And other words from readers
The Flagstaff, Ariz., project to protect expensive homes by removing possible (natural) fire hazards sounds to me like building on a floodplain. The folks who bought the homes can sell them if they don’t want the expense of insuring the risk. The nation should not sacrifice its natural resources to the whims of the wealthy.
I got fired up over Grist’s statement that, “The ‘next green revolution’ can’t rely wholly on organic farming, which won’t produce enough to feed the world — and biotechnology, the only other option currently available, has raised grave fears in the minds of many.”
The only sustainable way of growing food is organic, and it needs to be produced locally. It may need more labor, but we have plenty of that.
Recently, 5 million Mexican farmers were displaced from their land as a result of NAFTA. The U.S. has been dumping corn on Mexico like it’s going out of style, to make it cheaper for the farmers to buy U.S. corn than to produce their own. World hunger is a phenomenon produced by rich countries that sell seeds that won’t reproduce and expensive fertilizers that deplete the soil, and that dump grain and produce grown with farm subsidies and transported with subsidized fuel. At the same time, rich countries dictate structural adjustment programs and no tariff protection for poor countries in the name of free trade.
Let the people of the world grow their own food, and that includes us in the U.S. Reduce the amount of food imported from the other side of the planet, or the continent. Even our own Whole Foods Market in Houston, Texas, does not support local organic growers and instead buys all of its organic produce from California.
It is a mistake to think that we need big agribusiness techniques, let alone GMOs, to feed the world. The world can feed itself if we allow it.
How can you reproduce that lie about organic farming not being able to feed the world? Absolutely untrue! Our yields are better than chemical farms and our practices are sustainable. Biotech is pure commercial hype.
You say, “The problem isn’t the ability to keep producing more food; the problem is the potentially serious ecological consequences of doing so.” I agree with this — there are serious consequences, especially with slash-and-burn agriculture, which is still used in many places. And many people over-consume. But there is another problem that went unmentioned in this article: transporting surpluses. In the U.S., we have enough food stored to feed every person in the world, every day, for an entire year. But this food is wasted because it doesn’t get to the places it is so desperately needed.
Before we consider the problems of raising more food, we need to make sure we’re properly using the food we already have.
The article quoted as fact a statement from a Canadian scientist who claimed we couldn’t feed the whole world with organic farming alone. I was dubious and checked with my buddy, an agricultural expert at Worldwatch. He said this is one of the big organic agriculture myths and is based on the false assumption that only manure can be used as an input. In fact, high nitrogen leguminous crops can be as well. Also, the same Canadian scientist claims that the world’s underfed can’t afford organically raised goods. On the contrary, claims my friend, it’s precisely the high cost of the high-input agriculture system that has priced many hungry populations out of the game. So, fear not, organic ho, for all!
Nevada City, Calif.
I wanted to comment on your story about groups wanting more stringent standards on buildings to prevent birds from crashing into them. My concern is that this will add momentum to the already strong opposition to wind turbines and the wind-power industry in general. My view is that if we don’t switch to renewable energy, even more birds will be dying because of the pollutants being released by coal and nuclear power plants.
St. Paul, Minn.
I was belatedly reading Umbra’s advice to someone asking about alternatives to diamonds. I found myself in the same situation 18 months ago, and stumbled upon a stone called Moissanite. It is synthetic, made in a lab, costs one-tenth of what a diamond costs, and has twice the refractive index (sparkle). Furthermore, most experts cannot tell the difference between Moissanite and diamonds. A special Moissanite tester had to be produced, because if you put Moissanite in a diamond tester, it tests as a diamond.
I am absolutely thrilled with my ring, and have since received earrings and a necklace to match. In short, yet another alternative to supporting civil war and environmental degradation (though I don’t know where they get the carbon to make the Moissanite). Check out www.moissanite.com for more info.
Jennifer Clarkson Killin
Re: Burden of Roof
I was glad to see that you mentioned living roofs in a recent Ask Umbra column. I noticed, however, the absence of a mention of solar shingles. These are installed just as normal roofing shingles (except for the need to run some wiring to the roof) and generate electricity to boot.
I include two links with information on the cost, output, and lifetime of the shingles so Grist readers can make informed choices:
New York, N.Y.
Just a quick note on lead paint. Homeowners can safely and in good conscience remove a small paint sample from their houses and take it to the lab themselves, saving mucho bucks. It is not that hazardous. Call around for labs that test for lead. Then, if it is lead, determine the choices. One option Umbra doesn’t mention is encapsulation. The only caveat here is that when you sell a property where you’ve encapsulated lead paint, you have to disclose that you’ve done so.
Thanks to Umbra for all her fabulous insights.
San Diego, Calif.
Thanks for the informative statement on lead paint abatement. Having endured our own special nightmare related to this issue, I feel compelled to add to Umbra’s lesson by saying that if you do call in an inspector to aid in determining the lead levels in your home, depending on where you live, you will likely be mandated to use professional lead-abaters in the event lead paint is found — especially if you are a resident homeowner with children or if you rent the property.
You may be mandated to remove (i.e., disturb and make volatile) lead paint that is intact and not a danger to anyone. Laws drafted with the genuine intent to protect tenants and their children from deadbeat landlords can be hell on resident homeowners. Furthermore, “professional” is a term used very loosely in this field, as we sadly and expensively discovered.
This is a tricky territory and must be navigated carefully. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that people designated as “professionals” are going to be as careful as you’d like about taking the nasty stuff away. Interview them closely about their methods. Watch them like hawks. And above all educate yourself from a variety of sources (not just government pamphlets) about safe methods of handling this material.
Re: Bamboo Ado
I have just read Umbra’s very informative response to a reader regarding flooring options. Another possibility people should be aware of is cork flooring. Cork is sustainable, renewable, and comfortable. It is available in numerous colors and patterns and, for the do-it-yourself crowd, is simple to install. Readers may also be interested to know about natural linoleum, adobe, and exposed concrete (colored and sealed with healthy finishes, of course).
Before selecting a type of flooring based on aesthetics alone, one should also consider how the floor will interact with the home’s structure and energy systems. For instance, a concrete slab on grade is an efficient way to transfer radiant heat, whether from in-floor or passive solar. It also creates an easily cleanable surface and reduces the need for added layers of finish (which not only add cost but use more resources). Plus, it’s durable, which also helps conserve resources. This is not a plug for concrete floors specifically, but a suggestion that people consider all of the implications that go into choosing a finish in order to get the most benefit out of a seemingly benign aesthetic decision.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Re: Big Mac Attack
Thanks for highlighting the problem of e-waste. Although you did include a link to an action for consumers to take, you also could have included links to two new websites devoted to this issue: www.computertakeback.com and www.toxicdude.com.
The Computer Take Back Campaign is organizing at the national and local level to bring about a solution to the growing problem of e-waste. The solution: Extended Producer Responsibility, or “Computer Take Back.” CTBC is organizing college students in a campaign targeting Dell Computer Corporation, and has also facilitated the introduction of legislation in 10 states this year.
Computer Take Back Campaign Organizer
Re: Big Mac Attack
Thank you, I love Grist, kudos, flowers, salutations, etc., etc. However — it is so unfair to have titled the article on the problem of computer disposal “Big Mac Attack.” The reason we are an all-Mac office here at Catalyst in Salt Lake City is that Macs are upgradeable, meaning they last years longer than the cheaper but far more disposable alternatives. It concerns me that very often the most environmentally aware among us ignore that often-repeated fact. Your clever but misleading headline did not help the situation at all.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Re: Tough Cell
Amanda Griscom’s “Tough Cell” is a fine article, but it just barely missed making the point of showing how big a job lies ahead. She wrote: “While the Bush plan envisions mainstreaming fuel cells by 2020, the Wyden-Cox bill aims at getting enough affordable fuel-cell cars on the market in the next decade to save 30 million barrels of foreign oil per year.”
U.S. crude oil imports now run about 9 million barrels per day. If Wyden-Cox were totally successful, and if U.S. demand didn’t grow beyond the current level, and if the decline of U.S. production stopped, then the contribution of fuel cell cars would be comparable to between 1 and 2 percent of U.S. imports: a week’s worth of fuel saved every year, at best.
Certainly, getting even this enacted would be a major political victory. But it shows just how big the challenge is, if we really want to turn this oil tanker around.
Phyllis Fitzgerald got me and others in my environmental agency thinking about promotional strategies for clean-air alternatives “on the ground,” literally. CLAIRA, the Clean Air Vehicle that Kentucky State Fair visitors could test and ponder, personifies my answer to the delightfully mutant special-interest question “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Drive?) CLAIRA is, charmingly, SUVW — the Sport Utility VolksWagen, or combination energy-inventive hybrid and sporty freedom-of-the-road American dream.
Fitzgerald’s pluck in addressing traditional landscaping professionals with her “NoMow Ozone” message rates a purple heart on a green ribbon, for communicative valor that transformed a potentially hostile, polluting audience into minds open to clean-air innovations.
Keep up the great work!
Program Manager, Gateway Center for Resource Efficiency
Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis, Mo.
Several letters published in Grist Magazine included unsubstantiated statements that misrepresent environmental information on polystyrene as well as potential health effects of styrene as they relate to polystyrene products. This incorrect information could prompt unwarranted concern among your readers, as some of the statements conflict directly with independent studies and documented information about the safety of polystyrene packaging and its associated environmental impacts. Before publishing erroneous information that may lead your readers to give up the many benefits of polystyrene packaging, you owe them a balanced and accurate representation of the facts.
Environmental stewardship and resource conservation are complex issues that include many interrelated factors, including natural resource use, energy usage, waste generation, and pollution creation from the extraction and production of raw materials through the manufacturing, transportation, use, and ultimate disposal of a product. All of these factors must be taken into account when determining whether the use of a particular product is best for the overall environment. Often, people focus only on solid-waste disposal and recycling, when landfill space isn’t the only resource that needs protecting. Water, energy, air, and other elements are also valuable, and in many circumstances can claim priority. Certain environmental burdens — water and electricity use, effluent treatment — associated with reusable tableware or other disposable product options are greater than those associated with disposable polystyrene food service products over an entire life cycle.
Regarding air issues specifically, the primary blowing agent currently used to manufacture polystyrene foam products, pentane, is not itself a health hazard, has no effect on the upper stratospheric ozone layer, and is not a significant contributor to smog. Moreover, the pentane is recycled and used as a fuel within the production plant. Where smog formation is a concern, manufacturers use state-of-the-art technology to capture pentane emissions.
As for health issues, a recent report on styrene from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concludes that styrene exposure is not a concern for the general public from either environmental or consumer exposures. Styrene is not a significant bioaccumulative chemical, and in fact the human body is comparatively efficient at processing and eliminating styrene.
The large body of validated scientific data on styrene does not suggest that it is a human carcinogen, and several regulatory agencies have removed styrene from their preliminary lists of potential endocrine disrupters after thoughtfully assessing the data. Major epidemiological studies of workers exposed to high levels of styrene have found no cancer or endocrine health concerns. Therefore, the public should not be concerned over minuscule exposures from consumer products.
It is interesting to note that studies have detected natural styrene in many foods and beverages, absent any potential for exposure to processing, packaging, or preparation materials. Moreover, polystyrene provides the important benefits of preserving the freshness of food, reducing contamination and spoilage, and protecting against food-borne illnesses.
Polystyrene and other plastics have been used safely for decades in food-contact applications with no validated scientific evidence that they pose any human health concerns. The Canadian government considered styrene’s potential health effects and determined that it was “non toxic” for regulatory purposes, based on product, worker, and environmental exposures. Both the U.S. EPA and the European Union are currently working on styrene assessments.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates plastics used in food contact applications, the National Academy of Sciences, and other highly regarded federal authorities rely on the weight of validated scientific evidence. The weight of scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the safe use of plastics in food contact applications. The FDA also has approved styrene as a food additive for flavoring.
Your readers can find additional information on these issues on the following websites:
Director, Environment, Health and Safety
Polystyrene Packaging Council/American Plastics Council
Executive Director, Styrene Information & Research Center