Archive | Environment RSS for this section

Conspicuous in Their Absence. Pesticides and Environmental Impacts.

This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)

The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.

Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low, while our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.

The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don’t rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.

The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.

The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.

There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 5.30.23 PM


Slow Talkin’ Mo.

As painful as it is to encourage people to listen to me speak, I think my first radio interview on food politics (remind me to tell you about the time I was interviewed for Australian public radio about Elvis’ eating habits) went pretty well. It was a good warm up for a talk I’ll be doing this Sunday in Olympia, WA. The interview was with me and Max DeJarnatt from the Center for Environmental Modernism, one of the organizers of Sunday’s event. John Ford at KAOS is friendly, sharp, and skilled radio interviewer. He did a great job making this amateur get through 45 minutes without too much dead air.

The FB link to the talk can be found here.

The Center for Environmental Modernism
Moving the Food Movement Forward
How Good Science, Smart Policies, and Community Organizing Can Change the American Food System
A Presentation by Marc Brazeau
Date Sunday, June 29, 2014 – 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Location Traditions Café and World Folk Art
300 5th Avenue SW, Olympia, WA 98501
Despite the rapid growth in the food movement in recent years, the major problems facing America’s food system—confusing nutrition information, exploitation of workers, environmental degradation, food security, to name just a few—have yet to see any real shift. Activism has surged, but changes in policy and politics have lagged. Marc Brazeau, blogger and editor for the website, attempts to explain why this is the case by critiquing the food movement’s major priorities, and by offering a new progressive agenda for America’s agricultural future.

The Simplest Solution to the Greek Yogurt Problem

Modern Farmer has an interesting piece on Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side detailing the problem of disposing tens of millions of gallons of acid whey and some of the solutions that are being developed to make use of it. The central problem is that making Greek style yogurt produces more byproduct than traditional yogurt. That is because more liquid is strained in order to concentrate the protein content. You need to concentrate the protein content because you are using less fat and you want that lush texture and mouthfeel that traditional low-fat yogurt lacks.

There is a very simple solution to the problem. Stop eating Greek style yogurt. Stop avoiding dairy fat. Eat whole milk yogurt. It is more nutritious, it tastes better and it probably better for weight management and is not associated with heart disease. Problem solved.

If Alternative Farming worked, it would just be called “Farming”

First published on Skepteco Feb 8th 2014

by Graham Strouts

Another insightful critique of permaculture, this time from Chris Smaje, which I take the liberty of quoting from at length as Smaje summarizes the issues better than I can:

PDC {Permaculture Design Course} syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

  • a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
  • a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism;
  • likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
  • a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
  • a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
  • a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
  • a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
  • a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
  • a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
  • most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations.

  • I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

    From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

  • a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
  • a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
  • a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
  • a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
  • an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

In truth, I would personally hesitate to say some of those things so baldly without having specific evidence I could point to to back them up; as with Ann Owen’s post discussed last week, Smaje does not mince his words or shy away from direct attack on his prey; nevertheless, I understand everything he is saying and can concur that this is also my experience with that special tribe of permaculture people.

Note Smaje’s accusation towards the end of his list of “a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ “
This seems odd since elsewhere Smaje continues to accuse me also of “irrationalist faith-based scientism”- which seems to be exactly the kind of response he is complaining of receiving himself from the permaculture world.

Just as Owen completely rolled back on her concurrence with myself and Peter Harper that “Permies dont do numbers” by asserting that “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” -in other words, anecdotes trump data- so Smaje seems unable to see that those he criticizes will tar him with the self-same epithet he throws at me.

Read More…

The Future Belongs to Crickets and Algae: Urban Algae Farms Edition


As part of the ‘Future Food District Project’, developed by Carlo Ratti Associati at Expo Milano 2015, the façades and canopy proposed for the pavilion utilize new systems of micro-algae, designed by Cesare Griffa and Ecologicstudio.

. . . Micro-algae performs an important photosynthetic activity, absorbing considerable amounts of carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. It also can be transformed into a biomass, which can be processed for energy, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical uses. Cesare Griffa further states, ‘micro-algae open up an incredible potential for new renewable energy resources, and hope for a greener future. Building and architectural surfaces are an incredible resource of space. Urban façades and roofs represent billions of square metres that instead of being made of an inanimate material such as concrete, could become clever photosynthetic surfaces that respond to the current state of climate warming. micro-algae could add to the green urban system that exists already, intensifying carbon dioxide fixation activity and acting as cladding for buildings, increasing their passive performance.’

More at Designboom.

NJ Explains: The Rain on the Plains, Mainly to Blame?

Maybe partly.

Nathanael Johnson starts us off with some good news.

As you can see, farmland has leveled out at about 75 percent. But erosion has gone down. The most interesting part of that first graph, to me, is the far right-hand side: There’s been less topsoil washing down the Raccoon River in the last two decades than at any other time. Or at least any other time on this record: If you go back before European settlement, there was very little erosion on the prairie. But still, for the period in which anyone was farming, the modern farmers look like the best stewards; the year with the lowest recorded sediment loss was 2000.

But point out that in other parts of Iowa high corn prices have driven the kind of fence row to fence row plant that results in stream and creek bank erosion. The disheartening thing we learn is that while the USDA has spent billions on agricultural conservation efforts and farmers have made great strides, climate change erases many of those gains.

And then there’s the weather. A huge part of the erosion and water pollution that occurs each year can be traced back to one or two big storms — gully washers that rut fields. And we are seeing more of these big weather events, as abnormal becomes the new normal. “We claim improvement in a dry year, and then the sky is falling in a wet year,” said Keith Schilling at the Iowa Geological and Water Survey, who co-wrote the Raccoon River study that got my attention.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”

So, while we should give credit and encouragement where it’s due, in sum we’re still polluting with our food system.

What’s the solution? In a word, plants: Plants sheltering the earth during the big storms; plants slowing raindrops with their leaves; plants holding down the earth with their roots. In places, people have begun to restore critical sections of the old prairie. There was once 167 million acres of tall-grass prairie in the land where we now grow corn and soybeans, and less than .1 percent of that prairie remains.

When I asked Eugene Turner, a professor at Louisiana State University, about this, he sent me the Marsden Farm study, which offers a potential way to mimic the prairie while still turning a profit. Researchers mixed things up by adding some grasses into the usual rotation of corn and soy.

Successful demonstration projects like this are sometimes hard to scale — it’s a lot easier to get results when you have a team of researchers scrutinizing the fields than if you are just one farmer trying to figure it out as you go along. And in recent years farmers have been pushed by a strong market incentive to just plant as much corn as possible. But as corn prices come down, perhaps more farms will look for alternative methods.

I know farmers who are as on top of this stuff as can be, but I also know that I’m interacting with some of the smartest, most engaged farmers out there.

Read the whole thing. There are good links and interest charts as well.

Why Do Earthworms Come Out When it Rains?

I’ve always wondered why earthworms come out of the ground when it rains.  I don’t know about you, but after a rain I can always find them on driveways and roads. Sometimes I’ll see thousands of them on a short stretch of road as if they are having some kind of mass annelid exodus from a field on one side of the road to the other. So what gives?

Earthworm on Pavement After Rain

At times I’ve wondered if a hard surface like concrete or asphalt provides a source of relative warmth over wet soil.  As it turns out the answer is pretty simple. They can’t breathe underground when the soil is saturated.  The air pockets in the soil fill up with water and worms basically breathe through their skin.  Teri Balser is an associate professor of soil and ecosystem ecology at UW-Madison and she says, “Oxygen from air or water passes directly from their outer cuticle into their blood vessels. Normally, soil has a mix of air and water — about 50 percent of the pore space in soil is air, the rest is water. Oxygen diffuses easily through air, and the soil stays aerobic because oxygen comes in from the surface.”

So that’s all there is to it, and now I know better. Rather than suffocate, the worms move elsewhere. I’d probably do the same thing. Hopefully, I won’t lay in the middle of a road and get squished though.


Earthworm in cover crop

Another article claims they may reveal themselves in such great ffnumbers following a rain for a number of other reasons.  Stemming from the possibility that “they can even survive several days fully submerged in water” some experts believe pounding rain may mimic the vibrations of worm eating predators causing the worms to surface.  Another thought is they may be using the wet conditions to travel longer distances overland than they could underground.  Since the surface is wet they don’t have to worry about drying out in the hot sun.

What’s your worm experience?  Why do you think the come out on a rainy day?

This post was orignally shared on The Farmer’s Life on April 6th, 2013.  View it now at “Why Do Earthworms Come Out When it Rains?”