Saturday, January 31, 2009

Greenpeace study: Cattle Ranching claims 80% of Amazon Deforestation

Greenpeace Brazil has released a report at the World Social Forum in Belém showing that up to 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is due to an increase in raising cattle for human consumption.

Brazil has quickly become the largest exporter of beef in the world, but they are not satisfied with their current market share and plan to increase production. The plan flies in the face of their supposed commitment to tackle climate change. The country is currently the fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, 75% of which stem from deforestation.

Unfortunately, similar as in the United States, the government fully backs the agriculture industry with many politicians firmly in the pockets of agribusiness. They’ve even recently proposed legislation to prevent environmental groups from setting up in the Amazon.

However, with the economy moving how it is, expansion is becoming less and less of an option.

Further reading:
UN’s top climate scientist urges people to combat climate change by eating less meat.

Try going vegetarian in an attempt to help to ease climate warming.

Meat is murder on the environment

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Improving Food Quality Is Up To Us

You may ask, what does food policy have to do with environmental issues? Farmers the world over are deeply tied to both the food system and the energy system. Plus, their farming practices have a deep and lasting impact on the environment.

We have been witnessing a growing awareness of the need to “eat locally”. As a result of impending economic hardships and the never-ending food safety issues there is a resurgence in the desire to “grow our own”.

Slowly we are beginning to question the economics and environmental feasibility of transporting foods great distances to our neighborhood grocery. We are speaking out against processed foods and corporate raised meat and vegetables as unhealthy and environmentally unsound.

We are beginning to hear terms such as “real food” and “farm-to-table” that is fueling our hunger for locally grown, environmentally friendly and nutritious foods.

America’s top chefs, several of whom traveled to Washington for Obama's inauguration, hope that Obama's flair for good food will encourage people to expand their horizons when it comes to what they eat.

A drive is building to plant an organic food garden or Victory Garden at the White House to supply the White House kitchen and local food pantries with fresh produce. This garden would serve as a model of what we can grow in our own backyards.

Community gardens are sprouting up across the country as a means of providing gardening opportunites for those who do not have the space in their own yard. The added benefits of a community garden is that it benefits the social development of the neighborhood by offering people a chance to interact with one another. It can also provide a source for nutritious food for the homeless and disadvantaged.

Most food in the United States is over-processed, over-subsidized and grown with no regard to the environment, making it more difficult for small farms to make a profit selling more natural, nutritious food. In a missed opportunity to help small farmers congress overwhelmingly enacted a $290 billion farm bill last year that directs many subsidies to the largest agricultural players.

Our collective attitude towards what we put on our tables needs to change. We need to grow and eat more natural foods and get away from eating processed foods. We also need to use a lot less chemically based fertilizer and rely on the tried and true organic methods of our forebears.

The most obvious starting point for this revolution lies with us, the home gardener. There are many wonderful gardening blogs on the subject of growing your own food, read them and learn from their mistakes and take on their pleasures and passion while you become familiar with gardening techniques and become reacquainted with the untarnished deliciousness of raw vegetables and fruit in their natural form.

Becoming vocal advocates, to your neighbors, friends and family, of the healthful properties of organically home-grown produce can help grassroots organizations to spread the word.

Equally important is the help of federal and local governments. Farm subsidies that historically go to large corporate farms need to be turned over to small farms and community gardens. Particularly those that help the disadvantaged among us.

Farmers markets around the country are thriving but with the backing of governments can be better able to compete with supermarket chains.

Obama’s choice for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made an overture to the growing number of food groups and experts who have criticized government subsidies for large corporate farms, saying he will seek to work "with those who seek programs and practices that lead to more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way." Given his history, I cannot help but hear his unspoken words “…as long as those requests come from corporate farm operators”.

Tom Vilsack is a strong proponent of renewable energy and developing the nation’s alternative fuel industry. His advocacy of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil, at first blush, is to be commended and he says he favors rural growth. However, his plan for ‘rural’ growth is to expand farm subsidies for corporate farming as opposed to helping the small farmer. For example, while governor of Iowa, Vilsack oversaw the largest proliferation of hog confinements in the states history. These new hog CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) put tens of thousands of independent family hog farmers out of business in the state. The end result of this was a "decimation of rural Iowa" and serious degradation of the state's drinking water. Doesn’t sound very environmentally or rural friendly to me nor does it sound like we are going to get much help from the Department of Agriculture.

He also is clearly in Monsanto’s pocket. Vilsack supported Monsanto’s bid to pass a seed bill that took away county power to regulate GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) within county borders.

Let’s shun the over-doctored and questionably-nutritious processed foods for how nature intended it to taste. Let’s turn away from chemically based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Let’s elect to plant open-pollinated heirloom seeds and plants, partially to preserve diversity but also to prevent bio-tech firms from destroying a link with the past that can never be recovered.

Further reading:
A Different View of Vilsack
American Community Gardening Association
Eat Local Challenge
Farmers markets

Monday, January 19, 2009

Danger in the Nursery

Just found this article in Bird Life International and thought it would be interesting to pass along.

The author informs us about strip-mining for tar sands in Canada’s boreal forest. Canada is a part of the northern boreal ecoregion which accounts for about one third of this planet's total forest area. It is comprised of a broad circumpolar band which runs through most of Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and parts of Northern Scotland. Compared to much of the world, this ecoregion enjoys a sparse population and thus one would think, few threats to its immense and majestic beauty. However the reality is quite different.

The search for new oil reserves in tar-sand, a source of low-grade oil, is damaging forest and wetland habitats to the extent that over the next 30 to 50 years up to 300,000 hectares of forest and wetland could be directly affected, while habitat fragmentation, pollution and hydrological changes would affect a much larger area.

The area of north eastern Alberta supports at least 292 species of breeding birds. The only wild, migratory population of Whooping Crane Grus americana (Endangered) nests at Wood Buffalo National Park to the north, and migrates over the tar sands region, occasionally stopping over at boreal wetlands.

Many of the most abundant songbirds and waterbirds of the Americas also breed in the "bird nursery" of the boreal forest, and are already suffering declines because of logging, and degradation of their migration staging sites.

"Canada's boreal forest is an incredibly important area for many breeding neotropical migrant birds, and contains numerous Important Bird Areas", said John Cecil, national IBA program director for Audubon (BirdLife in the USA). "The report details impacts to at least five IBAs, among numerous other impacts".

Site preparation for strip mining requires draining lakes and wetlands, diverting streams and rivers, clear-cutting forests, and removing all vegetation. Hydraulic shovels and trucks are used to dig as deep as 100 meters into the earth. Despite commitments by the oil and mining companies, there is no evidence that lost ecosystems can be restored.

And even they are restored, how long will it take, and will it be in time to halt a devastating loss of wildlife?

How many links in the food chain can we live without? Birds are more than just something to look at and listen to. They eat insects whose numbers could devastate food crops if not kept in check.

Loss of habitat reduces a number of various mammals, reptiles, fish, etc, and each loss brings us closer to our own demise.

But, hey, as long as oil companies keep making money, as long as governments keep making tax money on it and we get to ride around in our personal vehicles, who cares right?

Being green means more than just using alternative energy sources, it also means protecting the planet and all of its inhabitants.

Living a green lifestyle means we don’t destroy any part of our environment to improve our lifestyle, because it does not improve our lifestyle.

Every time one more species is obliterated from this planet, we get one step closer to our own destruction.

Not all of us may not give a hang for birds, or spiders, or ants, or elephants, but without each and every one of them everyone's quality of life is diminished.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

When Are We Going to Benefit From Alternative Energy?

The urgency for the development and use of alternative energy has never been greater than right now. Our health, as well as the health of our planet, depends on it.

When the automobile was in its infancy it was powered by steam. Almost immediately, people knew the horseless carriage had a much greater potential for safety and reliability than was currently available. There was much demand to create a vehicle that was more reliable without spewing water vapor everywhere. And the possibility of explosion from the highly pressurized boiler was always present.

The gasoline engine answered the power and reliability issues as well as eliminating the chance of explosion but it spewed an ‘invisible’ new substance that would soon threaten our lives in an entirely new way.

Today, we have the same urgency for the development and use of alternative energy but we now have the added imperative to protect our planet.

The application of alternative energy is at a virtual standstill. We have become mired in our dependence on fossil fuel. Alternative energy development is being hobbled to the point of stagnation by a population who refuses to accept the dire need to move beyond a rapidly depleting resource. New unconventional methods must be utilized. Our planet is awash with enough energy to support all of humanity’s energy needs for an eternity. I am of course speaking of sun light, wind and water.

Several renewable energy strategies are in development throughout the world to take advantage of these resources but the question remains are they being used to their full potential.

We run into interference from those who gain the most by impeding its development: oil companies and politicians who refuse to believe in a future powered by anything other than fossil-fuel and the exploitation of it. The fear of embarking on new technologies needs to be overcome. We have been told by scientists that the world is heating up based partly on our reckless and unfettered use of carbon-based materials. The polar icecaps are indeed melting, whether it is caused by mankind or is part of a natural cycle is of little consequence when the shape of our physical world is changing and people are suffering from extended droughts. When we are trying to keep cool during increasingly hotter summer months, and while we try to keep warm in ever decreasing temperatures during winter, does the cause of global climate changes really matter?

Our entire transportation system still depends on air-polluting fossil-fuel. Our vehicles are subjected to annual testing to keep emissions below a level that is still too high but are not lowered to satisfy the profit margins of automobile manufacturers.

Our homes and businesses still use electricity that comes from air-polluting, water-fouling coal that is extracted using earth-destroying techniques. A small percentage of electricity is generated via nuclear power that produces a hazardous substance that if placed in the wrong hands could spell the end to life as we know it.

One of the alternatives to oil production is bio-fuel. Its production takes up farm land that is better used to feed the world’s hungry. The majority of the worlds poor live in foreign countries, but some of the world’s poor live right here in the U.S. where obesity is becoming a major health problem. And not all of them are living on the streets. It is criminal to allow starving people in the richest nation on earth. The only way they are fed is through donations from those of us who are also struggling to get by while farmers are paid to either not grow food, grow food for livestock that feeds fewer people than grains and vegetables would, or to grow crops to fuel our machinery.

The ability to economically produce high-quality cheap oil is nearing its end. All of the easily accessible oil has been discovered and extracted. Remaining oil reserves are off-shore, far from markets in smaller fields and of lesser quality.

The urgency to utilize renewable energy sources is exceedingly great for both our health and our safety. We at the local level can only participate in this transformation if we are given the tools to do so. This problem is much larger than the individual and therefore the solution must be addressed higher up the economic ladder.

Wind turbines are being developed for homes. Companies are developing or improving access to solar energy for our homes and cars. Hydrogen powered cars are slowly hitting the market. These are examples of what needs to be accomplished on a much greater scale. As these new techs become more accessible and more affordable, the consumer will begin to see fossil fuel applications as no longer available and therefore the transformation to a cleaner lifestyle can seriously begin to take effect. Pollution will begin to decrease. Struggles over non-renewable resources will begin to become a thing of the past. Likewise, there will be a decrease in ecological disasters such as what recently took place in Tennessee. Oil spills will become a thing of the past, and so on.

When are we going to witness this brave new world? When governments and industry embrace faith in the sustainability of renewable energy and start supplying us with what we need to finally shrug off the yoke of fossil fuel dependency. Only then will we start breathing easier.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Environmental Scorecard

My first post of the year, is it really the 15th already, is going to help me shed some light on how my family does the green thing.

A lot of big talk and good intentions are in the air about the need to save the planet from, well, us basically, so I figured I would throw out a few of the ways in which my family is helping to do our part.

Being environmentally responsible is a lot more than just recycling. It touches almost every aspect of our daily lives, from what we choose to eat, how the products we buy are packaged, how we clean our homes and how we get from point A to point B.

I grow some of the food we eat and put some of that up for the winter via the miracle of canning. I must admit that we could can more but we give a lot of it away to neighbors and family while it is still fresh.

We shred all of our junk mail, except the slick glossy stuff, who knows what goes into the inks on these things. I even shred my bills! Ha! In my dreams. I do pay most of them online but elect to receive the paper bill just in case I lose the use of the computer for whatever reason, like a seriously bad economic down turn. It is terribly satisfying to shred a credit card bill though.

The shredded paper, along with our newspapers get added to the compost pile.

Whatever bit of cardboard that does not find its way into a new planting bed goes into the recycle bin along with cans. But mostly I rip it up and place it on the compost as well.

Our neighborhood stopped collecting glass stating it was becoming too expensive to process it and even without that load our recycling bin is nearly over-flowing when they pick it up every two weeks.

I have canceled magazine subscriptions for insisting on stuffing way too many subscription forms in them as well as all manner of loose leaf ads. The really bad ones put the magazine in a plastic bag so they can throw more ads at us. I have written to these offending companies and told them how unhappy I am with the amount of landfill material they send out with each magazine. If I get a response at all it is nothing more than thanking me for writing. So I just cancel the subscription.

In the matter of those monthly bills that stuff fliers advertising their products and services, I stuff these back into the bill envelope with a note telling them to throw away their own trash.

We throw food scraps on the compost pile.

I collect compost from the city to use in the garden.

We adhere to shopping lists and go to the market once a week and then combine other destinations on the same trip so as not to waste gas.

I see to it that both of our cars are properly maintained in order to get the most fuel efficiency.

My wife works outside the home, I work at home and I have taken up cooking from recipes that use whole foods as opposed to processed foods.

One of the most difficult things to free ourselves of is plastic. We find it in a number of food packing, consumer packaging, even the bags we carry our consumer goods home in. We re-use almost all of the plastic food containers and plastic shopping bags. Anything that can be re-used is.

We take quick showers (baths are so wasteful) and do laundry only one day a week.

We have cut down a lot on eating beef. We mostly eat chicken.

We have installed compact fluorescent lights in every room and lamp in our house for energy efficiency and turn off lights when not in the room. My computer is on all day because that’s is my work tool.

Plastic milk jugs get re-used for a lot of purposes. I use them to start plants in until they are big enough to set out in the garden. I use them as cloches over the tender plants I set out until they are able to take nature on its own.

We feed our lawn and all garden plants (including houseplants) with organic material, i.e., the compost pile and supplement it with seaweed, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, bone meal, blood meal, etc, instead of using synthetic fertilizer.

We turn the thermostat down to 64 at night and pile extra blankets on the bed. The thermostat itself has four time settings so that the house temperature can be customized for when we are in the house or away from home.

I do still use my gasoline powered lawn mower but use an electric edge trimmer. I prune everything else by hand.

I shovel snow with an actual snow shovel while many people around my neighborhood use a gas powered snow blower.

I am embarrassed to say that we still clean our home with chemical cleaners but I am trying to get my wife converted to using natural products such as vinegar, salt, lemon juice, baking soda, etc. It is a tough uphill battle.

One of the requirements to living a sustainable life is learning how others do it, because there always seems to be an easier or more ingenious way of doing something.

I find that the majority of the people I talk to about it say they would like to or actually do something with the environment in mind. But when I visit their houses I sometimes find recyclable items thrown in the trash can or see someway they do something that could be a little more earth friendly. I am mindful that I cannot be the self-appointed ‘environment police’ and just continually bark at everyone about the error of their ways, so I just have to realize that we are dealing with a lifestyle that cannot be easily unlearned.

I would be tickled pink if a grow-your-own-food/gardening revolution would take place that would knock food prices down, discontinue the use of chemical based fertilizers and pesticides, finally win the war against obesity, and lower our healthcare costs because we would all be eating healthier and visiting the doctor les often. What a slice of paradise that would be.

But the major change is going to have to happen at the corporate level. We are going to have to be forced to stop using plastic bags only when companies stop making them. We are going to have to be taken by the hand to drive vehicles that get 50 mpg or more when the automobile industry stops making cars that get less.

Mass transit is only going to work when we are taxed out of driving our personal vehicles into corporate/commercial zones to work and shop everyday.

Coal-powered power plants are gong to stop fouling our air and water only when alternative energy sources are proven to be more cost effective and these fossil-fuel sucking behemoths are finally put to rest.

We as individuals can only do so much. And as long as we are given the less expensive more environmentally-damaging alternative to live our lives we will sadly do it.

If maybe I can inspire someone through this blog to change a little something about their behavior to stop taking this planet for granted then I feel my time spent has been worthwhile.