Tag Archives: organic

Friday Linkage 6/12/2015

Miles consume my thoughts. I have set some ambitious personal targets for miles ridden on my bike this season and I have already started viewing each ride as a percentage of that goal. It’s kind of sick and awesome at the same time.

On to the links…

No More Beer, Chocolate or Coffee: How Climate Change Could Ruin Your Weekend—Ruin my weekend? This will ruin my everyday ritual. People need to understand the broad implications of climate change.

Renewables Reach Highest Share Of U.S. Energy Consumption Since 1930s—From 2001 through 2014 renewable energy—driven by wind, solar, and biofuels—grew by 5% per year compounded annually. Every step is a step forward to a fossil fuel free future.

As Arguing Against Climate Change Action Gets Harder, the Naysayers get Louder—Here is when you know something is in its death throes. When the most ardent supporters of a contrarian opinion are forced to get louder in order for their views to be heard then the tide has turned decisively against their beliefs. No one will lament the death of the climate changer deniers.

10 years post Katrina – Where have you gone, Mr. Go?—Hurricane Katrina was a natural and national disaster. The impacts were made worse by poor leadership and inept bureaucracy. In the aftermath some good has come out of the storm. The destruction of the Mississippi River delta is now viewed as a catastrophe that made the storm’s impact worse. Efforts are underway to correct some of the misdeeds of our past.

The U.S.’s Biggest Coal Company Can’t Pay To Clean Up Its Own Mines—Who do you think will get stuck with the bill? The American taxpayer. Free market my ass.

Coal: Black Moods—Do you want to know why coal is dead? As the article states the market cap for the four largest American coal companies was $22B in 2010. Today it stands at $1.2B. Chew on that decline for a moment. SolarCity alone has a market cap of over $5B.

Why Haven’t Cities Covered Their Buildings in Solar?—I wonder this every time I see large municipal buildings in sunny locales. I also have this same thought when flying over acres of distribution centers around airports that have roofs just primed for massive solar projects. Between parking lots, warehouses, and city buildings there is more than enough square footage to keep installers working steady for years.

Fueled by Growth in the Residential Segment, U.S. Installs 1.3 GW of PV in Q1 2015—Take a look at this graph for a moment:

2074971433534583119

Now, remember that these are discrete quarter numbers, not cumulative, so each quarter adds to the prior quarters to create total installed capacity. Once installed these panels are generating clean power for the next twenty five years or so.

State-By-State Plan To Bring US To 100% Renewables By 2050—100% renewable energy seems unattainable because someone in one state does not understand how solutions from another state are not relevant, but that another technology fills the gap. It also does not help that states are hamstrung by rules written by power companies and powerful lobbying interests to keep old generating schemes in place. There is, however, a path forward.

Minnesota 1st To Require EV-Specific Electricity Rates Statewide—EV adoption will only occur faster if programs like this can be rolled out to more customers across the U.S. As second and third generation EVs become available in the market it will be the ancillary impacts of owning an EV—charging, maintenance, etc.—that will go a long way to determining success or failure.

The Future of Construction Techniques—How we build things, both in terms of the methods and materials used, have a major impact on the embedded energy of a building and the total energy costs over the lifetime of the building. The future of building is coming:

Infographic-future-of-construction-2

The Amazing Truth about Costco’s Organic Food—Costco is the nation’s largest retailer of organic food. Not Whole Foods. Not WalMart. People may complain that it is dirty capitalism sullying the organic name, but we are talking about billions of dollars of sales going to a sector that was niche not much more than a decade ago.

You Must Read—Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Product profitability is as much a necessary consideration for food companies as how their products taste. [Page 195]

We all pretty much acknowledge that the majority of food in the modern American supermarket is crap. For every little display of broccoli or kale there are twenty linear feet of Hamburger Helper and its generic equivalents. If you ever want to be depressed about what people eat spend five minutes watching frozen pizzas fly out of the coolers on a given day. It’s amazing.

9781451666731But why does American food seem to suck so much? It’s something that Melanie Warner, a freelance writer based in Colorado, tries to answer in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.

Ironically, our journey into the processed food wasteland began about the same time that people were beginning to fear what was in their food. Who can forget the image in The Jungle where a worker falls into a rendering vat and the processing continues. I bet that was on tasty canned hammed.

Science and industrialization came to the rescue. Basic ingredients like oat and wheat were steamed, rolled, flaked, puffed, baked, and generally abused until these processed foodstuffs were packaged and shipped off to America’s growing supermarkets. In an era when mass culture was taking off it was even better that such products could be advertised nationally on television sets.

Too bad all of that abuse rendered the foundation ingredients essentially nutrition free. So much so that nutrition had to be added back into products like bread. Make bread from whole grains and it is full of vitamins. Make it into Wonder Bread and you need to fortify the hell out of it.

The most telling fact about the reason why so much of our food is processed comes late in the book. In the same section where the quote at the top of this post is located, Warner writes:

Simple items like cheese, frozen vegetables, and chicken breasts have gross margins ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent. Breakfast cereal and snack chips, on the other hand, command margins up to 70 percent; soda and sports drinks offer a ridiculous 90 percent.   That is why you see a constant barrage of ads for Gatorade and nothing for frozen blueberries. [Page 195]

The margins commanded by processed food are important because it not only drives the profitability of the manufacturers, but it dictates where investment dollars will flow. An investor, faced with an opportunity of similar potential success, will choose the project with a higher gross margin unless compelled by some other motivation outside of profit. By and large, our investment community is driven by the profit motive.

The post-World War II fascination with science and “progress” led us, as a collective whole, to believe that we could be separated from nature in so many ways. Our food could be made better by the intervention of man, but in the process something vital was lost and our food became little more than empty calories that expanded our mid-sections.

This fascination also led us, again as a collective whole, away from the kitchen for a variety of reasons. Some of the statistics Warner cites about the amount of time spent preparing meals prior to the processed food revolution are staggering:

Over the last seven decades, home cooking in America has plummeted. In 1927—the pre-TV dinner era—the average woman spent an unimaginable five to six hours a day preparing meals for her family. By the fifties, the food industry claimed that a housewife relying on convenience foods could fix her family’s meals in an hour and a half less, which is still an eternity by today’s standards. [Page 206-6]

There are a lot of reasons for our decreasing cooking time, primary among them is the migration of women into the workforce, but it is an even more insidious death spiral. As subsequent generations come of age, they will not have the institutional knowledge of how to cook and, therefore, cannot pass those skills down to further generations. Even if a person wants to cook there is a learning curve that must be mastered. At some point will we lose the common knowledge of how to operate in a kitchen? God, I hope not but I am not going to place a bet on the positive side of that ledger.

Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Is a short read—thankfully not over pedantic at just over 200 pages of text—that illuminates some of the drivers behind the development of our modern processed food complex.

You Must Read—Just Food

No matter how “primitive” or “pure” the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory. (Page 67)

Food is critically important to the survival of human beings. That is the one salient point that everyone with an interest in food, that is to say every living person, can agree upon.  Once we get past that point, opinions diverge into a million streams of thought and arguments ensue.

9780316033756The usual breakdown occurs across common fault lines: organic versus conventional, GMO versus non-GMO, vegan versus meat eater, etc.  There seems to be little middle ground in between these fractious camps, but James E. McWilliams tries to tread such a space in Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly.

McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, has a problem with food miles:

Food miles are readily popular primarily because they’re easy to grasp and calculate. (Page 46)

I agree with the author that judging the eco-grade of a food based solely on the miles it travels to store or plate is erroneous because it fails to account for so many variables.  Transportation costs, in terms of energy and money, are quite small in proportion to the other costs associated with our food’s production.

Where I disagree with the author is that he fails to address some of the larger aspects of the local food movement.  It’s not just about bringing production of food back to a local foodshed.  It’s about rediscovering local traditions and methods that are lost in a homogenized world.  It’s about accountability in a food system where a single company may be responsible for half or more of a single commodity.

His belief in genetically modified organisms (GMO) I am hesitant to endorse.  It’s not that I do not believe in the ability of GMOs to address problems that arise in agriculture.  It is rather that the efficacy and safety of GMOs does not have to be document before the organisms are allowed out into the wild.  This is an indictment of the regulatory regime surrounding GMOs rather than the product themselves but it is an indictment nonetheless.

There is one place where I agree with McWilliams completely: our love affair with land based protein or meat is the single most destructive dietary decision that we make on a regular basis.  If you chose to do only one thing to benefit the planet, it would be to forgo any meat that comes from a land animal.  Given the state of our oceans and the destructive fishing practices employed it might also be advisable to give up all types of meat.

Meat is inefficient and exacerbates the worst of our agricultural practices.  In the U.S. over half of our two primary commodity crops—corn and soybeans—are turned into feed for animals.  McWilliams asserts:

If once could wave a magic wand and radically reduce meat consumption, all discussion of fertilizer abuse would come to an abrupt halt.  (Page 77)

The key aspect to McWilliams’ book and something that is absent in the majority of writing about food where it seems diametrically opposing views are the only acceptable means of discourse is that a middle way might be possible.  In his own words:

I believe in the notion that a rational and achievable middle ground exists between th extremes of abundance and deficiency. (Page 185)

As the world faces the challenge of feeding ever more people on the same amount of land or less, as arable land becomes degraded, utilizing every option at our disposal may become the default.  What McWilliams proposes in Just Food is that we can produce more food and do away with the more damaging aspects of modern agriculture, but that the current focus on local and organic is a fool’s errand.  It’s an interesting proposal that is worth your time to examine.

Friday Linkage 12/14/2012

I don’t have an open this week.  Everything just seems a little off today with the school shooting in Connecticut.  It’s a sad and scary world.

Here are the links…

The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement—Every few years someone writes an essay about a particular shift in the green or environmental movement.  A while back it was about how the environmental movement was dead.  Now, it’s about a shift to so-called eco-pragmatists.  Okay, whatever.  Here’s my two cents.  It’s not a shift, but an expansion of eco-consciousness that now comprises more demographics than those commonly associated with patchouli and Birkenstock sandals.

The people who have concerns about the environment and the natural world are still present, but a new crop of people are taking to the cause in a different way.  It’s a big enough tent for everyone to participate in the discussion without this turning into the progressive version of the right wing’s “purity tests” that lead to political candidates for high office like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee.

Another Look at a Beverage Ingredient: Brominated Vegetable Oil—Do we really, as a country, have any idea what the ingredients are in the food we buy?  Hopefully, we buy as much unprocessed food as possible because it seems like something comes up every day that is more frightening.  Today, it’s brominated vegetable oil in your soda.  Basically, the stuff is banned all over the world except for the U.S.  Surprise, surprise.  The line that scared me those most from the article was as follows:

“About 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to foods, about 3,000 of which have never been reviewed for safety by the F.D.A., according to Pew’s research. Of those, about 1,000 never come before the F.D.A. unless someone has a problem with them; they are declared safe by a company and its handpicked advisers. “

Teaming Up to Make New Antibiotics—Antibiotics are one of the true miracles of modern medicine.  Through the use of these compounds humans and animals have been freed from the cycle of death related to infection.  Now, through humans’ overuse of antibiotics and a general malaise with regard to developing new compounds, our mastery over infection is waning.  The time to act is now.

How Agroforestry Can Help Combat Climate Change—I read articles like this and it makes me wonder if we have even begun to explore the myriad ways our traditional agricultural systems could adapt.  It seems that if it is not using a giant machine from John Deere the world does not notice.  BTW, don’t the pigs in the pictures look happy?

How to Feed the World without Destroying It—Unlike what some boosters of industrial agriculture say we do not need to destroy the natural world in order to feed humanity.  Plus, the answer is in infographic form:

info_soil2

Bringing Local Food Communities Online—Farmigo is trying to make the farmers market experience so easy that it’s like ordering the latest garbage book about strange bondage behavior from Amazon.  Sure, you might lose the experience of walking the farmers market, interacting with growers, and being part of a community but it is better, way better, than getting your produce from WalMart.

U.S. Solar Photovoltaics Install 684MW in Q3 2012—The figure of 684MW in quarter 3 of 2012 represents a 44 percent increase over the same period in the prior year.  The installed capacity brought online in the first three quarters of 2012 already exceeds the total for the entire year in 2011.  These are good numbers, but it is my belief that it only represents a fraction of the potential of solar photovoltaic in the U.S.

Solar Panels for Every Home—A resilient power grid would add as much distributed generating capacity as possible because disruptions like those post-Sandy would be lessened.  Furthermore, the condition of our national power grid does not really accommodate the addition of a lot of new power.

Wind and Solar Paired with Storage Could Power the Grid 99.99% of the Time—I think what is missing from the discussion about expanding the use of renewables is that these technologies have moved beyond fringe, in terms of being able to provide power.  Now, the question becomes how much of our grid can be powered with renewables.  Bring it on.

Permafrost 101: Why We Need To Account For Thawing Ground In Climate Projections—The world may not end in 2012 as many people believed the Mayans predicted—I believe they just figured it was too far out in the future to worry about so why waste the time—but there are still things to be worried about.  Zombies?  No.  The effect of permafrost thawing?  Yes.  Honey Boo Boo?  Hell yes!

The Bayou Corne Sinkhole: Massive Oil and Gas Disaster You Probably Know Nothing About—I admit that I had heard nothing about this and I read a lot.  Most of it is not even about Honey Boo Boo.  Honest.  It’s not a natural disaster either.  It’s the result of oil and gas drilling.  This is just horrific.

What’s the Deal with PLU Codes?

A few days ago my father sent me an infographic that I found interesting:

Image

Could it really be this easy to identify if the produce I am buying in the grocery store really has been genetically modified?  The good folks at Snopes.com laid it out pretty succinctly:

“a five-digit code beginning with 8 signifies a genetically modified product, a five-digit code beginning with 9 signifies an organically grown product, and a five-digit code beginning with 0 (or a four-digit code) signifies a non-qualified (i.e. conventionally grown) product.”

I guess it really is that easy.  Hmmm…

Furthermore, you can Produce Marketing Association’s web site and search for particular PLU codes.  The amount of information that the codes contain can be quite amazing and tell a lot about the food we buy at the grocery store.

Fair Trade and the Problem with Labels

Coffee is one of the foodstuffs that I buy with regularity for which there is no acceptable locally produced substitute.  It is one of the downsides of postponing my relocation to the Hawaiian Islands.

Barring an experience that turns me on to the subtleties of roasted dandelion root or ground chicory I am stuck purchasing coffee from faraway lands.  Oh sure, when I am feeling flush with cash I will outlay the money for coffee from Kona or Ka’u on the Big Island.  Heck, I even like the inferior coffees from the island of Kauai.  Most of the time, however, I am left to choose between coffees grown in Central and South America.  Will it be the Mexican Chiapas or the Guatemalan Dark?  Maybe the Colombian Supreme?

This where labels come in.  I cannot personally know the people growing my coffee, unless it comes from Hawaii or I undertake a trip south of the U.S. border, so I depend on third parties to assure that the coffee I am drinking aligns with my values.  This is the point of labels like organic, shade grown, rain forest certified, fair trade, etc.

Apparently, there is a problem in the world of fair trade.  The organizations that certify foodstuffs and other consumer goods as “fair trade” are somewhat balkanized.  This trend is exemplified by the split between Fairtrade International—the most well-known certifier—and the fledgling Fair Trade USA.  Both may label a foodstuff fair trade, but the methodology for determining if something is “fair trade” may be quite different.

In the case of Fair Trade USA and coffee there are several issues that bring into question the entire act of labeling something fair trade.  First, Fair Trade USA engages in the practice of labeling coffee grown on large estates or plantations which runs counter to the popularly held assumptions of many fair trade customers that the goods they buy come from smaller producers.  Second, there are somewhat confusing standards for products that contain some fair trade ingredients.  For a good rundown of that issue check out this article by Corey Hill in the East Bay Express.

The biggest problem seems to be that plantations could be considered “fair trade” when the products they ship contain as low as 10% fair trade beans .  Suddenly, everyone is serving 100% fair trade coffee because someone has changed the rules of the game.  Huh?  This reminds me of when some states during the 2000s seemed to have great performance on standardized tests and the results seemed counter to anecdotal evidence of student performance.  The problem?  The states had lowered the standards for the test to a level that was laughable.  Sure, more students were passing but it was not comparable to an earlier, more difficult exam.  Just because the label says something is fair trade does not mean it is better.  Ugh!

This story goes to the heart of why the local food movement is so important.  If you know the actual producers of the food you purchase and you interact with those producers there is no need for a third party labeling scheme that can be co-opted by an unscrupulous entity.  You buy produce from Farmer X because Farmer X does things the way you like it.  Plain and simple.

Friday Linkage 9/21/2012

You know how weeks can just seem to get away from you?  That was this week for me.  I looked up and it was Thursday night.  Where did all of my time go?

When I get a chance this weekend I have some thoughts on beer—big surprise—and a new attempt at pickling garlic—yay!

On to the links…

Secret Life of Garbage—It’s Friday, so bring on the infographic:

5 Key Points Missed in Study on Organic Food—Recent studies on organic food have painted the portrait of it being nonsense elite buying behavior with no real impact.  As the shock has worn off people have begun to look at what the studies overlooked.

Saga of the Salton Sea–If you have ever been to the Salton Sea, it is a strange experience.  In the searing heat of the desert there is this odd oasis that is not really an oasis.  It’s an accident that has become a major environmental asset and liability at the same time.

U.K. Wind Farms Generate Record Power—On a national scale, wind power was providing 10.8% of the nation’s power.  Pretty awesome.

Republican Case for Supporting Renewable Energy—Do you think in the current climate that any national Republican politician would have the stones to step up and support renewable energy?  First, the withering criticism would come from Fox News blowhards and that whale Rush Limbaugh.  Second, the money would dry up from the fossil fuel industry.  Third, some “real” Republican who was more right wing than Attila the Hun would challenge them in a primary.  Nope, not a chance.

Companies Including Starbucks and Levi Strauss Promote Wind Power Tax Credit—The extension of the wind power tax credit seems like such a no brainer because it helps American industry, promotes clean energy, and had broad based appeal.  Except it does not make sense to obstructionist politicians.

What Runners Can Teach Us About Sustainability—I liked what the author was trying to get at talking about efficiency in a different lens.  Effective?  Maybe.

The Case of the Missing Bars—Apparently the effects of age and heat on the batteries of the electric Nissan Leaf have been misjudged by the manufacturer.  It is amazing what this group of enthusiasts was able to do in terms on logistics and methodology to prove their point.  I think the hard core enthusiast base for electric vehicles is going to be what allows the industry to survive until battery technology allows for mass adoption.  Don’t believe me?  Apple would have been dead in the mid-1990s if not for a dedicated base of fans who kept the company just above drowning.  Now look at Apple.

The Federal Government Vastly Underestimates True Cost of Pollution—How much does pollution cost us?  Until this externality can be accurately portrayed there is little hope in moving forward on climate change because all models will underestimate the impact.

Research Questions the Wisdom of Prescribed Burns—As forest fires grown in frequency and intensity there is going to have to be an increased focus on research about the topic.  For a “natural disaster” that has been with us since the beginning of time there is little knowledge about the long term impacts of various mitigation efforts vis a vis natural fires, etc.

How Green Was My Lawn—An interesting perspective on the environmental movement’s evolution.  It makes me want to check out the author’s book.