Category Archives: environment

Shade what?

There are only two things I crave on a night shift: coffee and chocolate. Not that night shifts are special in this way; it’s just the cravings seem a bit more appropriate then. In reality, that parody of the English professor in Stranger Than Fiction (awesome movie, by the way) is starting to feel a little too close to home.  Did you notice the perpetual cup of coffee in his hand, for those of you who have seen the movie? Yah, that’s pretty much true of everyone here in the lab who actually drinks coffee.

So what’s the point of this post? Well … Coffee can have a pretty big toll on both my carbon footprint and my environmental impact, in ways I didn’t really think about when I decided to get addicted to the stuff in the first place. Back then (junior high school, for the record), all I cared about was not looking Mormon in Salt Lake City. Now? I’m afraid I’ve fallen in love with the ritual. The espresso machine in the morning, or the latte in the cafe down the street. But I’m hoping to get my fix in a slightly more responsible manner these days.  The good news is, it isn’t that hard to make a few choices that will at least minimize the damage your coffee habit causes. I promise, I won’t say you should quit, ok, because I’m just not ready for that. Heh… No, I’m not an addict.  Right??

Ok, so here’s my simple advice: Choose coffee companies that pay growers and workers fairly, and use organic, sustainable growing practices.

Admittedly, my advice sounds simpler than it is, which is partially because I started this post with the idea that looking for a sticker on a bag would do. I was simply going to advocate for organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee beans, but then I came across this post on the Intelligentsia website, which discusses the shade-grown certification and why they don’t support it. And I think some of the reasoning makes sense. Ok, I think the diaper argument they use as an analogy is kind of ridiculous, but I do agree that blanket certification is not always a good thing. I also agree with the fact that habitats in which coffee shrubs are grown vary considerably from region to region. If you’re going to start a coffee plantation in the rainforest, you’re better off choosing shade-grown coffee, for the very reason that clear-cutting the rainforest destroys habitats (even for birds that you may think of as native to the US). Beyond that, I’m not sure shade-grown makes sense in places where there is very little shade to begin with.

So I guess the lesson is, think about what you’re buying before you buy it. And ask questions if you’re unsure. It’s the only way to get companies to support sustainable practices, because if their customers care, then they will have to start caring as well.

Some companies I support? Well, I wish I had a long list for you, but this is a relatively new search for me, as you might have guessed from the non-linearity of this post. Intelligentsia isn’t a bad place to start, and you can buy a pound for only a little more than you’d spend at Starbucks. For the New Haven residents reading this, Fuel in Wooster Square is a good place to try, and Lulu’s is the kind of shop where you can ask and expect a detailed answer about where your beans come from. As long as Lulu is working the counter, of course… As an aside, the coffee’s pretty damn good (though I only order actual coffee — I’ve never really been a fan of their lattes, when I can make better ones at home). Koffee (any of them) will sell you fair trade, organic beans, and that’s reportedly all they serve. I only wish I liked their coffee a bit more.

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Such sweet things

Our first strawberry

Our garden’s reveling in the summer sun, throwing up signs of contentment in little shoots and buds. Sprouts of questionable heritage yielded spindly little seedlings, which eventually transformed into our little patch of controlled chaos in the backyard. Along with it, creatures emerged — little slugs and aphids, butterflies and ladybugs. Signs that soon (well, now, actually), we’d be competing for the very produce we made possible.

Tomatoes!

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, which makes the transition to the “wilderness” of the national parks we just visited back to civilization an interesting one. It’s a comfortable book, meandering through the seasons — and his garden, in each — with a thoughtful ease. And while it’s preachy at times, I think his point about America’s view of nature is dead on. Yes, we invented the concept of national preservation areas, where wilderness could be preserved for all to see. And yes, as the ranger in Prairie Creek State Park pointed out, we have cleared virtually every single old growth forest outside of those preservation areas since we decided to settle here. Pollan’s explanation of this is that we have an “all or nothing” view of nature, and how we manage it;

Once a landscape is no longer ‘virgin’ it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. We hand it over to the jurisdiction of that other sacrosanct American ethic: laissez-faire economics.

Yes — big developers. Because who wouldn’t want more condos? It’s already ruined, right? This is despite the fact that, as Pollan points out, man has had a profound effect on nature as we see it. We’re part of it, and we influence it, in our introduction of foreign species, our management policies, and our understanding of our role in its history. Most of the time, we’ve had a more profound effect than we know. His point? We have, in essence, become “gardeners” of our landscape, responsible for its care and general health.

We’ve done a good job, in some cases (the State and National Park systems, an example of which is shown above, are a case in point). But in a lot of instances, I think this all-or-nothing concept (which seems to pervade our thinking, really — politically, environmentally, economically, and socially) is dangerous. It gives us license to write off our responsibility, to ignore our role in the planet’s future. Yes, it’s easier to manage; the lines are black and white, easily placed into the law books for all to see. But just as industrial ag is easier on a large scale, it’s not necessarily better.

I guess that’s why we started this garden. And why I’ll keep it up. I didn’t think I’d like it… I thought it’d be just another chore. I mean, this is me — I barely water the house plants; I used to kill them before James came along and started watching over them all. But I find myself going out to visit it every morning, to keep tabs on the soil condition, the new buds, and the creatures I find myself learning more about, in order to defend our plants’ tender leaves. It’s all the more interesting when you can’t just spray a few chemicals about to take care of whatever your problems are. So far, everything is doing pretty well. We’ve had to share our strawberries with the birds, and had some hungry leaf miners eat through the first leaves of chard. Other than that? We have strong, healthy tomato plants, and some amazing squash and cucumber coming along. Our carrots seem happy, and the potato we planted from the Union Square greenmarket is finally pushing a few buds up out of the soil. And we have more lettuce than we can eat — a few plants are going to seed, and I’m just going to let them, just to see what happens. Oh — and I can’t wait for the tomatoes.

So, with that, I’ll leave you with a recipe. Well — this isn’t really a recipe. I just threw a few veggies, some pasta, and a sauce together and called it lunch. But it’s really tasty (with sort of a satay flavor), and makes use of the garlic scapes that seem to be the only new and interesting thing at the Wooster Square farmer’s market at the moment. It’ll be perfect with our yellow pears, carrots, and spring onions later in the season. I only hope I’m still in New Haven when things start to get really exciting.

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Farming the front yard

I couldn’t resist sharing this NPR report about Massachusetts bakers who are teaching their customers how to grow wheat locally, in an effort to combat the skyrocketing price of flour.

What do you think? Would you participate in a similar venture, given the chance (and the space)?

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Bittman and Pollan, back to back

Michael PollanI’m taking a bit of a break from the food porn and recipe theme to share some words of wisdom from two writers — Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman — who have been profoundly influential to me over the past few years. Both spoke in two unrelated but conveniently spaced venues today, and I had the opportunity to attend both of their talks, so I thought I’d share a bit of what I learned with all of you.

Michael Pollan has become a household name over the past few years following the release of his fourth book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan’s a comfortable and entertaining storyteller, even when stuck behind a podium in front of a packed auditorium. His intention tonight was to talk about what has influenced his writing over the years — in essence, what shaped him into the journalist he is today.

I won’t give you a line by line recap of the talk, as I would probably bore you to tears. Yale will post a podcast of the event (via iTunes) soon, and you can hear him tell his tales himself. I will tell you that a “war with a woodchuck,” which escalated into a sort of “horticultural Vietnam” in his garden in Cornwall, CT, played a key role in Pollan’s realization that the transcendental framework that helped shape our country’s relationship with nature didn’t quite apply when practical matters like food production came into play. “As long as we live here, we are going to need to change landscapes,” Pollan stated. “We don’t have a very good ethic for dealing with the landscapes we must change.”

Pollan said this realization got him thinking about the “messy places” in our relationship with nature, food production, and the environment. This realization, above all else, really helped shape his place as a writer, he said, and it’s a theme he touches upon in all of his books (many of which he read selections from tonight). For the rest of his story, you’ll have to go listen to the podcast. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Mark Bittman, aka The Minimalist, was the second speaker I wanted to tell you about. If you haven’t read his column in the NY Times, go have a look. His recipes are generally very good, and even better, they’re designed to be simple, straightforward, and somewhat foolproof. He’s not a brilliant speaker — he relies on a pre-prepared script — but if you get him talking about food, culture, and the environment outside of his formal, prepared speech, he’s got some really interesting things to say about the future of the American diet. His talk today was mainly about the origins and consequences of so-called “meataholism” in America. I’m basically going to provide you with a summary of his key points.

Bittman, who made clear he is not a vegetarian, started out by explaining that livestock are the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases. Our food, in essence, has become a huge environmental problem.

His proposed solution? Eat less meat. His argument is based on both history and numbers. Historically, Americans didn’t use to rely so much on meat for their day-to-day nutrition. With the advent of industrial agriculture, a twofold increase in the US population corresponded to a fivefold increase in the amount of meat consumed in America. We are currently consuming ~1/2 a pound of meat per day. Realistically, we should be consuming that much in an entire week, and our collective health is suffering as a result.

“There’s no good reason for eating as much meat as we do,” Bittman said. “And I say this as a man who has had his fair share of corned beef.”

He tied all of this into the current food crisis, brought about by rising grain prices. As hunger-induced riots break out in less fortunate parts of the world, and grain shortages are partially tied to rising meat consumption in the developing world, the impact of America’s current food culture is becoming quite clear.

“There is enough land on Earth to feed the people on Earth,” Bittman said, but cautioned that this is only the case if we convert land currently used to grow livestock feed into farmland for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains for direct human consumption. This is backed up by research (Bittman cited David Pimentel from Cornell).

He should have a book coming out on this topic in January, but if you want more detail in the meantime, check out his recent article on the subject at the NY Times.

As for me, I found some inspiration in one of the questions asked after the talk. People seemed to think vegetarian food was difficult to make, especially when you’re looking for something quick and portable for lunch. I figured this might be a topic worth exploring a bit, so I’ll put together some easy recipes for future posts. In the meantime, does anyone have any favorite vegetarian lunch options they’d like to share?

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Paper or …

I know; I’ve discussed this before. In gory detail. You are probably sick of my endless discussion of our national supermarket habit and the reams of plastic it seems to require. But I think ridding ourselves of our plastic bag habit is an easy change to make, one that doesn’t require the kind of wide scale reconfiguration that addressing our car habit would take (though on that issue — carpools, bikes, and your own two feet are all great options). Besides, it’s in the news this week.

The Connecticut legislature is considering a ban on plastic bags, according to David Funkhouser’s recent piece in the Hartford Courant. I was pleasantly surprised to see that people here are at least supportive of the idea, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way the article was written. There’s no discussion at all of countries that have been charging for plastic bags for years (Germany, for example), and only a cursory mention of Ireland, which started taxing plastic bags a while ago and seems to have survived the transition. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote a piece on Ireland’s bag tax back in February that actually seemed to suggest that the decreased use of bags has been a positive thing for initially reluctant retailers — an interesting point that seems to have been overlooked in the Courant’s piece.

Maybe an outright ban is too much of a change for people in this country. But the assertion that recycling is an equally good alternative to finding ways to decrease the use of plastic bags is not going to help anyone. It takes energy to recycle bags, and it takes initiative on the part of the consumer to bring those bags back in — all of which could have been avoided if a plastic bag hadn’t been handed out in the first place. I’m not saying they’re not useful to have around the house sometimes, and I’m also willing to acknowledge that even I forget to bring mine along on occasion. But really, taking a reusable bag along hasn’t been a difficult change to make, and I think once people stop resisting any change that might possibly be of the slightest inconvenience to them, we might actually have a country I could be proud of.

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Local fruits and vegetables — for a fine?

Check out this op-ed piece in today’s NY Times for a small fruit and vegetable farmer’s perspective on the rather serious monetary effect the US Farm bill may have on local farmers who wish to grow fruit and vegetables on land that was previously used for commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton).

I find it interesting that people who are interested in growing the same types of food the government supposedly recommends we eat more of may end up paying a serious price for their efforts.  Then again, I’m not sure I understand the benefit of the whole subsidy structure in the first place. The system seems like it should have been declared a relic by now and discontinued, but given America’s somewhat insatiable demand for cheap oil and food, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Most of us are not yet willing to pay directly for good food; it’s easier to pay indirectly, via federal taxes, and get our cheap, processed food “products” in return.

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Uncomfortably warm

NY Harbor

By now, most of us are aware of the disastrous effect rising ocean temperatures have on aquatic species.  Coral reefs are the gold standard example of this phenomenon, as global warming has been linked to an increase disease in various coral communities throughout the world.  But coral polyps (the organisms that live in coral reefs) aren’t the only creatures that seem to be more sensitive to disease as ocean temperatures increase.

As the New Haven Register reported this week, the local lobster supply in the Long Island Sound are experiencing a “die-out” this year, which may be linked to global warming.

[Eric] Smith[, Connecticut’s director of marine fisheries,] said scientists believe warmer water in the Sound was a key trigger in the 1999 lobster die-off, causing stress that turned other factors such as pesticides and pollution lethal. The Sound’s lobster population still hasn’t recovered from the 1999 event, Smith said, making the current die-off more critical.

Now, the story isn’t quite so black and white as this quote makes it seem. There are a lot of factors that come into play here, including water quality, pesticide use, and the possibility that unknown pathogens are playing a role.  But, as Gourmet reports, Long Island Sound lobsters happen to be living “at the extreme southern edge of their species’ range,” which means that they already subsist in an environment that is at the warm end of what their species can take.  This is suspiciously similar to the coral reef situation, where coral polyps have been shown to be quite sensitive to ocean temperature for this very same reason.

Ok, so you’re probably wondering what exactly the point of this diatribe / news regurgitation is, precisely.  Well, when I was playing at science journalism early last year (NOT something a working scientist should do, by the way, unless you know what corners you’re willing to cut in explaining a particular phenomenon), I started talking to local fishermen, and found out that this is something the smaller fisheries are quite concerned about. They can see the supply of certain at-risk populations dwindling, and in some cases, overfishing isn’t the only cause.

So while we may moan about the inconvenience of bringing along a list of acceptable fish when we head to the fish market or our favorite seafood restaurant, I think it’s worth the trouble.  The same goes for trying to reduce our carbon footprint, in order to at least minimize the amount of damage we, as a species, have inflicted on the planet. There are so many factors at stake in this — a fisherman’s livelihood, a local dish, a healthy ocean, a livable world — that it’s about time we stop waiting for definitive proof of cause and effect when it comes to global warming. We already know we’re having an impact on the planet.  Isn’t it time we stop asking how much more we can get away with?

No, the picture above is not quite appropriate. I took it from the Staten Island Ferry a while back, and it’s of NY Harbor.  But I couldn’t find a clear picture of the Sound in my collection, so it’ll have to do…

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