Daily Archives: November 18, 2011

Awareness into Action: Waste Management Project in Tibetan Grasslands

While my previous posts have been covering the environmental degradation and modernization in Tibet, this post will cover the waste management problems that is a direct result of modernization and project I plan on implementing in Tibet to address this issue. Currently there are no waste management infrastructure in Tibet; it is a very pressing issue that has immediate affects on the environment and communities environment of the Tibetan grasslands.

While rapid modernization is taking place in Tibet, flocks of tourists and consumeristic goods are coming in, too. Plastic snack cover wrappers and soda cans discarded by tourists and locals are now a very visible part of the Tibetan grasslands as my friend Yishin Khoo, who traveled to Tibet this past summer, mentioned.

(Source: Yishin Khoo)

Waste Management is a serious problem affecting the public and environmental health of Tibetan rural areas in China. It is a very pressing issue as Tibetan areas are facing rapid modernization and the locals are not exposed to the consequences of mismanagement of proper waste disposal. These areas do not have any facility for waste management; the current option is either burn or bury, which seriously degrades the land. It also raises a serious environmental concern. This causes many problems but the most serious with the heaviest repercussion one is contamination of drinking water sources because, as I mentioned in my last post, Tibet is the headwater of billions living downstream all over Asia.

(Source: Yishin Khoo) Waste clogging the water near the Yangtze River.

Since Tibet is a very large land mass and the population is spread out, the government states that it is difficult for them to set up waste collection system to these remote areas. This fact strongly urged me to lead a service trip to Tibet to build resources such as waste receptacles and teach the community on proper management and composting. This is a very urgent need in the local Tibetan communities and they do not have much resources to create and raise awareness about the issue.

In order to lead this trip, I will be partnering with Conscious Journeys, a travel agency which operates under the Tibetan Village Project, a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development while preserving the rich cultural heritage of Tibet through Tibetan agency in a bottom-up approach. Most of their projects are small-scale initiatives that work directly with Tibetan villagers through project-coordinators chosen from each village who know the local situation, understand the culture, and speak the language. They have been running trips for western tourist groups for the past ten years. Conscious Journey is the brainchild of Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia; Weatherhead also continues to serve as an advisor and financial sponsor for it.

Working with Tibetan Village Project will help us accomplish our team goals because TVP is very well connected in the Tibetan areas since they are part of the local community and have been working together for the past decade. TVP’s goal in giving agency to the Tibetans is very similar to our vision and once the participants from the service trip set up the foundations for waste management, TVP will ensure the longevity of the project.

Team members will be expected to commit to weekly meetings and participate with the core commitment of Plateau Engage at Columbia University to the ideals of service and engagement. Plateau Engage works to develop new opportunities for education and training, as well as supporting initiatives that advance the challenges of community revitalization and sustainability on the Tibetan plateau. Participants will work on developing a shared understanding and engage directly with these challenges to strengthen communities on the Tibetan plateau. These efforts will enable us to create a portal for developing new partnerships and synergies in our community to address these issues.

The core ideal of the trip will be to promote the welfare of the public good by moving beyond the boundaries of separated communities through collective action to influence others while cultivating shared understandings, cultural awareness, using critical and integrative thinking. I want to address the immediate need within the community for long-term, sustainable solution to the challenge by working with the locals and fostering their agency.

The service trip will be directly publicized to the students in the East Asian, Environmental Science, and Sustainable Development departments, and will also be added as blurbs in a few mailing lists. Team members will first fill out an application and go through an interview in which Professor Barnett and the trip leaders will do the selection process. Participants will be assessed on their commitment to service, sustainable development, environmental/social justice, and East Asia; also on how they will incorporate the experience they will gain from the trip to their academic pursuits. Every participants will be mandated to commit to every meeting, which will prepare the participants to develop cultural competency and understand the local issue.

Oil Rich Poverty

“The question many people have is that if the economy is growing so fast, when will the population start feeling the benefits?”- Aguinaldo Jaime, the nation’s deputy prime minister

In Angola a majority of children live in poverty

In Angola there is a façade that times have changed. After twenty-seven years of civil war, Angola appears as a place that is finally at peace. In comparison to other African nations, Angola has been considered to be exemplary. The International Monetary Fund projects a twenty-four percent economic growth in the country this year — one of the fastest rates in the world.

Angola is second largest oil exporter in Africa. Oil accounts for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), eighty percent of the government’s revenues and ninety percent of export earnings. As reported by the New York Times, the government is taking in twice as much money as it did three years ago.

The other side of the story

Despite Angola immense growth in the past couple of years, it still has one of the highest rates of poverty in the world. In a December poll by a pro-democracy group and the United States Agency for International Development, six in ten Angolans said their economic situation was no better now than five years ago. Currently, seventy percent of Angolans live in poverty; eighty percent have no access to basic medical care. The average life expectancy is only forty years, and three in ten children will die before reaching their fifth birthday. In 2002 about US $210 million was spent on emergency aid to Angola.

Where is the oil money going?

The staggering rates of poverty can be correlated the ongoing corruption in of the Angolan government. On February 5, 2010, Angola adopted a new constitution. In a April of that same year, a law was passed  to curb Angola’s endemic corruption; this is part of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos new “zero-tolerance” anti-corruption discourse.

The government has made claims that it has implemented steps to build the country’s infrastructure. According to Aguinaldo Jaime, the nation’s deputy prime minister, Angola has invested between $8 billion and $9 billion in loans from China since 2004, exchanging guarantees of oil supply for reconstruction work. The lack of progress with regards to these development projects proves otherwise. The government seems to be more interested in filling it’s own pockets with billions of dollars of oil revenue that has illegally bypassed the central bank and disappeared without explanation.

Although the Angolian government has improved the publication of oil revenue figures, according to a Human Rights Watch Report, human indicators in Angola remain abysmal and do not commensurate with the rapid growth of Angola’s national wealth.

The government seems to be the single beneficiary of oil revenue. In 2003, the weekly newspaper of Angola published a list of the wealthiest people, in which twelve of the top twenty were government officials and five were former government officials. According to Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program, “Dr. Jaime’s activities underscore the need for accountability.” “If the Angolan government is serious about transparency and reform, it should rigorously investigate government officials, publish audits of its expenditures, and act on President dos Santos’ pledge of ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption.”

This  brings to light the fact that there has been  no agency for Angola’s corruption. China,  the nation’s  largest investors, trading partner, and consumer  of Angola’s oil, has completely disregarded Angolan corruption, of which they are aware. The China Investment Fund, a prominent private Chinese company  has extensive ties to Sonangol, the Angolan national oil company, where corruption is most prominent.

As China continues to buy oil, the rich in Angola continues to get richer , while the poor continues to suffer.

Cures Can Come from Coral Reefs

As ecosystems with immense levels of biodiversity and ecological interaction, medical researchers often look to coral reefs and organisms found on them as potential sources

Seahorse on Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of WildSingapore/Flickr. Seahorses that live on coral reefs are used in traditional Chinese medicines. Unfortunately, these creatures are endagered due to over-exploitation.

for cures for disease. Reefs have already been the source of a number of medical breakthroughs, and scientists hypothesize that there are more medical treasures to be found on coral reefs if we continute to explore all of the life that lives on them.

Like other biologically diverse and productive ecosystems (for example rainforests) coral reefs have been the source of many medical discoveries.  Both modern scientists and ancient cultures have tapped into the potential of coral reefs to provide cures to some of the medical problems that ail humankind.  If we let coral reefs die out, we will lose with them, all of the biodiversity found on them, and in turn, all of the organisms that have the potential to provide cures to medical problems.

According to the paper “Life-Saving Products from Coral Reefs” by Andrew W. Bruckner, a coral reef ecologist in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Protected Resources, “The prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem.”

Bruckner writes that this is becaue “marine organisms have greater phylogenetic diversity, including several phyla and thousands of species found nowhere else. Coral reefs are home to sessile plants and fungi similar to those found on land, but coral reefs also contain a diverse assemblage of invertebrates such as corals, tunicates, molluscs, bryozoans, sponges, and echinoderms that are absent from terrestrial ecosystems.”  The the sheer diversity in reef environments contributes to their potential as a source for cures to disease.

Further, as Bruckner notes, animals on reefs “spend most of their time firmly attached to the reef and cannot escape environmental perturbations, predators, or other stressors. Many engage in a form of chemical warfare, using bioactive compounds to deter predation, fight disease, and prevent overgrowth by fouling and competing organisms. In some animals, toxins are also used to catch their prey.”  Often times these natural defense can be channeled into medicines, and can potentially “yield life-saving medicines or other important industrial and agricultural products” for human use.

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of USFWS Pacific/Flickr.

Photo Courtesy of doug88888/Flickr.

Bruckner also points out that the eastern cultures have looked to reefs for cures for disease since the 14th century.  Specifically, in places such as China, people used, and continue to use, reef-dwelling seahorses as medication for respiratory problmes, skin ailments, etc.

In the modern era, one of the most significant medical breakthroughs to come from coral reefs lead to the development of a drug called AZT.  AZT is a drug used to slow the progression of the HIV virus into AIDS.  According Bruckner, AZT was developed from extracts from a certain species of sponge that lives on coral reefs in the Carribbean.  He also states that another drug, an anti-cancer medicine called Ara-C, was developed from extracts from reef sponges.

The potential for the development of drugs from coral reefs does not stop here. The video below describes some of the links between coral reefs and anticancer medicines.

The use of extracts, compounds, and animals taken from coral reefs for medical purposes poses an interesting question: Is the potential for medical discoveries in coral reefs a strong enough force to influence policy and practice to preserve them?  From the video above, it seems like it should be, but often times, people are unaware that so many medical advances come from the natural world.

The use of coral reefs as a source of medical compounds also runs the risk of over-explotation of coral reefs.  Thus the question becomes: How do we study, explore, and extract materials needed from reefs to better human kind, without destroying or over-exploiting the coral reefs?

Religion as a Cultural Influence on the Use of Medicinal Plants

As seen in many of my blog posts, there are many different options that may be utilized to preserve and sustain the native flora and fauna of our biosphere. Sustainability is still a primary resolution to the problem of over harvesting herbs, as our exploitation of the herbs directly affects their population total- our restraint in harvesting can preserve their population numbers, while over exploiting will lead to decreasing numbers. Therefore, wild crafting, the practice of harvesting medicinal herbs in an ecologically-friendly way, is a necessary tool to maintain biological diversity of medicinal plants, and should be coupled with other options. Another alternative is the cultivation of medicinal plants. This is a safe option, especially for large pharmaceutical companies who use a large amount of specific herbs in the production of its products. The ecological and economic rewards for both of these potential solutions makes them advantageous, serving as a catalyst, making the above idealist solutions become implemented actions the modern society and indigenous communities. However, there are also cultural agents that motivate people to sustain and conserve—religion.

Plants are used in many religions- from Hinduism to Islam. The frequencies in which these plants are used are diverse, as they can be occasionally used only for parts of rituals to being frequently used in daily prayer. Many find these plants to be holy and integral to the service of their gods. This pushes individuals to conserve those specific plants through cultivation and wild crafting, while some even go as far as to keep certain lands completely untouched by humans in praise of their deities. However, religion may also impact pant populations in a negative way, by overexploiting herbs for rituals and other religious purposes.

Religion as a Culprit

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

The Commiphora, also known as the Guggul tree/plant is important for modern medicine, alternative medicine and Islam. It is a slow-growing tree found in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Its resin, liquid in the outer cells of the tree that is only released when tree is damaged, is a key ingredient in the Ayurvedic medicine, a sector of alternative medicine in India, as it is a treatment for bone fractures, arthritis, inflammation and obesity. It is used in modern medicine for its ability to decrease heart problems. It is also popularly used for its resin, which is a gum-like substance when it hardens. In Hinduism, it is burnt as incense, also known as dhoop, on holy occasions. It is believed to drive away evil spirits and keep and evil away from home and their family members.

C.wightii’s religious importance has led to overexploitation, and is now considered endangered by the IUCN Red List and the Species Survival Commission (SSN). Despite its importance, it is still endangered due to its slow growth rate, poor seeding, and low germination. But not all medicinal plant follows the similar path of demise of the Guggul tree. Some take an opposite path- where religion leads to its survival.

Religion as a Protector

Ocimum tenuiflorum, Indian Basil

Ocimum tenuiflorum

The Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Tulsi plant or Indian Basil, is a very important plant for both medicinal and religious uses. Its leaves are used to promote longevity, as it relieves stress. It is used for minor aches, such as colds, inflammations, and headaches as well as serious illnesses, like malaria, and heart disease. The Tulsi plant is a very important part of Hinduism, as one prays before a Tulsi plant twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. Many Hindus believe that the Tulsi is so holy that it should not be commonly harvested. Many cultivate the Tulsi plant in their backyards or in a room, commonly surrounded by pictures of many different gods. According to Pankaj Goya, author of various agricultural articles in India, “Each house must always have a Tulsi plant…due to its great medicinal value our ancestors revered it as a most sacred plant and in this way tried conserving it.”  Here, religion protects and converses a medicinal plant, as the Vaishnavite tradition of the Hindu religion requires the worship of the gods. It is not only sustained in its wild habitat, but also rarely harvested at their homes.

Keeping the Land Sacred

The Sacred Groves is one of the most extreme examples of religious conservation. Sacred Groves are natural vegetation that is dedicated to deities or ‘three spirits’, in return for the gods’ humble support and guidance. People believe that touching the land will offend the deities and bring calamity and natural disasters. Therefore, various tribes, such as the Garo and Khasi tribes of northeastern India, prohibit anyone from entering into the sacred groves. This has led to the biodiversity and preservation of the plants and animals that reside there.

However the Sacred Groves are now in danger. Many local communities have changed as the younger generations do not follow the same belief system as their elders and ancestors. Goyal also states, “The family structure is also changing from joint to nuclear…thus creating a gap between generations.” This gap may have also lead to the change in traditions, as ones elders were not there to share it. Currently, there is a movement, emphasizing ‘temple worship’ over ‘nature worship’, taking away from the importance of the sacred groves.

As shown, religion has served as the connector between ideas and implementation, and also insignificance and importance pertaining to the sustainability of medicinal plants. However, it has been shown that this cultural connector, though a powerful tool, has failed in the past and mat be currently failing now. It is also shown with the ecological and economical influences in changing techniques used to harvest plants. So the question is what’s the next step? Who do we look to enforce, impose, and remind us of the importance of these plants and its connection to life and general? These are two questions that will be discussed in my next post.

Hydrofracking in West Virginia

West Virginians upset about fracking on their farms

Image Courtesy: National Geographic, "Looking at Lives Affected by 'Fracking'"

In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video, titled “Battle for Wetzel County,” two West Virginians explain why their believe it is unfair for large gas companies (such as Shell, Exxon, and Chesapeake Energy) to have mineral rights on their land. The only compensation these farm owners have is that gas companies must pay them for “damages.” These farm owners are outraged because not only are they losing valuable land, but they also claim they are exposed to dangerous chemicals that have contaminated their water supply. Furthermore, one farm owner believes that toxic waste was buried on his property. Even though hydrofracking is an impressive technology, it interrupts farmers not only during the extraction process,  but also with the equipment that remain on the “pad” (the site where the natural gas is extracted).

There is currently legislation in West Virginia to address the problems associated with hydrofracking, yet according to several sources, the legislation insufficiently addresses the problems associated with drilling. Last Wednesday, Nov. 16, a special House-Senate committee endorsed proposed drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale, but a top aide to West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office says the bill isn’t ready for special session. Chief of Staff Rob Alsop told Business Week that his staff will work over the next few weeks with legislative leaders and stakeholders “to see what they’re comfortable with, and see what we’re comfortable work.” According to Alsop there are some issues that need to be worked out before the bill is presented during a special session.

Some of these issues include, the amount of leeway that is granted to the Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of gas drilling. Advocating greater flexibility for DEP, industry groups have similar concerns. Surface owner and environmental groups, believe that there needs to be strong and detailed regulatory language in the books.

From Dec. 12-14 there will be a series of study meetings on the subject, during which time Governor Tomblin believes is a good time to convene a special session, if prior meetings can create a bill that could pass.

The draft of the bill includes many subjects which emerged from efforts to develop the natural gas reserve through hydrofracking, a controversial process which can potentially contaminate water supplies. Included in the bill are increased permit fees, which will fund more field inspectors and office staff; agreements between operators and surface property owners of drilling sites; lastly, buffer zones that would separate shale wells  from homes, livestock and drinking water. The bill would also allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire their own inspectors.

For more information here is a report directly from the West Virginia Legislature.

Art and Sustainable Development

How can art be used by activists as a tool to work on environmental issues such as sustainable development? ArtCorps Art for Social Action is a small nonprofit organization based in Ipswich, MA which answers this question by pairing artists with local communities and development organizations. They work together using art as a tool to achieve cooperative and sustainable development projects.

ArtCorps grew out of  New England Biolabs Foundation (NEBF), a foundation that aims to foster “community-based conservation of landscapes and seascapes and the bio-cultural diversity found in these places,” supporting grassroots efforts to conserve and sustain biological as well as cultural diversity, ecosystem services, food security, and other projects. In 1999, Martine Kellett, then Executive Director of NEBF, noticed the difficulties her grantees were having when they tried to work with local residents in their projects. ArtCorps grew out of the question of how development organizations can engage local communities to achieve environmental and other development goals.

The answer, it seems, is through art. ArtCorps trains artists to work with development organizations to improve their capacity to educate, empower, and mobilize communities. They work on projects to address a number of issues that the communities face, including environmental issues.  Molly Barrett, Administrative and Financial Assistant, told me in an email:

“We believe art has the power to break social barriers, connect people, and be that mobilization to create change.  Communities don’t necessarily have the resources to understand their environment and the valuable gifts it has to offer, so we aim to assist other grassroots organizations, who are more knowledgeable about conservation, and help them communicate their messages.”

They have organized their process into this chart:

The ArtCorps Model, from the ArtCorps Art of Social Action handbook

Here is how it works:

In 2010, Spanish artist Caterina Almirall lived in the Atlandita region of Honduras and worked with Bosques Pico Bonito (BPB), a local for profit company that seeks to achieve sustainable reforestation and agroforestry practices through carbon credit revenues from planting native trees and training local communities in how to produce higher yielding crops in an environmentally sustainable way. They worked together to create a communal celebration of Dia del Arbol, Arbor day. The goal was both environmental education through art and building a healthier community with more trees and more sustainable agroforestry practices. Also, if the business gets off the ground, carbon credits for trees could be a good source of income for this community. Watch some of the results here:


The Clean River Project:

In another project, this time in El Salvador, American artist Laura Smith worked with the local community and FUNDAHMER, an organization which works to improve living conditions. Together they brought eighteen young members of the community together to clean up a river bed one Sunday. They then came back the next week to paint murals so that the community would be aware of the project and motivated to keep the river clean. The river is significant to the community because it could be a tremendous resource of fresh water which they currently only obtain through rain water or, during the dry season, bottled water that they must purchase. Until this project, the riverbed was littered with plastic waste, detergents, wrappers, clothing, and other garbage, but nobody was cleaning it up until Smith and the kids did. The murals both give the community an incentive to keep the river clean and learn about the environmental messages in the art.

One of the murals. Photo from ArtCorps

As we have learned so far in this blog, art can be a powerful tool not just in advocacy for and raising awareness of environmental issues but also as a key in building solutions. The artists we saw last week talked about art being the activity that is done on the edge, where transitions and change happen. These artists are making those changes and pushing the boundaries socially and environmentally. The art is not separate from the community’s environmental goals or ornamentation on the side—the art and the environmental goals are intimately intertwined. Almirall’s project uses art to energize a community about sustainable and profitable methods of agroforestry.  Smith’s project uses art to keep a riverbed clean. Both of these projects use art to achieve environmental goals which will help the communities.

Nature: Our Best Medicine

As news of cancer vaccines reaches the press, a future without diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or any of the other terrifying diseases we face seems a little bit closer. But as researchers work to ensure the healthiness of the human race, it is easy to forget that nature has already spent 3.8 billion years working to ensure the survival of the world and has already found the solutions to so many of our problems.

Monkey Business

Chimpanzee, Willem Van der Kerkhof/Flickr Creative Commons

25% of modern day drugs are derived from plants and researchers are always looking for a way to sort through the thousands of plant species looking for the ones that could help modern day medicine. Fortunately we are not the only ones who look to plants for medicinal help—we have some help from chimpanzees. When sick, chimpanzees go to various plants effectively self-medicating themselves. As researchers study chimpanzees they hope to find more plants that can be used to treat diseases in humans.

Sharks: The Next Line of Defense

Although treatment of disease is important, so is prevention. Sharklet Technologies have discovered a fascinating property of shark skins. Shark skin has already lead to the development of cars that are more aerodynamic and better swimsuits, but its newest contribution is to medicine.

Aliwal Shoal Tiger Shark 33, FLeander/Flickr

The surface of shark skin is made up of microscopic diamonds that has been found to prevent bacteria colonies from forming. As the chairman of the board of directors of Sharklet, Joe Bagan says, “We think they come across this surface and make an energy-based decision that this is not the right place to form a colony.” In other words, the microscopic pattern on shark skin stops germs from sticking and spreading.

As it is that time of year to get flu shots, the spread of germs is on everyone’s mind. Tactivex has taken the Sharklet pattern and applied it to a film that can be put on basically anywhere. When put on a doorknob, for example, this means that the germs on every person’s hand that touches that doorknob can no longer aggregate—effectively stopping the spread of germs through touch transference.

The spread of germs is particularly scary in hospitals where infections can be deadly. As the Sharklet Technology website reports, every year millions of patients obtain urinary catheters and after a week 1 in 4 of those patients will get an infection associated with their catheter.

Staphylococcus aureau, Microbe World/Flickr Creative Commons

Sharklet technology is now currently working on developing a urinary catheter that utilizes the shark skin pattern which can hopefully dramatically reduce the number of catheter-associated infections.

The fact that Sharklet technology naturally inhibits bacteria’s survival and prevents its transfer is particularly useful as we are encountering more and more drug-resistant bacteria. Chemical drugs kill the weakest bacteria, allowing the strongest to survive, resulting in drug-resistance. Sharklet’s natural approach can prevent the emergence of strains of bacteria that we cannot treat while still preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting our Inspiration

This is merely one of many examples of how nature has helped the medicinal world. Just by looking at nature science has found a superglue for bones derived from worms, scotch tape from bugs that could help surgeons everywhere, and much more. It is important to remember that as ecosystems are destroyed and animals and plants become extinct it is not just sad for that species, it hurts us. The world around us can hold the secrets to new technologies and medicine that it spent billions of years developing. As we disregard our environment, we ignore and destroy the inspiration that can save us from one of our greatest threats: disease. Protecting the environment ultimately protects us.

Fertilizer: Organic or Inorganic?

Which type of fertilizer wins out when it comes to meeting our food demands and protecting the planet?

Those who tend to plants – whether they be solitary gardeners maintaining backyard plots or farmers in command of agricultural mega-crops – have a choice when it comes to the type of fertilizer they feed them.  Fertilizer is any additive that provides essential nutrients like nitrogen and potassium to growing plants and can be organic – derived from plants or animals – or inorganic – derived from minerals or synthesized by humans.  Each has both advantages and disadvantages and is ultimately integral to maintaining the grand-scale generation of plants necessary to sustain the demands of our booming society.

Elephants have been kindly fertilizing plants for centuries. Photo courtesy of wackystuff/Flickr Creative Commons

Fertilization by organics is a natural process that occurs whether or not humans are involved, but it cannot support the enormity of our current food system.  In fact, it’s thought that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is responsible for feeding nearly half of Earth’s population.  Organic fertilizer is not as effective as inorganic fertilizer in that it generally has lower nutrient content, solubility, and nutrient release rates.  Furthermore, it is more difficult to tailor organic fertilizer to meet specific nutrient needs, as it is derived from such diverse sources and its nutrient amounts cannot be known without testing.  Despite these drawbacks, organic fertilization is invaluable.  In fact, Enzo Favoino and Dominic Hogg, authors of “Waste Management & Research: The potential role of composting in reducing greenhouse gases,” say that applying organic matter to soil may heighten its ability to sequester carbon dioxide, and “increasing organic matter in soils may cause other greenhouse gas-saving effects, such as improved workability of soils, better water retention, less production and use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced release of nitrous oxide.”

Nitrogen fertilizer being spread on corn fields in Hardin County, Iowa. Photo courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr Creative Commons

Although world hunger would swell without the assistance of inorganic fertilizers, they are not perfect either.  They deliver more nutrients better, but they require non-renewable resources like phosphorous and potassium, which are mined.  Nitrogen – as it makes up the majority of our atmosphere – is essentially infinite, but in order to be used by plants it must first be “fixed,” or converted into ammonia.  This process, when performed by humans, requires fossil fuels, the burning of which is responsible for global climate change.  According to Aleksander Abram and D. Lynn Forster’s “Primer on Ammonia, Nitrogen Fertilizers, and Natural Gas Markets,” in 2004 “317 billion cubic feet [of natural gas were] used to manufacture ammonia” in the U.S.  In addition, inorganic fertilizers do not consist entirely of nutrients but also include compounds like salt, which can build up in soil and change its chemistry, making it less suitable for planting.  Inorganic fertilizers are also more susceptible to leaching and wash away more easily, exacerbating problems like eutrophication, the depletion of oxygen in bodies of water due to overactive plant growth, which can lead to mass die-offs of aquatic fauna.  Around half of all U.S. lakes are currently eutrophic, and many coastal waters are now considered “dead zones.”

While neither type of fertilizer is flawless, both have their merits, inorganic more efficient and reliable and organic healthier for the soil and the planet.  At this point in the global food situation, the composting of organic mass to yield fertilizer can only act to supplement the use of inorganic fertilizers, but as long as humanity continues to eat and leave food scraps behind, composting will remain a viable option for sustaining both worldwide food production and the Earth.

Buy Right at Bi-Rite

Even as awareness of fresh and local diets is exploding in restaurants, schools, stores, and cookbooks, many eaters feel like they don’t know how to prepare their own food. Sam Mogannam, owner of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, and writer Dabney Gough released Eat Good Food: A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking, & Creating Community through Food to address that very problem.

This book takes its readers through every step of making a meal from sustainable and local ingredients, emphasizing that good food is a fun way to build community, not a daunting challenge. It meets Bi-Rite shoppers half-way, offering recipes for prepared-food favorites found at the deli counter, but also challenging eaters to take a more active role in how they shop and cook, giving directions on how to select seasonal produce and suggestions for questions to ask butchers.

A Bi-Rite shopper gushes, “it was really wonderful to have a recipe take shape in my shopping basket before me, I was in control of this food, and that experience is so much better”.

As Amanda Gold’s San Francisco Chronicle critique explains, “What makes the book particularly valuable is its comprehensive guide to ingredients found in the aisles of Bi-Rite – and in other stores like it – that helps readers become better-informed shoppers. The approach is a natural extension of a store that has built a business, and a community, around doing the same thing”

By bridging the gap of food knowledge that makes so many Americans anxious, unsure, and afraid of cooking their own food from sustainable ingredients, Mogannam and Gough open their reader to participation in the food movement that is gaining momentum in the food system.
And even though, as the owner of Bi-Rite, Mogannam has a clear motivation for touting the benefits of local, sustainable, fresh food such as that which he sells, his book is committed to the larger message of sustainable eating. Instead of giving rigid rules for how to eat, or how to eat his own store’s product, Mogannam teaches shoppers to become engaged in the process, to create their own standards for good food. As Bi-Rite’s marketing director Kirsten Bourne explains, “We don’t have a formal definition of local– what we care about is being able to picture a person or place where food was produced, and liking what we see”. With this Bi-Rite philosophy in mind, Eat Good Food sets out to “empower people to go into a grocery store and ask how food was produced and where it came from, and make shopping a fun opportunity to support food systems you believe in”.
From the wealth of information and inspiration in this book, maybe a few more Americans will start biting into the challenge of doing just that. With his book, Mogannam invites a wider audience to enjoy really delicious food with a dimension of environmental and community consciousness. He says, “I look forward to seeing where this food movement takes us in the next 10 years… good food is deserved by all”.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A New Perspective on the Phenomenon

Bees have been disappearing for centuries.  To some, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as a discrete phenomenon does not exist.  In an effort to study the cause of this decline, a researcher questions whether the methods of inquiry are scientific.

Bee hives abandoned by worker bees-- Courtesy of mdjdfan/ Flickr Clreative Commons

In a BBC World Service Report from March 2009, “‘No Proof’ of bee killer theory,”  science reporter Matt McGrath stresses that honey bees are “of crucial importance to the local economy.”  It is undeniable that the honey bee is fundamental to the continued agricultural productivity and economic health of America and the world.  In 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper, sounded the alarm: he had found his bee boxes empty of bees, no dead bees in the neighborhood, no bodies to be found.   The mysterious disappearance of the bees was to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  But is this decline of the bees really such a new phenomenon?

While scientists are researching the potential causes of this sudden and drastic collapse of bee colonies, and pointing to discrete culprits such as pesticides, fungicides, stress, monoculture food, and mites, it remains unclear whether what Dave Hackenberg and other bee keepers, noted beginning in 2006 was an unprecedented event.  The question then is: is this decline a new disorder, what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder,”  or is it just a phenomenon that has been happening for hundreds of years but that, given this 2006 publicity, has come to be seen as a new phenomenon?

In my previous blog posts, I have focused on the possible causes of CCD – pesticides, and in particular neonicotinoids, fungicides, and viruses – without questioning the basic hypothesis underlying the debate–that Colony Collapse Disorder exists as a discrete phenomenon.    Scientists, according to Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the congressional research service, do not argue about whether the bee colonies are declining.  The colonies are.  There is consensus, furthermore, that this decline is not brought on by a single factor but rather by a multiplicity of factors acting synergistically.

The question remains: why has the decline of bees that has always been integral to bee life been named in 2006 CCD?

Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, states in a November 8, 2011 interview, that the death of bees is part of a natural process:  “Colonies die off.  They always have.  Every bee keeper knows that.  There have been major declines in bee keeping before, even before major chemicals came into use.  It has been historically shown.  It is not a new phenomenon.”  So why is it being treated as a new phenomenon?

Steinkraus points first to the flaw in identifying CCD as a discrete disorder.  Beyond that he also underscores the flawed approach of identifying a potential cause for CCD based on the analyses of dead bees.   Upon analyses of dead bees, Steinkraus points out that scientists have found  certain viruses present among all the dead bees.   It is tempting to conclude, as he says,  that the viruses found among all the dead bees are the viruses responsible for killing them:  “They all died of this virus because they all had this virus present.  However, the presence of microorganisms is not proof of disease.  People are analyzing the bees genetically to see what microbes are present and they are finding zillions of microbes.  Finding zillions of species of microbes present in the bees even if they are known pathogens is no proof of disease.   If someone looks in your mouth, for instance,  […] they find that your mouth houses something like 200 different species of bacteria at all times. […] but these bacteria are not causing disease.  The presence of these microorganisms is not proof of disease.”

Steinkraus underscores the absurdity of such reasoning:

These speculations or opinions, in Steinkraus’ view, about the potential causes of CCD are getting a lot of media attention.  Instead of presenting opinion or speculation as scientific evidence, he claims one should perform scientific experiments on the dead bees in order to find a cause for a decline that has existed among bee colonies for centuries.  People, as Steinkraus points out, are finding ”all these microorganisms and [saying] ‘this is the cause.’ But instead of doing experiments to prove the cause, everybody is just writing these papers left and right and getting all kinds of press.”

Steinkraus points to flaws in reasoning and in scientific method: 1) the assumption that the decline in bee colonies is a new phenomenon  and 2) that the studies of this decline are not conducted in a scientifically sound manner but rather driven by opinion and speculation.  According to Steinkraus CCD, per se, may not be a discrete phenomenon and the methods used to identify the causes of the decline in bee colonies may be questionable.