Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cow power

I don't think that anyone would argue that dairy farming is "natural". Dairy cows aren't natural. I mean just try imagining a herd of Holsteins roaming in the wild. Not possible.

That doesn't mean that dairy farming can't be sustainable -- or a least approach sustainability. This much we can be sure of: as long as cows exist there will be manure. Keeping that manure out of our streams and lakes, and turning it into energy puts us on a sustainable path.

Electricity From What Cows Leave Behind

By Katie Zezima

New York Times

September 24, 2008

Sheldon, Vt.

For years, the cows at Green Mountain Dairy here produced only milk and manure. But recently they have generated something else: electricity.

The farm is part of a growing alternative energy program that converts the methane gas from cow manure into electricity that is sold to the power utility’s grid.

Central Vermont Public Service, which supplies electricity to 158,000 customers around the state, was among the first utilities in the country to draw electricity from cow manure on dairy farms. About 4,000 utility customers participate by agreeing to pay a premium for the electricity.

“We realized we could help meet a customer demand for renewables, help solve a manure management problem and make these farmers more financially secure,” said Steve Costello, a spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service.

Four Vermont dairy farms are producing electricity for the utility, and two more are expected to be online by year’s end, Mr. Costello said. The utility hopes to add six more farms by 2010.

Residents and businesses that get their electricity from the program pay a premium of 4 cents a kilowatt hour above the typical rate of 12.5 cents. Most of that money goes to the farmers, who must purchase their own equipment, which can run up to $2 million per farm. Most farmers expect to make back their investment in 7 to 10 years.

The brothers who own Green Mountain Dairy, Bill and Brian Rowell, were looking to squeeze more profit from their farm, where they have 1,050 cows and have begun acquiring 600 heifers. Milk prices had dipped and they wanted another source of income.

They also thought that the huge amount of waste their cows produced could be used for something other than fertilizer. So they decided to give electricity a try, armed with about $750,000 in federal, state and utility company grants.

“We saw this as an economic and environmental management tool,” Bill Rowell said. “It’s helped to diversify our farm,” which was named the 2008 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year.

The Rowells’ cows live in a barn where a mechanical scraper sweeps the animals’ waste into a large drain. The waste is then pumped into a huge sealed concrete tank known as a digester, which holds 21 days’ worth of waste and is kept at a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Anaerobic bacteria break down the organic matter in the waste, producing a mix of methane and other gases, known as bio-gas. The gas is burned in an engine that runs an electrical generator.

The cow waste produces 250 to 300 kilowatts of electricity daily, enough to power 300 to 350 homes, according to the utility.

“We’re making a resource out of a waste stream,” said Bill Rowell, who is running for the State Senate.

In return, the Rowells receive a payment based on the wholesale cost of power, which averages about 7 cents per kilowatt hour, plus the 4-cent premium. Mr. Rowell said they earned about $200,000 from electricity annually, and with the additional cows should receive $235,000 to $240,000 in revenue from electricity.

The Rowells are also transforming commercial waste. The farm processes about 500,000 gallons of waste and outdated ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s each year and puts it in the digester. The free ice cream, which the company drops off, helps the Rowells generate more electricity and saves Ben & Jerry’s the cost of disposing of it. “We’re improving our processes, and they’re improving theirs,” Mr. Rowell said.

The digester produces more than electricity. After 21 days, the waste is pumped through a separator, which siphons off the liquid into a silo and drops the solids into a barn.

The liquid manure is used as fertilizer, while the solids are used for cow bedding. The bedding saves the Rowells thousands of dollars a month on sawdust, and they sell the excess to garden stores.

Other utilities across the country are purchasing power from farms as part of their renewable energy portfolios. Some, like Central Vermont Public Service, charge their customers a premium, while others do not.

Alliant Energy, which supplies electricity to rural customers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, draws power from four digesters and is working to add more. About 20 independent farms in Wisconsin have digesters and sell electricity to various utilities, said William A. Johnson, manager of biofuels development at the utility.

“Our economy is agriculture, and people recognize that supporting the industry is a positive,” Mr. Johnson said. The utility charges 2 cents a kilowatt hour more for cow power.

“Rural customers, in particular, are very excited that something that is considered by some to be a liability, manure, has become, in essence, a resource,” Mr. Johnson said.

In Ohio, Buckeye Power went online with a digester at the end of August and plans to turn waste from a chicken farm into electricity next year.

“We were interested in finding a type of green power that was, No. 1, not intermittent, like wind or solar,” said Steve Oden, a spokesman for Buckeye, which will not charge extra for the power.

Marie Audet’s family farm in Bridport, Vt., was the first in the Central Vermont system and went online in 2005. The family invested $1.3 million and expects to make that back in four years.

“We’re saving money by not using sawdust, reducing original waste by recycling and generating revenue by selling electricity into the grid,” Ms. Audet said.

And many customers here have chosen to pay more for power that is both renewable and supports local farmers.

Maggie Hatch, who owns the Newbury Village Store in Newbury, Vt., operates half of the business with cow power. The renewable power adds $200 to $400 a month to the store’s electric bill, but Ms. Hatch and her husband, Gary, say it is worth it.

“It’s worth it to us to spend that money to help the producers and use power that helps sustain the environment,” Ms. Hatch said. “When you live in a place like we do, which is a beautiful part of the country, you’re really aware of the environment and want to keep it that way.”

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sharing the catch

It didn't take long for the first European-Americans to wipe out the American Buffalo. The swiftness and extent of their decimation is mind-boggling even by modern standards. Fish are more difficult to track down and capture, but the combined actions of fishers from around the world have finally succeeded in nearly depleting global fishing stocks.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe that finding real and lasting solutions to the critical problems facing society are most likely to be found when the public and private sectors work together to determine the appropriate mix of market forces and regulation? (GW)

Study: Privatization could avert fisheries' collapse

By Eoin O'Carroll
Christian Science Monitor
September 26, 2008

Replacing the fishing season with a quota system could prevent fisheries from being depleted, a new study has found.

Writing in last week’s issue of the journal Science, a trio of researchers has found that the world’s handful of fisheries with a “catch share” system, in which individual fishermen own long-term rights to a percentage of a predetermined catch limit, are half as likely to have collapsed than traditionally managed fisheries, in which fishermen try to catch as many fish as possible during a fishing season.

The study’s authors – two from the University of California at Santa Barbara and one from the University of Hawaii – surveyed 121 fisheries with catch-share systems and compared them with catch statistics from 11,135 fisheries around the globe from 1950 to 2003. Their conclusion: “Implementation of catch shares halts, and even reverses, the global trend toward widespread collapse. Institutional change has the potential for greatly altering the future of global fisheries.”

It can’t happen soon enough. As the Monitor reported in June, one-quarter of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, and another half are fished to full capacity. One study found that, if current trends continue, the world will completely run out of seafood by midcentury.

So how does a catch-share system work? First, marine scientists establish a safe level of annual catch for a species or group of species. Then, each individual boat or fleet is granted the right to a percentage of that catch, and they have all year to fish for it. The allowable catch fluctuates from year to year, but the percentages are guaranteed. Fishermen can buy and sell these shares, but no new shares are allowed.

The Washington Post quotes Galen Tromble, fisheries chief at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, who explained how fishermen qualify for the shares:

Each share system operates differently, Tromble said, but federal guidelines dictate that anyone who has “substantially participated” in a fishery deserves part of the overall quota and that no individual can have “an excessive share.” In the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, which switched to a share system on Jan. 1, 2007, managers set quotas based on the 10 best consecutive catches an individual had brought in from 1990 to 2004.

David Krebs, who owns Ariel Seafoods in Destin, Fla., and has been fishing there since 1969, owns almost 6 percent of the gulf’s annual red snapper catch, just below the maximum share. Krebs noted that red snapper used to fetch $1.50 a pound dockside and has risen to $4.50 a pound as the fishing pressure has eased. He calls the new system “truly a success story.”

“It’s the most versatile tool that allows a fisherman to fish when the market needs the fish,” Krebs said.

A 2007 report by the Environmental Defense Fund found that the benefits of catch sharing go well beyond preventing fishery decline. In a study of US and Canadian catch-share fisheries, the EDF found that revenues per boat increased by 80 percent, as fishermen sought to maximize the value of their share by delivering fish according to market demands. Bycatch – species other than the ones fishermen were trying to catch – was reduced by 40 percent. And safety more than doubled, as fishermen were able to stay ashore during bad weather and did not have to rush to catch as many fish as possible as they do during a constricted fishing season.

A success story can also be found in the Alaska halibut fishery, which converted to a catch-share system in 1995. By that year, the stocks had become so depleted that the fishing season had dwindled to only a few days, during which time prices were low because the market was flooded. Today, the season lasts almost eight months, and a boat can remain in the water until it has caught its share. Fisherman can land bigger fish and sell them at higher prices. And according to the Economist, since the system was put in place, search-and-rescue missions have dropped by more than 70 percent and deaths by 15 percent.

The system has its critics. The BBC quotes fisheries expert Daniel Pauly who calls catch sharing “an elegant solution to a big problem,” but worries that they raise insurmountable barriers to entry:

“[T]here is unfairness in allocating the shares initially, because you are giving something to the biggest fishers and the others are not getting access and will not get access for ever.”

“So I think it’s one of the tools that can be introduced in specific fisheries, but you shouldn’t look at it with the degree of absolutism and even fanaticism that has characterised the discussion in some countries.”

Additionally, the EDF report found that, while full-time employment rose among fisheries operating under catch-share systems, the number of available crew positions at any given time decreased by half.

The study comes just as the European Union is examining its fisheries policy. As the Worldwatch Institute’s Ben Block notes this week, many European fisheries are on the verge of collapse. Block’s report quotes Chris Costello, the study’s lead author, who says that catch-sharing systems could offer a solution, provided that they are tailored to meet the needs of local communities:

“Every fishery in the world could benefit from some form of incentive-based management system,” said Costello, a resources economics professor at University of California in Santa Barbra. “The critical feature is to design those incentive-based schemes for the biology of the species, the culture of the communities, and the economies of the fisheries.”

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Energy and food are truly needs of humanity

The critical challenges facing humanity today are not due to inadequate supplies of food or energy. Buckminster Fuller often reminded those who would listen that people around the world are suffering because of what he called a 'crisis of ignorance'.

What he meant was that political leaders, hell-bent on perpetuating their control over their constituents, refuse to reveal the full menu of options available for meeting the basic needs of everyone. Those options do indeed exist.

It is difficult to deal with other pressing issues if people are malnourished and without adequate supplies of energy to meet personal needs and to power local and national economies. (GW)

Food and fuel crises require results, not just promises, Malaysia tells UN debate

UN News Centre
September 27, 2008

The global food and fuel crisis will be not resolved unless countries start turning their statements and promises of assistance and reform on the issue into reality, Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim told the General Assembly tonight, calling for a multi-track approach to tackling the problems.

Affluent countries have a particular responsibility to fulfil their commitments on providing aid and official development assistance (ODA) to needy nations, Mr. Yatim told the fifth day of the Assembly’s annual high-level debate.

If they live up to those pledges, they would “set a standard for entire world, rather than on trying to pass the burden of action on to the developing world.”

Governments can and should also play a greater role than the private sector, particularly in developing infrastructure and transferring technology, than the private sector.

“The developing world is still infrastructure-deficient. Pure market solutions to technology transfer cannot be regarded as effective solutions for achieving sustainable development. Government intervention is required if these technologies are to be made available at concessionary rates.”

Long-standing conflicts and tensions around the world, especially those in volatile regions that are also home to leading producers and distribution channels of oil, must be resolved.

“The United Nations must play a more forward thrust in the need for peace and security. Energy and food are truly needs of humanity. As such, the UN must create a synergy of human rights into the matter so that oil and food become basic rights for humanity.”

Speaking to the Assembly debate earlier today, Peruvian Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde said the food and fuel crises were having a disproportionate burden on the poor.

Mr. García Belaúnde welcomed the Assembly’s recognition of poverty as an issue that required a comprehensive global response, adding that new and ambitious strategies and programmes are going to be necessary to help the poorest.

He warned that the threats posed by the crises were overwhelming existing initiatives to fight poverty and making it harder for struggling countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the set of eight targets for slashing social and economic ills, by 2015.

Franck Biancheri, Government Counsellor for External Relations and International Economic and Financial Affairs of Monaco, said the current situation in many parts of the world was so dire as a result of the food and fuel crises and climate change that drastically stepped-up efforts are needed to achieve the MDGs.

Monaco plans to increase its ODA by 25 per cent every year and to focus its support on the States classified as the least developed countries (LDCs), he said, as part of a plan to reach a target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on assistance by 2015.

Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said yesterday in his address that the focus of international assistance should be on sub-Saharan Africa, which is lagging the most in the race to reach the MDGs.

But he said there had been some noteworthy progress in Africa, too, with the lifting of 400 million people out of extreme poverty, improvements in gender equality and education, and a 27 per cent drop in the infant mortality rate.

For his part, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht said today that the impact of the crises meant it was critical to find the political will to re-start the stalled Doha round of global trade liberalization talks.

Mr. de Gucht said wealth-sharing remained deeply unequal, despite some of the positive steps taken as a result of globalization and its gradual impact on free trade.

Some of the new emerging economies such as Brazil, China and South Africa need exchanges that are open and equitable so that they can develop at the pace they deserved, he added.

Slovakian Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš, speaking last night to delegates at the Assembly, backed the work of the Task Force on the Global Food Crisis under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which was set up earlier this year.

Developing countries need much more support from richer States to increase their food supply, he said in his address.

“Furthermore, fairer international trade rules must be adopted to stimulate agriculture production, first of all in developing countries, and allow access to foodstuffs,” according to Mr. Kubiš.

Andorra’s Head of Government Albert Pintat, who addressed the debate on Thursday, said that the process of liberalizing of trade must be “reinvented” so that small-scale farmers and producers are not unduly hurt, with different rules set for different circumstances in each country.

“Liberalization would also have to involve an expansion of productivity, the development of human resources, basic infrastructures, access to technology and knowledge and respect for the environment,” he said.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"The climate crisis will be there always and we must face it"

Difficult economic times should not be an excuse to relax efforts designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. Pressure to do just that is mounting in the European Union and you can bet that U.S. industries will be quick to join the chorus. This is one of many dangers resulting from short-term, linear thinking and policy making.

Political courage particularly here and in the EU will be more important than ever as the U.S financial crisis continues to unravel and reverberate through major European economies. (GW)

EU climate goals under pressure as recession loom

September 26, 2008

Poland has joined Germany in calling for industry exemptions to EU climate rules as a recession in Europe’s major economies is casting doubts on whether Brussels will be able to push through its ambitious CO2 reduction programme.


Energy-intensive industries in the EU claim that, as the EU tightens its carbon 'belt', producers operating in countries where pollution is cheaper will drive European operators out of business. A global climate change deal, with emissions reduction commitments from both developed and developing countries, is meant to resolve any such imbalance, but negotiations are progressing slowly and will only be concluded in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The EU's aluminium, cement, steel and other heavy industries want Brussels to spell out which sectors could benefit from safeguards in the form of free CO2 emissions allowances before December 2009 in case international climate talks fail. Otherwise, warn heavy industries, the EU will be at risk of 'carbon leakage', meaning that factories would be forced to evacuate their operations, jobs and - crucially - emissions to third countries.

But the Commission does not want to preclude the outcome of global climate talks by publishing such a list before the discussions wrap up. In its proposal for a revised EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) for beyond 2012, the EU executive acknowledges the problem and pledges to identify sectors and special exemptions by 30 June 2011.

EU Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen yesterday (25 September) gave specific assurances to Poland that 100% free CO2 permit allocation “should be possible” for the country’s energy intensive industries.

Verheugen, speaking at a conference on the Competitiveness Council, repeated the Commission’s position that exemptions should not be formalised before an international climate change deal is reached in December 2009, and insisted that pushing industries out of Europe is not the aim of the EU climate package.

But Brussels’ resolve on the issue may be softening. A non-paper circulated by the Commission cites the aluminium, steel and cement sectors as "likely to be strongly affected [and] would therefore be amongst the substances likely to benefit from partial to totally free allocations" (EurActiv 22/09/08).

The growing financial crisis in the US, which analysts say will have considerable recessionary impacts on major EU economies like Germany, the UK and France, may also make it increasingly difficult for the Commission to justify higher operating costs for industries.

Member states are getting nervous about asking their industries to pay more for CO2 pollution, says Christian Egenhofer, a senior researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. The “assumptions have gone”, Egenhofer said in reference to likely declining investments and growing constraints on governments’ abilities to use macro-economic instruments towards ‘green’ aims.

Poland’s leaders in particular have been crying foul, arguing that their country’s coal dependent economy, which is still struggling to catch up with Western European economies that were allowed to emit CO2 with impunity for decades, could be severely undermined by the climate and energy package. The country's miners yesterday (25 September) marched on Brussels in direct protest of the EU's climate plans.

Polish concerns are mirrored by the three other members of the 'Visegrad Group' - Hungary, the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic - which have banded together with several of the EU's new member states to call for a revision of their national targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions (EurActiv 02/06/08). A slight delay in the adoption of the EU's climate package to March 2009 may also be necessary to ensure fairness, according to a joint statement by the Visegrad group. This is in contrast to the agenda set by the French EU Presidency, which is pushing for an adoption of the package by December 2008.

The demands of the Visegrad countries were given indirect backing at the beginning of the week (22 September) when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government “could not support the destruction of German jobs through an ill-advised climate policy”, the Financial Times reported.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, meanwhile, argues that an economic slowdown should not stall the EU’s climate efforts. "The financial crisis is here one day and it is gone another day. But the climate crisis will be there always and we must face it," Dimas told reporters in Brussels on 24 September.

Friday, September 26, 2008

May local flours bloom

As consumer interest (and purchases) in locally grown food intensifies, farmers in the Northeast are taking a serious look at what they can grow to satisfy this need. For the most part their focus has been on expanding fruit and vegetable options with "niche" items like Belgian endive and arugula.

But now some farmers are turning their attention to growing items like barley and wheat and offer it to local breweries and producers of local flour. (GW)

Millbrook, N.Y.

SQUINTING in the afternoon sun, Alton Earnhart strolled across his farm here in the Hudson Valley one day last month with Don Lewis, a baker and miller. Rows of wheat swayed to the horizon.

A farmer and a miller surveying fields of russet wheat would not have been an unusual sight here on a late-summer day 200 years ago. Gristmills once dotted the banks of streams and rivers throughout New York, mapping out settlement just as subway stations today chart New York City’s migratory patterns.

Today, nearly all of the nation’s wheat is grown on vast fields and milled in factories in the Midwest. Over the past few years, though, farmers and millers like Mr. Earnhart and Mr. Lewis have begun restoring wheat fields and reviving flour mills around the country.

In New Mexico, a cooperative of Native American and Latino farmers produce a boutique local flour. In Western Massachusetts, a baking couple has persuaded their customers to plant front-lawn wheat patches. In Vermont, a farmer whose homegrown wheat flour was a curiosity when he began growing it in the 1970s now can’t keep up with demand. And in Pennsylvania, a venerable pastry flour brand from the 1800s has been resurrected, made with local organic wheat.

Similar movements have started around the globe, including in Japan, where some udon noodle makers are using local wheat instead of the Australian wheat they had relied upon, and in Israel, where a group of Jewish and Arab farmers are trying to grow native varieties of wheat to supplant the American wheat that dominates the market there.

In New York, a consortium of farmers and bakers called Northeast Organic Wheat is challenging the assumption that the state’s soil and climate make high-quality wheat impossible. “That’s what I heard that frustrated me 10 years ago, you can’t grow it here,” said Mr. Earnhart. “That’s like saying to me, go do it.”

Advocates of local foods have bemoaned the state of mass-produced flour, even from higher-end brands. Midwestern wheat has been bred for uniformity and yield instead of flavor or nutrition, they say, and processed for shelf stability. But avoiding commercial flour has been a challenge.

Against a backdrop of concerns over food and transportation costs and with demand for local food growing, small wheat farmers see an opportunity.

Since 1977, Jack and Anne Lazor have grown wheat and milled flour at their dairy farm in Westfield, Vt. Until three or four years ago, customers showed no interest in the flour, Mr. Lazor said. Last winter, his flour sold out in January.

“It sure is amazing,” he said. “Thirty years later, all of a sudden I feel vindicated. We definitely went down the right road.”

It might take a while to appreciate high-quality, small-batch flours after a lifetime of eating food made with mass-produced flour. Their musky fragrances are often more pronounced, and variations in taste and texture bring a new range of complexity to baked goods, making supermarket flour seem one dimensional by comparison.

“Fresh-ground grains taste entirely different from the flour you buy at the grocery store,” said Mary-Howell Martens, who sells organic feed and seed in Penn Yan, N.Y., and grinds her own flour at home. “Everyone knows that a January tomato that comes from Mexico tastes different than an August tomato taken straight from the vine. It’s the same with grains.”

In New York, Northeast Organic Wheat is holding workshops on threshing, cleaning and milling wheat, and exploring marketing alternatives such as baker-farmer partnerships and farm-share groups, where members pick up a weekly allotment of grains to grind into flour themselves using a small mill. They are also experimenting with older grains grown here when New York was the region’s breadbasket, as well as ancient wheat varieties.

This region is supposedly too rainy for hard red spring wheat, the high-gluten wheat planted in the spring and harvested in the early fall. But some are growing it anyway because it is good for making bread. Others are sticking with the soft white winter wheat, low-gluten grain that’s planted in the fall and harvested in early summer that was traditionally grown here and is generally used for pastry and cake flour.

Mr. Lewis called his first encounter with soft local flour eight years ago a revelation. He was picking up some organic feed for his hens from Mr. Earnhart’s farm, Lightning Tree, when he came upon a barrel of flour that Mr. Earnhart had made with a small mill.

“I stuck my hand in it and I said, oh boy,” Mr. Lewis recalled. “It felt different, it smelled different, it tasted different. It was intriguing.”

Mr. Lewis bought a second-hand milling machine and began grinding Mr. Earnhart’s wheat. From his bakery at Wild Hive Farm, Mr. Lewis now sells bagged flour as well as breads, cookies, scones, biscuits and pastries, all made from local grains.

Creating a market for local wheat takes more than just planting seeds.

Cheryl Maffei and Jonathan Stevens, who own Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Mass., have persuaded 100 of their customers to grow plots of wheat in their yards. A year ago, when they started seeking local wheat, Ms. Maffei said, their attitude was a tad naïve.

“We thought, we’re bakers, and we want our flour to be local, more local than North Dakota, and all we have to do is ask the farmers to grow it and we’ll buy it,” she recalled.

When she spoke to farmers, though, she found that nobody knew which varieties of wheat would thrive in the area, and the cleaning, milling and storage facilities needed for flour production didn’t exist locally. Ms. Maffei and Mr. Stevens began working with nearby colleges to identify wheat varieties to test, Ms. Maffei said. The customer plots, which were harvested last month, were trial runs and raised consciousness about the wheat. Already, Ms. Maffei said, the three patches they planted at the bakery have brought in curious customers. “They’ve never even seen wheat growing,” she marveled.

But there is a long road ahead. The closest miller who can produce the flour they need is in Quebec. “With our infrastructure here, we also lost the knowledge of wheat and milling and storing,” she said. “So we’re rebuilding it as we go.”

In New York, those who have ventured into wheat farming for flour have been mostly producers of animal feed for the lucrative organic meat market. The state’s wheat supply is small and the weather is unpredictable. Setting up the cleaning, milling, sifting and storage facilities required for a small-scale mill like Wild Hive’s costs at least $30,000, Mr. Lewis said.

And the resulting flour can be finicky, bakers and home cooks have found. Mass-produced flour is tested and often blended for consistent, precise gluten levels. Small-batch flour can vary from season to season, farm to farm and even field to field, with different gluten content, flavor or levels of water absorption. Bakers used to uniform results have trouble adjusting.

Supermarket flour is roller-milled and sifted to remove as much bran and germ as possible, making it shelf-stable for months or years. Most of the local flours are stone-ground, and even the white flours retain some wheat germ and can go rancid within weeks if not frozen, because the oils of the wheat germ oxidize.

Members of the local wheat movement want to shift Americans’ attitudes toward bread. Bakers must learn to adapt their recipes to the qualities of the flour, they say, as people did before mass-produced flour. And consumers used to buying the same loaf every day must adjust their expectations and learn to tolerate some variation.

That is easier said than done, said Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in Manhattan, who has tried to use small-batch regional flour in her bakery but found it too inconsistent in quality and supply. She likes the principle of a baker responding to the quirks and nuances of flour, she said, but expecting her entire staff to do so on the fly is impractical. And if something goes wrong, a botched batch could mean 400 pounds of dough in the trash.

“Our wholesale customers are restaurants and stores,” Ms. Scherber said. “If you send a flat-looking loaf of bread, they’ll say, we don’t like it.”

Also, the soft wheat flours grown in the Northeast have low gluten and won’t produce the moist, springy crumb that Americans prize in bread.

“It is perfectly fine for building very dense, very grainy Germanic breads,” said Matt Funiciello, the owner of Rock Hill Bakehouse in Moreau, N.Y. The key, said Mr. Funiciello, is to embrace the difference.

“Don’t expect this bread to be similar to what you’ve had before,” he said. “If you open your mind and your palate to it, you’ll realize that, hey, flour tastes like something. Wheat has a flavor that’s unique.”

June Russell, the farm inspections coordinator for Greenmarket, hopes variability might eventually become a selling point for bread, as it has for other foods.

“Our cheese-makers at market will talk about their differences season to season,” Ms. Russell said. “They’ll say, Our milk is really rich right now because the cows are eating this or that. You’ll never hear a baker talk like that, and that’s because everyone is basically getting their flour from the same big system.” She is working with Northeast Organic Wheat, organizing information sessions and questionnaires about their bakers’ needs.

Organizers in New York look to older local wheat movements for inspiration. In New Mexico, for example, the Sangre de Cristo Cooperative, a collective of small-scale wheat growers, produces flour for local bakeries and co-ops.

Craig Mapel, an official with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, helped start the wheat project in 1994 in the mountains north of Albuquerque. He said wheat had not been grown in the area for 50 years. Farmers in the program now plant more than 400 acres with wheat, Mr. Mapel said, and sell 250,000 to 350,000 pounds of flour a year.

“There have certainly been bumps in the road,” he said. But, he added, “it worked, because they’re still there.”

In 2002, McGeary Organics, a grain merchant, bought a mill built in the 1740s in Annville, Pa., and resurrected the venerable Pennsylvania pastry flour known as Daisy Flour, milling local soft wheat.

“In the 1800s, if you were a self-respecting housewife in Lancaster, Pa., you couldn’t operate unless you had Daisy Flour in your cupboard,” said David Poorbaugh, the company’s president. “We’re all romantics, and that’s part of the reason that we do this. I think we’re lucky if we break even with this old mill.”

Mr. Earnhart, the farmer, hopes local wheat will catch on, but he’s also apprehensive. Greater demand might bring calls for more standardization, he said. He doesn’t want to end up on the same path as large-scale wheat producers.

“The idea that we have to get it so sophisticated that everything is perfect kind of defeats what I think made this unique when we started out,” he said. “One of the things that we have to decide is how far we want to go.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Time may not be on our side

Earth is an incredibly beautiful complex system with many intricate feedback loops. The Gaia Hypothesis developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis states that these feedback loops work to maintain the conditions necessary to preserve life on the planet -- without favoring any particular species.

This system is really beyond total human comprehension in its synergistic beauty and efficiency. When outside disturbances causes things to go awry, the feedback loops work to compensate and restore overall system integrity. In the process some species may be threatened with extinction.

Humans are not exempt. (GW)

Exclusive: The methane time bomb

Arctic scientists discover new global warming threat as melting permafrost releases millions of tons of a gas 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide

By Steve Connor
The Independent
September 23, 2008

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species. Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia's northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through "methane chimneys" rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a "lid" to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age.

They have warned that this is likely to be linked with the rapid warming that the region has experienced in recent years.

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.

The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on earth.

Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, one of the leaders of the expedition, described the scale of the methane emissions in an email exchange sent from the Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.

"We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and this past night," said Dr Gustafsson. "An extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface. These 'methane chimneys' were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments]."

At some locations, methane concentrations reached 100 times background levels. These anomalies have been seen in the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea, covering several tens of thousands of square kilometres, amounting to millions of tons of methane, said Dr Gustafsson. "This may be of the same magnitude as presently estimated from the global ocean," he said. "Nobody knows how many more such areas exist on the extensive East Siberian continental shelves.

"The conventional thought has been that the permafrost 'lid' on the sub-sea sediments on the Siberian shelf should cap and hold the massive reservoirs of shallow methane deposits in place. The growing evidence for release of methane in this inaccessible region may suggest that the permafrost lid is starting to get perforated and thus leak methane... The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed."

The preliminary findings of the International Siberian Shelf Study 2008, being prepared for publication by the American Geophysical Union, are being overseen by Igor Semiletov of the Far-Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Since 1994, he has led about 10 expeditions in the Laptev Sea but during the 1990s he did not detect any elevated levels of methane. However, since 2003 he reported a rising number of methane "hotspots", which have now been confirmed using more sensitive instruments on board the Jacob Smirnitskyi.

Dr Semiletov has suggested several possible reasons why methane is now being released from the Arctic, including the rising volume of relatively warmer water being discharged from Siberia's rivers due to the melting of the permafrost on the land.

The Arctic region as a whole has seen a 4C rise in average temperatures over recent decades and a dramatic decline in the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by summer sea ice. Many scientists fear that the loss of sea ice could accelerate the warming trend because open ocean soaks up more heat from the sun than the reflective surface of an ice-covered sea.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Renewed debate

Look for the battle to heat up between wind and nuclear energy advocates for the hearts and minds of citizens and politicians concerned with both energy independence and climate change.

Of course nuclear power does not make economic sense, but if you think that's enough to prevent its resurgence, you may want to think again. (GW)

Wind and nuclear go to war over power cut threats

Report argues that energy security should be prioritised over tackling climate change, but critics claim study is guilty of exaggerating supply fears

By James Murray

Business Green

September 17, 2008

A row has erupted over the UK's ability to address the energy gap over the next decade following the publication today of a controversial report arguing that the government's focus on expanding wind capacity and failure to develop back up nuclear and fossil fuel capacity will lead to widespread power cuts.

The report from energy industry analysts Fells Associates argues that with a third of the UK's generation capacity due to be decommissioned by 2020 as nuclear and fossil fuel power stations are retired, prolonged power cuts could become a common occurrence from 2013.

Critics, including the business secretary John Hutton, immediately accused the report of exaggerating the scale of the threat, while hugely underestimating the ability of renewable energy to address the energy gap.

But speaking to reporters earlier today, report co-author professor Ian Fells, a long term supporter of nuclear power, said that the planned expansion of wind energy could not be delivered quickly enough to plug the gap, while the long-promised expansion in nuclear capacity was also not being built at sufficient pace.

The report, titled A Pragmatic Energy Policy for the UK, argued that the only way to plug the energy gap in the short term is to extend the life of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, while accelerating the development of a new fleet of nuclear reactors to work alongside increased renewables capacity. It claimed that the need to secure energy supplies was now so urgent that it should take priority over climate change in the government's energy strategy.

Speaking to BusinessGreen.com, report co-author Candida Whitmill, said that while the long term goal had to be to reduce carbon emissions, that could only be achieved with a strong economy and as such, energy security had to be achieved first.

She also argued that the threat of power cuts provided a further incentive for firms to cut their energy use and invest in energy efficiency measures, although she warned that such efforts may help ease energy demand, but would not prove sufficient to solve the problem.

Government projections that an increase in offshore wind capacity to 33GW by 2020 will help plug the energy gap were branded technically impossible by Whitmill, who argued that there was just one installation barge available and that the UK wind industry would struggle to deliver more than 350MW of new offshore capacity a year.

"Wind is not going to happen and even if it did, we'd still need back up capacity [for when the wind is not blowing]," she said. "We have to go with nuclear power which offers the only sufficient base load of power that is low carbon… wind has a role to play, but not at the levels the government is talking about."

She also argued that the development of the Severn Tidal Barrage, an increase in biomass capacity and an extension of the energy grid to France, Germany and Scandinavia could also help deliver a lower carbon energy mix that provides a more secure supply than one based to a large extent on wind.

However, critics lined up to slam the report as inaccurate and biased, accusing it of exaggerating the scale of the potential energy gap and down playing the wind industry's ability to meet government targets.

"Ian Fells overstates the risk of the energy gap, but he also understates what the government's already doing to secure our future supplies and increase our energy independence," said business secretary John Hutton. "That's not to underestimate the task we've got on our hands. Securing future energy supplies for the UK is a matter of national security, so we're not going to rule out any radical options."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr said the report meant that Fells had "finally lost the backing of the scientific community", adding that it showed a disregard for the extent to which other countries were fast embracing renewables to address their energy gaps.

"All over the world, jobs are being created in the renewable energy sector," he said. "But Britain has been left behind for too long by the negative, white flag approach to climate change that this report represents. Professor Fells has a long-standing love affair with the technologies of the 20th Century, but as time goes by his fetish for coal and nuclear power looks increasingly naive."

The starkest criticism was delivered by the British Wind Energy Association, which accused the report of "factual inaccuracies" regarding the wind industry's ability to deliver capacity.

Speaking to BusinessGreen.com, Dr Gordon Edge said that far from there being just one barge capable of installing offshore wind farms working in the UK, there were seven already in operation and more to be built over the next few years. He added that Whitmill's claim that the UK could only install 350MW of offshore capacity a year was also "just plain wrong", predicting the sector would be "doing more than that in 2009".

Edge also rejected the report's claim that a huge increase in conventional fossil fuel and nuclear capacity will be required to provide back up for renewables, arguing that rival models had shown that renewable energy could be relied on. "We will require some back up for peak loads, but you need less conventional plants with renewables than we have now," he said. "When you combine wind, hydro, biomass and other forms you can rely on a renewables mix."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Birthplace of a 'clean-coal' revolution?

The notion of "clean coal" provides the best example of why the concept of "cradle-to-cradle" analysis is so essential to our understanding of the true costs of energy technologies. No matter how successful we may be in sequestering carbon resulting from coal combustion there are still major environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

The coal still has to be gotten either by sending coal miners deep into the Earth or by other means such as removing the tops of mountains. And of course, there's no way of telling how long the buried carbon will remain sequestered. (GW)

Clean-Coal Debut in Germany
A new coal plant is the first to capture and store carbon dioxide.

By Rob Edwards
Technology Review
September 19, 2008

It used to be called stinky town, because the pollution from burning dirty coal was so appalling. But now, if a new pilot plant works, Spremberg, in eastern Germany, could become the birthplace of a clean-coal revolution.

Earlier this month, the world's first coal-fired power plant designed to capture and store carbon dioxide that it produces began operations in Spremberg. The pilot plant has been built at a power station that, under Communist rule last century, used to belch out clouds of sulfurous smoke from burning brown coal, or lignite. "Industrial history is being written," says Tuomo Hatakka, chair of the European board of Vattenfall, the Swedish power company behind the new plant. Indeed, the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is seen by many experts as essential to help the world cut carbon-dioxide emissions in coal-fired power stations.

Vattenfall's small 30-megawatt plant burns the lignite in air from which nitrogen has been removed. Combustion in the resulting oxygen-rich atmosphere produces a waste stream of carbon dioxide and water vapor, three-quarters of which is recycled back into the boiler.

By repeating this process, known as oxyfuel, it is possible to greatly concentrate the carbon dioxide. After particles and sulfur have been removed, and water vapor has been condensed out, the waste gas can be 98 percent carbon dioxide, according to Vattenfall.

The separated carbon dioxide will be cooled down to -28 °C and liquefied. Starting next year, the plan is to transport it by truck 150 miles northwest, to be injected 3,000 meters underground into a depleted inland gas field in Altmark. Ideally, in the future, the gas will be carried by pipeline to underground storage, says Vattenfall.

Compressing and transporting the carbon dioxide takes energy, as does the initial extraction of nitrogen. So these processes reduce the overall efficiency of the plant, although Vattenfall is attempting to counter this by investigating ways of boosting the efficiency of the boiler--by predrying the coal, for example.

The aim, according to the company's vice president, Lars Strömberg, is to develop a power plant with "almost zero" pollution. He says that achieving no emissions will be impossible, "but we will come very, very close to this target."

In an initial three-year testing program, the Schwarze Pumpe pilot plant is expected to assess how components function together and exactly what proportion of carbon dioxide can actually be separated. Using the information gained, Vattenfall plans to scale up to a 300-to-500-megawatt demonstration plant by 2015 and to 1,000-megawatt commercial plants after 2020.

The opening of the plant divided environmental groups in Europe. Some regard CCS technology as a potentially valuable weapon in the battle against climate change, while others see it as an expensive distraction from the pursuit of cleaner renewable-energy technologies.

But the plant was greeted warmly by CCS specialists. For Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, it was "a very welcome, and tangible, statement that CCS can be made to work." The European Union wants a further 10 to 15 CCS plants in operation by 2015, he points out.

"Only by actually building plants like this can poorly known costs and risks be better understood and enable the routine deployment of CCS, which so many politicians and energy analysts perceive to be essential for climate cleanup," says Haszeldine. "This is the first; the world now needs lots more."

Oxyfuel is one of three possible CCS technologies. Another uses a scrubbing process to try to capture carbon dioxide in the flue gases emitted after coal has been burned in a conventional power plant. The third involves gasifying the coal, creating hydrogen for generating electricity and carbon monoxide, from which carbon dioxide can be formed and separated.

According to Howard Herzog, a chemical engineer at MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and manager of MIT's carbon-sequestration initiative, it's too soon to say which of the clean-coal technologies will be the best. The opening of the oxyfuel plant--which he attended in Germany--was "exciting" because it represented "a significant step forward in developing CCS technology," he says. "Vattenfall's pilot plant will not only develop oxyfuel combustion technology; it will also provide critical information on the potential of oxyfuel combustion as a CO2-capture technology."

Monday, September 22, 2008

New jobs powered by wind

Wind energy development has the potential to take advantage of many existing businesses and workers in areas of the country suffering from the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs. Michigan is a case in point.

During the presidential debates earlier this year the candidates all had their say about what they would do to help Detroit's suffering automotive industry. Mitt Romney said he'd bring back the old jobs. He didn't last long. Others pledged to bring create new manufacturing jobs. Just how was not made clear.

One way to do that is to realize the Department of Energy's scenario of achieving 20% Wind by 2030. (GW)

Manufacturers retool for wind power industry

By Sven Gustafson
Oakland Business Review
September 18, 2008

The state's manufacturing sector, struggling with a slumping automotive market, is angling for business making parts for the booming wind energy industry even as windpower generation in Michigan is in its infancy.

More than 30 manufacturing companies in Michigan have picked up business making parts or providing design or engineering work in wind, said Dan Radomski, vice president of industry services for Detroit-based NextEnergy.

Startup wind power co. looks for breeze offshore

Wind turbines may be the most environmentally friendly form of energy available, but coastal landowners often balk at the possibility of offshore wind turbines, complaining they ruin scenic views.

But one Ann Arbor startup is forming plans to develop, own and operate offshore wind farms that can't be seen from land.

Deep Water Wind, a startup led by former DTE Energy vice president Chris Brown, has investments from private equity firms.

Brown, also former executive vice president of DTE Energy Resources, said the under-the-radar 2-year-old startup, which has 13 employees, is "totally funded."

Deep Water Wind licensed proprietary technology from Norway-based OWEC Tower, which allows wind farms to be installed 50 miles to 125 miles offshore -out of sight of the naked eye.

"What we're trying to do is get it far enough offshore so it's not viewable from the shore," Brown said. "What we should be focusing on is solutions that are beyond the horizon, because if we do, what can the objections be?"

Brown, the CEO, acknowledged that his company doesn't have much reason to be in Michigan - except that he lives here. He said if the state approved a renewable portfolio standard, which would require utilities to derive a set percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, it might help his cause.

But the company at first is targeting East Coast markets - including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, the coast of Manhattan and New Jersey.

Brown cited projections estimating that offshore wind energy could provide 330 gigawatts of power to the East Coast, enough to power 40 million homes.

Nathan Bomey

The financial implication is significant: Results from a recent survey indicate that meetings the alternative energy accelerator arranged with solar and wind companies such as General Electric and Siemens helped generate more than $100 million in new contracted business for companies across Michigan.

That survey also found that companies who had successfully taken on work in wind stressed the need for others considering the field to do their homework, understand the market potential and the supply chain dynamics and know the major players.

"These suppliers, they know who the OEMs and Tier One suppliers that they supply are in the automotive industry, but it's a whole new market when you're entering into wind," Radomski said.

While it can be difficult for small suppliers to break into the business, not all wind energy supply chains are developed, and wind turbine makers "are constantly looking for new suppliers" in the U.S., Radomski said.

One company benefiting from diversification is Three M Tool & Machine Inc. in Oakland County's Commerce Township. The company recently won a five-year, $7 million contract to produce gearbox housings and forward housings for California-based Clipper Windpower, an expansion of work already under contract.

To prepare to meet its new production deadlines, Three M bought a 42,000-square-foot building in nearby Wixom equipped with a pair of 30-ton cranes for $2.5 million. It's spending $7.5 million on new milling and turning machines large enough to handle the massive cast-iron castings, which weigh 20,000 and 15,000 pounds, respectively.

Co-owner Michael Medwid said the new facility and equipment will enable the company to machine the parts much faster than before. He anticipates a need for about 20 new workers over the next year to keep up with demand.

"It's a lot different than automotive," he said. "We're forming basically partnerships with our customers where automotive has always been (a situation where) they really haven't been willing to partner up."

Michigan has a little more than 55 megawatts installed through wind turbines in the Thumb, in Traverse City and in Mackinaw City. Another 60 megawatts are currently under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Much more could be on the way if state lawmakers, as expected, approve renewable portfolio standard legislation that would require that a certain amount of the state's electricity come from renewable sources.

Jackson-based Consumers Energy has already cobbled together more than 20,000 acres in easements for locating future wind farms, which would each require about 30 to 40 wind turbines on 3,000-acre parcels. Preliminary studies show that those wind farms would create thousands of new construction jobs and hundreds of new operation jobs, to say nothing of manufacturing work, said Dennis Marvin, a communications director for the utility.

For now, much of the work in utility-scale turbines is coming from outside the state.
Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Technologies Inc. is spending $15 million to upgrade a foundry in Alpena to cast and machine large iron hubs and baseplates for large wind turbine makers based in the U.S. and Europe. The project, which last year won state and local tax incentives worth about $3.4 million, is expected to create 150 jobs.

"It's an interesting transition story," said company spokesman Dan Greenfield. "It was a company that was in the automotive business, (the foundry was) vacated and then from there we bought the facility and we've been upgrading the facility."

The plant will double production capacity for subsidiary ATI Casting Service, he said.
"We have another facility in La Porte, Ind. that reached maximum capacity and we needed another facility very rapidly as demand from the wind energy market grows. The Alpena facility was kind of ideal to make that transition," Greenfield said.

In Albion, Patriot Solar Group, a spinoff of a company that makes parabolic satellite dishes, is manufacturing photovoltaic collectors, PV panels, mounting systems and frames. And Ann Arbor-based Danotek Motion Technologies LLC plans a move to a larger facility in Plymouth, where it will manufacture variable-speed permanent magnet generators for use in wind turbines. The new facility is expected to eventually employ 141.

While the upfront expenses for retooling have been considerable for Three M, Medwid said it's been worth it.

"I think we have the potential to get as much business as we can do for the foreseeable future," he said.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And miles to go before we eat

I had to smile when I came to the part of the following article that identifies a 2001 report from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture as the origins of the statistic citing 1,500 miles as the average distance food travels from our farms to our dinner tables in the U.S. A colleague of mine and I were talking about this just a couple of weeks ago.

In 1979 I was hired by the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture to help organize a network of farmers' markets in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area. One of my responsibilities was to gain community support for hosting the markets (believe it or not, back the there was often public opposition to farmers setting up shop in some neighborhoods -- but that's a story for another time). In making the pitch for supporting local farmers, I would often refer to the aforementioned 1,500 food-mile "fact".

True confession: I honestly can't remember when I first heard this mentioned or what the source was. However, when pressed by questioners, I told them that I thought it was part of a study undertaken by the CIA to determine how vulnerable U.S. energy and food lines of supply were to a possible foreign attack.

The point is, this statistic has been around for a lot longer than 2001. The Leopold report could very well be the first attempt to really determine the statistic's validity. (GW)

What's in a Number?

How the press got the idea that food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.

By Jane Black

Food critics may be finicky when it comes to celebrity chefs, but their affection for local ingredients never flags. It's hard to open a magazine without finding an article about a photogenic farmer making handcrafted cheese or a happy family that has reduced its carbon footprint by planting a victory garden. And it seems like nearly every one of these stories offers up the same disheartening statistic to wean Americans off their penchant for industrially farmed suppers: On average, food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.

Back in May, chef Dan Barber noted on the New York Times op-ed page that $4 per gallon diesel fuel means "it's no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it's grown." When Wal-Mart decided to start buying more local produce last July, the company issued a press release stating that an average meal travels 1,500 miles "before it gets to you." The stat has popped up in Newsweek, Time, even Slate's own 2006 "Green Challenge." Not since Newsweek announced that a woman had a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married after 40 has a statistic been embraced so enthusiastically.

There's just one problem. It's only sort of true—and only if you live in Chicago.

The statistic was first published in 2001 when Rich Pirog, associate director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, wanted to figure out which food distribution system—local, regional, or national—is the most environmentally friendly. To do so, he and a team of researchers looked at food miles, long a common measure in Europe. By calculating how far food traveled, they could determine the corresponding amount of carbon dioxide released into the air.

For the report, researchers examined how far 33 fruits and vegetables that had been grown in the United States traveled to a produce market in Chicago. The data, collected by the Department of Agriculture, aren't ideal; over the last 30 years, terminal markets have declined in importance, in part because retailers like Wal-Mart manage their own distribution. In 1998, the last year data were collected, the country's 22 terminal markets handled only 30 percent of the nation's produce. But the data are public and therefore free to academics.

In addition to being a limited sample, terminal market data indicate only the state where the produce was grown, not what part of the state. So, for example, Pirog could have known oranges came from Florida but had no way of discerning whether they came from around Palm Beach or Orlando. For practical purposes, his team assumed that all produce came from the geographical center of each state. They then used MapQuest to determine the route a truck might take to the Chicago market. That's a decent approximation for a high-production state like California, where crops are grown from north to south. But it's flat-out wrong for Oklahoma, whose capital city is smack dab in the center of the state.

In the end, Pirog tallied that produce arriving in Chicago from within the United States traveled 1,518 miles. But even if you live in the Windy City, that doesn't account for milk or meat, which make up a significant part of American diets. Nor does it account for kiwis from Italy, apples from New Zealand, or grapes from Chile. This, despite the fact that imports make up a growing percentage—15 percent of U.S. food in 2005—of what ends up on our tables.

Researchers have done little work to calculate food miles for areas outside the Midwest. A 1997 study showed that produce travels an average of 1,129 miles to Austin, 34 percent fewer than to Chicago. In 2001, an analysis of the Jessup, Md., terminal market concluded that U.S.-grown produce traveled an average of more than 1,685 miles. And though there's no formal research to support it, Pirog says it's safe to assume that, on average, food travels fewer miles to get to diners in California than to those in New York.

All statistics, of course, are based on a series of assumptions. And Pirog is quick to point out that whether or not the 1,500-mile figure applies to everyone and everything—or how it's been misused—it has raised consciousness about where food comes from. It sends a message: It matters what you buy, and where you buy it. Of course, the media's enthusiastic embrace of this statistic has as much to do with a growing sense of urgency about where food comes from as their need for quick ways to explain complex problems. Just as the fake stat that plastic takes 500 years to break down in landfills has become shorthand for America's myopic attachment to one-time-use packaging, the 1,500 mile-figure has become a breezy way for the media to explain America's Byzantine food system and its consequences.

There are consequences, too, for oversimplifying. If we all think in food miles, the answer is obvious: Buy local. But new studies show that in some cases it can actually be more environmentally responsible to produce food far from home. According to a 2006 report from New Zealand's Lincoln University, it is four times more energy efficient for Londoners to buy New Zealand lamb, which is grass-fed and shipped halfway 'round the world, than to buy lamb raised on grain in England. And if we want to combat global warming, cutting back on meat may be more effective than buying local produce.

New measures are being put in place to help guide our decisions. Pirog, for one, has moved on from food miles to studies that focus on consumer impact: Does it make sense, for example, to pick up your farm share or have it delivered? Across the Atlantic, British grocer Tesco has rolled out carbon labels that attempt to calculate the exact amount of greenhouse gases created by everything from shampoo to potato chips and fruit smoothies. Like food miles, these new numbers raise as many questions as they answer. For example, how are these carbon labels calculated? How will they stay up to date as producers change their business models to respond to rising oil prices or tax incentives for green companies? You're more likely to get killed by a terrorist than find a simple answer.

Jane Black is a food writer at the Washington Post.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

“It may be impossible to come up with anything better than the moringa”

I must confess I never heard of moringa before I read the following Christian Science Monitor article. I further admit that I came away more than a little skeptical about the alleged powers of this tree. Alas following an exhaustive round of Googling, the claims seem to be substantiated.

Now the nagging question is, why aren't the potent nutritional powers of this potent tree more widely known? Studies may reveal that the claims are inflated, but even if the reality is a fraction of what's being touted, the moringa would still be considered something of a miracle.(GW)

A ‘miracle tree’ that could feed sub-Saharan Africa

The moringa's leaves and seedpods deliver extraordinary nutrition, advocates say, but aid groups await a formal study.

By Vijaysree Venkatraman

Christian Science Monitor
September 19, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

As a child growing up in India, I greeted the appearance of one particular vegetable on my plate with exaggerated distaste: tender seedpods from the moringa tree, locally known as “drumsticks.” Imagine my surprise when I heard a health worker from sub-Saharan Africa describe this backyard tree as a possible solution to malnutrition in tropical countries – he called it a “miracle tree,” no less.

Ounce for ounce, says Lamine Diakite, a Red Cross official from French Guinea in West Africa, moringa leaves contain more beta carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas. Its protein content is comparable to that of milk and eggs, and its leaves are still available for harvest at the end of the dry season, when other food may be scarce. Malnourished children gained weight when put on a timely dietary supplement made from the leaves, Mr. Diakite says. He passed around pouches of the green, hennalike powder at a recent international summit in Boston.

Until a decade ago, moringa was not widely known in Africa. Its leaves (boiled like spinach) were an occasional vegetable. Immigrant Indians prized the long, slender seedpods (stewed or cooked like green beans) as a delicacy. “But its nutritional value, newly ‘discovered,’ has been known for a long time,” says Lowell Fuglie, an international development administrator who has been instrumental in popularizing the moringa in Africa for the past 10 years. Laboratory analysis has corroborated traditional knowledge about the plant. It now awaits further validation by western science.

But even those who know moringa is edible don’t always exploit its nutritional value, particularly beneficial to those eating a carbohydrate-heavy diet (meat is often costly in Africa).

Senegalese people using moringa leaves to make mboum sauce, for example, discard the cooking water, which contains many nutrients, Mr. Fuglie says. His interest was sparked by research findings collated by the nonprofit Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO). “Seeing moringa described as the most nutritious of all tropical vegetables,” says Fuglie, whose father worked for USAID in Africa, “I wondered why there was so much malnutrition in regions where the tree is easily grown and used.”

Species of moringa are native to the Indian subcontinent and pockets of Asia and Africa. One species in particular, Moringa oleifera, which has especially edible leaves, has become naturalized in other regions, says Mark Olson, an evolutionary biologist. Moringa growing wild on Mexico’s Pacific coast probably arrived long ago via the Philippines when Spanish galleons sailed between Manila and Acapulco, he says. He has traveled to remote areas to document the dozen or so species of the diverse, hardy native of the dry tropics. “It’s very hard to kill the moringa with drought or heat,” he says. Protein-rich plants like soybeans and legumes cannot survive such conditions or thrive in poor soil.

Gram-for-gram nutritional comparison. Source: Tree For Life International

The fact that the leaves – and not just the seedpods and seeds – are edible makes moringa a desirable crop. The seeds also yield oil that could be used as biofuel, and ground seeds can help purify water. Parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. It also grows rapidly (good for reforestation), reaching a mature height of 30 feet, though often it’s pruned annually to be as short as five feet, to keep leaves and seedpods within easy reach. It would be difficult to find a low-maintenance tree that offers more, says Fuglie.

In the 1980s, development workers began to hear of the tree. Its popularity grew by leaps when Fuglie began to promote the shade-dried leaf powder as a food supplement, says Martin Price, director of ECHO. Reports from Fuglie’s pilot nutrition project were persuasive.

Still, there have been no clinical human trials to quantify the moringa’s role in fighting malnutrition, says Jed Fahey of Johns Hopkins University. He is a volunteer for Trees for Life International, a group that promotes planting moringas. Based on centuries of human consumption, however, a strong case can be made that eating the leaves causes no harm, says Dr. Fahey, a phytochemical researcher.

But because there is no definitive dietary study on the moringa, the scientific community and relief agencies still have reservations. Fuglie predicts that more moringas will be planted once aid organizations are convinced of the leaves’ nutrition. Fuglie needs no persuading: If you had to design an affordable source of enriching supplements for the dry tropics, he says, “it may be impossible to come up with anything better than the moringa.”