand years and withstood wind, fire, floods, and earthquakes can be brought to earth, rendered into logs, and bound for a sawmill in under and hour — by just three men. In 1930 it would have taken a dozen men a day to accomplish the same thing. In 1890 it would have taken them weeks, and in 1790 it would have been a matter of months — assuming they were even able to fell the tree.

It’s a smart book on many levels, weaving together complex threads into a compelling tale that left me thinking about the true costs of the 20th century — and what, if anything, we can do in the 21st to undo some of our destruction and restore a sense of balance (impossible to replace thousand-year-old trees, of course, but maybe some recompense is possible in other places and with other natural resources).

Grant Hardwin was probably more than a little crazy. But, like many loggers Vaillant spoke to, he loved the wild places he was helping to destroy. So it’s a crazy I can relate to.

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