The Florida SunSentinel reported that Florida’s coast has been impacted by one of the greatest environmental disaster’s in American history, the BP Gulf oil spill. From the SunSentinel:Continue Reading
The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.
“We are basically looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations,” Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Field, a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said emissions from burning fossil fuels since 2000 have largely outpaced the estimates used in the U.N. panel’s 2007 reports. The higher emissions are largely the result of the increased burning of coal in developing countries, he said.
Unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere as the result of “feedback loops” that are speeding up natural processes. Prominent among these, evidence indicates, is a cycle in which higher temperatures are beginning to melt the arctic permafrost, which could release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, said several scientists on a panel at the meeting.
The permafrost holds 1 trillion tons of carbon, and as much as 10 percent of that could be released this century, Field said. Melting permafrost also releases methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
“It’s a vicious cycle of feedback where warming causes the release of carbon from permafrost, which causes more warming, which causes more release from permafrost,” Field said.
Evidence is also accumulating that terrestrial and marine ecosystems cannot remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as earlier estimates suggested, Field said.
In the oceans, warmer weather is driving stronger winds that are exposing deeper layers of water, which are already saturated with carbon and not as able to absorb as much from the atmosphere. The carbon is making the oceans more acidic, which also reduces their ability to absorb carbon.
On land, rising carbon dioxide levels had been expected to boost plant growth and result in greater sequestration of carbon dioxide. As plants undergo photosynthesis to draw energy from the sun, carbon is drawn out of the atmosphere and trapped in the plant matter. But especially in northern latitudes, this effect may be offset significantly by the fact that vegetation-covered land absorbs much more of the sun’s heat than snow-covered terrain, said scientists on the panel.
Earlier snowmelt, the shrinking arctic ice cover and the northward spread of vegetation are causing the Northern Hemisphere to absorb, rather than reflect, more of the sun’s energy and reinforce the warming trend.
While it takes a relatively long time for plants to take carbon out of the atmosphere, that carbon can be released rapidly by wildfires, which contribute about a third as much carbon to the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels, according to a paper Field co-authored.
Fires such as the recent deadly blazes in southern Australia have increased in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue, Field said. Warmer weather, earlier snowmelt, drought and beetle infestations facilitated by warmer climates are all contributing to the rising number of fires linked to climate change. Across large swaths of the United States and Canada, bark beetles have killed many mature trees, making forests more flammable. And tropical rain forests that were not susceptible to forest fires in the past are likely to become drier as temperatures rise, growing more vulnerable.
Preventing deforestation in the tropics is more important than in northern latitudes, the panel agreed, since lush tropical forests sequester more carbon than sparser northern forests. And deforestation in northern areas has benefits, since larger areas end up covered in exposed, heat-reflecting snow.
Many scientists and policymakers are advocating increased incentives for preserving tropical forests, especially in the face of demand for clearing forest to grow biofuel crops such as soy. Promoting biofuels without also creating forest-preservation incentives would be “like weatherizing your house and deliberately keeping your windows open,” said Peter Frumhoff, chief of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate program. “It’s just not a smart policy.”
Field said the U.N. panel’s next assessment of Earth’s climate trends, scheduled for release in 2014, will for the first time incorporate policy proposals. It will also include complicated models of interconnected ecosystem feedbacks.
The panel’s last report noted that preliminary knowledge of such feedbacks suggested that an additional 100 billion to 500 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions would have to be prevented in the next century to avoid dangerous global warming. Currently, about 10 billion tons of carbon are emitted each year.
The energy challenges our country faces are severe and have gone unaddressed for far too long. Our addiction to foreign oil doesn’t just undermine our national security and wreak havoc on our environment — it cripples our economy and strains the budgets of working families all across America. President Obama and Vice President Biden have a comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs.
The Obama-Biden comprehensive New Energy for America plan will:
- Help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.
- Within 10 years save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.
- Put 1 million Plug-In Hybrid cars — cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon — on the road by 2015, cars that we will work to make sure are built here in America.
- Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
- Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Energy Plan Overview
Provide Short-term Relief to American Families
- Crack Down on Excessive Energy Speculation.
- Swap Oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to Cut Prices.
Eliminate Our Current Imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 Years
- Increase Fuel Economy Standards.
- Get 1 Million Plug-In Hybrid Cars on the Road by 2015.
- Create a New $7,000 Tax Credit for Purchasing Advanced Vehicles.
- Establish a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
- A “Use it or Lose It” Approach to Existing Oil and Gas Leases.
- Promote the Responsible Domestic Production of Oil and Natural Gas.
Create Millions of New Green Jobs
- Ensure 10 percent of Our Electricity Comes from Renewable Sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
- Deploy the Cheapest, Cleanest, Fastest Energy Source – Energy Efficiency.
- Weatherize One Million Homes Annually.
- Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology.
- Prioritize the Construction of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline.
Reduce our Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80 Percent by 2050
- Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
- Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change.
Wind and solar power have been growing at a blistering pace in recent years, and that growth seemed likely to accelerate under the green-minded Obama administration. But because of the credit crisis and the broader economic downturn, the opposite is happening: installation of wind and solar power is plummeting.
Factories building parts for these industries have announced a wave of layoffs in recent weeks, and trade groups are projecting 30 to 50 percent declines this year in installation of new equipment, barring more help from the government.
Prices for turbines and solar panels, which soared when the boom began a few years ago, are falling. Communities that were patting themselves on the back just last year for attracting a wind or solar plant are now coping with cutbacks.
“I thought if there was any industry that was bulletproof, it was that industry,” said Rich Mattern, the mayor of West Fargo, N.D., where DMI Industries of Fargo operates a plant that makes towers for wind turbines. Though the flat Dakotas are among the best places in the world for wind farms, DMI recently announced a cut of about 20 percent of its work force because of falling sales.
Much of the problem stems from the credit crisis that has left Wall Street banks reeling. Once, as many as 18 big banks and financial institutions were willing to help finance installation of wind turbines and solar arrays, taking advantage of generous federal tax incentives. But with the banks in so much trouble, that number has dropped to four, according to Keith Martin, a tax and project finance specialist with the law firm Chadbourne & Parke.
Wind and solar developers have been left starved for capital. “It’s absolutely frozen,” said Craig Mataczynski, president of Renewable Energy Systems Americas, a wind developer. He projected his company would build just under half as much this year as it did last year.
The two industries are hopeful that President Obama’s economic stimulus package will help. But it will take time, and in the interim they are making plans for a dry spell.
Solar energy companies like OptiSolar, Ausra, Heliovolt and SunPower, once darlings of investors, have all had to lay off workers. So have a handful of companies that make wind turbine blades or towers in the Midwest, including Clipper Windpower, LM Glasfiber and DMI.
Some big wind developers, like NextEra Energy Resources and even the Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, a promoter of wind power, have cut back or delayed their wind farm plans.
Renewable energy sources like biomass, which involves making electricity from wood chips, and geothermal, which harnesses underground heat for power, have also been slowed by the financial crisis, but the effects have been more pronounced on once fast-growing wind and solar.
Because of their need for space to accommodate giant wind turbines, wind farms are especially reliant on bank financing for as much as 50 percent of a project’s costs. For example, JPMorgan Chase, which analysts say is the most active bank remaining in the renewable energy sector, has invested in 54 wind farms and one solar plant since 2003, according to John Eber, the firm’s managing director for energy investments.
In the solar industry, the ripple effects of the crisis extend all the way to the panels that homeowners put on their roofs. The price of solar panels has fallen by 25 percent in six months, according to Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, who said he expected a further drop of 10 percent by midsummer.
(For homeowners, however, the savings will not be as substantial, partly because panels account for only about 60 percent of total installation costs.)
After years when installers had to badger manufacturers to ensure they would receive enough panels, the situation has reversed. Bill Stewart, president of SolarCraft, a California installer, said that manufacturers were now calling to say, “Hey, do you need any product this month? Can I sell you a bit more?”
The turnaround reflects reduced demand for solar panels, and also an increase in supply of panels and of polysilicon, a crucial material in many panels.
On the wind side, turbines that once had to be ordered far in advance are suddenly becoming available.
“At least one vendor has said that they have equipment for delivery in 2009, where nine months ago they wouldn’t have been able to take new orders until 2011,” Mr. Mataczynski of Renewable Energy wrote in an e-mail message. As he has scaled back his company’s plans, he has been forced to cancel some orders for wind turbines, forfeiting the deposit.
Banks have invested in renewable energy, lured by the tax credits. But with banks tightly controlling their money and profits, the main task for the companies is to find new sources of investment capital.
Wind and solar companies have urged Congress to adopt measures that could help revive the market. But even if a favorable stimulus bill passes, nobody is predicting a swift recovery.
“Nothing Congress does in the stimulus bill can put the market back where it was in 2007 and 2008, before it was broken,” said Mr. Martin, the tax lawyer with Chadbourne & Parke. “But it can help at the margins.”
The solar and wind tax credits are structured slightly differently, but the House version of the stimulus bill would help both industries by providing more immediate tax incentives, alleviating some of their dependency on banks.
Both House and Senate would also extend an important tax credit for wind energy, called the production tax credit, for three years; previously the industry had complained of boom-and-bust cycles with the credit having to be renewed nearly every year.
Over the long term, with Mr. Obama focused on a concerted push toward greener energy, the industry remains optimistic.
“You drive across the countryside and there’s more and more wind farms going up,” said Mr. Mattern of West Fargo. “I still have big hopes.”
Los Angeles Times:
Some states — including Michigan — already see renewable energy as their future: It’s the only sector that appears to be making room for more employees despite the recession.
Reporting from Hemlock, Mich. — While Detroit’s automakers struggle to rebuild their sputtering operations, the key to jump-starting Michigan’s economy may lie 80 miles northwest of the Motor City.
This is the home of Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. It makes a material crucial for constructing photovoltaic panels. And that has turned this snow-covered hamlet into an unlikely hotbed for solar energy.
On Dec. 15, the same week that General Motors Corp. and Chrysler begged $17.4 billion from taxpayers to stave off collapse, Hemlock announced a $3-billion expansion that could create hundreds of jobs. It’s a rare piece of good news for this battered Rust Belt state, whose 9.6% unemployment rate is the nation’s highest.
In contrast to Detroit iron, Hemlock’s quartz-based polycrystalline silicon is in such demand that workers in white smocks and protective gear toil around the clock to get it to customers around the globe.
Hemlock has been deluged with applications from idle factory hands such as former autoworker Don Sloboda. The 50-year-old Saginaw resident has been retraining at a local community college for what he hopes is the region’s new engine of job growth.
“It looks like the future to me,” Sloboda said.
Whether clean energy can pull Michigan out of the ditch remains to be seen. But the push is on to retool America with so-called green-collar industries.
President-elect Barack Obama wants to spend $150 billion over the next decade to promote energy from the sun, wind and other renewable sources as well as energy conservation. Plans include raising vehicle fuel-economy standards and subsidizing consumer purchases of plug-in hybrids. Obama wants to weatherize 1 million homes annually and upgrade the nation’s creaky electrical grid. His team has talked of providing tax credits and loan guarantees to clean-energy companies.
His goals: create 5 million new jobs repowering America over 10 years; assert U.S. leadership on global climate change; and wean the U.S. from its dependence on imported petroleum.
“Breaking our oil addiction . . . is going to take nothing less than the complete transformation of our economy,” Obama said during a campaign stop in Michigan’s capital, Lansing, last year.
Americans have heard it before. Every president since Richard Nixon has touted energy independence, yet the goal remains elusive. The U.S. imported less than a third of its crude around the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Today foreigners feed nearly 60% of the nation’s petroleum habit.
Skeptics fear that the president-elect’s Green New Deal will do little but waste taxpayers’ money. The government squandered billions on the Jimmy Carter-era synthetic-fuels program, a failed effort to create vehicle fuel from coal.
Corn-based ethanol — the latest recipient of fat subsidies — is loathed by many environmentalists, who say it is an inefficient fuel that gobbles precious cropland and helps to drive up food prices.
Better to let the market decide, not the state, said Donald Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University in Virginia.
“The history of government picking winners in the U.S. is not that grand,” he said. “People instinctively love the idea of green jobs. . . . But there is a lot of mass stupidity out there.”
Renewable-energy proponents such as former California Treasurer Phil Angelides say stupidity would be to stick with current U.S. energy policy, which has turbocharged global warming, super-sized the trade deficit and propped up oil-rich regimes hostile to American interests.
Angelides heads the Apollo Alliance, a coalition promoting clean industries as a means of rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and lessening the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
“It’s the best path to recovery and the best chance of creating jobs that can’t be outsourced,” he said.
Although Angelides’ organization takes its name from the space program that put Americans on the moon, creating green jobs isn’t rocket science, said Oakland activist Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy.”
Jones said Obama’s proposal to weatherize homes would pay for itself through energy savings while putting legions of unemployed construction workers back on the job. A $100-billion investment in a green recovery could create 2 million jobs within two years, a good chunk of them in retrofitting, according to a recent University of Massachusetts study.
“You can employ a lot of people very quickly with off-the-shelf technology like caulk guns,” said Jones, founder of Green for All, an economic development group. “This isn’t George Jetson stuff.”
No one knows precisely how many green jobs exist in the U.S. economy. Estimates range from less than 1 million workers to nearly four times that. What’s clear is that clean industries have been growing rapidly without a lot of help from Uncle Sam.
Worldwide, investors poured a record $117.2 billion into alternative energy in 2007, according to London research firm New Energy Finance. The costs of wind and solar power are dropping fast.
But the industry slowed in late 2008 as the U.S. financial system imploded. Plunging oil prices and frozen credit markets have derailed a number of renewable-energy projects. Some advocates say U.S. government support is needed to keep the sector moving forward.
That strategy has worked for Germany and Japan: Neither is blessed with abundant sunshine, yet these nations boast more rooftop solar arrays than anyplace else, thanks largely to government subsidies. That has created vibrant domestic markets for solar power and tens of thousands of jobs. Asian and European solar module makers dominate the industry.
The irony, say American solar executives, is that the U.S. was an early innovator. Bell Labs introduced the world’s first photovoltaic device in the 1950s. NASA’s space work advanced the field.
The U.S. “created this technology, but we didn’t value it because [fossil fuel] energy was so cheap,” said Ron Kenedi, an American who is vice president of the U.S. solar operations of Japan’s Sharp Corp., a major manufacturer of solar cells.
“We need to reclaim our birthright.”
Many state and local governments aren’t waiting for Washington.
Tough state mandates to cut greenhouse gases and boost the use of renewable energy have turned California into the nation’s hottest market for solar energy. Installers such as SolarCity of Foster City continue to hire even as the rest of California’s economy stalls.
Pennsylvania used incentives to lure Spanish wind-turbine maker Gamesa Technology Corp. to set up shop in an old steel facility. The company now employs more than 1,000 workers in the state, most of them unionized.
New Mexico is diversifying its mineral-based economy with green technology. Germany’s Schott Solar is building a $100-million plant near Albuquerque and the state is grooming wind power technicians at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, one of only a few such programs in the country.
Trained wind workers are in such demand that General Electric Co., a maker of turbines, has promised to hire every Mesalands graduate for the next three years.
Michigan has started its own Green Jobs Initiative to retrain displaced factory workers for careers in renewable energy.
“If we can bend sheet metal for car fenders, we can bend it for windmills,” said Ken Horn, a Republican state representative from hard-hit Saginaw.
A tavern owner, Horn said his regulars had been buzzing about green energy — a sign that the industry was no longer considered fringe or radical.
Michigan’s brightest renewable stars are in solar. United Solar Ovonic, a major producer of thin-film photovoltaics, operates three manufacturing facilities in Michigan and has two more under construction in the state.
Hemlock Semiconductor is a joint venture of two Japanese firms and Midland, Mich.-based Dow Corning Corp., which owns a majority stake.
It is expanding its rural campus not far from Saginaw and building a plant in Tennessee to produce more polycrystalline silicon — a semiconductor that allows solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity.
The exacting chemical process begins with the mining of quartz and ends with huge, gray, U-shaped bars of polycrystalline silicon wheeled to an assembly line at Hemlock’s Michigan plant, where they’re broken into small chunks for shipment.
Most of the product is sent to Asia and Europe, where solar manufacturers turn it into the familiar panels seen on rooftops. Hemlock employs 1,400 full-time and contract workers in Michigan and expects to add 500 more in the next few years. The plant operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a week, never stopping, even in a recent blizzard.
Snow and ice couldn’t keep Rich Steudemann from sliding into work on a recent morning. A mechanical engineer with more than two decades in the auto industry, Steudemann jumped at the chance to join Hemlock last fall as a quality-control expert.
“This is like the era of Henry Ford,” said Steudemann, 45. “This industry is just starting to take off.”
Baby food is a pretty delicate thing. After all, it’s filled with all of the nutrients that your baby is relying on in order to grow up healthfully. Green parents are often in the market for organic baby foods, but why not make your own organic baby food? Gwyneth Paltrow manages to find time to make her own organic baby food and I’m pretty sure you can find the time, too. Plus, you’ll sleep more soundly knowing precisely what is going into your baby’s food.
The basic elements of baby food are the same elements for your own food: fruits, veggies, protein, and grains. When it comes down to fruit and veggies, you should steam them just a little bit to ensure that they’ll be soft enough for mashing. Grains should be rinsed and meats, if used, should be cooked thoroughly. Use the same organic food that you would normally buy in order to make delicious and organic food for your baby.
All food should go into a blender, food processor, or grinder. Add a little bit of water and puree the food of your choice.
If you need to freeze your baby food, try freezing it in an ice cube tray. This works wonderfully and you can thaw out however many cubes of food you want in the future easily.
Some suggestions for food to use:
Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Butternut Squash, Strawberries, Apples, Pears, Peaches, Bananas, Salmon, Tuna, Chicken, Soy, Eggs, Rice
Generally, shopping at health food stores and supermarkets that carry organic foods is a good way to buy green produce. But you can get greener—and cheaper—goods elsewhere. And if your local health food store is anything like mine, it’s incredibly expensive.
The following are the best, and often cheaper, alternative options to buying your greens at the supermarket:
- Farmers’ Markets
Fresh produce, straight from the farm. What could be better? And since there’s no middle man—you’re buying straight from the farmer—you’re saving major money. Most cities and towns have a farmers’ market that’s easily accessible—I even had one in my little suburb growing up. And since they’re local farmer’s you know the food isn’t traveling hundreds of miles—and causing the unnecessary spewing of greenhouse gases—to reach you.
- Community Supported Agriculture
This one requires a bit of an investment right up front, but it’s worth it. When you sign up with a local CSA, you typically ‘subscribe’ to get access to fresh veggies for 6 months or a year. Then, once a week, you drop by and pick up a load of vegetables that comes straight from a local farm. And that’s the best part—supporting CSA sends money to local farmers, and puts an emphasis on environmentally friendly food production.
- Food Co-ops
Okay, okay, so food co-ops are kinda like a health food store—but not. Many Co-ops have special arrangements with local farms, and hence, they receive fresher produce. Also, many offer arrangements where you can join the co-op and work some hours in exchange for the fresh green stuff.
- Your Own Garden
So it seems pretty obvious that it’s cheaper and greener to grow your own veggies than to shell out cash for them at the market. But the idea doesn’t really sink in for most people—perhaps all the images of dirt and hoes and overalls seems unappealing. But gardening is a very real, very easy way to get yourself some green goods for cheap. It’s simple. Start your own garden save big, and eat green.
Sustainable, local, industrial, organic, bio-dynamic, natural, conventional…wow, the list of righteous food labeling goes on. Believe me, I genuinely care about these idiosyncrasies, but food shopping has become incredibly daunting lately, not to mention uncomfortable at times—I received sneers upon asking a local farmers market purveyor whether chemical pesticides are used to grow his farm’s produce. “In moderation,” he quickly responded without making much eye contact.
Each food label represents a collection of farming practices and ideologies that dictates every process from how food is grown to how it gets to our kitchen tables. This is all very important, right? But truthfully at the end of the day or the beginning of my grocery shopping, I just want to know whether the food is healthy, easy on the environment and ethically produced. Wouldn’t it be great if there were only three labels – “Healthy,” “Green,” and “Ethical?” And only used when food meets 100% of the criteria? That’s ambitiously simple, I know.
I do have one more label to add—a label that simply reads, “Food.” Author and Activist Michael Pollan recommends that we create a Federal Definition of “food.”He says, “We need to stop flattering nutritionally worthless food like substances by calling them “junk food”—and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind.” He continues to suggest that an edible substance labeled as “‘food’ must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy.”
Now, you don’t have to agree with all of these positions. For example, you may just care about your food’s health quality, or may just be concerned with its environmental impact, or the economical, social and spiritual aspect of the food’s production. Whichever one compels you the most is surely accompanied today by a slew of labels. Here is a guide to some of the more frequently discussed labels, and how they affect what is important to you. And don’t be afraid to mix and match some of the following food methods and philosophies in order to create your ideal plate. Preferably, all of my food would be pesticide and chemical free (organic), produced as close to my kitchen as possible (local), and made on farms that pay its workers an equitable wage (fair trade). But the reality is I don’t always have access to food items that meet this perfect trifecta. So, I’m happy as long as my grocery bags are balanced with items from each of these three categories.
Chemical-derived pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides are not used to cultivate organic food. Instead, organic farms use natural and holistic methods such as compost, crop rotation, and biological agents to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat over a natural period of time. Organic food products are minimally processed, contain no artificial additives or preservatives, and organic milk, meat or poultry is free of hormones and antibiotics. Crop diversity is typically a distinct characteristic of organic farming, but may not be the case on today’s industrial organic farms.
Did you know that pesticides and fertilizers sprayed across conventional farms are primarily made from fossil fuels like petroleum? After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy, and 28% of the energy used in non-organic agriculture goes to fertilizer manufacturing.
So essentially, consuming organic means we keep pesticides out of our bodies, support farms that keep harmful chemicals out of the ground, and we also happen to decrease our dependence on oil.
Keep in mind there are many organic certifiers, but to be sold in the U.S. they have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Look for these USDA approved label variations:
* 100% organic
* Organic—made with at least 95% organic materials
* Made with Organic Ingredients—the product is at least 70% organic
* Contains Organic Ingredients—less than 70% organic ingredients
The Environmental Working Group explains labeling seafood “organic” is misleading because the USDA has not yet developed organic certification standards for such water-bound fare. For consumers weary of paying a premium for organic items, the Environmental Working Group compiled a list of 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide concentration levels on conventional farms, and advises us to at least buy these items organic whenever possible. This includes apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. And check out this great roundup of must-eat-organic foods from Planet Green.
When the U.S. government officially approved standards for organic food, a number of farmers dropped their organic certification because they felt the label had been co-opted by big business. Many of these farmers raise their animals and crops using methods as strict as or stricter than the USDA organic standards. Some call these farms “Beyond USDA Organic”. Ask your farmers questions about their practices at the market to find out what you’re getting.
Large conventional farms produce food with varying levels of chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease, use chemical herbicides to manage weeds, and give antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to animals in an effort to prevent disease and spur quicker growth.
It is fiercely argued that conventional agriculture is not good for the longevity of our planet and its soil. This is due to conventional methods’ dependence on fossil fuels, soil and water polluting methods, and large amount of carbon emissions.
There is also much controversy around whether pesticides are harmful to our health. Some experts claim pesticides pose a very small health risk .Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year. And according to Consumer Reports, since 1996 a dozen formerly widely used pesticides are now federally banned, restricted, or voluntarily withdrawn by manufacturers to meet safety standards for children. Under that law, pesticides are investigated each year. Many are banned or limited to lower amounts thought to be safer.
Additionally, the USDA only bans the use of synthetic hormones in poultry (organic or not). Therefore conventional hogs, beef, or dairy cattle producers are not legally bound to resist using hormones. Today, close to 70 percent of the total antibiotics and related drugs produced in the U.S. are fed to cattle, pigs and poultry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. These hormones and antibiotics end up in our food chain and eventually our bodies when consumed.
Currently many small farms and food companies are unable to afford the “organic” label which can cost up $2,000 annually. And although they use minimal pesticides, crop rotation, and zero artificial preservatives, their food may still end up on the same shelves as their conventionally grown counterparts. In place of “organic,” these farms may use a label that reads Certified Naturally Grown. To clear any uncertainty as you stride down conventional food isles, carefully review food label ingredients for nutritional information.
At its core sustainable farming is a philosophy not a method that, simply-put, achieves three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and social and economic equity. While you may not see a uniform “sustainable” label like you do with the USDA organic stamp, several food labels such as the “Rainforest Alliance” and “Food Alliance” reflect the sustainable philosophy. I often use The Eat Well Guide as an online directory to find markets and restaurants that supply sustainable food in my neighborhood.
Sustainable Table explains, “A product can be considered sustainable if its production enables the resources from which it was made to continue to be available for future generations…without generating negative environmental effects, without causing waste products to accumulate as pollution, and without compromising the well-being of workers or communities.”
Many different agricultural and processing techniques can be utilized to help make food production more sustainable. This includes organic and non-organic techniques. Other commonly used terms to describe sustainable food include: local, antibiotic free, cage free, grass fed, and GMO free (made without genetically-modified organisms).
Sustainable farms rotate crops and animals to enrich the soil and help prevent disease and pest outbreaks, but chemical pesticides may be used when necessary. Many sustainable farms use no chemicals at all.
Rather than shipping food thousands of miles away and increasing carbon emissions, sustainable farms sell their products locally at farmers markets, stands, or to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
Because there is no formal regulation or accountability standards for sustainable agriculture, food producers execute this highly environmental and socially conscious philosophy according to their own interpretation.
Industrial operations strive to increase production and maximize profit. These farms can cause much harm to the environment; depend heavily on petroleum and other fossil fuels; typically warrant the use of antibiotics, hormones and chemicals; and typically rely on a lean work force.
The soil eroding practice of monoculture farming is typical on industrial farms—where a single farm only grows one type of crop across their entire area of land. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports 75 % of our agriculture’s genetic diversity disappeared in this past century. This is during the pinnacle of industrial production. The resulting monoculture crops are genetically limited and far more susceptible to insects, blights, diseases, and bad weather than are diverse crops. All of these consequences amplify the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
Industrial food companies summit the food transport business, relying on vehicles to ship their large quantity of products around the world. It’s reported that a single plate of industrial food is shipped an average of 1,500 miles before reaching our kitchen. What does this matter, you may ask? Well, it means that through purchasing industrial made food we as consumers support a lethal dependence on petroleum.
Unfortunately, the term industrial is not only associated with conventional farming these days. It is also paired with organic agriculture, since some of the largest agribusinesses like General Mills are also the largest producers of organic produce. You can imagine the disdain our non-industrial, organic food pioneers feel about this. And while large industrial organic companies meet the USDA organic criteria, they do rely on shipping their organic fare thousands of miles and in some reports also use the monoculture method of farming.
Demeter is the only certification agent for biodynamic farms, processors and products in the United States. In essence, biodynamic farms must be certified organic, devote 10% of their farm land to biodiversity, uphold very minimal food product manipulation, and possess whole farm certification. The Biodynamic Trade Association explains that this method of farming is distinguished from sustainable and organic agriculture in 4 ways:
- The biodynamic farmer thinks in terms of forces and processes whereas organic and sustainable agriculture farmers think in terms of substances.
- Uses nine homeopathic preparations made of usually mineral, plant, or animal manure extracts, fermented and used to care for the soil, compost, and plants.
- Uses cosmic rhythms to dictate farming, for example the affects of the new and full moons on planting seeds and plant growth.
- Conceives the farm as an individual organism, a self-sufficient entity, and depends very little on nutrients from outside the farm. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole.
When I think of biodynamic products, the first that come to mind are wine and beer. According to Planet Green’s Green Wine Guide, biodynamic winemakers remove sediment from the wine during a descending moon to take advantage of the gravitational pull for a cleaner product and stronger scent. But don’t stop there, nuts, produce, coffee, flowers, grains, herbs and animal products are also Demeter certified.
The Fair Trade Certified standards work to ensure farmers and farm workers in developing nations receive fair compensation and healthy conditions for their product. Products must be grown by small-scale producers democratically organized in either cooperatives or unions. Certified organizations are also encouraged to help the community with social development efforts such as education and healthcare. You’ll find this label on widely consumed, and historically exploited, items such as coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, bananas, flowers, sugar, and rice.
TransFair USA, the official U.S. certifier and member of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, explains, “Fair Trade Certification empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.”
Some consumers are skeptical of Fair Trade practices voicing concern over high prices, potential food miles, overproduction of certain crops, and the farmer’s dependence on hand-outs. Yet Ian Bretman of Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) argues that, contrary to the free trade argument, fair trade agreements don’t trap farmers by subsidizing unprofitable production; they help farmers invest in improving quality and diversifying into other crops.
There is no official regulation for the “natural” label except when it pertains to meat and poultry. The USDA has set a new voluntary standard for meat marked “naturally raised,” the animals must be raised without growth promoters, most antibiotics, and animal byproducts. It also can not contain any artificial ingredients or be more than minimally processed, such as ground beef.
And this does get slightly more confusing—Don’t mistake the “Certified Naturally Grown” (CNG) label as a relative of the “natural” or “all natural” label family. Unlike the “natural” label, which is administered solely at the discretion of the food manufacturer, the CNG label is administered by a third-party, non-profit group that adheres to organic farming principles. Some CNG members will even dispute that their methods are stricter than the USDA organic guidelines.