The first blog post includes commentary on whether the tires would somehow leech bad stuff into the potatoes. The chemistry of tires is such that they break down slowly even when exposed to the full force of the sun. Because they break down slowly, the amount of leeching you would expect would be very little. Chemists like to use the term "stable" for the chemistry of a tire.
Due to heavy metals and other pollutants in tires there is a potential risk for the leaching (leachate) of toxins into the groundwater when placed in wet soils. This impact on the environment varies according to the pH level and conditions of local water and soil. Research has shown that very little leaching occurs when shredded tires are used as light fill material, however limitations have been put on use of this material; each site should be individually assessed determining if this product is appropriate for given conditions.
Ecotoxicity may be a bigger problem than first thought. Studies show that zinc, heavy metals, a host of vulcanization and rubber chemicals leach into water from tires. Shredded tire pieces leach much more, creating a bigger concern, due to the increased surface area on the shredded pieces. Many organisms are sensitive, and without dilution, contaminated tire water has been shown to kill some organisms.
Not to dwell on the negative side, it appears that tires work as well or better for growing tomatoes. This 1976 Mother Earth article discusses a more advanced system for using tires to grow tomatoes where water is retained in the sidewalls and plastic wrapped around the tire to create a low cost green house environment that tomatoes apparently thrive in (except in really hot climates where the setup can cook the developing tomatoes unless you alter the solar energy absorption levels by covering the tire with a partially reflective coating).
Once you start to appreciate the potential of tires as solar collectors you can see that old tires have many potential uses around the home. Perhaps the biggest issue many home owners would have with using tires in their yards is the aesthetics of it - Martha Stewart and Oprah aren't doing it yet. Maybe they should?
Posted on May 19, 2009 @ 07:06:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Late last week I finished No-nonsense Guide to World Food (2008) by Wayne Roberts. One superficial aspect of the book that attracted me was that it was a small book about an interesting topic that could be read quickly. Within its compact space of 184 pages, it offers a selective overview of some of the trends happening in food systems around the world. For example, you can find out about urban farming in Cuba where it is practiced widely. You can learn about the politics of food aid, fair trade cities in the U.K., the difference between "peasant" versus "farmer" motivations for working the land, and more.
One distinguishing aspect of this book is that it attempts to provide a theoretical framework to organize trends occurring in world food systems from "modern times" to the present. It does this by linking the movement towards globalized and industrialized food systems to corresponding movements in art and architecture called "modernism". "Modernism" transported to our food systems often manifests itself as a distain for old ways of doing things and a faith in new technologies to provide ever increased levels food production and distribution.
The main theoretical alternative to modernism that Roberts offers is "Food Fusion". It is difficult to pin down exactly what Roberts' means by this phrase, so I'll be giving you my take on the phrase. If you google "Food Fusion" the main way it is being used today is to refer to cases where different ethic food traditions intentionally combine elements from each other. One example is applying sushi wrap around a hot dog. From this, I would suggest that "Food Fusion" refers to a major trend across food systems whereby we mix elements of different ethic traditions to produce food. The food fusion approach fetishizes diversity and local traditions, where Modernism fetishizes technology and globalism.
One interesting theoretical problem that "Food Fusion" wrestles with is the desire to source food locally rather than from a globalized industrial food system, while at the same time recognizing that one way we can help countries less well off than we are is to buy their agricultural products. The idea of "Fair Trade" is discussed as one approach to sourcing food beyond our borders. This is contrasted with the dominant "Cheap Food" approach. Currently, many cities in the U.K. are becoming "Fair Trade" at the city-level meaning that the city governments are willing to pay an extra price for any non-local food they source to ensure that farming can survive and prosper in these less well off countries. Roberts suggests that we regard these non-local food producers as akin to local food producers and apply a similar level of concern to the sustainability of their food systems.
Posted on May 12, 2009 @ 02:02:00 PM by Paul Meagher
Last night I watched the documentary movie "Killer at large" which is about the rise of obesity in America, especially in children. I found myself thinking about the movie quite a bit today so I guess that means it is worth a thumbs up. I liked the fact that it tries to broaden the discussion on the causes of obesity from focusing simply on diet and exercise. It also looks at the heavy and misleading food advertising directed at kids, disfunctional food programs in schools, the effect of "no child left behind" legislation on reducing "elective" physical eduction programs, effects of stress on fat storage, the subversion of the USDA by the big food producers (executives from these companies and lobbyists sit in many of the USDA's executive positions), the muzzling of the US Surgeon General about the obesity epidemic and the need for action, the fact that you can get more caloric energy from junk food when you don't have alot of money, etc... In a nutshell, the movie helps us to move towards more of systems perspective on the causes of obesity versus simplistic stories about needing more willpower to eat less and exercise more.
One factoid that I found useful was the suggestion that if you are going to eat at MacDonald's that the appropriate portion size for an adult is a kid's meal. I told my son this today.
I also decided to research what the caloric intake for kids of various ages should be. The site weightlossresources.co.uk had this helpful table:
Calories per day
Is obesity an epidemic? You might want to use google to answer this question for yourself by looking at how the percentage of obese people has increased in each state since, say, the 50's. Does the comparison of obesity incidence maps accross time suggest that America is in the throws of an obesity epidemic (i.e., range and percentage of obesity is increasing on consecutive obesity maps of the U.S.)?
Posted on March 30, 2009 @ 07:45:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Listened to an interesting radio program on soil fertility this morning. One interesting tidbit from this show was mention of research showing that antibiotics are showing up in agricultural soil and in common food items like lettuce and corn. The antiboitics are showing up because they are used extensively in livestock production and we are spreading the manure from these animals onto fields where we grow our crops. Turns out that plants will absorb these antibiotics into their tissue which we in turn are consuming.
This practice of spreading antibiotic-laden manure can lead to antibiotic resistence and loss of soil fertility.
Antibiotic resistence arises because the only organisms that can survive in the soil are microbes that can resist the effects of antibiotics. The loss of soil fertility arises because natural soil fertility is in large part due to the activity of microbes that break down organic and inorganic matter into the major and minor macronutrients needed by plants to grow and to provide nutritive value to our food. The antibiotics are killing some of the beneficial bacteria that contribute to soil fertility.
Bacteria involved in the nitrogen cycle, which replenishes nutrients in the soil, seem to be particularly affected. The effects persisted over several weeks and were still seen even when the antibiotics had broken down significantly. In addition the microbial population of the soil changed as fungi replaced the bacteria suppressed by the antibiotics.
As a final note, it is interesting to consider that the word "antibiotic" means "against life".
Posted on March 12, 2009 @ 07:05:00 AM by Paul Meagher
When companies test the safety of a new pesticide, they study the lethal dosage level of that pesticide for various animals. If they don't want to kill that animal then they will establish a lethal dosage level for that animal and instruct applicators to apply the chemical at a dosage level well below the lethal dosage level. A problem with relying only upon lethal dosage levels to guide application amounts is that sub-lethal dosage levels can also have effects which can be very profound but which do not result in the immediate death of the animal. This is the case with honey bees and the sub-lethal dosages they are getting from neonicotinoid-based pesticides (which are the most used pesticides in the U.S.). French scientists have noticed reliable behavioral effects like intoxication and disruption of foraging behavior when exposed to neonicotinoid-based pesticides at sub-lethal dosage levels between 3 and 6 parts per billion. Under the Bush regime, the allowed levels of pesticide residues on a large range of foods was increased. Blueberry residue levels of neonicitinoids was increased from 1 to 3.5 parts per million (not billion). It is therefore not unexpected that we are seeing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) among honey bees - at this exposure level we would expect intoxication and disruption of foraging behavior. The bees are not dying in the hives; rather, they are simply not returning to the hive because neonicotinoids are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing - screwing with the nervous system of insects.
I've previously blogged about the huge effects on our food system that Colony Collapse Disorder can have owing to the free pollination services honey bees provide and the large number of fruits, vegetables, and nuts which require such pollination. There are predictions that the U.S. will see increased prices for fruits, vegetables, and nuts this year and next for this reason. Consider that California is one of the heaviest users of pesticides and you can see the problem. Those providing pollination services are becoming wary about taking their bees to these insecticide-infested areas.
The dangers here are not just to the honey bees. Our levels of pesticide use has increased dramatically since Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring" to warn us of the dangers. Big Chemical companies are making lots of money, have powerful lobbies in government (i.e., the EPA has been their lapdog on many policies around pesticide use), and buy-off scientists to introduce confusion into debates about causes of disturbing ecological issues like Colony Collapse Disorder which might be pinned on them (just like Big Oil has done for CO2 and Climate Change).
Micheal Schacker's book "A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply" (2008) offers excellent scientific and journalistic reporting not just on CCD but more generally upon how the pesticide industry is threatening our survival and the survival of many other animals on this planet. The issue of sub-lethal doses is one of the most important issues about pesticides to understand. Most of the pesticides in use in the U.S. have very detrimental effects on a range of animals we want around at sub-lethal dosages which aren't indicated by the immediate death of the animal. As Rachel Carson suggested, we should stop calling these chemicals "pesticides" and properly refer to them as "biocides" because they are not just killing "pests".
Posted on March 9, 2009 @ 07:58:00 AM by Arie Seidler
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) received quite a bit of press the last couple of years when people began to learn the tremendous importance of bees to our food system and that bee colonies around the world were collapsing in huge numbers. A book by Micheal Schacker called "A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply" (2008) investigates the possible causes behind CCD. There is a long list of possible causes but the most likely cause is the use of neonicitinoids in pesticides which temporally coincides with the phenomenon and whose effects best explain the bee behaviors that are associated with CCD. We need to be careful in saying that that cause has been definitively identified; however, the evidence is so strong that we really need to consider banning the pesticides that use neonicitinoids NOW based on the precautionary principle. Nothing will be done, however, unless there is citizen support to ban the the use of this chemical because the distributors of this chemical are some of the biggest players around - Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto - who are doing everything within their power to prevent governments from banning their lucrative cash cow that they have spend large amounts of R&D money developing.
The video below discusses the problem and the likely cause. For more in-depth analysis, however, you should read the book.
Posted on March 4, 2009 @ 09:07:00 AM by Paul Meagher
According to Howard Kunstler, the agriculture industry might be the next industry to start showing signs of failure. We are now at the point in the growing cycle where farmers need to get financing for the upcoming planting season and that financing might be hard to come by. In addition to capital shortages, some of the world's most productive agricultural lands are facing severe drought conditions. Appears the seed industry is thriving these days as people, in record numbers(?), prepare to plant gardens this year. There are many factors conspiring to make the decision to plant a garden a wise move this year. Get your seeds early!
Bill Mollison, in the book PERMACULTURE: A Designers' Manual, recommends that beginning gardener's consider planting a 4 meter square garden along with up to 10 fruit bearing trees. He calls this the "nucleus" of your garden which should be planted a convenient distance from your house. He recommends that you not try to maintain more that this amount of garden starting out because it is likely that the more you plant the more failures you will have both because there is a greater chance for failure with more plantings and because you will probably not devote the amount of attention required to keep plants beyond this nucleus alive. Starting out you are likely to fail so you want to reduce the amount of failure to keep your enthusiam at an appropriate level for the next year. After you get your nucleus in order, you can then consider increasing your plantings.
Those of us living in suburbia are well positioned to do our part to help the environment by gradually converting our lawns to productive gardens.
Posted on January 28, 2009 @ 08:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The micro-organisms that live on your skin and in your gut provide the first line of defense against pathogenic micro-organisms by creating a competitive environment in which they must attempt to gain a foothold. By applying anti-microbial agents to our skin we weaken this defense mechanism. By pasteurizing everything we consume, we similarly leave our digestive systems more susceptable to invasion by pathogenic micro-organisms.
There is increasing evidence for these claims, however, evidence appears not to be the driving force in the Canadian Milk Act where the consumption of raw milk is considered a dangerous substance. Health Canada warns that "milk bacteria, which include Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, could lead to very serious health conditions ranging from fever, vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening kidney failure, miscarriage and death. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems were cited as being particularly at risk".
To think that our family of 9 drank such a dangerous substance. We must have been the lucky ones :-) Especially considering that none of us has experienced any serious medical conditions to date - no asthma, no diabetes, no digestive problems, no miscarriages, no kidney conditions, no liver conditions ...
The claim that raw milk is a dangerous substance is now being challenged in Canadian court by a farmer who operated a "cow share" in which he provided milk to those wishing to drink raw milk. Undercover agents cracked this villainous drug ring but the kingpin, Micheal Schmidt, is refusing to go down without a fight.
The court will try not to address the specific issue of milk's safety and charge Schmidt on other grounds so they can shut him down. Micheal Schmidt is trying to bring the issue of raw milk's safety to the fore and present binders full of evidence that raw milk is not dangerous, in fact, that it is arguable better for you than pasturized milk which can mask the unhealthy conditions under which milk is produced.
Commenters on the news story Milk given a raw deal? are right to point out that if raw milk is so dangerous show us the evidence of this danger by comparing jurisdictions that allow the sale or raw milk compared to those that don't and see if there is a greater incidence of these claimed dangers in markets that allow the sale of raw milk. I doubt that evidence will decide the issue as there are corporate forces at play that want to centralize milk distribution, put small farmers out of business, and take away choice from the consumer.
Anyone who has read Micheal Pollen's book "In defence of food" will see the irony here where whole foods are considered dangerous while processed food are considered good for you. Pollen has documented that the exact opposite is generally the case.
Posted on January 12, 2009 @ 08:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Many governments are being asked to promote locally grown products. I think that most of this money is wasted on ad campaigns and product stickers to "buy local". Recently, I was pleased to hear of the Creemore 100 Mile Store which only sells products by local farmers and artisans from within a 100 mile radius of the store.
Government is not going to solve the problem of encouraging people to "buy local" - only businesses that make it convenient for people to do so offer the solution. I hope that entrepreneurs reading this blog consider opening up their own 100 Mile Store as we need lots of them to make our food systems and rural communities more sustainable.
Posted on November 24, 2008 @ 07:59:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The final chapter in Micheal Pollan's book, "In Defense Of Food" (2008), discusses how to eat in a healthy way. The two main themes are to eat less and to eat whole foods. With regards to eating less, Pollan discusses a potpourri of ideas and research including behavioural strategies such as reducing the sizes of your plates and cups and buying cups that are long and slender to give the illusion of more volume. At a cultural level, Pollan discusses some of the history and ideas behind the Slow Food Movement and argues that some of this thinking might be helpful in getting us to eat less. Eating slowly and deliberately, in full knowledge of the the short food chain that delivered the food to your table, replete with whole foods, may be the type of antidote we need to our current drive-through go-yurt culture. For those who can afford to, he advocates spending more on quality food and that smaller portions of high quality food eaten slowly is a proven way to eat healthy. If you buy whole foods you don't have to look at nutrition labels because 1) they don't advertise the ingredients (why?), and 2) food is about more than nutrition and will take care of itself if you buy whole foods ideally from short food chains.
In one section of the final chapter, Pollan reflects upon the usefullness of blessing your food as a way to slow down and reflect on your food experience. While he doesn't do blessings himself, he sometimes recalls a couple of sentences by Wendell Berry, to get him in the mood to eat more deliberately:
Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehand.
To turn this into a blessing I might use, I would do these edits:
In this meal may we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehand. Amen.
Pollan's last book, "The Omnivore's Dillemma", 2006, was a best seller. After reading this book I want to read this earlier book so I would call that a recommendation to read this one.
This is a book that critiques the foundations of "Nutrition Science" and its corresponding ideology of "Nutritionism" - the idea that we can achieve a healthy diet by making sure we get the proper amounts of nutrients indicated on the food labels. I must confess to being of this viewpoint before I read this book; now I am much more skeptical of this approach. An alterantive approach is summarized by the book's byline "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants".
By food, Pollan means "whole" foods, not foods produced from refined sugar, corn, rice or other methods that eliminate any nutritive goodness in our foods. The shift to eating foods made from refined flour, sugar, and soy allows food processors to better store their "food products" and make more money off the end products. Consumers like these "food products" but nutritionally they are bereft of much value. To compensate for the nutritive bankruptcy of their "food products", the food industry "supplements" their "food products" with vitamens, minerals, omega 3's, and other goodness; however, there is good evidence that the benefits of many of these supplements are only achieved in the context of delivery via a whole food and cannot simply be injected into a food and expected to deliver the anticipated health benefit.
Whole foods, such as we find around the perimeter of a grocery store (food products tend to reside along the inner isles), have a very complex chemistry that nutrition science is just beginning to understand. While we may think that a designed food product is complex because it has a list of 20 ingredients, it is comparatively simple when we examine list of ingredients we would find if we analyzed a leaf of thyme - a variety oils, acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats working synergistically to produce their benefit to our health. Once we realize the complexity and co-evolution involved in the whole foods we eat, we might be inclined to seek them out more just as our evolutionary forebears did. Indeed, the diet of our evolutionary forebears is just the diet that we might hold up as our ideal for how to eat - we are optimally adapted to that diet. We are not yet adapted to eating "food products" (witness rates of obesity, diabetes, teeth problems, etc...) and Pollan argues that many of our western diseases are attributable to the refining and nutrutionism that has become ascendent in the western diet.
Pollan's book can be used by agricultural and nutrition entrepreneurs to anticipate what types of foods we might expect consumers will want more of in the future. It can be read as a modern analysis of the science and trends in nutrition science and offers green entrepreneurs data and insights to use in business plans. It is a very well crafted book by an authoritative voice in this area. Pollan has written a number of well-received books about food and his bibliography contains a useful up-to-date listing of resources useful for exploring many aspects of the food industry in more detail.
Posted on September 10, 2008 @ 08:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Poulty farmer, Glenn Jennings, sells green eggs. They are green by virtue of the use of wind power as the primary energy input to his operation.
Glenn generates enough energy with 3 wind turbines ($75,000 investment) to completely power his lay barns. “We get a lot of wind out here, especially in the non-summer months. I saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of the strong winds off the bay and haven’t regretted it thus far.” Glenn is currently working with a communications firm promote the green eggs he is producing. Along those lines, the connection to Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" comes to mind...
Posted on August 15, 2008 @ 10:07:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Since the introduction of the CSA concept in 1985 by Robyn Van En, the movement has spread throughout North America and has gradually come to include some 1,200 CSA farms.
The Robyn Van En Center is located in Wilson College, Pennsylvania, which operates the Fulton Farm CSA. According to the Fulton Farm CSA page, membership is open to anyone. Members contribute their financial and/or physical support to the farm, and in return receive the following privileges:
Weekly produce pickup at the farm: a choice selection of seasonal farm produce.
Access to wholesome fresh baked goods and sustainably produced eggs, cheese, and more!
25% off at the Southgate Farmer’s Market (our booth only).
The Fulton Farm plants more food than its members can use which it uses to help finance its operations. However, if there is a food shortage, it's members needs will come first.
Recently, a study was done on the best way to distribute CSA food (note: PDF link) in terms of reducing the amount of co2 and "food miles" used. It was found that the best method was to deliver foods to members rather than having members pick the food up from a central location. Significant co2 savings would also be realized (2.7 times less co2) if a Toyota Prius was used to deliver the food.
Community Supported Agriculture is an excellent example of sustainable agriculture that comes with a long list of benefits (health, food safety, environment, economy, community) over traditional methods of agriculture. CSA also appears to be an evolving practice if the study eventually leads to food being delivered by Prius-driving farmers.
The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for "food code" or "food book") is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety under the aegis of consumer protection. These texts are developed and maintained by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body that was established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Commission's main aims are stated as being to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the international food trade. The Codex Alimentarius is recognized by the World Trade Organization as an international reference point for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.
Ian Crane argues that powerful "Big Pharma" interests are exerting a strong influence on these standards so as to benefit themselves. They are doing this by making life hard for 1) producers of vitamens and supplements, 2) alternative health providers, and 3) organic growers. Each of these sectors are growing and are taking dollars away from "Big Pharma" in different ways. The Codex Alimentarius is viewed as the instrument of "Big Pharma's" devious plans to control and contain their competitors.
The effect of Codex Alimentarius would be hard to discern in our day-to-day lives, however, a recent case involving a free-range chicken farmer may be just such an example. These particular free-range chicken farmers have seen an increase in their market over the years but are now being forced to adopt new practices that may prevent them from staying in business as "free-range" chicken farmers per se. One regulation involves ensuring that there is no contact between the chickens and any other animals. The concern over avian bird flu is trotted out as one of the reasons for this regulation. This containment regulation would effectively require them to pen in their chickens and thus kill this particular type of organic business that many consumers are asking for though their spending.
Some of the science on free-range chickens is worth considering. The reason free-range chickens are good for us is not simply because they are being raised in a natural outdoor environment; it is also because they have access to grass to peck on which is rich in Omega 3 oils that is assimilated into the chicken's fat composition. This results in lower levels of saturated fats than non grass-fed chickens. You can demonstrate this effect by cooking a grass-fed versus non grass-fed chicken, collecting the grease from cooking, and observing how little of the grease from the grass-fed chickens congeals when put into the refrigerator.
Organic farmers like Covey's have a hard time fighting the system. They are part of an organization that only really represents traditional poulty farming practices and have very little clout in that system.
Posted on August 5, 2008 @ 07:17:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Most of us like to have fresh perfect-looking fruit and vegetables to eat. To achieve this form often requires genetic modification and chemical treatments. Many consumers appear to be less put off by genetic modification in fruits and vegetables (perhaps because it is so difficult to understand the arguments), but are taking a stand with regards to the use of chemicals they would rather not be ingesting. Consumers are taking a stand by increasingly seeking out organic fruits and vegetables.
One part of the fruit and vegetable production process that often uses a chemical treatment is the storage component. The harvest period only lasts a short while so fruits and vegetables must be kept in storage until they can be sold at a reasonable price. To store them, many producers resort to chemical treatments along with some form of cold-storage. Recently, agricultural researchers at the Kentville Research Station in Nova Scotia announced a technology that stores apples in long term storage at oxygen levels below 1%. Storage in this atmosphere extends the life of apples from the traditional range of two to three months up to 8 months. This form of controlled atmosphere technology can be used to store a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Lead researcher Dr. Robert Prange points out that "Ours is a non-chemical technology and it is competing in Canada and other countries with a chemical that is added to the controlled atmostphere to keep apples firm, hard and green".
Posted on July 23, 2008 @ 06:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The Vertical Farm Project contains information, designs, and presentations on high-rise type structures for farming located in urban environments. They argue that agriculture will need to shift towards this paradigm in order to handle the food requirements for the level of population we can expect to see in 2050 (i.e., 3 billion more mouths to feed). There are also other factors leading us in this direction. Much of this work is still in the design phase so there may be a first move advantage for those willing to invest in building the first significant prototype designs.