Erosion is as big a problem as climate change, say experts

Planet Earth loses some 1 percent of its topsoil to erosion every year — and that’s an environmental threat on par with global warming, say experts. “Globally, it’s pretty clear we’re running out of dirt,” …

Land and liberty

How food sovereignty benefits people and planet

One of the most prominent voices fighting corporate control of food and water, Food and Water Watch, recently teamed up with international development and human rights organization Grassroots International to issue an important paper, "Towards a Green Food System" (PDF), about how the food sovereignty movement (the right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock, and fisheries systems independent of market forces) emerging from Asia to Africa is good for both people and planet. It discusses the building of a food system that protects rather than degrades the environment, and explores this rather important link well. At the core, they say that there are common techniques that both food sovereignty advocates and U.S. environmentalists employ: managing natural resources sustainably, promoting environmentally friendly technology, and building the eco-economy. They make the point that food sovereignty might not only benefit small producers all over the world, but also give us what the "free trade" agenda has failed to deliver ... not unlike having your cake and eating it, too.

A review of six Central American coffees

Coffee surely counts as one of our more problematic daily pleasures. Java-slugging Grist readers should know that coffee deserves some of the blame for global warming. A lucid account by University of California-Santa Cruz historian …

Biomass, part I

Where will biofuels and biomass feedstocks come from?

When it comes to biofuels we have choices. We can do it poorly, using short-run approaches with no potential to scale, poor trajectory, and adverse environmental impact. Or we can do it right, with sustainable, long-term solutions that can meet both our biofuel needs and our environmental needs. We do need strong regulation to ensure against land-use abuses. I have suggested that each cellulosic facility be individually certified with a LEEDS-like "CLAW" rating, and that countries which allow environmentally sensitive lands to be encroached be disqualified from CLAW-rated fuel markets. We think a good fuel has to meet the CLAW requirements: C -- COST below gasoline L -- low to no additional LAND use; benefits for using degraded land to restore biodiversity and organic material A -- AIR quality improvements, i.e. low carbon emissions W -- limited WATER use. Cellulosic ethanol (and cellulosic biofuels at large) can meet these requirements. Environmentally, cellulosic ethanol can reduce emissions on a per-mile driven basis by 75-85% with limited water usage for process and feedstock, as illustrated later. Range, Coskata, and others currently have small-scale pilots projecting 75% less water use than corn ethanol, with energy in/out ratio between 7-10 EROI (though we consider this a less important variable than carbon emissions per mile driven). Sustainable land use The question about biomass production that arises first is about land use: how much will we need? What will it take? Is it scalable? For conservatism, I assume CAFE standards in the U.S. per current law, though I expect by 2030 to have much higher CAFE and fleet standards (hopefully up near 54mpg or a 100% higher that 2007 averages), which will dramatically reduce the need for fuel an hence biomass. Yes, this would include lighter vehicles, more efficient engines, better aerodynamics, low-cost hybrids, and whatever else we can get the consumer to buy that increases mpg.

War is peace; sickness is life

Livestock registration, pitched by feds as voluntary, is creeping toward mandatory

You have read, in this space among many others, of the sinister nature of genetic modification and the patenting of seeds. I have ranted endlessly about the dangers of the food system being in the hands of just a few corporate land barons. No reason to stop now. For about five years now the USDA and many large corporate interests have been pushing a program called the National Animal Identification System. NAIS is touted as an effective tool in battling the spread of livestock diseases such as cattle tuberculosis and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow. It provides methods for tagging livestock of any kind with RFID, the same sort of microchip that many people have put on their pets in hopes of recovering poor Fido if he ever gets lost. The thinking is that if a side of beef in a Greeley, Colorado meatpacking plant tests positive for mad cow, authorities can quickly and easily identify said cow, trace it back through the system, and discover other animals with which it may have made contact. Currently, at the federal level, NAIS is a voluntary program overseen by the USDA and administered by the several states with help from organizations like the Future Farmers of America and the Farm Bureau. Farms, feedlots, and confined animal feeding operations apply for and receive a formal numerical designation that is then applied to microchips injected into or ear-tagged onto each animal. According to the USDA, in 2007 the state of Iowa went from 11,000 registered sites to more than 20,000, an increase of over 80 percent -- all this despite a lack of any sort of government funding to participants for the program. Farmers must buy in if they choose to participate. Setting aside for the moment that this system feels like a perfect bureaucratic method for closing the barn doors after the mad cows get out, all this seems fairly innocuous until we look a little deeper. The state of Texas has recently passed legislation requiring NAIS tagging for all dairy cattle. It goes into effect March 31. Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, and Tennessee now require participation for goats and sheep. In Michigan, farmer and now reluctant revolutionary Greg Niewendorp has endured visits from the sheriff reminiscent of scenes from and old Billy Jack movie.

Countdown to the 2008 Farm Bill: Part V

Direct and value-added marketing in the farm bill

This is the last installment of a five-part series of farm bill fact sheets from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. For additional information about the status of sustainable agriculture priorities in the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, please check out SAC's farm bill progress chart. Farm Bill "conference" negotiations are underway at the staff level. Please call your Senators and Representative today and tell them what you want to see in the final Farm Bill! Increasing consumer demand for healthy, sustainably-produced food and agricultural products from local and regional markets has great potential to improve farm income. However, tremendous challenges stand in the way of producers satisfying these consumer preferences, in part because federal policies and programs have been slow to respond. A number of grassroots farmer and consumer organizations have been working to ensure that the final farm bill includes increased funding for direct market and value-added enterprise opportunities, and the removal of the prohibition on interstate sale of meat products processed in state-inspected plants. Greater federal support for these programs in the 2008 Farm Bill will help a larger number of consumers access good food and allow more producers to stay on the land.

Ecosystems are nonlinear

Here's a disturbing study that seems to mimic nothing so much as my mother-in-law's theory that small brownie pieces cut from the edge of the remaining mass of brownies left in the pan ("the efficient frontier," an economist might call it) don't have calories, because each little tiny mini-slice hardly changes the amount of brownie left at all. On the one hand, the example cited is not particularly objectionable: Researchers claim to have found a mangrove where you can remove 20% of it with little reduction in flood control capacity -- meaning you can use that 20% for factory farmed shrimp and such. The attitude of this article is in sharp contrast with that of Aldo Leopold and others, who would suggest that recognizing nonlinearity is a good first step, but that wisdom, or even an approximation of it, doesn't begin until you recognize that this ...

Absolut greenwashing?

Vodka maker launches global cooling campaign

In a partnership with Live Earth (yes, they’re still doing stuff), Absolut Vodka has launched a Global Cooling campaign that "encourages consumers to reduce the effects of global warming by offering simple steps they can …

Slow Food working to help Kenya

It’s not always just Monsanto screwing with the food system

Creating a food system that is "good, clean, and fair" involves more than the buy-local mantra and the anti-Monsanto-ADM-WalMart rhetoric I and so many others constantly chanting. Sometimes even more evil and insidious obstacles lie in our way. Witness what's taking place in Kenya: