Aug 11, 2010

Big ag: The root of U.S. obesity?

Sue and Don Ikerd spoke in July with filmmakers on their Rader farm about sustainable agriculture

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map shows adult obesity prevalence in 2009. Missouri is among nine states with rates of at least 30 percent.

By Linda Greer
Published: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A former Webster County farmer’s theory that cheap, processed food is linked to a worldwide obesity explosion will be part of an upcoming television documentary.

Home Box Office (HBO) interviewed John Ikerd, 70, a retired University of Missouri agricultural economics professor, and his older brother, Don Ikerd, a Rader farmer, in July for the show, set to air in 2012.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map shows adult obesity prevalence in 2009. Missouri is among nine states with rates of at least 30 percent.

“There is a growing realization that there is something fundamentally wrong with our food system,” John said Wednesday, Aug. 4, via telephone from his home in Columbia. “We have an ethical, moral responsibility to explore methods of sustainable agriculture.”

John Ikerd, author of numerous books on the topic, including “Small Farms are Real Farms,” first drew the attention of HBO movie-makers examining why humans are unwittingly eating themselves to death.

Obesity rate

At the forefront of the pandemic are Americans, nearly a third of whom now profess to being obese, according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released last month.

Missouri (at 30 percent) is among the top nine states with adult obesity rates of 30 percent or more. Only Colorado (at 18.6 percent) has a rate of less than 20 percent. Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee are the three heftiest states, according to the study, all above 32 percent for obesity.

Carrying so much extra weight puts people at a greater risk for a host of medical maladies – from high blood pressure to heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, the CDC reported.

HBO documentary

As part of the film, HBO filmed the brothers on the family farm where Don lives with his wife, Sue, a Marshfield native.

The film crew spent seven hours on the farm, with three hours of John talking at the kitchen table about how the rise in obesity coincides with changes in agriculture.

Sue called the experience enlightening, as photographers and assistants temporarily rearranged her furniture and went through seven pages of questions for John. She tidied up before the crew arrived, confident some rooms in their old farmhouse wouldn’t be of interest to the filmmakers.

“By the time they left, I don’t think they missed a room,” Sue said of the “fascinating” experience.

1960s farming

Don and John Ikerd grew up alongside three siblings on the family farm where Don has lived his entire life, taking for granted the bountiful, locally grown meat, dairy and produce that kept them healthy.

“One of the advantages of being old is knowing what it was like before,” John said of the years before processed, shipped-in food was commonplace. “When I was a kid, 75-80 percent of the food in the Rader Store came from Lebanon or Conway.”

Along with many farms, the Rader general store is out of business, a consequence of what John calls “industrial food” grown on mega-dairies and factory farms several hundred miles from consumers.

Industrial food

John said the effects of industrialized food production are many: An unhappy, unhealthy society, rural communities facing extinction, depleted agricultural land and family farms displaced by corporations.

While lifestyle changes and the launch of fast food are partly to blame for weight gain, the main culprit is cheap food with almost no nutritional value, leading to over-consumption of calories, John said.

“People are trying desperately to lose weight,” he said. “And it’s almost impossible, because they are hungry all the time.”

Rural communities

Although still on the land they love, Don and Sue grieve the loss of their community.

“It was such a wonderful way of life,” Sue said of raising a son and daughter on the farm where she was introduced as a young wife in 1964 to “silo parties.”

Back then, the women prepared large meals on each others’ farms while the men filled the silos with corn or silage. The children rode horses and dune buggies while learning to respect the land that sustained them.

“Everyone is gone now,” Don said.

On the hilly, rocky land not suited to crops, many raised dairy cattle. With seldom more than 80 milk cows, the Ikerds put both their children through college, attaining degrees unrelated to agriculture.

Don said that, as much as his children cherished the farm, he forewarned them their lifestyle would not last.

“I was right,” Don said. “That’s the sad part.”

Don said nearly every farm around them at the time was a dairy. A milk truck was filled to capacity twice between the Ikerd farm and Conway, six miles away. Only two dairies remain, he said.

“Another one went out last week,” Sue said.

The Ikerds sold their herd in 2007.

Agricultural changes

Years before the concept was popular, Don practiced intensive grazing, moving his herd every 12 hours to a fresh two-acre pasture. The tactic cut his grain costs in half and yielded better grassland without fertilizer.

Although milk production stayed about the same, profits went up as costs decreased, Don said.

Don admits that he likely got the rotational grazing idea from John – after John abandoned his early educational advice to farmers to “get big or get out.”

“Corporate farms don’t work,” Don said.

John said he began questioning traditional farming techniques in the 1980s, often facing rejection from colleagues who believed dairies needed to expand to 1,000 or more head.

The future

Now, some 20 years later, the sustainable agriculture movement is growing. Naturally-grown and organic foods make up about 8 percent of the market, John said.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of the food market,” John said, adding that people will pay more for foods they believe in.

John said he is not necessarily an optimist, but is hopeful for a future with affordable, nutritious food that is accessible to people.

“I know that it’s possible,” John said. “I’ve seen people who are doing it all across the country.”

Bio-Char / Terra Preta - Glenribbeen – The Eco-Blog

Delivering biochar’s triple win. By Richard Black
Last year, there seemed to be an unwritten rule in enviro-circles: whenever two or more enviro-folks were gathered together in a place of meeting, talk must turn to biochar.
Hands holding biochar
Accounts would be exchanged of articles half-read and half-digested…the pros would be arrayed against the cons…the words “local” and “sustainable” would be flagged up early and often.
A common reaction was “Good idea, but…”
The notion of biochar takes us back to ancient human civilisations in South America.
The ground remaining when rainforest is cleared isn’t very fertile, despite the luxuriant herbage of the forests themselves.
So about 2,500 years ago, people developed what Portuguese settlers later termed terra preta – black earth – created by ploughing carbon into the soil in the form of charcoal.
With ever more hungry mouths on the planet, with soils degrading in many places and with climate change threatening to reduce yields in coming decades, there’s renewed interest in the ancient technology, which has been championed by James Lovelock of Gaia fame among others.
The vision put forward is of a world where waste is burned, where some of the heat from that burning is used to transform waste to charcoal, and where the charcoal is ploughed into soil, increasing its capacity to support crops and locking up carbon for centuries, possibly millennia.
The waste that can be used includes spare stuff from plants, such as husks and shells and stems, and even sewage and plastics – pretty much anything based on carbon, in principle.
What’s proposed would be nothing less than a revolution in the way we handle waste – turning it from waste into fuel, fertiliser and climate saviour with a single blast of the charcoal oven.
Such grand notions always require quantifying in the cold light of day; and that’s what we have this week in the form of a paper in the journal Nature Communications.
A group of researchers that includes Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University, the closest thing biochar has to a spiritual father, has attempted to calculate just how much impact the technology could have on climate change if societies all over the world transformed their waste streams into biochar production facilities – “the maximum sustainable technical potential of biochar to mitigate climate change”.
Their answer is a large number – 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon emissions, or about 12% of humanity’s total, per year.
Banana planted with biochar
The researchers identify six ways in which biochar curbs emissions, including reducing methane production from decaying plant waste, reducing nitrous oxide release from soils, and avoiding carbon dioxide emissions by storing carbon in the soil.
But there are negatives. Using plant waste this way means you couldn’t simply burn it for fuel, reducing the world’s biomass potential; and there are the carbon costs of transporting it and processing it and such like.
Putting all the numbers together gives the 1.8Gt figure, with an added but unquantified benefit through a presumed impact agricultural yields, especially in poorer parts of the world where the need for food is likely to become even more acute as the years go by.
Put in these terms, you might ask why we aren’t doing it already. On the surface, biochar is a win-win-win technology: a win for the climate, a win for food production, and a win for reduction of the human waste stream.
Some of the caveats will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the biofuels issue down the years.
Depending on where and how you do it, it can produce more carbon than it saves. And if you simply grew stuff to produce biochar, the carbon economics would be turned on their head, just as they are if old-growth forest is stripped for biofuel plantations.
There are also concerns about who would own and control biochar production and use, if it were to become the subject of a global, high-level political push – just as there is with geo-engineering and again with biofuels.
But the biggest hurdle to the widespread implementation of biochar is the economics would have to be right in each part of the world – not the carbon economics so much as the economic economics.
A study released earlier this year found that all kinds of factors affect this issue, including whether sending the stuff to biochar facilities would be cheaper or more expensive than how waste is dealt with now.
Currently biochar isn’t something that can win money from carbon offset schemes. And just as with biofuel and biomass, the amount of money that should be issued would vary widely between locations, technologies and types of waste used, just as the amount of carbon storage varies.
Biochar is already a good idea in many peoples’ books. What this paper does is to help sort out just how good it is, and where it sits in relation for example to biomass burning.
But the fact that it can take away a slice of global emissions isn’t enough to ensure its adoption.
After all, pretty much everyone involved in Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) thinks that is a good idea, but we still don’t have a global system for making it happen.
Energy efficiency is a good idea even from the simple standpoint that it will save you money. But not everyone practises it – even your humble correspondent is impeachable in that regard.
Stabilisation wedges
From a strictly carbon-saving point of view, biochar can now be added as a new wedge to the Stabilisation Wedge concept developed by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow.
In this notion, you break down the gap between the emissions level you want at some point in the future and the emissions level you will have at current rates of growth, and break it down into manageable fractions – wedges – that can each be addressed with specific policies.
They’re all quantified, and most are technically achievable with today’s technology. But it doesn’t mean they will be; and the same, for all its Amazonian roots and win-win-win potential, is true of biochar.
Great article on the history of Terra Preta in the Amazon.
Since the latter half of the 20th century, two leading thoughts have come to the forefront of humanity: one is the possibility that we can destroy our planet – and whether our industrialised economy is killing the planet; the second is so-called “terraforming” other planets – making them inhabitable and suitable for human habitation. Both “techniques” transform an existing ecosystem and reside in opposite camps – destruction and creation.

Though topical, and for many perhaps theoretical, it is not a purely modern issue, an outcome of Man’s conquest of space, or the science fiction generations that have grown up in the 20th century. During that same century, it has become clear to science that people in the Amazon have created and used similar techniques – two millennia before Mankind went into space.

Aug 10, 2010

The "Pyramid Of Conservation" Is A Terrific Tool For Figuring Out Where To Start To Green Your Home : TreeHugger For years at Planet Green we have been hammering away at what one should do first to green their house, how you should go after the low hanging fruit before you invest in solar panels and replacement windows. It is a difficult sell when the shiny new baubles are so much sexier. We based our posts on the Rocky Mountain Institute's guide, now eight years old and in need of a renovation itself.
But now Christopher Briley at Green Building Advisor points us to the dramatically titled Pyramid of Conservation from the a utility, Minnesota Power.

Aug 9, 2010

Shale Gas Booming Globally, Despite Chemical Dangers |

Fracking debate and apparent new caution in the U.S., but the rest of the world is racing toward natural gas
by Amy Westervelt - Aug 9th, 2010 in Fracking hydrofracking natural gas shale gas

Energy industry analysts are predicting a global shale gas boom that could turn the cleaner-burning fossil fuel into the oil supply of the coming century. They are watching the gas industry undergo a global transformation that is starting to reshape the geopolitics of energy supply all over the world.

A dozen major natural gas pipelines that are either under construction or in the planning phases will link suppliers and markets in Europe, Africa and Central Asia, in anticipation of large new supplies of shale gas in need of transport to energy markets.

Confirmation that these analysts are reading the tea leaves properly comes in part from the recent behavior of the big oil and gas companies and oil field suppliers — Exxon, Shell, Schlumberger — which were initially slow to recognize the potential of the shale gas business. Now the'’re paying top prices to take over bold, pioneering firms and staking claims throughout Europe and Asia.

It's another fossil fuel boom in the making, but although cleaner-burning than coal, shale gas still poses a severe threat to environmental security. The drilling method that frees the gas requires the use of a cocktail of toxic chemicals that many fear could contaminate underground sources of drinking water that supply millions of people.

Concern over the drilling method called hydraulic fracturing ("fracking" for short) is most advanced in the U.S. Last week, the New York State Legislature imposed a moratorium on drilling in the gas-rich deposits of the Marcellus shale, also a source of drinking water for residents of New York City. In Washington D.C., Congress is conducting an inquiry into the fluid mix the industry uses in the process. Each company uses its own formula, and up to now they have opted to keep the specific chemicals used secret.

Paradox of Higher Prices
Still, it has been the rapid expansion of shale gas drilling in the U.S. that has created an oversupply and depressed natural gas prices not only at home, but globally. Analysts predict that if any of a host of proposed federal regulations is imposed, the cost of shale gas would rise, which would paradoxically provide an incentive for increased drilling.

"The most severe of the proposed regulations, which have to do with the monitoring of each well, are the most costly and are probably unlikely to happen," Sebastian Brinkmann, a research analyst with MSCI, the data analysis company, told SolveClimate News. "But there definitely has to be a coming together where these companies will have to be more transparent."

Fracking entails injecting water and a cocktail of chemicals into the gas-bearing shale at high force to bust open the rock. Along with the gas that's extracted, the franking fluid is pulled out of wells and then dumped into lined pits above ground, where producers are responsible for treating and managing it. In some cases that water has contaminated soil and groundwater. Poorly lined wells have also resulted, in some areas, in natural gas and fracking chemicals getting into water supplies.

According to Brinkmann, what is most likely to happen is a tightening up of the regulations around the treatment of the process water.
"What that could do is reduce the potential of some reserves," Brinkmann said. "For more marginal reserves, it would make it uneconomic to produce from those wells."

While the fracking debate has become a stumbling block for the shale gas industry in the U.S., a source within the Department of Energy with access to policy discussion, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed analysts' predictions and said shale gas will unavoidably be a major part of domestic energy policy moving forward. The U.S. is not going to exempt itself from leading the development of the next big hydrocarbon market, the source said.
Brinkmann also said that in addition to being able to export technology and expertise to countries getting into the shale gas business, American companies could even end up exporting the gas itself.

Low-Emissions for China and India
China and India are both pursuing shale gas development, as it could provide an abundant and cleaner source of energy for economic development.
"If the world is going to set targets to reduce emissions, natural gas will play a big role in that, especially in the move away from coal," Brinkmann said. "That will be true in countries like China and India as well."

It remains to be seen what sorts of shale gas reserves exist in those countries, but the Chinese government hasn’t let that stop it from announcing ambitious shale gas development goals.

Last November, President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China announced a US-China Shale Gas Resource Initiative aimed at promoting "environmentally sustainable development of shale gas resources." In July, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation announced that it aims to produce 500 million cubic meters of shale gas by 2015. Conoco Philips, Royal Dutch Shell and BP are all working with China's state-owned oil and gas companies to explore for shale gas there.

Many of these big international oil and gas companies, including U.S. companies such as Exxon and Chevron, were late to the shale gas game themselves, and are now playing catch-up by getting in on the early stages of shale gas development in other countries, and by partnering with the smaller, independent companies that pioneered the uses of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. The drilling technology was seen as risky at first, and the economics weren't yet proven, so it was the independent companies — notably Chesapeake, Range Resources, and Devon Energy — that pioneered the practice.
India is so far lagging behind in the development of its shale gas industry, but is trying to catch up quickly. Like China before it, India is pursuing a partnership with the US Department of Energy to jointly develop shale gas reserves. In July, Reliance Industries, India's largest private company, acquired a 40 percent stake in Atlas Energy's leasehold in a shale gas field in Texas.

The End of Russia's Energy Monopoly?
Europe is further along in its exploration than China and India, with Poland and Bulgaria actively and publicly exploring for shale gas, and Russia watching them closely. Chevron has applied for a permit to explore for natural gas in shale deposits in northeastern Bulgaria.

Russia's Gazprom supplies most of Western Europe with natural gas. But according to oil and gas consultants Wood Mackenzie, there could be as much as 48 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in Poland, which would make it home to the largest shale gas reserve in Europe. Were the country to tap into that reserve, it would not only eliminate its dependence on Russia, but become a major competitor in the European natural gas market.

According to a Deutsche Bank research note published last month, Europe is dreaming of a new "gas wonderland" as a result of the recent viability of shale gas and the discovery that reserves likely exist in many European countries.
"In fact production could actually begin in two years in northern Germany (e.g. Lower Saxony), southern Sweden or Poland," authors Josef Auer and Thu-Lan Nguyen wrote. "However, the muted trend in prices as a result of the gas glut is currently putting a damper on development, so that significant output is not to be expected for a decade."

By that time U.S. technological advances may have caught up with environmental concerns, but nonetheless the Deutsche Bank analysts expect European citizens to put up some opposition to the drilling.

"Europe does have an advantage on America in that it already possesses quite a close-knit natural gas grid facilitating feed-in of the widely dispersed deposits," Auer and Nguyen wrote. "But owing to Europe's higher population density, environmental concerns such as potential hazards to groundwater and drinking water argue at first sight against excessive usage."
European land ownership patterns may also pose a problem, according to Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist for Deutsche Bank.
"The problems in Europe associated with developing shale gas will have more to do with resource ownership," Sieminski told SolveClimate News.
"The way it got done in the U.S. was through the independents — Chesapeake, Devon, Range — they pioneered this and they started in Texas, which is fairly friendly to oil and gas development, and where surface owners tend to own mineral rights.

"Similarly, in Pennsylvania, one of the reasons it got going so fast in the Marcellus is that landowners are getting paid a lot of money for land leases and royalties on production. In Europe, it's common for the state to own mineral rights and so surface owners might oppose development."

Convergence of Global Natural Gas Markets
Nonetheless, Sieminski said the prospects look good for there to be major stores of shale gas all over the world, and all of the industry analysts expect an ongoing boom.

The international boom is likely to cause a shift in natural gas prices. Currently, prices are governed by the local context. In the U.S. they're low at the moment because more and more natural gas is being produced thanks to the new viability of shale gas. If the rest of the world starts to produce and use shale gas, there could be a convergence of natural gas markets.

Sieminski said it's still too early to tell exactly what will happen.

"The shale gas boom is already keeping natural gas prices low in U.S.," he said. "So the question is, will U.S. prices seep out into rest of world because we’re not using as much LNG [Liquid Natural Gas] and there's a lot of LNG available? And could shale gas be developed in Europe for less than what, say, Gazprom is selling LNG for there? Those are the questions we'll see answered over the coming years."

Forest fires help power the nitrogen cycle — Science Blog

MADISON, WI, August 9th, 2010 — When fire burns down a forest, nitrate levels go up, and the effects are persistent, according to recent research from University of Montana scientists. They found that charcoal deposited during fire events has the potential to stimulate the conversion of ammonia to nitrates, an important step in the nitrogen cycle. Led by Patrick Ball, the research team found that a type of bacteria that transforms ammonia into nitrates was found in greater abundance in recently burned sites, despite the fact that the “recent” fire was twelve years prior to the sampling period. In addition to the bacteria, the burned sites had greater rates of nitrification, meaning that nitrogen was being processed more quickly through the ecosystem than without a fire. The study was reported in the July/August 2010 Journal of Environmental Quality, published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. Nitrogen is often a limiting nutrient in coniferous forests soils of the western United States, where this study was conducted. The research results reveal a link between fire, charcoal deposition, nitrification, and abundance of nitrifying organisms in coniferous forests of the inland Northwestern US. Conducted on soils from sites that had been exposed twice or three times to fires in the last 94 years, the research team was able to demonstrate that charcoal can stimulate nitrate production well after the heat pulse and substrate pulse (and increased ammonium) has abated. Additionally, an analysis of the bacterial community, though gene sequencing, revealed shifts in community structure based both on fire history and soil type. This suggests that these soils are possibly shifting toward supporting microbial groups typically found in more productive soils such as those in adjacent open mountain meadows. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation. The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at The Journal of Environmental Quality is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems. The American Society of Agronomy (ASA), is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

Corn industry fights back over my depiction of corn’s role in the Gulf dead zone | Grist

BY Tom Philpott
9 AUG 2010
Boxing gloves
On Thursday, a writer on a blog funded by the National Corn Growers Association excoriated me for my post on the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and its relationship to corn production. The author, Missouri Corn Growers Association Communications Director Cathryn Wojcicki (who tweets as @cornykate), dismissed my post as the "rantings of an elitist with an anti-corn agenda." She also found the piece "snobbish and completely out of touch with the majority of hard-working Americans."

Fine. In fact, reading over the post, I could have done much better acknowledging the critical role of cheap food in an economy that seems structurally designed to keep wages stagnant. (As a journalist, I'm all too familiar with wage stagnation.) By sneering at "cheap food," I may have come off as snobbish. Also, when discussing the the various problems of industrial corn production, I should always emphasize that the Corn Belt's farmers themselves are not really to blame. Few activities in American life have been as manipulated by government policy and corporate interest as grain farming in the Midwest.

Giant grain traders (Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill and company), along with giant cheap-grain consumers (meat titans Tyson and Smithfield and others), and giant seed, chemical, and other input suppliers (Monsanto, Syngenta, et al) are the main shapers and beneficiaries of a U.S. farm policy that encourages maximum production of corn. When we gawk at the Gulf dead zone, or marvel at the damage caused by vast animal feedlots, we should aim our ire at these institutions -- not at corn farmers, who are simply striving to survive under extremely challenging conditions.

All of that said, Wojcicki didn't just challenge my analysis. She also attacked my facts. And to that, I must respond -- jab by jab.

Hypoxia hypocrisy

In an attempt to debunk my linking the dead zone to corn production, she asserts that "every river has a hypoxia zone"; that "sources other than farming contribute to the nitrogen found in the Mississippi River," such as urban areas and golf courses; and thus "targeting only the corn industry makes no sense."

All of this ranges from disingenuous to nonsense. For my next Victual Reality podcast, airing next week, I interviewed Nancy Rabelais, a leading hypoxia scholar and the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), which tracks the size of the Gulf dead zone. She told me that while all rivers sweep nutrients into the sea, dead zones do not always, in fact, result. In some rivers, the flow rate and other natural factors disperse the nutrients sufficiently such that no hypoxia occurs.

All of that is a sideshow, though. The question is what drives dead zones -- specifically, what drives the one that annually arises in the Gulf, the second-biggest one on the planet? What are the sources of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) that feed the algae blooms that blot out life in a Massachusetts-sized swath? Until the 1970s, hypoxia was not a major problem in the Gulf. By 1985, when LUMCON first started measuring, the hypoxic zone had reached 10,000 square kilometers. Today, they typically average 20,000 square kilomters.

Unhealthy nutrients: nitrogen and phosphorous from corn gush into the Gulf.
Chart: USGS
What's the source of the nutrients? The U.S. Geological Survey, that partisan agency, has answers (see chart).


Turns out that corn and soybean fields deliver 52 percent of the nitrogen and 25 percent of the phosphorous that end up in the Gulf every year. Corn and soy contribute nearly six times as much nitrogen, and twice as much phosphorous, as "urban and population-related sources," the scapegoat cited by Wojcicki.

Let's drill down a little deeper. For nitrogen, "natural land" and "atmospheric deposition" contribute a combined 20 percent of the load going into the Gulf. Those are fixed factors, not related to human activity. If we take them out and look at human-induced contributions to the Gulf's nitrogen load, we find that corn and soy contribute 65 percent of the total.

Now, corn and soy operate as an agricultural system; they are grown in rotation over a vast swath of the Midwest. It bears noting that of the two, corn is by far the greater nitrogen user. Soybeans, a legume, fix a good deal of the nitrogen they use naturally from the atmosphere.

So it's undeniable that corn production is by far the dominant contributor of nitrogen entering the Gulf. Targeting the corn industry makes perfect sense.

Biofuelish battles

In my post, I cited the U.S. government's ever-rising ethanol mandates and surging demand for corn from China as factors that will spur greater corn production in coming years -- and thus larger dead zones in the Gulf. These are "myths," Wojcicki insists. "The 'ethanol mandate' is actually a renewable fuels mandate that guarantees our country lowers the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change and increases energy independence," Wojcicki writes.

True, the policy's official name is the "renewable fuel mandate," but what it calls for is dramatically increased corn-ethanol production. (It calls for even greater cellulosic ethanol production -- but cellulosic ethanol remains largely nonexistent.) As recently as 2005, as figures from the Renewable Fuels Association tell us, U.S. producers made less than 4 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol. But then Congress, abetted by President Bush, started dramatically ramping up mandates for ethanol. In 2009, producers churned out 10.6 billion gallons. By 2015, if the mandate remains in place, they will be producing 15 billion gallons -- a 44 percent increase over the 2009 level in just five years. And producers will maintain production at 15 billion gallons through 2022.

This gusher of ethanol from the heartland will likely spell disaster in the Gulf. In a 2008 paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, researchers stated flatly that "Nitrogen leaching from fertilized corn fields to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system is a primary cause of the bottom-water hypoxia that develops on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico each summer." They conclude that ramping up corn ethanol production to 15 billion gallons will "increase the annual average flux of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) export by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers by 10-34%" -- corresponding to ever-larger dead zones.

As for China, Wojcicki writes, "a single buy ... is not a trend. It is one buy." But as I showed in a recent post, China is actually in the process of dramatically ramping up corn imports, from zero in 2008 to 15 million metric tons by 2015. That's enough to increase global corn export demand by 18 percent, I calculate -- meaning higher corn prices and more incentive for farmers to maximize yields with increased fertilizer application and plant more land to corn.


Next, Wojcicki derides my contention that "Corn plants typically only take up 40 percent of the synthetic nitrogen applied by farmers." She ripostes: "Would farmers put down something as expensive as nitrogen if 60 percent washed off?"

Unfortunately, yes. It's hard to come up with precise numbers for nitrogen-use efficiency (NUE) -- the percentage of applied nitrogen taken up by plants -- because it varies widely year to year and even field to field. But the consensus is that NUE for U.S. corn is well below 50 percent. (See, for example, the 2007 Illinois Fertilizer Conference Proceedings.)

But farmers aren't wasting nitrogen because they're profligate, or bad land stewards. Instead, it has to do with the physiology of plants, as Peter Vitousek, a professor of biology at Stanford and a leading scholar on the nitrogen cycle, explained to me when I was doing research for Grist's Nitrogen series this winter. Vitousek told me that under the very best conditions, corn farmers can achieve NUEs of only 60 percent at most. He explained that during the growing cycle, plants' nitrogen needs vary by the day. To ensure that plants have sufficient nitrogen on their heavy feeding days, farmers essentially have to overapply. And when there's severe pressure to maximize yields, such as that faced by U.S. corn farmers, heavy overapplication becomes a matter of survival. And that spells doom for large swaths of the Gulf, where much of that excess nitrogen ends up.

Corn fed up

Finally, Wojcicki lashes out at me for contending that corn produces "low-quality meat" and "low quality fuel," i.e, ethanol. I was thinking about how grass-fed beef has a significantly better fat profile than grain-fed; and that cows fed corn tend to get sick, making them dependent on antibiotics to survive until slaughter.

As for corn-based ethanol, I meant that a gallon of it has two-thirds the energy of a gallon of gas; and according to some analyses, has a significantly greater greenhouse-gas footprint than gas. For me, it's patently absurd to attempt to replace fuel from energy-rich petroleum with fuel from energy-light corn. The real answer to fossil-fuel addiction isn't to grope for -- and commit billions of dollars in federal subsidies to -- weak gasoline substitutes like ethanol; it's to reduce reliance on the car and increase investment in mass transit.

All in all, Wojcicki's supposed outrage at my post produced a cloud of misinformation. But for all the obfuscation, her screed leaves my factual claims fully intact -- and does nothing to change my opinions.

More corn for meat and ethanol, less habitat for Gulf fish | Grist

BY Tom Philpott
hyp-hopAs if the Deepwater Horizon disaster weren’t enough, this year’s dead zone is one of the largest ever.
Graphic: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium

Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, plumes of dispersed oil linger, wreaking unknown damage on one of the globe's most productive ecosystems.

But BP's oil isn't the only destructive substance that gushed into the Gulf this year. This summer -- and every summer since the early 1970s -- a large amount of fertilizer leached out of Midwestern corn fields and into streams that drain into the Mississippi, eventually making its way to the Gulf. Once there, it feeds gigantic algae blooms that, as they decompose, suck up oxygen and squeeze out sea life. Scientists call this process "hypoxia."

Researchers from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium have been measuring the Gulf's hypoxic zone since 1985. Every year, they gauge the size of the "dead zone" by heading out on a research ship called the Pelican to measure oxygen levels near the Mississippi's mouth. The team has just filed its report [PDF] for this year. Their verdict: "one of the largest ever."

The team concluded that this year's dead zone covers 7,722 square miles -- an area roughly equal to the landmass of Massachusetts, and the sixth-largest area since the group started measuring. As the chart at the bottom of this post shows, this year's dead zone fits in with a disturbing upward trend since 2006, when government-mandated ethanol production began diverting ever-greater amounts of corn into car-fuel production.

What does ethanol have to do with the dead zone? Responding to higher corn prices, farmers have been moved to shift more land into corn production and use more chemical fertilizers to boost yields. Corn plants typically only take up 40 percent of the synthetic nitrogen applied by farmers, leaving the rest to wash out into streams and down to the Gulf.

Last year, the Gulf got merciful respite. Tropical storms came at just the right time to diffuse fertilizer pollution, resulting in the smallest dead zone since 2000. This year, recent storms have just broken the hypoxic areas into clusters. As the report puts it:

Instead of the usual continuous band of low oxygen along the coast, this summer's distribution was a patchwork of several areas. The scientists think that this result is because of recent tropical storm activity.

And this summer's dead zone may actually be the largest ever -- bad weather stopped the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium's ship from fully measuring the affected area. "The total area probably would have been the largest if we had had enough time to completely map the western part," the consortium's executive director, Nancy Rabalais, said.

The researchers directly tie the size of the dead zone to industrial corn production in the Midwest. "The size of the hypoxic zone and nitrogen loading from the river is an unambiguous relationship," one researcher remarked. "We need to act on that information."

Of course, we're doing the exact opposite. For the health of the Gulf ecosystem, researchers hope to see the size of the dead zone drop significantly by 2015. But ethanol mandates and surging demand from China all but guarantee higher corn prices for years to come. And that means ever more chemical fertilizers will be dumped on Midwestern corn fields -- and ever larger dead zones will bloom going forward. To supply the world with cheap low-quality meat and and ourselves with highly subsidized, low-quality fuel, we seem content to kill off ever larger swaths of a vital natural asset. We're behaving not unlike a rich kid who blows his trust fund on Scotch, cocaine, and casino chips.

It also bears noting that nitrogen-fed dead zones like the one in the Gulf -- the largest one of 400 worldwide -- don't just devastate local fish habitats. They also contribute to climate change. According to a study published this spring in Science, oxygen-starved areas of the ocean emit significantly more nitrous oxide into the atmosphere than healthy waters. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas some 300 times more potent than carbon.

Abstract: Supercritical Water Gasification of Switchgrass Biochar (2010 Annual Meeting)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 Hall 1 (Salt Palace Convention Center) Hema Ramsurn, Sandeep Kumar and Ram B. Gupta, Chemical Engineering, Auburn University, Auburn, AL Biochar produced via hydrothermal carbonization process is a high density (coal-like) powder. It is viewed as an attractive feedstock for biomass utilization in gasification process due to almost uniform C, H, and O composition, fine particle size and reduced moisture retention capacity (i.e. hydrophobicity). Switchgrass, a major energy crop, was used in this study for producing biochar. Oxygen to carbon (O/C) ratio in hydrothermally produced biochar from switchgrass at 300°C is typically 0.32-0.33 and can be represented by a general formula (CH1.2O0.2)n. In this work, biochar is gasified in supercritical water. Gasification of carbonaceous matters into fuel gases (synthesis gas, producer gas) followed by FT synthesis is a promising route to produce renewable fuels. The gasification is commonly accomplished via partial oxidation of the feedstock using sub-stoichiometric (insufficient) air or oxygen or by indirect heating (with or without steam). Typically, gasification is performed using relatively dry feedstock (moisture < 10 wt%) at temperatures higher than 750°C under atmospheric pressure condition. Supercritical water (above 374°C and 22 MPa) gasification can utilize wet feedstock and have high gasification efficiency at comparatively low temperature (400-700°C). The use of water in supercritical condition has several advantages over the atmospheric pressure air / steam gasification. Supercritical water works both as reactant and as reaction medium. Density and dielectric constant of the water medium play major role in solubilizing organic compounds. Dielectric constant of water decreases from 78.5 at 25°C to 5 in the near critical region, which enhances the solubility of organic compounds.1 The homogeneous reaction medium with a minimal mass transfer resistance favors decomposition of organic compounds into gases, decreasing formation of tar and char.2 Furthermore, the fuel gas is produced at high pressure directly, which means a smaller reactor volume and a lower energy to pressurize the gas in a storage tank. The inorganic constituents of biochar which are not volatile and are expected to remain in the aqueous solution. This makes the resulting syngas gas cleaner and less corrosive compared to the conventional dry processes with salt-rich biomass. In this study, supercritical water gasification of biochar into syngas was investigated in a batch and semi-continuous reactor in the temperature range of 400-600°C. The initial study at 500°C in supercritical water showed nearly 50-60 wt% of carbon in biochar converted to gaseous products containing mainly CO, CO2, CH4 and hydrogen gas. The goal is to develop a process to produce high heating-value syngas with minimum solid residue from high molecular weight carbonaceous material. Alkali salts are used in this study to understand its catalytic effect on gasification and water-gas shift reaction.3 The experimental study is focused on understanding the chemistry of biochar gasification and determining the influence of temperature and alkali salt on the gas yields, gas composition and carbon conversion efficiency to lay the foundation for engineering application. References: 1. Kumar, S.; Gupta, R. B., Hydrolysis of Microcrystalline Cellulose in Subcritical and Supercritical Water in a Continuous Flow Reactor. Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research 2008, 47, (23), 9321-9329. 2. Calzavara, Y.; Joussot-Dubien, C.; Boissonnet, G.; Sarrade, S., Evaluation of biomass gasification in supercritical water process for hydrogen production. Energy Conversion and Management 2005, 46, 615-631. 3. Yip, K.; Tian, F.; Hayashi, J.-i.; Wu, H., Effect of Alkali and Alkaline Earth Metallic Species on Biochar Reactivity and Syngas Compositions during Steam Gasification. Energy & Fuels 2010, 24, 173-181.

Genetically Modified Rape Taking Over North Dakota

Back when the bright yellow flowers were still known as Rape or Oilseed rape, Brassica napus produced a bitter oil, unsuitable for human consumption and used mainly to lubricate machines. Canadian researchers bred an edible hybrid known as "Canadian Oilseed, Low-Acid" -- or Canola, for short. Today, Canola oil claims to be one of the healthiest cooking oils, with high Omega-3 levels. Increasing use of Canola as a biofuel further expands the market for this well-rounded agricultural product. So all is well, isn't it?

Enter agricultural giant Monsanto. Canola joined the growing list of plants which have been genetically modified for resistance to Monsanto herbicide Roundup. On Friday, a new study joined the growing list of evidence that environmental advocates were right to warn about engineered genes creeping into the natural flora. The scope and extent of the escape of man-modified genes demonstrated in this study demands a re-evaluation of the use of genetically engineered crops.

Researchers led by Cindy Sagers, of the University of Arkansas, sampled wild canola plants growing along North Dakota highways and roads. 86% of the plants sampled contained the altered genes. In two cases, the wild plants contained two different modified genes. Because no crop has ever been designed with more than one gene modified, this is evidence that the genes have already established themselves in the wild over several generations.

Mike Wilkinson, an expert from the Aberystwyth University in the U.K., told NPR that people should not worry about this. According to Wilkinson, the genetically modified canola does not compete well in the wild, being accustomed to grow with special care and little competition in the agricultural domain.

But even if the genetically engineered canola plant poses no threat to the ecological balance, the proof that the genes can spread so broadly, and even accumulate in nature in a manner beyond what was designed in the lab, puts into question the regulatory basis for approval of genetically engineered crops. Farmers growing these man-made crops are required to take measures to ensure that the man-made genes do not spread. Clearly these measures are not working as intended.

Modified genes have not yet been demonstrated to jump across species, giving other plants -- in the worst case, weeds -- resistance to herbicides. But if humanity learned one lesson from Silent Spring, hopefully it is to be humble in the face of nature's diversity. We must act on evidence such as this in a precautionary manner, using the knowledge we gain about the spread of modified canola genes to re-assess the risks and benefits of this technology.

Aug 8, 2010

The West Coast artisan

Island furniture builders create unique pieces the old fashioned way


Denise Bastian and her husband Don at their art gallery/handmade furniture store, West Coast Wood Designs in Sidney, B.C.
Photograph by: Adrian Lam, Victoria Times Colonist
The custom furniture industry is alive and well on Vancouver Island. Homeowners looking for unique furniture, handcrafted the old fashioned way, can find artisans employing traditional techniques using locally sourced materials.

But banish the thought of reproduction Victorian or Chippendale-style furniture. The pieces created by local artisans are distinctly West Coast style, designed and created from native softwood and hardwood species.

Expect to find tables, chairs, benches and the like made from local fruitwood, maple, yew, copper beech, alder and fir.

"My table reflects the perfect fusion between art and Japanese sensibility," says Jane Carroll of her shoji table made by David Barker from maple and arbutus.

"I had a hard time choosing because each of his pieces were noteworthy."

Buyers won't find furniture created by regular dimensional lumber. Large planks from a tree -- with its bark still attached -- form the basis of dining or coffee tables. Woodworkers repurpose timber salvaged from older buildings that have been demolished -- such as the ceiling beams from the old Mayfair Bowling Lanes.

"Our furniture appeals to those looking for something unique," says Denise Bastian, who owns West Coast Wood Designs in Sidney.

She says the shop is the largest wood gallery in British Columbia representing local artists. "Some of the pieces are more than just furniture -- they are functional art."

Her store features furniture, doors and art pieces produced by her husband, Don Bastian, as well as examples of work from more than 80 artists from Vancouver Island.

They will either create their own pieces or consult with clients on commissioned work, where the needs and taste of the buyer are considered before execution of the piece.

Some artisans, such as Merlayna Snyder, are recognized for works that are both unique and artistically exquisite. Their signature works are eagerly sought by collectors. Clients don't buy a piece just for its functionality -- they do so as an investment.

A Duncan company, Live Edge Design, uses only salvaged wood harvested within 160 kilometres of where it grew. They use wood rejected by forest companies as too twisted or gnarled for commercial harvest.

"We see them differently," says Donna Roxburgh, spokeswoman for the company. "We find them beautiful."

They look for windfalls, trees felled because of disease and property development. They have used redwood and arbutus as well more common local species.

Both companies have also had clients bringing in a treasured piece of wood that has sentimental value -- such as an old tree that used to be in the backyard -- to be reworked as a piece of furniture.

A 1.5-metre long dining table, made with planks more than five centimetres thick, costs around $4,000 and up. It can take six to eight weeks to finish a table from existing stock and up to a year for recently felled trees.

Because the tables are made from solid wood, they can be resanded and refinished multiple times, making them likely to be passed on as family heirlooms.

Both companies also offer cabinet-making services, allowing some homeowners to have their kitchen cabinets match their dining-room tables.

On the web:

Turning salvaged timber into furniture

This dining table by Live Edge Design is typical of the salvaged-timber commissions Live Edge receives from property owners.
Photograph by: Handout image, Courtesy of Live Edge Design Inc
It's not unusual -- according to the president of a Vancouver Island furniture company -- for West Coast people to regard their trees "as one of the family."

"Many people are attached to the trees on their property," says John Lore, of Live Edge Design, "so if they lose one that's been part of the family for a long time we can build something out of it for them. It's a way of keeping it in their lives."

Typically the Duncan-based company salvages wood, with many people calling them in after a wind-or snowstorm. (It takes at least a year to air-and then kiln-dry the pieces: "You have to do it very slowly or else you get warping and cracking," he says.)

"There are not too many people looking for the big gnarly old maple trees; we have the market to ourselves," says Lore, who also doubles as the firm's artistic director with jurisdiction over picking the wood and having the last say on design.

He likes to take the less premeditated approach to furniture making: "Ideally, we find the piece of wood and then decide what to make out of it," he says.

The company's name is its signature: "Mostly we like to do things that have a natural aspect to them -- we like to leave on the live edge, which is the growing part of the tree under the bark otherwise known as the cambium layer," he says, adding that the interior of a tree, of course, is stagnant.

It is up to the customer to choose the table's base ( "a trestle is great for getting your legs underneath without bashing them ...," Lore says) and its general character.

The top of the native bigleaf maple on the Long Beach dining table, for example, can be "fairly rectangular with smooth edges or they can have it as wild as they want," he explains. "You can mix it with a fairly contemporary base and still get away with these crazy shapes, colours and knots in the top. Then every time you look at it you see something different and it keeps it fresh and interesting over a long time. It's down to individual preference."

The Long Beach table starts at $5,000.

Live Edge Design, 5195 Mearns Road, Duncan (250-748 0763;

2009 Biochar Trials in Hawaii | BioEnergy Lists: BioChar (or Terra Preta)

2009 Biochar Trials in Hawaii
Submitted by Erin Rasmussen on August 5, 2010 - 5:41pm
Last updated August 06, 2010
in Cucumber Farm Field trials Gardening Hunt Landscape Ecology Tomato USA
Josiah Hunt, Landscape Ecology July, 2010

Biochar Trials

In 2009 Landscape Ecology was awarded a grant to produce biochar amended compost and observe plant growth responses. Instead of conducting the growth trials ourselves we donated the material to a series of local Ag businesses to conduct in their systems. Fertilizer use and such vary with the different systems. There are still more results coming in and a few we have yet to follow up on being that many of the recipients were late to apply the material and are just now getting results. We will have several more in coming weeks including palms in nursery, wetland (flooded field) taro, and more of the tomato/cucumber series.

See the attached pdf for more detail.

½” minus hardwood biochar

All biochar used in these photos was produced by Landscape Ecology in an open pit method explained in greater detail at Biochar Hawaii’s website:
The feedstock is mixed tropical hardwoods gathered as scrap from local sawmills.
Some analysis are shown in the attached pdf

Biochar Compost

Composted with coconut and guava chips and horse manure. Allowed 4 months to mature. Maintained a temperature of 135oF on average. Approximately 40% biochar by volume when applied. Biochar was never mechanically ground. Too wide a C:N was found in compost as seen in initial trials. C:N ratio was corrected for later other trials.
Bioassay done by Professor Jonathan Awaya of UHH shown in next slides.
Nutrient analysis of biochar compost available by request.