City and Country

Ted Talk: How Food Shapes our Cities

Carolyn Steel did a great job of discussing the interconnectedness of urban and agricultural areas in a short Ted talk. One of her main points was the fact that despite the obviously huge importance of food and food production to maintain the growing urban populations, there is a sort of mystery about where a lot of that food comes from and how it gets to the supermarket shelf. In very ‘developed’ countries – like the United States – it is easy to see why many people do not question this system very often, because it has been like this in many urban areas in the U.S. for over 100 years, some areas even longer some areas less.

Pitfalls to this system seem to multiply when more and more people participate in it. Some have touted the solution to the first problem (The problem of where our food comes from – which is in many cases places that have a large negative environmental impact) to be TRANSPARENCY in our food production and distribution systems. I definitely agree that raising an awareness about where the food comes from is extremely important, but it should go beyond that.

The general population may have to become more aware of what they value in the environment (clean air, clean water, wild animal and plant species, the multitude of services that natural environments provide)- so they can discourage governments, businesses, and farmers from enacting policy’s which may destroy it (think pesticides  – DDT – Bald eagles; think water quality issues, many fish do not fare well in turbid waters which have been severely degraded due to agricultural run-off, Swamps which have previously been drained across the country actually provide the valuable service of absorbing massive amounts of run-off water – and also are natural water filters) if people do not support businesses which produce and distribute products which damage the environment carelessly, then those businesses will change. While many consumers are beginning to understand how their purchases affect what companies sell and what goes into the process behind making those products, there is still a long way to go.

You don’t have to go far to see how the water quality in the United States is still at a fairly low point (especially for our major rivers), despite definite positive progress in many localized areas. You can look out your window at the deplorable state of some of the great rivers of this country for evidence – I read warnings all the time about how we should not even consume reasonable amounts of many fish from the Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi rivers (among countless others in state after state) due to such high concentrations of dangerous contaminants in their bodies. Finding heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, and pesticides in our major rivers is  barely even a newsworthy topic anymore it has become so common. Freshwater is certainly one of the most precious resources on this earth, many would die for it, and many do. What does it say about us if we are content to sit back and allow this to go on? One of the main causes of pollution to these rivers is non-point agricultural pollution (which was created to feed us), another major source of contamination is the heavy metals (from a variety of sources including mercury from coal power plants which supply energy to our homes and businesses, and a host of other metals from industrial activities which supply us with the materials we use and consume). In short, no matter what people, companies, or governments say about how they value the environment (or clean air, clean water, etc.) the proof is in their actions, and the outcomes from their actions. An energy company that tells us about their sustainability initiatives on the one hand, yet continues mountaintop removal coal mining is speaking much louder with their actions than with their words.

People must also see the inherent importance of biodiversity – not just in nature, but also in agriculture. It is easy to see the food growing on a vine, but we do not often see the work of thousands of pollinating insects, complicated systems of microbes nourishing the plant, or understand the importance of other plant and animal species which through a complicated web support the life of that vine. It is overly simplistic to believe if we just keep adding a certain chemical mixture to soils, and keep bugs from eating them, then they will be strong plants and we will have plenty of food. The dangers of this system are being realized. Where is the rich topsoil on hillsides across this country and countless others? Washed into streams and valleys we lose fertile soil and farmers feel they must use more and more fertilizer to support large yields. It turns out we cannot expect the soil to replenish itself if we continually take, but give back so little. What is happening to so many of our pollinating insects? Some people may cite the huge decline in honeybees as an example of how we have somehow managed to seriously hurt ourselves by endorsing the widespread use of our simplistic agricultural system. Whether honeybees are a victim of us, I don’t know, but I do know that there is no possible way you can spread pesticides over millions of acres of land in any country – in order to kill insects – and not succeed in doing much more damage than you believed you were doing.

Consumers will also have to understand how their small preferences in type, appearance, and quality of food, have massive impacts on the system which they ultimately support. By insisting every piece of produce look large and/or perfect, consumers are almost demanding pesticides and fertilizers (often synthetic) be used. Consider that when gathering fruit in places where no/less fertilizer and no/less pesticides were used some fruits may be smaller, some leaves may have a small hole or two in them, there may not be as much uniformity overall. Why is this a bad thing? I am not sure. A friend told me a story about a farmer’s market they had been at where a woman was speaking to one of the vendors there selling some greens. She commented that while the greens looked excellent overall, some of the leaves had a couple of small holes on them from an insect. This was one reason why she would buy them. She could see that the insects found the plants delicious and the plants were so strong that they grew very well in spite of sharing some of their leaves with the insects. Also this is a good clue that the farmer was not applying sprays or powders to the leaves to kill insects that may land on them

How our food gets to the shelf

The transportation network in this country to deliver food from a farm to a table is astonishing. This video really highlights how countries develop around the food distribution network, and the United States is no exception. Cars have given us the ability to live very far from our sources of food because so many things can be trucked in and dropped off at grocery stores and restaurants, but we still need reminding that the system as we have built it today will eventually have to change significantly. I am not going to throw my 2 cents very far into the endless well of debate on the problems associated with oil/gas consumption and drilling. You can learn about that on your own time. All I will say is so much of our infrastructure in the United States especially, is geared towards cheap/unlimited oil/gas/diesel. We are transporting many of our fruits from around the world by air and sea, to ports across the country where they are delivered to stores and restaurants via a complex network of diesel trucks (some even refrigerated), and then we drive to the stores and restaurants to get this food (Look up Carbon Miles for Food). Even when it comes to domestic food production things don’t always seem to make sense. We are growing and subsidizing cheap corn across the midwest (all the while using huge amounts of diesel to produce it), then we take that corn and try to turn it into a variety of simple carbohydrates (corn syrups, high frustose corn syrups, etc.), animal feed, and of course ethanol (which also takes a lot of fuel to produce and distribute), and finally we take the rest and try to export it to other countries so we can turn right around and import fruits, vegetables, and countless other things that we could have just grown here to begin with. Who in the long-term is coming out ahead in this? It isn’t the farmers in most cases See this article on decline of farms in the US Many of them are just scratching by. I am sure there is a money trail here to people who are benefiting from this situation, but I will leave that to you, the reader to look around you and find.

I know some people will point out that technologies change and all industries must become streamlined and more efficient over time if they are going to survive. But this ignores the fact that some industries are very unique. Food production is certainly one of them. Water, food, shelter are all needs. Food is a huge category and it has historically been grown, raised, or produced almost everywhere by almost all people. So the fact that the production of it is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands does not seem inevitable to me. In fact with the increase is communication, transportation, and educational opportunities for people it seems like the opposite could just as well happen. It is not difficult and there are few barriers to entry into the market. Access to information about growing your own food has never been easier to come by (internet, books, libraries, advice from others already doing it). If you have some dirt, sunlight, seeds, and water you have the potential to grow something to eat.

In the end maybe one solution to the problem of knowing where food is produced, and knowing the resources consumed in transporting it to us, lies within us. We can decide to produce it ourselves and watch the process happen in our backyards. We can purchase food from our neighbors and ask them how they grew it in their backyard. If you live in a city where backyards are scarce you still have windows that let in the light. There are markets where farmers still sell their produce they grew nearby. You can lobby in your area to have community gardens. You can ask your grocery store why huge chunks of its produce section were brought in from 3,000 miles away when you know it is harvest time for some of those vegetables right where you happen to live. Whatever you decide you value, and how you choose to act upon that, is as always up to you. However, remember that by ignoring evidence, or by not taking responsibility for our choices, we are living out one set of values. I do not now if that is the set we all wish we were living up to, but it is if it is the one we choose.


A time to mow vs. A time not to mow

There is a funny thing about all the time, effort, and resources, that go into those large green expansive areas we call lawns. I don’t think it is often questioned exactly what is so appealing about 3 inch high living green carpet that we spend so much of our time and money to maintain it at such a short height and bright green color. It is an ironic thing that here in the United States we spend about 30 billion dollars [1] caring for 40.5 million acres of lawns [1]. 40.5 million acres! Just to put that in perspective, one of our large national parks – Yellowstone national park – is 2,219,791 acres. So citizens of the U.S. are mowing the equivalent land area of roughly 18 and a half Yellowstone National Parks every couple of weeks or more often where grasses grow even faster (this obviously varies with seasons in many areas, but especially during summer in many areas of the country it is literally true). There is obviously a large traditional and cultural element to maintaining a yard of short green grass. Some may enjoy the ability to have guests over and walk around a yard that doesn’t have knee high grass, others may enjoy playing yard games with children or friends on well manicured grass, or perhaps the most endorsed reason is simply that people enjoy the look of a short green lawn.

As with any choice people make there are consequences. These consequences often become much clearer when many people make the exact same choice (such as working to keep a short green grass lawn). If you are curious as to what this choice looks like on a large scale and you have access to google maps on your computer, I would encourage you to look around the country, especially in areas around towns, in cities, in suburban areas, along highways leading through rural areas and you can see how many people have made the choice to turn large tracts of land into short grass lawns. With any land-use issue it is important to consider the trade-offs of the choices being made. Everyone has their reasons for mowing their yards, whether it is entertaining guests, playing in the yard, or simply because they think it looks nice. I am going to bring a little more attention to some of the costs of having that well manicured, short green grass yard. Much of the lawns in this country are in private ownership so it only makes sense that we should understand what our choices mean for our own land. There are three key issues I am going to briefly mention that deserve a little thought before we start that lawn mower up again next week.

1) Oil and Gasoline consumption. For a country that is bent on energy independence and efficiency in many domains, we are wasting a large amount of oil and gasoline on lawn maintenance. Approximately 800 million gallons of oil are used every year for yard work and an estimated 17 million gallons of that is actually gasoline that is spilled in the process of getting gasoline from the gas stations into the lawn mower! To put this in perspective the Exxon Valdez oil spill was roughly 10.8 million gallons…[1] . Is importing oil from other countries worth having a short green lawn? Here is a short list of our oil import figures from 2014:

Total imported petroleum: 9 million barrels per day TOTAL (we also exported about 4 million barrels per day) – We are a huge net importer importing 5 million barrels per day AFTER accounting for all of our exports.

Largest suppliers (out of total imports)

Canada – purchased 3.39 million barrels per day from them

Saudi Arabia – purchased 1.17 million barrels per day from them

Mexico – purchased .84 million barrels per day from them

Venezuela – purchased .79 million barrels per day from them

Russia – purchased .36 million barrels per day from them

source: US energy information Administration

Keep in mind these figures are PER DAY and these are not gallons, they are barrels. A barrel is about 42 U.S gallons

2) Pollution – air, land, water – This may be due to the gas and oil burned by inefficient lawn mowers, weed eaters, etc. It can also be due to the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Air quality is certainly worsened by the use of older and 2 cycle lawn mower engines. One study determined that spending 1 hour mowing could generate the same emissions as driving 100 miles in a car [2] It is ridiculous that to maintain a green lawn homeowners (on average in the U.S) are using 10 times the amount of pesticides per acre than the average farmer in this country. All the while usually nothing actually useful and tangible is being produced by the owner of the lawn. This heavy use of pesticides means there are often issues with runoff into local streams and creeks, especially if there is unexpected heavy rainfall after application. There is also the issue of watering lawns, which in itself would be considered by many to be a waste of a valuable resource. This issue is becoming especially acute in areas prone to drought – ie. much of the southwestern U.S and portions of California. Even in areas not as drought prone where there is an abundance of water it is questionable whether using water to maintain bright green lawns is a wise use of freshwater.

3) Wildlife – We are undergoing a time of extinction of many species and increasing threats to many species that were once considered common. There are two species in particular in North America (and in other countries) that have garnered some attention in the past couple of decades and continue to decline in population despite the good intentions and efforts of many people, organizations, and governments. One of these is the Honey Bee and the other is the Monarch butterfly. The Honey Bee has been cited as an enormously important pollinator (responsible for an estimated 15 billion dollars per year in increased crop values) [3]. They are obviously the main source of honey, but also a key pollinator for many vegetable, fruit, and nut species. Monarch butterflies have garnered attention as well for their size and beauty, along with their dramatically declining population. Both of these species are dramatically affected by land use, and neither of these species is able to utilize short, green, and often mowed grass as a source of food or habitat. Monarch butterflies utilize a previously very common group of plants called Milkweed (there are a few different varieties) which is now much less common due to our land -use choices. Milkweed often will grow naturally in areas across the Midwest which are not mowed and can commonly reach heights of 2 – 5 feet tall and has showy blossoms and large seed pods in the fall. Honey Bees can utilize many plants for their nectar, including a variety of wildflowers, unfortunately there are very few wildflowers which can survive and bloom if yards are maintained to be only a few inches high. There are innumerable other animals which can be very beneficial to ecosystems, and humans, which thrive in taller grasses and woods, but cannot survive in grass only a few inches tall.

In summary there is definitely a need to consider the ways in which our choices relating to land use can have large consequences, especially if so many other people have the same idea (ie. yard must be mostly short, green, grass). For those who think their yard is so small that it doesn’t have much of an effect, I would ask you to reconsider. No matter how small the decrease in use of gasoline for mowing yards it is still a decrease and that is always a good thing. And the more yard left un-mowed the more time you will have for other things – often also another good thing. You may even take the initiative and plant some trees of wildflowers in the yard, then not only are you not using gasoline to mow it, and spending time mowing it, but you may just improve the chances different kinds of beneficial plants, insects, and wildlife will use your yard to survive.


[2] Study: Lawn Mowing equals car trip.

[3] Honey Bee Health.

Interesting informational video on Monsanto

This video gives a version of Monsanto’s past and current operations. It especially highlights the most controversial chemical products created by Monsanto (think Agent Orange). Really one large question on my mind was ‘Why do we allow so many synthetic chemical compounds to be used so extensively before we are truly certain of their effects?’

I understand the argument given here by Monsanto, and other supporters of conventional (monoculture farming w/use of pesticides) /factory farming operations, that we simply need more food and (even if some people argue the quality of food suffers) this is the only way to achieve that. I just happen to think their reasoning on the way to achieve that, and what the end goal should be (mostly focused only on quantity of a limited number of crops and a limited number of cultivars of crops), are wrong.

The argument being given to us by companies like Monsanto is we need more high yielding varieties of the same plants (think corn and soybeans) and it happens to be necessary to use pesticides and herbicides to allow them to achieve these high yields. To place Monsanto’s argument in perspective, here are some brief facts for you:

[Box 5] 100 YEARS OF AGRICULTURAL CHANGE: SOME TRENDS AND FIGURES RELATED TO AGROBIODIVERSITY* Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.* 30 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction; six breeds are lost each month.* Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species.* Of the 4 percent of the 250 000 to 300 000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three – rice, maize and wheat – contribute nearly 60 percent of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.* Animals provide some 30 percent of human requirements for food and agriculture and 12 percent of the world’s population live almost entirely on products from ruminants

Monsanto, and others, make the argument we must focus more on the crops that are giving us the highest yield right now to feed the most people possible. But this short-term argument is just that – short-term, nearsighted, whatever you choose to call it. It is this kind of extreme specialization, and very limited focus on very few food sources, which makes the entire food system very fragile. A simplified example: A country is supremely focused on its corn production, as that is one of its most profitable crops, so 80% of its available land is planted in corn – the focus is of course on planting mainly a very limited number of the highest yielding varieties. This seems to work well for a decade or two, but then there is a nearly complete crop failure due to a recently introduced exotic pest, fungus, or other disease. This country is going to have a gigantic problem, especially if it is one of the worlds top corn producers. It’s corn was used to feed many of the animals, which supplied people with very low priced meat. The corn was being used as food additives and sweeteners in many processed food products. The corn was being exported around the world cheaply to other countries so they wouldn’t have to worry about developing their own – more ‘labor intensive’ agricultural systems. This is an extreme and simplified example, but the value of diversification cannot be understated. The more we come to depend on fewer and fewer food sources the more we will be hurt when they collapse.

In addition to the focus on only a few crops, there is also the (potentially larger problem) of pesticide use built into the system of monoculture/conventional farming. To begin I do not believe there is any way to make the system ‘fool-proof’ that tries to outsmart nature. We can attempt to develop ‘super crops’, magnificent high yielding varieties, seemingly resistant to everything that can be thrown at them, but this is a sweet fiction. There is an idea in evolutionary theory that has been floating around for sometime referred to as The Red Queen Hypothesis. It can briefly be summed up by imagining a treadmill. You are on the treadmill and you start running faster, but this treadmill automatically adjusts to your running speed. No matter how fast you run it matches you and you travel nowhere. According to this hypothesis this is true in nature. If a predatory animal begins to feed specifically on one type of prey, and his prey evolves to have some kind of advantage over the predator and develops a way to elude him, the predator better be able to find a new type of prey quickly, improve (evolve/change) his hunting technique, or he dies. It is a never ending race between the predator and prey, both continually develop new ways to hunt and elude the other. They both ‘get better’, but the situation between them stays the same. Following this line of reasoning it becomes easier to see how a change in one species can force a change in another (or possible extinction), especially if they are very closely connected.

This is also true of plants and their predators, they are constantly engaged in a sort of arms race against each other. Plants on one side developing ways to become more resistant to insects, other plants attacks, and harmful diseases, while these are all trying to find ways around the plants defenses. And then there is us, favoring some plants against some insects, or trying to kill as many of the insects and ‘pests’ as we can, but all the while we are sort of in the dark as to exactly how the battle between these plants and specific insects is going. So far the answer has been to develop strong pesticides to simply kill as many of the pests as we can. Or try and develop varieties of plants that are somehow resistant to that specific pest. However, those pests grow stronger, more resilient to our ‘best’ weapons against them. The pesticide that was the most effective suddenly becomes the least. The cultivar that everyone had planted because of its resistance to one pest falls victim to another. By escalating our arms race (especially with the use of chemical pesticides) against insects (insecticides) and other plants (herbicides) we are running the risk that some of them will grow too strong for us to handle, we are counting on always being able to stay one step ahead of them just to maintain our current system.

The closer we look at the situation the clearer it becomes that we need to change the way we view the current food production system. The outlook is geared much too far towards short-term solutions without addressing the glaring long-term flaws, questionable assumptions, and ‘end’ goals of the system. One of the flaws is  the assumption that we will always be able to invent stronger pesticides in the future that will also somehow not harm everything else.  Is that realistic? What can we learn from the past? (DDT?). And as an ‘end goal’, we should definitely question whether the goal of having large quantities of a few varieties of cheap (pesticide laden) grain is even in our best interest. If that is really the best we can hope for from the current system then it is fairly obvious that we could use a change of goals!

More brief reading on pesticide resistance:

Reading on pesticide residues commonly found on corn in the United States:

Reading on Pesticides that were used, and later banned:

Reading on The Red Queen Hypothesis:

For a counterpoint to this article here is some information from Monsanto:



Science catching up: Organic vs. Conventional farming

Fresh green grass over cloudy sky

The link above leads to a short article summarizing the results of a study which found significant advantages in organic produce, when compared to similar conventionally-grown crops. It used a technique called ‘meta-analysis’. This is a scientific way to say it looked at much of the previous research done comparing organic vs. non-organic foods and attempted to pull some conclusions from all of the previous research done before. These types of studies have large advantages over smaller-scale studies that only look at fairly limited samples, or variables. They tend to be much more accurate in their findings because the sample they are looking at is literally all of the other experiments samples, so they are not limited in the same way individual studies are.

Some of the big findings were that organic foods had higher levels of antioxidants, and much lower levels of pesticide residue. The higher levels of antioxidants is hypothesized to stem from the fact that the organic plants had to grow stronger to fight off insects, competing plants, etc. and through this process developed higher anti-oxidant levels. The plants grown conventionally were sort of coddled by having all competition and insects killed around them and did not have to develop the strength to fight anything off.

I think at this point the lower levels of pesticide residue in organic produce is fairly well-known. I mean if conventionally grown crops get covered in pesticide, while growing in soil laden with pesticide, it should come as no great surprise that they are going to contain some pesticide. The big question here is ‘How much is too much?’. I think many supporters of conventional farming practices would maintain that the levels are either very low to non-existent in the final product, rendering them safe for human consumption (to those who would say pesticide residues are non-existent on the final product I would refer you to the link at the end of the next paragraph). And maybe there is some truth to this, if the food is eaten in small amounts by otherwise healthy adults, and there is very little pesticide residue to begin with. However, a lifetime of consumption is a different story altogether. And what about children? The elderly? People who already have compromised immune systems? They would certainly not fare as well when faced with the same level a healthy adult could stand. Long term consumption of different pesticide residues is bound to have larger effects than small limited doses of individual pesticide residues over small periods of time. The effects would be compounded in a way that is not often taken into account when these pesticides are approved for use on our food.

Think of it like this, if you get your hands on some contaminated apples and you are eating those apples and someone tells you not to worry because the level of that particular pesticide in those apples is too low to negatively affect you, and so you eat the apples. Now after that you get very sick and you say ‘Hey you told me I wouldn’t get sick from the apples!’ And they say ‘Well, what else did you eat today?’. You tell them you ate the apples in a fruit salad with grapes and strawberries. Their reply might be ‘Aha! I told you the apples were fine, but it was your fault for eating them with the grapes and strawberries, I never advised you to do that!’ This is why it does not make sense to continue to only study the effects of these pesticides in isolation from everything else. It is not realistic at all, but it is still how so many pesticides are tested and gain approval to be used on our food. (Grapes and strawberries are often very high on the pesticide contamination lists ). The effect of all these pesticide residues combined has been understated and understudied. Essentially the consumers have become guinea pigs in the study of pesticides in their food.

This study doesn’t even look at the health of people who live next to the fields that are coated with pesticides? Or the animals (like bees) which feed on and around the fields. Or how about the water quality of the rivers, which are fed by streams flowing around these fields? All of these things are interconnected, and also have a large impact on human health.

In summary, while I think this study further supports organic farming (and organic consuming!), mostly it is telling us what we would have known long ago if we were paying more attention. How were we ever fooled into thinking covering all of our food with pesticides could be safe? Who really thinks that by completely altering the soil ecology of a field for the worse (by killing many of the microorganisms, beneficial bacteria, and applying pesticides of course!) we will, somehow, continue to get high quality nutritious food from it? Maybe we were fooled once, but with the evidence becoming crystal clear it is easy to see that we will have to change the way conventional farming is practiced for the sake of our own health, our families health, and the environment we all share.

Sustainable living in practice in Hawaii

This is just a short video of some members of sustainable communities in Hawaii discussing why they are a part of those communities and the advantages and challenges of those communities.

There are some great points in this video. One of them is the fact that often government ,or other regulatory bodies, enact regulations that make it difficult (or impossible) for sustainable communities to realize their goals. This is really interesting because I know I like to think of our government here in the U.S. as being pretty supportive in terms of sustainability initiatives and sometimes even of renewable energy. I know if someone were to listen to many of our politicians speeches it would be easy to get the idea that America is on a fast-track to an environmentally sustainable utopia! I mean when was the last time you heard a mainstream politician say they did not support ‘renewable energy’, or a ‘sustainable local/domestic economy’ ? I know it happens from time to time, but in general they paint a pretty rosy picture of America’s sustainable energy future. However, I am not really seeing these words put into practice on any sort of large scale. In fact excessive government regulations can severely hamper individual efforts to move towards more sustainable lifestyles, especially when those lifestyles threaten entrenched interests (large utility companies, fossil fuel companies, large agribusiness, etc.).

Really great home built for very little money using recycled materials and local wood

This is a really amazing place he built in the middle of a forest in Oregon. The house itself really seems to grow right alongside the trees around it. Maybe that is the key, it doesn’t dominate the landscape, it doesn’t overwhelm everything else, it just seems like it has always been there. Another great plus is that you notice this man will not need a lawn mower, what would he need it for? He is surrounded by a forest, why would he cut it down to spend his time maintaining an inch tall spread of grass?

The interior of the house is really impressive. It is like the forest does not end at the walls of the home, but just keeps growing within it. Everything from the floors, to the roof, to the tables are made from different kinds of locally sourced and/or recycled wood from the local area.