Friday, May 25, 2012

Some complexities of organic...

There's nothing black or white about organic agriculture

From:  The Conversation

Jeff Krauss

Food is an emotional topic. Everyone cares about what they eat. Food often has a strong cultural, religious or even political meaning attached to it. Organic food is no different in that respect. People buy organic out of hedonistic values of pleasure and health as well as out of altruistic values of environmental sustainability, social justice and animal welfare.
In addition, organic food is also part of the political debate on how to feed the world sustainably today and into the future. Agriculture is currently one of the major threats to the environment. We know that some drastic changes in our food system are needed if we want to ensure that the many hungry people on this planet have access to sufficient nutritious food and at the same time reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.
Organic agriculture is often proposed as a solution to some of these challenges. It promises to produce food in a more environmentally friendly way and to provide accessible means of increasing yields in smallholder farming systems in developing countries.
We were therefore not surprised that our study about the yields of organic agriculture, published recently in Nature, drew quite some attention and was discussed widely in themedia and blogosphere.
In this study, we conducted a meta-analysis comparing organic and conventional yields and examined how the yield difference is influenced by different site and system characteristics. The analysis basically showed that organic yields are generally lower than conventional yields, but that under some conditions organic yields can nearly match conventional.

The study's results.Todd Reubold, Intitute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
Click to enlarge

While we anticipated that the study would receive widespread attention, we were not really prepared for the wide range of interpretations of our analysis. Some people interpreted the study to imply that organic food was bad for the environment. Others concluded that we had totally missed the point, as the issue was not about yields anyway.
So, first a disclaimer: we did not attempt to solve the food problems of the world in our study. We evaluated the yield difference between organic and conventional systems using data that had been published in the scientific literature. Not more, not less.
We looked at the yield question, as we believe that yields are an important variable to consider when assessing different farming systems. In the end, whatever you might hold against current conventional agriculture, we have to acknowledge that its high yields have spared land for nature and have improved the food situation of many people.
But we acknowledge (and we do that throughout our article) that yields are only one of many factors we need to consider. Farming systems do not only have to provide food but they also have to use natural resources responsibly and to provide livelihoods to farmers. And the question of feeding the world is even more complicated than that. Feeding the world today does not depend on the total food produced: at the global aggregate scale we currently have enough food to feed everyone. It depends on where this food is produced and at what price. Hunger today is a problem of insufficient access to nutritious food and not of insufficient food availability (although feeding an additional 2-3 billion in the future may require increases in production).

When evaluating an agricultural system, it's important to ask how much yield you'll get.Suzie's Farm

So what message can people take away from our study? The real conclusion of our study is not an easy conclusion of “yes organic” or “no organic”. Although we did mention the overall average yield difference between organic and conventional systems derived from our data, this was not the main point of our study.
Our main contribution was to identify situations where organic performs well and also those situations where there is still a large yield gap to conventional systems. Instead of giving an absolute yes or no answer, we tried to paint a more nuanced picture of the complex and difficult reality of organic farming.
Our study has shown that organic agriculture requires good management practices for high yield performance; that organic performs better under rainfed conditions and weakly acidic to alkaline soils; and that its performance improves over time.
The study has also shown that nitrogen limitation is an issue in organic systems and that we need to improve organic cereal and vegetable management. Here we have two choices. We can improve organic yields by putting more money into organic research (given the little funding organic research has received to date). Or we can turn to conventional practices, which under these conditions may be more environmentally beneficial because of their land sparing effect.
An important knowledge gap we identified is the performance of organic agriculture in smallholder farming systems in developing countries. These are the places where yield increases are most needed and where organic agriculture could potentially provide an important tool for sustainable intensification of farming. Research in these systems is urgently needed.

Organic agriculture shows promise for increasing yields sustainably in developing countries.International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

Organic agriculture has a role to play in sustainable food production. We can adopt organic farming methods under conditions where it performs best, try to address the identified issues in organic farming systems and we can learn from successful organic practices for conventional systems. In the end, to achieve sustainable food systems we need agriculture that can deliver certain desirable outcomes. And these desirable outcomes might require a blend of different practices, including agro-ecological methods that improve soil fertility and enhance biodiversity as well as targeted use of chemical fertilisers to ensure high crop production.
We hope that with our study we have revealed some of the many shades of grey inherent in the debate about how to feed the world sustainably. Science cannot provide a definite answer on what the best farming system is. But it is not about the correct answer or the correct choice anyway. It is about making the best choice with the information we have. And making these best choices in our complex world requires us to critically evaluate the performance of different farming systems along certain key variables, assessing the associated uncertainties and identifying knowledge gaps.
The same is true from a consumer perspective. Instead of sticking to any single mantra and eating only organic food, only local or only vegetarian, we should do what we do anyway: eat from a diversity of sources following our diverse set of values and trying to do the best with the information we have. This might include buying organic milk from large-scale organic dairy farms to avoid antibiotic residues. It might mean buying conventional apples from a local family farm in support of the local economy. It might mean buying cheap flour from highly productive conventional cereal farmers. Or it might include the organic veggie basket from our local family farm with its diverse polyculture of vegetables produced with utmost care and a large portion of idealism.

Global carbon emissions hit record high

The global levels of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011, only 1 Gt beneath the necessary levels required to keep global temperatures to a 2°C increase.
The figures are part of the preliminary estimates provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) released Thursday.
Global carbon dioxide emissions reached a high of 31.6 gigatonnes in 2011, representing an increase of 1.0 Gt on 2010, or 3.2 percent. Of the 3.2 percent increase, coal accounted for 45 percent of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil at 35 percent and natural gas at 20 percent.
In 2009, the IEA released their 450 Scenario plan, which set out an aggressive timetable of actions to limit the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere to 450 parts per million. The 450 Scenario require CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 Gt no later than 2017, but that does not seem likely considering the rate of increase and how close we already are to that figure.
“The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol.
A 6.1 increase in CO2 emissions in 2011 outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was only partially offset by a 0.6 percent reduction in emissions within the OECD.
China was responsible for the largest contribution to the global increase with emissions rising by 720 million tonnes (Mt), or 9.3 percent, primarily as a result of their higher consumption of coal. However, China carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP — fell by 15 percent between 2005 and 2011. If these gains had not been made, China’s CO2 emissions during 2011 would have been higher by a whopping 1.5 gigatonnes.
“What China has done over such a short period of time to improve energy efficiency and deploy clean energy is already paying major dividends to the global environment,” said Dr. Birol.
India’s emissions rose by 140 million tonnes, or 8.7 percent, pushing it ahead of Russia to become the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide behind China, the United States, and the European Union.
The United States saw a drop in CO2 emissions in 2011, with a drop of 92 million tonnes, or 1.7 percent, primarily thanks to the ongoing switch from coal to natural gas in the power generation sector and a surprisingly mild winter which reduced the need for space heating. This brings the United States drop in emissions to a total of 430 million tonnes, or 7.7 percent, since 2006, which ranks it as the highest reduction of all countries and regions.
CO2 emissions in the European Union in 2011 were lower by 69 million tonnes, or 1.9 percent, partially thanks to the slow economic growth and a relatively warm winter.
Japan saw emissions increase by 28 million tonnes, or 2.4 percent, as a result of a substantial increase in the use of fossil fuels in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Complexities of 'overfishing'

In a really interesting OpEd piece in todays NY Times, Ray and Ulrike Hilborn argue that once a fish stock is recovered, it only punishes the regulated fisherman to not eat their sustainably harvested fish.

May 23, 2012

Eat Your Hake and Have It, Too

WHOLE FOODS recently stopped selling fish that are on the “red lists” of seafood to avoid, issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. Other major food retailers are considering similar measures, under the assumption that because a species is overfished, it is not sustainable.
Those decisions are based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a sustainable fishery. The fact is that we can harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock. Instead of calling on consumers to abstain from all overfished species, we should direct our attention at fisheries that consistently take more fish than can be naturally replaced.
Bluefin tuna is a classic example of a species that has been consistently harvested too hard and should be avoided by consumers. But at the same time, the United States has made remarkable progress in rebuilding overfished stocks. Wild populations of 27 species have been rebuilt to “healthy” levels in the last 11 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Earlier this month, the agency announced that six formerly overfished stocks had been rebuilt, including Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic Coast summer flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock.
But even as those stocks were being rebuilt, there were no apparent conservation benefits from the refusal of consumers to buy those overfished species. The catch was limited by rules set by regional fisheries councils based on quotas determined by fisheries scientists and enforced by the oceanic agency and by the Coast Guard. Any boycott punished American fishermen, who got a lower price when the catch was sold abroad.
Elsewhere in the world, many fisheries have become unsustainable because of fishing pressures. Most of Asia and Africa do not have management systems that regulate those pressures. And while Europe does have a management system, the quotas are often based on politics rather than science. Many European stocks are fished too hard — some cod stock, for example — and should be avoided by consumers.
If we are to fully harvest the potential sustainable yield of fish from the ocean, we cannot follow the utopian dictum that no stocks may be overfished. After all, even in sustainably managed fisheries, some stocks will almost always be classified as overfished because of natural fluctuations in their populations.
At the same time, we should recognize that seafood-labeling systems hold seafood to much higher standards than other forms of agriculture. The same stores that won’t sell an overfished species are selling other foods whose production affects the environment far more.
During a recent visit to a Whole Foods store in Seattle, we saw no evaluation of the environmental impact of the meat being sold. Free-range chickens were labeled, but there were no labels telling us if pesticide and fertilizer runoff from growing the corn used to feed the beef caused dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, or if the soybeans came from land clear-cut out of the Brazilian rain forest.
Truly informative seafood labels must distinguish between the abundance of a fish stock and its sustainability. Some fish will be disappearing from supermarket shelves over the next few years even though they are being sustainably managed. Consumers should tell retailers and environmental groups not to “red list” fish stocks that may be overfished but are being replenished.

Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and Ulrike Hilborn, a retired organic farmer, are the authors of “Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Burrata, pesto, roasted tomatoes

I've been salivating over Nancy Silverton's Mozza cookbook recently and I have to say that I bought the book because of its cover.  On the cover is a beautiful burrata dish.  I'd not had burrata (cream-filled mozzarella balls) until very recently and while I've read that it's a more recent invention, Wikipedia claims that it's been around since the turn of the last century.  Oh well, I've got a lot of catching up to do!  Here's my modification.

Burrata balls cut into 1/2" thick slices
Pesto (I've been using a store-bought bottled pesto)
Roasted red and yellow grape tomatoes (roast at 350°F for about an hour after tossing with salt and olive oil)
Mint and Basil leaves, sliced

Cut the burrata into slices and plate 2 slices next to each other on small serving plates.  Spread about a Tbs of pesto on the cheese on each plate.  Artfully arrange the roasted tomatoes over the pesto and allow them to tumble off the cheese.  Garnish with thin slices of mint and basil leaves.

I served this for the first time at a party recently and folks were calling for more!

Friday, May 18, 2012

US imposes tarif on Chinese solar panels

I just read this morning that the US has imposed hefty tarifs on inexpensive Chinese solar panels and claim that China is dumping them at below-market prices in the US.  

What a stupid thing to do!  

First, it is the inexpensive solar technology that will be an essential part of getting Americans to install solar panels in the first place. 

Second, it punishes the installers in the US who have been installing these panels.  

Third, it encourages wasteful production of something in the US that could be better produced elsewhere.  

In my opinion, this sends absolutely the wrong message about creating a sustainable future.  Solar MUST be part of our future and we can't wait around while US companies (or German companies, or Chinese companies) make more efficient panels--we have to just get them out there now!

Discussion topic:
When are tarifs OK?  Why?  If we had a natural stewardship amendment, would putting tarifs on a 'green' energy supply be illegal?  Should it?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tilapia with cream and capers

We were all in France recently and Janice's cousins made a delicious monkfish with a green peppercorn cream sauce.  Canned 'fresh' green peppercorns aren't too easy to find around here (we brought some back from France) so I've been playing around with substitutions--capers are fine.  I've also been playing around with a variety of other fish for this recently and just tried tilapia the other night for a party.  THIS IS MY NEW FAVORITE WAY TO PREPARE TILPIA--IT IS DELICIOUS.

4 or 5 tilapia fillets, cut into 1.5" lengths, lightly dusted in seasoned flour (flour, pepper, and perhaps some salt)
2 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil
8 oz heavy cream
2-3 Tbs capers
extra pepper to taste

Melt the butter in the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Lightly fry the dusted tilapia fillets for about 5 min until they just begin to brown (do not overcook).  Turn down the heat to medium.  Add the cream and fold in the capers.  Cook just until the cream is about to boil.  Remove from heat and serve immediately (crack extra pepper on top if you wish).  Can be served alone or on rice. 

Too many calories, a heap of cholesterol, and wonderful memories of France!   YUM!

Friday, May 11, 2012

James Hansen on why we must do something now

May 9, 2012
Game Over for the Climate
GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is 
happening. That is why I was so troubled to read 
a recent interview with President Obama in 
Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would 
exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated 
with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon 
dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire 
history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil 
source, and continue to burn our conventional 
oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of 
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would 
reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, 
more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level 
was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That 
level of heat-trapping gases would assure that 
the disintegration of the ice sheets would 
accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise 
and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures 
would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of 
the planet’s species would be driven to 
extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, 
things will be bad enough. Over the next several 
decades, the Western United States and the 
semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will 
develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when 
it does come, occurring in extreme events with 
heavy flooding. Economic losses would be 
incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would 
be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could 
no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we 
need to reduce emissions dramatically. President 
Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands 
oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, 
which Canada desires in part for export markets, 
but also to encourage economic incentives to 
leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the 
noise of random weather, as I predicted would 
happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. 
Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. 
We can say with high confidence that the recent 
heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in 
Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, 
were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide 
traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount 
keeps the climate conducive to human life. But 
add too much, as we are doing now, and 
temperatures will inevitably rise too high. This 
is not the result of natural variability, as some 
argue. The earth is currently in the part of its 
long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would 
normally be cooling. But they are rising — and 
it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the 
atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million 
to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar 
sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to 
add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar 
sands found mainly in the United States, contains 
at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If 
we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of 
finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil 
fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon 
concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that 
would, as earth’s history shows, leave our 
children a climate system that is out of their control.

We need to start reducing emissions 
significantly, not create new ways to increase 
them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon 
fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then 
distribute 100 percent of the collections to all 
Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The 
government would not get a penny. This 
market-based approach would stimulate innovation, 
jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging 
government or having it pick winners or losers. 
Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, 
would get more back than they paid in increased 
prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use 
resulting from the carbon price would be nearly 
six times as great as the oil supply from the 
proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the 
pipeline superfluous, according to economic 
models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon 
emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true 
costs, leveling the energy playing field, the 
world’s governments are forcing the public to 
subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions 
of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic 
stampede to extract every fossil fuel through 
mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic 
fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, 
and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” 
but he does not provide the leadership needed to 
change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak 
candidly to the public — which yearns for open, 
honest discussion — explaining that our continued 
technological leadership and economic well-being 
demand a reasoned change of our energy course. 
History has shown that the American public can 
rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time 
for the politics to follow. This is a plan that 
can unify conservatives and liberals, 
environmentalists and business. Every major 
national science academy in the world has 
reported that global warming is real, caused 
mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The 
cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait 
— we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and 
be judged immoral by coming generations.

James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute 
for Space Studies and is the author of “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Our economy as an ecosystem

Charlie Rose interviews Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, authors of The Gardens of Democracy:  A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.  Regardless of your political perpective, their arguments that the economy is an ecosystem that requires cultivation, like a garden.  Many interesting suggestions about how, and why, we need to think about and fix the economy that cultivates a strong middle class--who they argue--are the real job creators. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Amory Lovins on revolutionizing our energy system

In this intimate talk filmed at TED's offices, energy theorist Amory Lovins lays out the steps we must take to end the world's dependence on oil (before we run out). Some changes are already happening -- like lighter-weight cars and smarter trucks -- but some require a bigger vision.

This talk is an overview of his book, Reinventing Fire, which I'm now going to read. This talk provides a nice, positive, counterpoint to a doom and gloom we're going to crash before we can save anything perspective.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

Paul Krugman on our broken political system...

New York Times
May 3, 2012
Plutocracy, Paralysis, Perplexity

Before the Great Recession, I would sometimes 
give public lectures in which I would talk about 
rising inequality, making the point that the 
concentration of income at the top had reached 
levels not seen since 1929. Often, someone in the 
audience would ask whether this meant that another depression was imminent.

Well, whaddya know?

Did the rise of the 1 percent (or, better yet, 
the 0.01 percent) cause the Lesser Depression 
we’re now living through? It probably 
contributed. But the more important point is that 
inequality is a major reason the economy is still 
so depressed and unemployment so high. For we 
have responded to crisis with a mix of paralysis 
and confusion — both of which have a lot to do 
with the distorting effects of great wealth on our society.

Put it this way: If something like the financial 
crisis of 2008 had occurred in, say, 1971 — the 
year Richard Nixon declared that “I am now a 
Keynesian in economic policy” — Washington would 
probably have responded fairly effectively. There 
would have been a broad bipartisan consensus in 
favor of strong action, and there would also have 
been wide agreement about what kind of action was needed.

But that was then. Today, Washington is marked by 
a combination of bitter partisanship and 
intellectual confusion — and both are, I would 
argue, largely the result of extreme income inequality.

On partisanship: The Congressional scholars 
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have been making 
waves with a new book acknowledging a truth that, 
until now, was unmentionable in polite circles. 
They say our political dysfunction is largely 
because of the transformation of the Republican 
Party into an extremist force that is “dismissive 
of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” 
You can’t get cooperation to serve the national 
interest when one side of the divide sees no 
distinction between the national interest and its own partisan triumph.

So how did that happen? For the past century, 
political polarization has closely tracked income 
inequality, and there’s every reason to believe 
that the relationship is causal. Specifically, 
money buys power, and the increasing wealth of a 
tiny minority has effectively bought the 
allegiance of one of our two major political 
parties, in the process destroying any prospect for cooperation.

And the takeover of half our political spectrum 
by the 0.01 percent is, I’d argue, also 
responsible for the degradation of our economic 
discourse, which has made any sensible discussion 
of what we should be doing impossible.

Disputes in economics used to be bounded by a 
shared understanding of the evidence, creating a 
broad range of agreement about economic policy. 
To take the most prominent example, Milton 
Friedman may have opposed fiscal activism, but he 
very much supported monetary activism to fight 
deep economic slumps, to an extent that would 
have put him well to the left of center in many current debates.

Now, however, the Republican Party is dominated 
by doctrines formerly on the political fringe. 
Friedman called for monetary flexibility; today, 
much of the G.O.P. is fanatically devoted to the 
gold standard. N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard 
University, a Romney economic adviser, once 
dismissed those claiming that tax cuts pay for 
themselves as “charlatans and cranks”; today, 
that notion is very close to being official Republican doctrine.

As it happens, these doctrines have 
overwhelmingly failed in practice. For example, 
conservative goldbugs have been predicting vast 
inflation and soaring interest rates for three 
years, and have been wrong every step of the way. 
But this failure has done nothing to dent their 
influence on a party that, as Mr. Mann and Mr. 
Ornstein note, is “unpersuaded by conventional 
understanding of facts, evidence, and science.”

And why is the G.O.P. so devoted to these 
doctrines regardless of facts and evidence? It 
surely has a lot to do with the fact that 
billionaires have always loved the doctrines in 
question, which offer a rationale for policies 
that serve their interests. Indeed, support from 
billionaires has always been the main thing 
keeping those charlatans and cranks in business. 
And now the same people effectively own a whole political party.

Which brings us to the question of what it will 
take to end this depression we’re in.

Many pundits assert that the U.S. economy has big 
structural problems that will prevent any quick 
recovery. All the evidence, however, points to a 
simple lack of demand, which could and should be 
cured very quickly through a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus.

No, the real structural problem is in our 
political system, which has been warped and 
paralyzed by the power of a small, wealthy 
minority. And the key to economic recovery lies 
in finding a way to get past that minority’s malign influence.