Despite efforts, Chesapeake Bay oysters still struggling

State and federal officials have spent $58 million since 1994 trying to make Chesapeake Bay a welcoming place for oysters — and it all seems to have been for naught. There are less bivalves in the bay now than there were in the mid-’90s, and the Maryland and Virginia oyster industries have declined in turn. Officials say they’re up against numerous factors, including disease that wipes out oysters by the millions and oyster-choking dirt that washes from lawns and fields. But critics say some modes of attempted recovery have been ineffective; for example, healthy oysters are often uprooted and moved …

Vertical farms and future cities

Sustainability a big theme at the World Science Festival

What do vertical farms, green roofs, soft cars, breathing walls, and Dongtan, China, have in common? They were all subjects of discussion at Friday's Future Cities event in New York City, part of the four-day 2008 World Science Festival. To a packed house, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier described his vision for feeding the planet's burgeoning, and increasingly urban, population. The vertical farm takes agriculture and stacks it into the tiers of a modern skyscraper. Instead of stopping at the corner pizzeria for dinner, Despommier suggested, you could pluck a nice head of lettuce, maybe some corn, and some tomatoes for a big salad, all in your own building, on the way to your apartment. You can't get fresher or more local than that. According to Despommier, the farms will be "grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers." (Of course, being indoor, there won't be many insects to spray for.) The farms will also require much less irrigation since all water can be re-circulated, and they'll curb the growing pressure to turn forest into farmland. The vertical farm sounds (and looks) pretty amazing, and certainly Despommier deserves much credit for thinking boldly ... but I was left with several questions.

Bean there, done khat

Tales from a trek to Ethiopia with a Seattle coffee roaster

I have spent the past year traveling the globe with Seattle coffee roaster Caffé Vita in their search for coffee, and I have the more enviable and slippery task of seeking out stories. Many Grist readers know that coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity on the planet, but unlike the elephant in the pole position (oil), we hear very little about the realities of the cherry-red fruit on which we are also dependent. As long as Grist lets me, I will throw out some thoughts from the coffee road, and the other "tablemaking" adventures in which I routinely find myself. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee (although Yemen likes to take credit as well) and many a book could be written about what separates coffee production in Ethiopia from the rest of the bean-producing countries. Coffee is essential to the culture -- over 50 percent of the crop stays in country. It is not a colonial crop, and the passionate relationship to the bean results in some unprecedented global showdowns. But today I am pondering the tension between the two main stimulants in the land of Sheba.

To create a truly sustainable food system, we’ll have to confront the farm-labor crisis

When I think about what a truly healthy, vibrant food system would look like, I envision more farms: small farms serving specific communities, and diversified, midsized farms geared to supplying their surrounding regions. Many hands make site work. Of course, there would still be interstate and global trade — you can’t grow olives or coffee in Iowa, or enough wheat in Florida to supply the state’s bakers. But with more farms across the nation, we could all generally eat much closer to home, consuming fewer resources and throwing off less pollution in the process. Traveling would be more interesting as …

Slave ethanol?

Amnesty International: forced labor in Brazil’s sugarcane fields

As the case for corn-based ethanol unravels, a lot of pundits and green-minded investors have settled on a new panacea: ethanol from sugar cane, which thrives in the tropics. Thomas Friedman has been blustering about it for years now; Richard Branson recently hinted he might start investing in it. Sugarcane is a deeply ironic crop on which to hang a “sustainable energy revolution.” Historically, the spread of sugarcane in Caribbean islands and South America involved vast clear-cutting of coastal forests. Socially, its legacy may be worse. To run the bustling cane plantations of the Americas during the colonial period, European …

One hundred percent whole-wheat troubles

WSJ: ‘Fungus strain menaces global wheat crop’

I hate to sound like a broken record, but remember in the winter, when a fertilizer magnate warned that the world faced the threat of famine if any major crop didn’t do well? The magnate was William Doyle, CEO of a company that has aptly been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Fertilizer,” Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. Here’s what he said: If you had any major upset where you didn’t have a crop in a major growing agricultural region this year, I believe you’d see famine. … We keep going to the cupboard without replacing and so there is enormous pressure …

Grass-fed milk: better for you

So says U.K. study

Another study has confirmed that organic milk, from cows that feed on pasture, delivers significantly more nutrition than feedlot milk. The U.K. Independent reports that grass-fed cows offer “60 per cent higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA9), which has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer.” Omega-3 fatty acids (39 percent higher) and vitamin E (33 percent higher) are also more abundant in milk from grass-fed cows. Unlike in the U.S., U.K. organic standards make sure that organic milk come from cows with access to grass when it’s abundant in the summer. Here is the Independent: [In England] …

Peru’s guano supply threatened by overfishing

Peru is in deep shit. No, seriously: thanks to an exceptionally dry climate, islands off the Peruvian coast are awash in preserved bird guano, which the country has long exported as non-chemical fertilizer. But while 60 million seabirds were pooping on Peru in the 19th century, the birds now number 4 million; with synthetic-fertilizer costs and interest in organic food rising, the Peruvian government is concerned that guano supply will be depleted by high demand. Guano collection has been restricted to two islands per year, lizards have been introduced to eat seabird-bothering ticks, and armed guards have been posted to …

Industrial ag-onistes

The WSJ on fertilizer markets so manipulated, they might make a Saudi prince blush

For all the misery it has caused, the global food-price crisis has at least forced people to think more seriously about food production. I can think of few things more taken for granted in modern post-industrial society than fertilizer. Few people know people know what fertilizes the fields that produce the food they eat — fewer, I’d bet, than know the source of their drinking water or electricity. To modern consumers, all of these things appear as if by magic. But with food prices hovering at elevated levels and hunger protests simmering in the global south, stuff like fertilizer is …