Category Archives: agriculture

Learning from each other

Solar Panels used as Parking Shade

(Photo credit: "Solar Panels used as Parking Shade," Flickr/Great Valley Center Image Bank")

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging muses (after a conversation with Cory Doctorow) on just how suburbs and exurbs hard-hit by expensive energy could be rebuilt into (greater) self-reliance:

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Here’s the fledgling Outquisition website.

I share the optimism about human ingenuity that is WorldChanging’s bedrock premise, and my libertarian inclinations lead me to love the idea of individuals and communities learning to do for themselves, rather than relying on large-scale systems — governmental or corporate — to sort out the hard stuff for them. A talented society is a resilient society.

The preachiness is a bit of a put-off, though, the idea that the suburbs are a kingdom of the damned who need to be shown the light by people from “the comfy bright green cities.” Most people in cities don’t know how to grow anything much or wire solar panels or filter rainwater for drinking any more than your typical suburbanite does, and the suburbanites have the advantage, mixed though it is, of generally having more land.

I suspect city folk will need to hire more than a few experts from “climate-smacked farm communities” to show them how a few things are done.

Local isn’t the same as good

The Freakonomics blog dissects the environmental and economic effects of “locavorism,” the kind of eating explored by The 100-Mile Diet. Good for the environment? Not necessarily:

This is a pretty strong argument against the perceived environmental and economic benefits of locavore behavior — mostly because Weber and Matthews identify the fact that is nearly always overlooked in such arguments: specialization (which Michael Pollan mostly dislikes, and which has been around for a long, long time) is ruthlessly efficient. Which means less transportation, lower prices — and, in most cases, far more variety, which in my book means more deliciousness and more nutrition.

Ezra Klein considered much the same question the other day, and dug up some figures suggesting that you can make a lot more difference for the planet by changing what you eat — specifically by cutting back on meat — than by getting obsessive about where your food comes from:

As Brad Plumer writes, the striking takeaway is that “on average, replacing just 21 percent of the red meat in the ‘typical’ diet with fish or chicken does as much, emissions-wise, as buying everything in that same diet locally.” That’s not, of course, an argument against eating locally. Taste, farming practices, sustainability, and much else point towards local consumption. But buying locally raised meats doesn’t get you off the environmental hook.

There’s much to be said for knowing where your food comes from and trying to understand the tradeoffs you’re making when you choose it and appreciating the unique connections between a grocery item and the land it comes from. But “local” is not a synonym for “virtuous.”

Some kind of a beginning

Possibly the United States is starting to turn the corner on energy efficiency. Not there yet, but the Energy Bill President George W. Bush has signed is a beginning.

It is, like a Farm Bill, too complex an omnibus for one human brain to grasp. You have to study it in chunks, so many disparate elements does it draw together. Phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2020! Ethanol in the gasoline! Fuel-efficiency standards for cars! Renewables research! What would you like? A bit of it’s in there.

The ethanol stuff — a federal mandate for up to 15 billion gallons (which is a lot) by the middle of the next decade, and a total of 36 billion gallons of non-corn-ethanol renewable fuels by 2022 — is basically, as one commenter at Green Car Congress says, liquid pork, possibly better news for farmers than even the straight agricultural subsidies the U.S. federal government hands out. Doubtless a massive ethanol mandate was the only way to get the thing through the farm-staters in the House of Representatives.

There is much to be dissatisfied about in the bill, since it’s essentially a subsidy-and-regulation package rather than an effort to shift the market toward more sensible choices by making people pay the costs of their externalities. Eliminating electricity subsidies, for instance, would be a much better way to get people to switch away from incandescent lightbulbs than simply imposing an efficiency standard by fiat that only compact fluorescents can currently meet.

But on balance, there’s more good than bad. You have to start somewhere.

Large-scale organics aren’t oxymorons

Aurora Organic, a company ostensibly specializing in large-scale organic farming has turned out to have put more emphasis on the large-scale part. Reports Time:

On Wednesday, the USDA announced its investigators had found that Aurora failed to keep proper records about how its cows were raised, and mixed regular cows with organic cows. The government and the company reached an agreement under which the company will be allowed to keep its organic certification if it makes adjustments that include reducing the number of its cows — from about 2,200 to 1,200. The farm also plans to expand its grassland to about 400 acres from 325. Clark Driftmier, a spokesman for Aurora, said these plans had been in the works for at least two years and that its customers — whom he declined to name — have expressed support.

Says Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA: “We’ll be looking over their shoulder for the next year, and if they fail to come into full compliance, we’ll be taking serious action.”

This is all bad (except that Aurora was caught), but I’m not buying the argument from some more extreme organic-food advocates that large-scale farming is necessarily incompatible with organic practices.

Marc Gunther of Fortune puts the problem down to a conflict of values:

Behind the dispute are more fundamental questions about the future of the organic food industry, which generated about $16.7 billion in revenues in 2006. Can the small-scale, family farmers who got the organic movement going years ago compete with bigger, well-capitalized companies like Aurora that are moving in? As Wal-Mart and Costco sell more organics, will standards be diluted?

Certainly the little guys won’t be able to compete if the big guys cut corners to cut costs, which appears to be the case here.

CoweatingThis isn’t his central point so Gunther doesn’t develop it in detail, but I think his logic is flawed. The consequences for Aurora from this little incident are massive. Marc Gunther doesn’t write about it when Organic Dairy Farmer Dan gets caught spiking the silage (assuming Farmer Dan gets caught, which he might not). The rewards for a big business that breaks the rules might be great, but the consequences of getting caught are proportionately high, too.

Point is, it’s a mistake to use “organic” as code for “small and independent.” The word can usefully describe a process, not the mentality attached to the people carrying it out.

And frankly, if we’re going to feed the world without destroying the plant, large-scale agriculture is the only way it’s going to work.

Photo credit: Flickr/foxypar4

Some good thoughts on ethanol

This outfit called the Network for New Energy Choices really has it in for corn-based ethanol. The group’s staff and advisory board seem heavily weighted toward more engineering-based renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, which might explain a few things, but their report “The Rush to Ethanol” (PDF) makes some excellent points. Chief among them is the obvious one: corn ethanol, produced and burned carelessly, can be worse for the environment than gasoline.

The report, unfortunately, also trots out some leftie-green objections to ethanol: biofuels plants are run by great big corporations and not community-based ones; industrial uses of crops tend to encourage farmers to plant specially engineered strains, and so on. A lot of this stuff is neither here nor there — asking energy policy to do work that actually shouldn’t be a matter of government concern at all, or at least no more than it already is. The family farm, for instance, with which the Network for New Energy Choices is unduly concerned. matters in U.S. politics because of the overrepresentation of sparsely populated agricultural states in Congress and the presidential primaries. Really, it ought to matter no more than the family cobbler shop or the family real-estate firm, and approving or dismissing a policy on ethanol should take no notice of it.

Nevertheless, the network is right to propose hard-edged standards for deciding what “good” ethanol is, and being a lot more discriminating when the subsidies are being ladled out. The group practically dismisses corn ethanol entirely, and puts all its hope into cellulosic ethanol (which gets its energy from the woody structures of plant cells rather than from starchy sugars, and which isn’t even really close to being commercially viable):

In particular, criteria for sustainable cellulosic feedstock production should include:

  • Establishment of maximum harvesting levels for agriculture residues;
  • Use of designated cropland rather than protected land conversion, with a ban on converting highly erodible land in the Conservation Reserve Program to crop production;
  • Promotion of native species planted in diverse composition;
  • Promotion of best-feedstock-production scenarios that would involve mixed perennial grasses and trees that can be harvested on a rotating basis;
  • Financial support for small farmers growing energy crops in establishment years before crops can be harvested; and
  • Development of woody crops and grasses in buffer areas between forest remnants and croplands that
  • enhance biodiversity and habitat protection for threatened interior forest wildlife.

Also, and this is key, the group proposes enforcing the same standards on imported ethanol. If you couldn’t do it in the United States, you can’t do it somewhere else and sell the product in the United States, either. I’m not sure this can be applied perfectly rigidly — some agricultural practices might be fine in different climates that are destructive in the United States, for instance — but as a rule, it’s wrong to encourage others to do things that you’d actually ban in your own country.

Follow-up on burning down Brazil

A couple of days ago, I wrote in criticism of a trend among some developing countries to demand international payments for not chopping down their own forests (it’s come up before, too, and I’m sure it will again). I think it’s a bad, bad, bad, idea.

In response, Rhett A. Butler of mongabay.com wrote to let me know about a positive development in efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest in Brazil: a Texas-born rancher named John Carter (yes, seriously, Rhett Butler and John Carter — it’s a strange world sometimes) who’s running a sales co-operative/certification scheme called Aliança da Terra that aims to sell loads of Brazilian beef while promising big-time buyers like McDonald’s and Burger King that the cattle involved were pastured sustainably and in accordance with Brazil’s environmental-protection standards. The idea is that they can boast about it to their customers.

Butler interviewed Carter at great length and has the full exchange on his site, but here are a couple of clips I found particularly interesting:

[S]ince I arrived here there’s been a forest reserve law in place. Actually in 1998 they raised it from 50 percent of your land kept as forest to 80 percent. That provision really backfired for the environmental movement. The law was already contested at 50 percent. Raising it to 80 percent just created a mass hysteria and a state of civil disobedience where landowners said “to heck with this” and just tore down everything.

For the most part, the consumer always wants to buy the cheapest product on the shelf. If someone is willing to pay a premium because of conservation, it’s called a niche market. Niche markets will never stop the deforestation of the Amazon. We have to hit the commodity markets and spread the benefits across the whole region, not just a niche sector. To do this, we can’t raise the price of the commodities–people simply haven’t shown a willingness to pay more for these products on a consistent basis.

Under our system, the only benefit a producer will get is market access, but by gaining access to the European, American, and other foreign markets, local producers will benefit significantly. Instead of having prices based on the Brazilian Bolsa, they will be getting Chicago mercantile rates which are inherently higher, less freight and trade tariffs. The only way producers have this access is by following the rules.

This sure sounds a lot more productive than asking for permanent payments for nothing more than not burning down your own house.

Carnival of the Green No. 80.

Heidi, who blogs intermittently at Groxie, is hosting the Carnival of the Green digest of environmentalism-related blog postings this week. She’s picked up my two postings from last week on challenges to the “organic” designation in Britain and talking about whether we can reasonably expect “organic” to stand in for “socially just” generally.