Category: environment

Brewing beer amid the California drought

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Bear Republic Brewing Company. Photo by Flickr user Christi Nielsen, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week I caught a story on the PBS NewsHour about the current drought affecting much of California. As the piece by Spencer Michels details, ranchers, vintners, farmers, and others whose livelihoods rely on a sufficiently wet landscape are facing tough times. In a small Sonoma County town, a craft brewer is going so far as to help the municipality dig new wells:

SPENCER MICHELS: One of Cloverdale’s most thriving businesses depends on a lot of water. Bear Republic Brewing Company, a regional brewery that makes Racer 5 IPA, is trying to conserve water. For every gallon of beer, they use 3.5 gallons of water, much lower than the industry standard.

Co-founder and brewmaster Richard Norgrove says he isn’t sure if Cloverdale’s wells will provide the brewery with enough water this year.

RICHARD NORGROVE, Bear Republic Brewing Co.: We may have to truck it in. We could move our production out of state. We could move our business to a community that’s not affected by water use problems. But those aren’t really part of what the family plan is. We’re local and want to stay here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead, to insure an adequate water supply, Bear Republic has entered into a private-public partnership with Cloverdale to bring more wells into production.

RICHARD NORGROVE: We have lent them close to a half-a-million dollars to accelerate their well drilling, which is really helping the infrastructure for the community. If we don’t manage our watershed, we may not even be able to grow this business, because there’s not going to be enough water for everybody.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the town is equally enthusiastic with the arrangement.

For more on the Cloverdale in particular and the California drought in general, check out the full video and transcript at the PBS NewsHour website. For further details on how Bear Republic and Cloverdale are confronting the problem of scarce water, check out this recent article by Kevin Fagan for the San Francisco Chronicle.

What the farm bill means for sustainable ag

Last Friday, President Obama signed a new, nearly trillion-dollar farm bill “after four years of bitter arguments over farming subsidies and Republican efforts to reduce financing for food stamps,” as reported by Michael Shear in The New York Times. In the end, what did this “sprawling legislation” include, and what will it mean for US agriculture? The folks at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have taken stock and concluded that there’s both good news and bad news. For their take, check out their recent post in Civil Eats, get highlights in the graphic they produced (see below), and head to their website for the first in a planned seven-part series that drills down to make sense of the details.

From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Digital tracking and drones (we’re talking bees, not the NSA and DOD)

Photo by CSIRO

Todd Woody recently wrote a piece about a new research effort to understand the behavior of bees doing the essential work of pollinating plants in our food supply. As he writes at Quartz,

Australian scientists have devised a way to pinpoint the causes of the global die-off of bees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops: Attach tiny sensors to 5,000 honey bees, and follow where they fly.

The sensors, each measuring 2.5 millimeters by 2.5 millimeters (0.1 inch by 0.1 inch), contain radio frequency identification chips that broadcast each bee’s location in real-time. The data is beamed to a server, so scientists can construct a three-dimensional model of the swarm’s movements, identifying anomalies in their behavior.

Worker bees tend to follow predictable daily schedules—they don’t call them drones for nothing—leaving the beehive at certain times, foraging for pollen, and returning home along well-established routes. Variations in their routines may indicate a change in environment, such as exposure to pesticides.

For the full story and links, head here, and check out the press release and accompanying audio clips from CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science office. For some of my earlier posts about bees and the challenges they’re facing, check out these links.

A visual guide to global food challenges

The World Resources Institute has complied 18 infographics that provide an overview of some of the major challenges confronting humanity’s food supply. As Janet Ranganathan explains,

The world is projected to hold a whopping 9.6 billion people by 2050. Figuring out how to feed all these people—while also advancing rural development, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting valuable ecosystems—is one of the greatest challenges of our era.

So what’s causing the global food challenge, and how can the world solve it? We begin to answer these questions through a series of graphics….

From climate change to biofuels, from increasing meat consumption (see below) to food waste, many of the big issues are clearly laid out. Check out the post here.

NPR’s Dan Charles on Grist’s GMO reporting

GMO Kill Gene

An example of the sort of issue Johnson has examined in his work. Image by ALT Headlines via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

One of my favorite NPR reporters, Dan Charles, recently penned a piece about Grist’s coverage of genetically modified organisms. As he describes,

A 26-part series on genetically modified food was not Nathanael Johnson’s idea. And he didn’t realize it would take six months, either.

Last year, Johnson was hired as the new food writer for Grist, a website for environmental news and opinion. Grist’s editor, Scott Rosenberg, was waiting with an assignment: Dig into the controversy over GMOs.

GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.

On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.

“When I met Nathanael, I thought, ‘This is a writer who could do this really well,’ ” recalls Rosenberg.

For the full essay, including links to Johnson’s work, head here.

Al Gore joins the vegan ranks

Al Gore

Photo by Flickr user Center for American Progress Action Fund, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Juliet Eilperin recently reported for The Washington Post that

former vice president Al Gore has gone vegan, just like the president with whom he once served….

It is unclear why Gore, one of the nation’s most visible climate activists, has given up dairy, poultry and meat products. People usually become vegan for environmental, health or ethical reasons, or a combination of these three factors.

As Ben Adler writes for Grist,

Forbes merely tossed in a throwaway line referring to Gore as “newly vegan,” in a story about investors looking at ways of replacing eggs with plant-based formulas. The Post was unable to get any further details beyond confirmation from an unnamed Gore associate.

Perhaps, as the Post’s Juliet Eilperin suggests, Gore was worried about his health….

But it seems likely that concerns about the environment, especially his top cause of climate change, played a role in Gore’s thinking. Industrial animal agriculture is bad for local water quality, as it spreads around manure and antibiotics. But it is also bad for greenhouse gas emissions. Animals, especially pigs and even more so cows, produce methane as a byproduct of digestion….

Raising livestock contributes to climate change and environmental degradation in other ways as well: it takes far more grain and land to produce a calorie of food for humans by feeding grains to animals than directly to people. That means more destruction of grasslands and forests for farming, more tractors burning fuel, and more pesticides seeping into the groundwater. Back in 2006, a United Nations report found that livestock accounts for 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

And now, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that we have been vastly underestimating livestock’s contribution to the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions.

For more check out the links above.

Smarter, not just more, ag to feed 9 billion

Image from Visible Earth project, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Click image for detailed credits.

Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, recently posted a very thoughtful piece at Ensia that questions the dominant narrative on population growth and food supply. As he describes,

You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.

To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.

To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.

Foley goes on to carefully consider each of the assumptions of the dominant narrative. After debunking myths and pointing out blind spots, he proposes a very different summary of where we are and how we might face the future:

While the prevailing narrative about the global food supply is persuasive and sounds very logical, it is actually based on several wrong assumptions. It needs to be replaced by a more accurate narrative that can better guide future investments and decisions.

The new narrative might sound something like this: The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge.

These are big challenges, and there are no simple solutions. As a first step, though, we at least need to be sure that we get the story about the food system straight. After all, if we’re not even starting at the right place, we certainly will not end up at the right destination.

The full piece is really worth a read. Check it out here, and then share it with others.