GMOs and nanotechnology – hope for the future

6 06 2013

I ran into some interesting ideas that seem to display why we should not immediately discredit new science – like genetic engineering or nanotechnology – because it might well provide clues to how we can continue to live on this planet.  So rather than taking a global stand against GMOs or nanotechnology perhaps we should look at how the science is used.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)  – the natural gas that allows sunlight to reach the Earth -  also prevents some of the sun’s heat from radiating back into space, thus trapping heat and warming the planet. Scientists call this warming the greenhouse effect. When t­his effect occurs naturally, it warms the Earth enough to sustain life. In fact, if we had no greenhouse effect, our planet would be an average temperature of minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)[1].  My kids would love the skiing, but they’d be too dead to enjoy it.  So carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect are necessary for Earth to survive. But human inventions like power plants and cars, which burn fossil fuels, release extra CO2 into the air. Because we’ve added (and continue to add) this carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is stored on Earth, which causes the temperature of the planet to slowly rise, a phenomenon called global warming.

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas (GHG) – others include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – but it’s the most important.  And it’s going up as a direct result of human activity.[2]  Just recently, we passed a milestone that climate scientists have warned is impressively scary – for the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 400 ppm.[3]

So what to do? Traditionally, we’ve relied on natural systems to deal with this extra CO2 – like trees and other plants which soak up the stuff through photosynthesis.  But the amounts being generated exceed the capacity of natural systems to deal with it.  So we look to technological solutions, which basically consist of:  capture (i.e., trapping the gas at its emission source and then putting it someplace where it won’t escape) and geologic sequestration or storage (putting it someplace where it won’t escape.)  But I’m not a believer in these measures – after all, captured CO2 must be transported (by rail, truck or ship) to its final storage place.  And where is there a storage place that will not leak and can accommodate the 30 billion metric tons of CO2 we generate every year – without dire environmental consequences.

We have to look outside the box.  There have been many such ideas, from the more outlandish (i.e., create man-made volcanoes to pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight and cool the planet[4]) to several I’ve outlined below that just might help.  But they depend  on the use of GMO and nano science.

As describes it:  “It is not widely appreciated that the most substantial process of carbon sequestration on the planet is accomplished by myriad marine organisms making their exoskeletons, or shells.   Shells are produced biologically from calcium and magnesium ions in sea water and carbon dioxide from the air, as it is absorbed by sea water. When the organisms die, their shells disintegrate and form carbonate sediments, such as limestone, which are permanent, safe carbon sinks.”[5]

from ecoco: sustainable design

from ecoco: sustainable design

By studying how sea urchins grow their own shells, scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have discovered a way to trap CO2 in solid calcium carbonate using nickle nanoparticles.  “It is a simple system,” said Dr Lidija Siller from Newcastle University. “You bubble CO2 through the water in which you have nickel nanoparticles and you are trapping much more carbon than you would normally—and then you can easily turn it into calcium carbonate.”[6]  Most carbon capture and storage programs must first trap the CO2 and then pump it into holes deep under ground, which is both expensive and has a high environmental risk.    Lead author, PhD student Gaurav Bhaduri, is quoted: “ [the nickel catalyst]  is very cheap, a thousand times cheaper than carbon anhydrase”.  The two researchers have patented the process and are looking for investors.

Meanwhile, MIT professor Angela Belcher, who had done her thesis on the abalone,   and graduate students Roberto Barbero and Elizabeth Wood are also looking into this.  They have  created a process that can convert carbon dioxide into carbonates that could be used as building materials. Their process, which has been tested in the lab, can produce about two pounds of carbonate for every pound of carbon dioxide captured.

Their process requires using genetically modified yeast.

Yeast don’t normally do any of those reactions on their own, so Belcher and her students had to engineer them to express genes found in organisms such as the abalone. Those genes code for enzymes and other proteins that help move carbon dioxide through the mineralization process.

The MIT team’s biological system captures carbon dioxide at a higher rate than other systems being investigated. Another advantage of the biological system is that it requires no heating or cooling, and no toxic chemicals.

Dr. Belcher has also used genetically modified viruses so they would have a binding affinity with carbon nanotubes – which allowed them to build a high-powered lithium ion battery cathode that could power a green LED.  Dr. Belcher thinks that she might one day drive a virus-powered car.

I think these two examples demonstrate that we should always keep an open mind.  And remember that it’s not always the science that’s causing a problem, but rather how we use it.  The idea that GMO seeds are intellectual property (owned largely by Monsanto) for example, is one of the wrong ways to use this technology.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Nylon 6 and Nylon 6,6

5 06 2012

Nylon is a synthetic polymer called a polyamide  because of the characteristic monomers of amides in the backbone chain.  Polyamides are also naturally occurring – proteins such as wool and silk are also polyamides.

We commonly see two basic types of nylon used in fabrics: nylon 6 and nylon 6,6:

  • Nylon 6,6:  Two different molecules (adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine)  are combined to create repeat units of 6 carbon atoms, thus the name nylon 6,6.
  • Nylon 6:  Only one type of molecule is used in the formation of nylon 6, which also has 6 carbon atoms.  The repeat unit for type 6 nylon is made from caprolactam (also called ε-caprolactam).

Remember polyester is also a polymer (as are lots of naturally occurring things).  And like polyester, the nylon polymers are theoretically unreactive and not particularly harmful, but that’s not true of the monomers:

  • A small % of the monomers escape during production (off gassing or into water), which have environmental consequences.
  • With production expected to be over  4.4 million pounds/year by 2020, burden on water treatment facilities is immense.
  • Monomers are precipitated out during treatment, so they are present in the sludge.

The manufacture of both nylon 6,6 and nylon 6 uses cyclohexane as a precursor [1] – and cyclohexane is made from benzene, “one of the most challenging processes in the chemical industry”.[2]  Benzene is listed as a human carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services.  It is associated with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), aplastic anemia, myleodysplastic syndrome (MDS), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)[3]  The American Petroleum Institute (API) stated in 1948 that “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” [[4]

But the real culprits are the generation of unwanted by-products of nylon manufacture:  ammonium sulfate [5] in the case of nylon 6 and nitrous oxide in the case of nylon 6,6.

For nylon 6, the conventional synthesis route to caprolactam uses toxic hydroxylamine (NH2OH) and, in the last two steps, concentrated sulfuric acid. Every metric ton of caprolactam produces up to 4.5 tons of ammonium sulfate as a by-product [6].  As with many chemicals now in use, there is no data to evaluate ammonium sulfate as to toxicity to humans, though it has been shown to affect development, growth and mortality in amphibians, crustaceans, fish, insects, mollusks, and other organisms.[7]

In addition, waste water generated during production of nylon-6 contains the unreacted monomer, caprolactam. Owing to the polluting and toxic nature of ε-caprolactam, “its removal from waste streams is necessary”[8]

In evaluating the chief components of nylon 6,6  (hexamethlylenediamine and adipic acid), we find a darker situation.   Hexamethlylenediamine is a  petroleum derivative,  with the usual consequences of petroleum processing. It is considered “mildly toxic”[9] (though in one study, ten administrations of 700 mg/kg to mice killed 3 of 20[10]).   But the production of the other monomer,  adipic acid,  requires the oxidation of cyclohexanol or cyclohexanone by nitric acid, a process which produces nitrous oxide (N2O) -  a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2.[11]  A study published in 1991 credits the production of nylon – and the concurrent by-product of nitrous oxide – as contributing as much as 10% to the increased observance of atmospheric N2O.[12]  And this is a great concern, so much so that there is increased talk of our “nitrogen footprint”.

Nitrogen is one of the 5 elements (the others are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus) that make life possible. It is essential for the creation of DNA, amino acids and proteins. 79% of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, but living things can’t use it in this form called dinitrogen (N2).  So in the nitrogen cycle, lightning  converts N2 into nitrate, which is carried to Earth by rain, where it enters the food chain.  When organisms die, bacteria recycles the nitrogen in them and it returns to the atmosphere.  Pretty elegant, isn’t it?

From: Nitrous Oxide Focus Group

But we have disrupted this nitrogen cycle.  A study by University of Virginia environmental scientist James Galloway and colleagues reported that from 1970 to 2008, world population increased by 78% and reactive nitrogen creation grew 120%.[13] The turning point, according to the International Nitrogen Initiative, came in 1909 when humans figured out how to combine hydrogen with N2 to create ammonia – which was used to produce fertilizer. Humans have introduced additional reactive nitrogen into the environment by expanding the production of soybeans, peanuts and alfalfa, (leguminous) crops which host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that convert N2 into reactive nitrogen. We use ammonia to manufacture nylon, plastics, resins, animal and fish feed supplements, and explosives. Fossil fuel burning industries and vehicles produce nitrogen emissions, and nitrogen is a component of the electronics, steel, drug, missile and refrigerant industries.

A single nitrogen molecule can cascade through the environment affecting air and water quality, human health and global warming in numerous ways(click here for a summary):

  • Runoff from agriculture—from fertilized crops fed to animals, from manure, and from biofuel and crops—enters rivers and streams and can contaminate groundwater. When nitrogen-loaded runoff makes its way to the ocean, it can result in eutrophication, where algae bloom, then die, depleting the oxygen and suffocating plants and animals. Runoff from urban areas, sewage treatment plants, and industrial wastewater also contribute to eutrophication.
  • Nitrogen is also a component of acid rain, which can acidify soils, lakes and streams. While some trees may utilize the extra nitrogen to grow, others experience foliage damage and have reduced tolerance for stress.
  • Our air quality is affected by nitrogen emissions from vehicles, fossil fuel burning industries (like coal), and the ammonia from agriculture, which cause ground-level ozone. High concentrations of ozone affect human respiratory and cardiovascular health and disrupt photosynthesis in plants.
  • Climate change is both influenced by and exacerbated by nitrogen. For example, nitrogen may stimulate plant growth, resulting in more carbon dioxide uptake in some forests.

Scientists have stressed the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, improve wastewater treatment, restore natural nitrogen sinks in wetlands, and both reduce the use and increase the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers. Galloway’s study also underscores the importance of better management of animal waste from the concentrated animal feeding operations that produce most of our meat today.

Another concern of using nylon is that all nylons break down in fire and form hazardous smoke.  Also smoke from burning nylon at a landfill emits the same chemicals,  typically containing  hydrogen cyanide, nitrous oxide (N2O) and dioxins[14].

Because nylon 6,6 is made from two different molecules, it is very difficult to recycle and/or repurpose.  Trying to separate and re-use them is like “trying to unbake a cake”.  However, nylon 6, because it is made from only one molecule, can easily be re-polymerized, and therin lies it’s claims to environmental superiority.  But  nylon production uses a lot of energy - about double that of polyester.  If recycling it uses about half the energy as is needed to produce virgin nylon, then recycled nylon and virgin polyester use about the same amount of energy.

Nylon 6 is becoming the new green darling of designers – but unless the recyling process captures all emissions, treats wastewater and sludge and also recaptures the energy used, the claim is tepid at best.  And nylon, unlike polyester, does degrade,  but slowly[15], giving it plenty of time to release its chemical load into our groundwater

I couldn’t find any data on the toxicity of nylon as fabric, but the government of Canada has evaluated nylon 6,6 because it is also used in cosmetics, and classified it as a “medium human health priority”; it is also on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.[16]  Another study found that some of the chemicals in nylon kitchen utensils migrated into food.[17]

[1] The remaining less than five percent of installed caprolactam capacity is via the cyclohexane photonitrozation process of Toray, which goes directly from cyclohexane to the oxime, or the SNIA Viscosa process, which utilizes toluene as feedstock and proceeds via oxidation-hydrogenation-nitrozation.

[2] Villaluenga, J.P. Garcia, Tabe-Mohammadi, A., “A review on the separation of benzene/cyclohexane mixtures by pervaporation processes, Journal of Membrane Science, Vol 169, issue 2, pp. 159-174, May 2000.

[3] Smith, Martyn T. (2010). “Advances in understanding benzene health effects and susceptibility”. Ann Rev Pub Health 31: 133–48. DOI:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103646.

[4] American Petroleum Institute, API Toxicological Review, Benzene, September 1948, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Department of Health and Human Services

[6] Hoelderich, Wolfgang and Dahlhoff, Gerd, “The Greening of Nylon”, Chemical Innovation, February 2001, Vol 31, ppg. 29-40 and Weston, Charles et al, “Ammonium Compounds”, Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, June 20, 2003,

[8] Kulkarni, Rahul and Kanekar, Pradnya, “Bioremediation of e-Caprolactum from Nylon 6 waste water…” MICROBIOLOGY, Vol 37, Number 3 1997

[10] “Handbook of Toxic Properties of Monomers and Additives”, Victor O. Sheffel, CRC Press, Inc., 1995

[11] 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) by Working Group 1 (WG1), Chapter 2 “Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing” which contains information on global warming potential (GWP) of greenhouse gases

[12] Thiemens, Mark and Trogler, William, “Nylon Production: An unknown source of atmospheric nitrous oxide”, Science, February 1991, vol 251, pp 932-934

[13] Galloway, JN, and Gruber,  “An Earth-system perspective of the global nitrogen cycle.” Nature 451, 2008, 293-296.

[15] For nylon fabric, current estimates are 30 – 40 years.

Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

From last week’s blog post, we discussed how bio based plastics do indeed save energy during the production of the polymers, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the process.  Yet right off the bat, it could be argued that carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement,  because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere!   Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1] Therefore, it is both ironic and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline. This in turn would greatly increase the competition for biological sources of food and fuel – with biopolymers coming in last place.[2]  But that’s probably really stretching the point.

The development of bioplastics holds the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea.  Although plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins,  their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem.  It’s important to remember that bioplastics, just like regular plastics, are synthetic polymers; it’s just that plants are being used instead of oil to obtain the carbon and hydrogen needed for polymerization.

It’s good marketing, but bad honesty, as they say, because there are so many types of plastics and bioplastics that you don’t know what you’re getting in to;  bioplastics are much more complicated than biofuels.  There are about two dozen different ways to create a bioplastic, and each one has different properties and capabilities.

Actually the term “bioplastic” is pretty meaningless, because some bioplastics are actually made from oil – they’re called “bioplastics” because they are biodegradeable.  That causes much confusion because plastics made from oil can be biodegradeable whereas some plant-based  bioplastics are not. So the term bioplastics can refer either to the raw material (biomass) or, in the case of oil-based plastic, to its biodegradability.  The problem with biodegradability and compostability is that there is no agreement as to what that actually means either,  and under what circumstances

You might also see the term “oxo-degradable”.   Oxo-degradables look like plastic, but they are not. It is true that the material falls apart, but that is because it contains metal salts which cause it to disintegrate rapidly into tiny particles. Then you cannot see it anymore, but it is still there, in the ocean too. Just as with conventional plastics, these oxo-degradables release harmful substances when they are broken down.

Let’s re-visit  some of the reasons bioplastics are supposed to be an environmental benefit:

  • Because it’s made from plants, which are organic, they’re good for the planet.  Polymer bonds can be created from oil, gas or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be organic or more environmentally friendly. You could make non-biodegradable, toxic plastic out of organic corn!
  • Bioplastics are biodegradable. Although made from materials that can biodegrade, the way that material is turned into plastic  makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the materials to naturally break down.  There are bioplastics made from vegetable matter (maize or grass, for example) which are no more biodegradable than any other plastics, says Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research.[3]  Bioplastics do not universally biodegrade in normal conditions  –  some require special, rare conditions to decompose, such as high heat composting facilities, while others may simply take decades or longer to break down again, mitigating the supposed benefits of using so-called compostable plastics material. There are no independent standards for what even constitutes “biodegradable plastic.”  Sorona makes no claim to break down in the environment; Ingeo is called “compostable” (though it can only be done in industrial high heat composters). Close studies of so-called degradable plastics have shown that some only break down to plastic particles which are so small they can’t be seen  (“out of sight, out of mind”), which are more easily ingested by animals. Indeed, small plastic fragments of this type may also be better able to attract and concentrate pollutants such as DDT and PCB.[4]
  • Bioplastics are recyclable. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there’s no way to make sure you’re getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat – so although some bioplastics are recyclable, the recycling facilities won’t separate them out.  Cargill Natureworks insists that PLA  can in theory be recycled, but in reality it is likely to be confused with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  In October 2004, a group of recyclers and recycling advocates issued a joint call for Natureworks to stop selling PLA for bottle applications until the recycling questions were addressed.[5]  But the company claims that levels of PLA in the recycling stream are too low to be considered a contaminant.  The process of recycling bioplastics is cumbersome and expensive – they present a real problem for recyclers because they cannot be handled using conventional processes. Special equipment and facilities are often needed. Moreover, if bioplastics commingle with traditional plastics, they contaminate all of the other plastics, which forces waste management companies to reject batches of otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Bioplastics are non-toxicBecause they’re not made from toxic inputs (as are oil based plastics), bioplastics have the reputation for being non toxic.  But we’re beginning to see the same old toxic chemicals produced from a different (plant-based) source of carbon. Example:  Solvay’s bio-based PVC uses phthalates,  requires chlorine during production, and produces dioxins during manufacture, recycling and disposal. As one research group commissioned by the European Bioplastics Association was forced to admit, with regard to PVC,  “The use of bio-based ethylene is …  unlikely to reduce the environmental impact of PVC with respect to its toxicity potential.[6]

The arguments against supporting bioplastics include the fact that they are corporate owned, they compete with food, they bolster industrial agriculture and lead us deeper into genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.  I am not with those who think we shouldn’t go there, because we sorely need scientific inquiry  and eventually we might even get it right.  But, for example, today’s industrial agriculture is not, in my opinion, sustainable, and the genetic engineering we’re doing is market driven with no altruistic motive. 

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the potential to become a much-preferred alternative to conventional plastics. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC)[7] is a coalition of organizations that advances the introduction and use of biobased products. They seek to replace dependence on materials made from harmful fossil fuels with a new generation of materials made from plants – but the shift they propose is more than simply a change of materials.  They promote (according to their website): sustainability standards, practical tools, and effective policies to drive and shape the emerging markets for these products.  They also refer to “sustainable bioplastics” rather than simply “bioplastics”.  In order to be a better choice, these sustainable bioplastics must be:

  • Derived from non-food, non-GMO source materials – like algae rather than GMO corn, or from sustainably grown and harvested cropland or forests;
  • Safe for the environment during use;
  • Truly compostable and biodegradable;
  • Free of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and recycling process;
  • Manufactured without hazardous inputs and impacts (water, land and chemical use are considerations);
  • Recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle.

Currently, manufacturers are not responsible for the end-life of their products. Once an item leaves their factories, it’s no longer the company’s problem. Therefore, we don’t have a system by which adopters of these new bioplastics would be responsible for recovering, composting, recycling, or doing whatever needs to be done with them after use. Regarding toxicity, the same broken and ineffective regulatory system is in charge of approving bioplastics for food use, and there is no reason to assume that these won’t raise just as many health concerns as conventional plastics have. Yet again, it will be an uphill battle to ban those that turn out to be dangerous.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology traces the full impact of plastic production all the way back to its source for several types of plastics.[8]   Study author Amy Landis of the University of Pittsburgh says, “The main concern for us is that these plant-derived products have a green stamp on them just because they’re derived from biomass.  It’s not true that they should be considered sustainable. Just because they’re plants doesn’t mean they’re green.”

The researchers found that while making bioplastics requires less fossil fuel and has a lower impact on global warming, they have higher impacts for eutrophication, eco-toxicity and production of human carcinogens.  These impacts came largely from fertilizer use, pesticide use and conversion of lands to agricultural fields, along with processing the bio-feedstocks into plastics, the authors reported.

According to the study, polypropylene topped the team’s list as having the least life-cycle impact, while PVC and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were ranked as having the highest life-cycle impact.

But as the Plastic Pollution Coalition tells us, it’s not so much changing the material itself that needs changing – it’s our uses of the stuff itself.  We are the problem:   If we continue to buy single-use disposable objects such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, our throwaway culture will continue to harm the environment, no matter what it’s made of.

The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation has a list of ten easy things you can do to keep plastics out of our environment:

  1. Choose to reuse when it comes to  shopping bags and bottled water.  Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable  bottles are available locally at great prices.
  2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess  packaging, straws and other ‘disposable’ plastics.  Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out  restaurants.
  3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
  4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great  way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
  5. Go digital! No need for plastic cds,  dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
  6. Seek out alternatives to the plastic  items that you rely on.
  7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled      plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
  9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene  foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics!

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND

[2] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007 AND L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011;

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at

[6] L. Shen, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio- Based Plastics,” PRO-BIP 2009, Final Report, June 2009

What about using organic fabrics in the carbon footprint calculation?

9 06 2009

I’m so glad you asked!

From the previous post I hope I made it clear that natural fibers (whether organic or conventionally produced) have a lighter footprint than do synthetics – both in terms of emissions of greenhouse gasses and in terms of energy needed to manufacture the fibers.  And natural fibers have the added benefits of being able to be degraded by microorganisims and composted,  and  also of sequestering carbon.  According to the United Nations, they’re also a responsible choice, because by buying natural fibers you’re supporting the economies of many developing countries and supporting the livelihoods of many low-wage and subsistence workers.  The United Nations has declared 2009 the Year of Natural Fibers and they have a great website if you’re looking for more information:

Substituting ORGANIC fibers for conventionally grown natural fibers is not just a little better but lots better in all respects:  uses less energy for production, emits fewer greenhouse gases, and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).  A study published by Innovations Agronomiques  ( found that fully 43% less greenhouse gasses are emitted per unit under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture.  A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.  Further, it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400KG of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming.  When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint calculation, it reduces total greenhouse gasses even further. The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops.


Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims (GMOs) which is not only an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity but also for the associated off farm biotic communities
  • conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
  • ensures sustained biodiversity
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. (

So just how much CO2 can organic farming take out of the air each year?  According to data from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) :

  • If only 10,000 medium sized farms in the US converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road.
  • If we converted the U.S.’s 160 million acres of corn and soybeans to organic, we could sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73% of the Koyoto targets for CO2 reduction in the U.S.
  • Converting U.S. agriculture to organic would actually  wipe out the 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 emitted annually and give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.

carbon sequestratioon image 1

Paul Hepperly says that organic farming is a no brainer:  “Organic farming is not a technological fix, not an untried experiment that could have its own unforeseen consequences.” Instead, it may well be one of the most powerful tools we have in our fight against global warming that brings with it a wealth of other environmental benefits.


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