A non organic future?

25 05 2011

According to the World Population Clock at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, the population of the world is now 6.92 billion people.  We’re supposed to reach 7 billion by the end of October of this year, according to the United Nations.  This is much faster than anyone had expected and represents an increase of one billion people in just 12 years[1].

Hania Zlotnik,  director of the population division in the UN department of economic and social affairs, says  “What is astounding is that the last two billion have been reached in record time… it’s not about how many people there are but where they are:  most of these people are being added in the poorest countries of the world.”  That means those countries least able to handle these new citizens, and they’re already the most vulnerable to famine.

Whether there is a reasonable chance of slowing the population growth rate is still being hotly debated, but all agree that these new numbers are causing shockwaves in many areas.   One area which is attracting lots of attention looks at how we’re going to feed all these people.  And because we’re proponents of using organically grown fibers (and organic agriculture in general), we think it’s important to investigate these arguments about the benefits of organic vs. conventional agriculture.

At the start of 2011, according to The Economist in a special report  about feeding the  world, “The 9 billion – people question“, the “fact that agriculture has experienced two big price spikes in under four years suggests that something serious is rattling the world’s food chain.”   World food prices have risen above the peak they reached in early 2008.  The food industry is in crisis – and certainly the era of cheap food is over.   There are mounting concerns that we cannot feed even the current population, let alone the 9 billion people expected by 2050.

According to The Economist:  The world looks to farmers to do more than just produce food. Agriculture is also central to reducing hunger (which is not quite the same thing) and provides many people’s main route out of poverty. Food is probably the biggest single influence on people’s health, though in radically different ways in poor countries than in rich ones, where the big problem now is obesity. Food is also one of the few pleasures available to the poorest.

In The Economist’s view (which is held by many scientists, food companies, plant breeders and international development agencies)  traditional and organic agriculture is a luxury of the rich.  They say that this type of farming could feed Europeans and Americans well.   But it cannot feed the world.

Central panel: The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch

Pedro Sanchez, Director and Senior Research Scholar at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, says  If you ask me point blank whether organic-based farming is better than conventional, my answer is no.  There are just too many of us, we just need too many nutrients.  And those nutrients come from plants that need nutrients that organic fertilizers can’t always provide.”

And Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out that  organic production tends to have somewhat lower yields compared to non-organics. He says going all organic would require a whole lot more land. Organic farming is, he says, a niche market. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.

Needless to say, we’re interested in finding out more about this topic!  We’ll start our own series (feeding and clothing 9 billion!) next week – the subject is really complex and we will need several weeks to do it justice.





The President’s Cancer Panel and fabric choices

6 10 2010

Ever wonder why you buy those organic foods that cost more?  It’s always a bit of sticker shock when you see the organic and conventional side by side.   The organic strawberries may taste better, but this economy means we have to pinch every penny.  As my husband says, an apple is an apple, so why pay more for one when you can get the other cheaper?  It’s not going to do anything to me – at least not today.

Turns out you might want to re-think those – and lots of other –  choices you make every day.  The President’s Cancer Panel issued a 240-page report in May, 2010, called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now” This year’s report is the first time the panel has emphasized the environmental causes of cancer. It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.” Children are especially vulnerable.

The report is based on testimony from a series of meetings held between September 08 and January 09 which  included 45 invited experts from academia, government, industry, the environmental and cancer advocacy communities, and the public. The report urged President Obama to “use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”  Because industrial chemicals are so ubiquitous and exposure to these potential environmental carcinogens so widespread, “the Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,”

The report said previous estimates that environmental pollutants and occupational exposures cause 6% of all cancers are low and “woefully out of date.”  In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that environmental factors contribute to 75-80% of all cancers: from tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, radiation, obesity and certain viruses and sexually-transmitted diseases – in addition to environmental carcinogens. One excerpt reads, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market. … many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are. … largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The President’s Panel report clearly states that much work has to be done to better characterize environmental determinants of cancer—including better research methods, standardized measurements, and more realistic models that can help estimate the cumulative risks associated with multiple environmental toxins.  But scientists have been scrambling for decades for scarce funding  – and the work was given a low priority.  The fundamental problem is that research into environmental causes of cancer has little potential for yielding profits—at least in the short-term. In fact, it is more likely to cost industry through stronger regulation and removal of products from the market, litigation and the added expense of developing new products based on “green chemistry.” So it’s not a stretch to understand why the government and the pharmaceutical industry would rather spend billions of dollars promoting screening and developing profitable new cancer drugs.  Peter Montague, a long-time environmental advocate puts it this way: “To be blunt about it, there’s no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive.”

Environmental toxins are rarely considered in health policy initiatives (except for tobacco and sunlight), despite the findings that people who live in polluted areas and work with toxic substances (most often the poor and minorities) have higher rates of cancer incidence.  The Cancer Panel  pointed out  “Cancer Alley“, the stretch along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as an example.  Louisiana ranked second in the nation for on-site toxic releases, and many studies exist which demonstrate the cancer rate is above the average for the rest of the United States.  In one small Louisiana town in Cancer Alley, 3 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma were reported in a 14 month period.  Rhabdomyosarcoma is an extremely rare and devastating childhood cancer, with a national average of one child in a million.  Five years ago a group of residents of Mossville, Louisiana, filed a human rights complaint against the US government, alleging it was not protecting their right to live in a healthy environment.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed this year to hear their complaint.

In a consensus statement,  the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, an international partnership of some 3,000 individuals and organizations, says that the net result of this inadequate funding is a body of research that is in danger of being irrelevant:

“The methods that have been used to attribute cancer risk to environmental exposures are outdated and flawed, and should no longer be used to determine policy or set research priorities.”

So it’s not just organic foods that we should be concerned about, but the whole phalanx of products which are made using harmful chemistry, and the manufacturers that don’t capture emissions or treat their waste products, thereby polluting our entire ecosystem.  That’s why O Ecotextiles has made a commitment to sell only fabrics which are safe for both you and the Earth.

I found it interesting that there is a new branch of science that is also studying how these environmental factors can influence us.  Called epigenetics, it is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve changes to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation.   These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.

One could think of the genome as a book of blueprints,  laying out a number of options in the form of genes. The epigenome is like the contractor who goes through the book, deciding which options to include in a house. Two different contractors can build radically different houses from the same book of blueprints, in the same way that two organisms with identical DNA can look very different.

This field of study, some believe, might hold the key to understanding how environmental toxins cause serious, and often life-threatening diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.  For quite some time scientists have been trying to determine how exposure to environmental toxins can result in serious disease years or even decades later. Epigenetics may provide the mechanism. An exposure to an environmental toxin at one point in a person’s life (and most critically during gestation) can trigger the epigenome to turn on or turn off a key gene. Years later, because of that epigenetic change, a disease may appear.

“We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked,” said Randy Jirtle,  Ph.D., a genetics researcher in Duke’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.”

Exposures to pesticides, toxins and synthetic compounds can give rise to a host of diseases – such as cancer and asthma — whose prevalence has soared in recent decades, says H. Kim Lyerly, M.D., director of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.  Pesticides encountered in utero might be dormant in the fetus, only to cause cancer ten, 20 or 50 years later, he said.

Even the lowest detectable limits of a chemical can have dire effects on a living organism, added William Schlesinger, Ph.D., Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke. Atrizine is a prime example. Less than one part per billion of this widely used corn herbicide de-masculinizes developing frogs or causes dual male-female genitalia. Yet often the Environmental Protection Agency’s instrumentation doesn’t record such minute levels of chemical exposure, he said.

What does the Cancer Panel suggest we do in the meantime?  Here is their list, with a few of additions of our own:

  • Remove your shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
  • Filter tap water.
  • Use stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.
  • Microwave in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
  • Become aware of what you’re eating:  minimize consumption of food grown with pesticides, and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.
  • Minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Reduce radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.
  • Be aware of the products you use, especially those that come in contact with your skin, such as:  lotions, cosmetics, wipes, sheets, clothing, hair dyes.  Check ingredient labels, look for third party certifications where appropriate.
  • And finally:  use sunscreen, stop smoking and lose weight if necessary.




Textiles, organic agriculture and water use

20 10 2009

A new study focused on global water issues, commissioned by an  international network of  scientists,   found that people around the world view water issues as the planet’s top environmental problem –  greater than air pollution, depletion of natural resources, loss of habitat or climate change. (click here to read more on this study).  That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the alarming statistics we’ve been hearing recently:

From World Water Day:  “The world water crisis is one of the largest public health issues of our time. Nearly 1.1 billion people (roughly 20% of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water. Water is essential to the treatment of diseases, something especially critical for children.  This problem isn’t confined to a particular region of the world. A third of the Earth’s population lives in “water stressed” countries and that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades.”

From Water.org:

  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease.
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day

Given that the textile industry uses vast quantities of water – and is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on Earth – it is necessary that the industry at the very least institute water treatment at each and every mill so that the water returned to the ecosystem is safe and doesn’t cause harm.  Currently the industry is adopting voluntary certifications which demonstrate to consumers what they are doing to protect the environment.    Some certifications include standards for water treatment (such as GOTS, C2C, SMaRT) and some do not (such as Oeko-Tex, GreenGuard).  But these certifications are voluntary, and water treatment is expensive.  The market doesn’t yet know enough to demand safe fabrics, let alone better processing procedures.  The industry is not adopting these standards quickly nor is there much discussion about water treatment by American textile mills.  It is not enough.  We are calling for a government mandate for water treatment (pH, temperature and COD and BOD content) at each mill in the United States with standards that really have teeth.

We recognize that industrial water pollution is only part of the problem – that the consumer piece of the equation (laundering) is important also.  But the government cannot mandate how you launder your clothes  –  while it does have the power to change and monitor effluent levels from industry.

We  have a made a Faustian bargain:  we have exploited our natural resources and given up long term conservation for short term gain.  I know it’s easy to point fingers after the fact, and it would have been unusual for anybody (including myself) to point out the folly of using up our limited resources when the gains from doing so were so great.  But time is change, and we’re now facing different circumstances.  It is not really even a question of whether we should do this or not,  because our ability to act has been taken away – the water is simply disappearing.  It’s not being replaced.  We have to adapt to circumstances – and now the only question is “how”?  Let me tell you a story.

There are generally two images of the Great Plains that most Americans of my generation keep in their minds.  The first is that iconic black and white photograph by Arthur Rothstein of the 30’s Dust Bowl:

dust-bowl_photo

The second is of a swath of verdant farmland, ripe with wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans and cotton –   field after verdant field stretching to the horizon:

golden wheat

This startling change can be attributed to the Ogalala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifer systems in the world.  Total water storage in the aquifer is about equal to that of Lake Huron, and it is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water for residential, industrial and agricultural use.   It is this water that transformed the Great Plains from a region of subsistence farming into one of the richest agricultural areas of the world – $20 billion per year in food and fiber depends on this aquifer.   It stretches across all or portions of eight states and underlies 174,000 square miles.  It lies relatively near the land surface in most of this area, and could almost always be counted on to yield water to a well drilled into it.

In the 1930s, people began to realize the potential of the vast water supply that lay beneath them.  Irrigation of cropland began in earnest.   And very little water conservation technology was available:  lots of water was lost to evaporation and deep percolation; open, unlined ditches were used to transport the water to the fields; it wasn’t uncommon to have evaporation losses of 50%. Early settlers thought the water was inexhaustible.

Ogalala a

It was not.  And today we risk having the first image above superimposed again on the second.   That is because  the Ogalala Aquifer is being sucked dry.

Today, the Ogalala Aquifer  is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic metres a year – amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers.(1)  Although precipitation and river systems are recharging a few parts of the aquifer, in most places “nature cannot keep up with human demands.” (2)

According to a major study just completed by Camp Dresser & McKee, a Boston engineering firm, 5.1 million acres of irrigated land (an area the size of Massachusetts) in six Great Plains states will dry up by the year 2020 ( that’s 10 years!), and millions of acres of irrigated acres will be lost across a 5-state area.  Yet this drastic estimate, declares Herbert Grubb of the Texas department of water resources, is  “20% too optimistic.”(3)

Ship Bright is a blog concerned with fresh water issues, and the post on October 12, 2009 (read it here) features a great description of the current situation, including what they call the “planned bankruptcy”  caused by current water management strategies.

Farmers in the area are waking up to the fact that they will have to use less water – and this in the face of global warming predictions that the area served largely by the Ogalala Aquifer is predicted to be hotter and drier.(4)

One way to conserve water is to use more efficient irrigation systems, another way is to grow crops that require less water.    Then there is “going dryland” – meaning using no irrigation at all.  That requires using some techniques such as leaving stubble in the ground and planting a new crop in the residue.  This not only reduces soil erosion but also decreases evaporation and catches more blowing snow than bare ground.  It also reduces moisture loss by the equivalent of an inch or more of rainfall annually, and in an area that averages only 18 inches of rainfall per year that’s a lot.

These techniques have long been part of organic agriculture  – growing what is appropriate for an area, using what is available.  Many organic crops which do not use artificial fertilizers also have lower water requirements.  There is some research going on into the suitability of cotton as a replacement for corn in this area, because cotton crops use less water than corn.

In addition, some farmers are looking into converting their land back to grasslands, which would provide wildlife habitat, and grazing land for cattle or even buffalo.  (See our blog “Organic Agriculture and Climate Change” 7.29.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings”, 8.4.09).   And once a national carbon market is established, farmers could sell credits for storing carbon in grassland soil.  But the government doesn’t provide lucrative financial incentives for grassland conversion as it does for the production of corn or other commodities.

Once again, organic agriculture proves to be important, perhaps crucial, in our fight modify our water use and perhaps allow the Ogalala Aquifer to recharge.

(1)  Little, J.B., “Saving the Ogalala Aquifer”, Scientific American “Earth 3.0″, Vol 19, No. 1, 2009

(2) Ibid.

(3) Stengel, Woodbury, Allis, “Environment: Ebbing of the Ogalala”, Time, May 10, 1982

(4)Bock, J., Bowman, W., Bock, C, “Global Change in the High Plains of North America”, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Great Plains Research, Vol.1, No. 2





What does organic wool mean?

11 08 2009

Last week we talked about the importance of livestock management in the battle against climate change.  It came as a real revelation to this city girl that large grazing animals are a vital and necessary part of the solution to climate change.   Sheep can actually help to improve soils, which improves the soil’s ability to absorb water and maintain its original nutrient balance – and most importantly, by increasing the organic matter in the soil, it makes the soil a highly effective carbon bank.

many sheep

So the management of the livestock can be beneficial – but it’s a long way from a sheep in the pasture to a wool fabric.  So let’s look at the wool produced by these sheep and examine  what “organic wool” means.

In order for wool to be certified organic in the U.S., it must be produced in accordance with federal standards for organic livestock production, which are:

  • Feed and forage used for the sheep from the last third of gestation must be certified organic.
  • Synthetic hormones and genetic engineering of the sheep is prohibited.
  • Use of synthetic pesticides on pastureland is prohibited and the sheep cannot be treated with parasiticides, which can be toxic to both the sheep and the people exposed to them.
  • Good cultural and management practices of livestock must be used.

A key point to remember about the USDA and OTA organic wool designations:  the organic certification extends only to livestock – it doesn’t  cover the  further processing of the raw wool. Should that be a concern?

Wool as shorn from the sheep is known as greasy (or raw) wool. Before it is suitable for further processing it must be washed to remove dirt, water soluble contaminants (called suint), and woolgrease – and there are a lot of these contaminants.  On average, each ton of greasy wool contains:

  • 150 KG woolgrease (when refined this is known as lanolin)
  • 40 KG suint
  • 150 KG dirt
  • 20 KG vegetable matter
  • 640 KG wool fiber

This process of washing the wool is known as scouring.  Scouring uses lots of water and  energy :

  • water for washing:  The traditional method of wool scouring uses large amounts of water to wash the wool – the wool is passed through a series of 4 – 8 wash tanks (bowls), each followed by a squeeze to remove excess water.   Typical scouring plants can consume up to half a million litres of water per day.
  • pollution: The scouring water uses detergents and other chemicals in order to remove contaminants in the greasy wool,  which creates the problem of disposing of the waste water without contaminating the environment.  In unmodified plants, a single scouring line produces a pollution load equivalent to the pollution produced by 30,000 people.[1]
  • energy: to power the scouring line.

wool scour diagram

What about the chemicals used?

Detergents used in wool scouring include alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs) or fatty alcohol ethoxylates (more benign); sodium carbonate (soda ash), sodium chloride and sodium sulphate.  APEOs are among those chemicals known as endocrine disruptors – they interfere with the body’s endocrine system   They’re known to be very toxic for aquatic life – they cause feminization of male fish, for example.  (Click here to see what happened to alligators in Florida’s Lake Apopka as a result of endocrine disruptors traced to effluents from a textile mill. )  More importantly they break down in the environment into other substances which are much more potent than the parent compound.  They’re banned in Europe.

The surface of wool fibers are covered by small barbed scales. These are the reason that untreated wool itches when worn next to skin.  So the next step is to remove the scales, which also shrinkproofs the wool.  Shrinking/descaling is done using a chlorine pretreatment sometimes combined with  a thin polymer coating.  (Fleece is soaked in tertiary amyl or butyl hypochlorite in solution and heated to 104° for one hour.   The wool absorbs 1.5% of the chlorine. [2] )   These treatments make wool fibers smooth and allow them to slide against each other without interlocking. This also makes the wool feel comfortable and not itchy.

Unfortunately, this process results in wastewater with unacceptably high levels of adsorbable organohalogens (AOX) – toxins created when chlorine reacts with available carbon-based compounds. Dioxins, a group of AOX, are one of the most toxic known substances. They can be deadly to humans at levels below 1 part per trillion. Because the wastewater from the wool chlorination process contains chemicals of environmental concern, it is not accepted by water treatment facilities in the United States. Therefore all chlorinated wool is processed in other countries, then imported.[3] (For more about chlorine, go to the nonprofit research group Environmental Working Groups report about chlorine, http://www.ewg.org/reports/considerthesource.)  There are new chlorine free shrink/descaling processes coming on the market, but they’re still rare.

Finally, there is the weaving of the yarn into fabric – and all the environmental problems associated with conventional weaving and finishing.  In addition to the environmental concerns associated with conventional weaving, dyeing, and finishing (see some of our earlier blog posts), wool is often treated for moth and beetle protection, using pyrethroids, chlorinated sulphonamide derivatives, biphenyl ether or urea derivatives, which cause neutrotoxic effects in humans.

In the last 10 years, the textile industry,  along with animal ethics groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,  have lobbied against the wool industry, taking a stand against unethical treatment of sheep. In 2004, U.S. retailer Abercrombie and Fitch became the first to sign on to an animal rights campaign boycott of Australian wool that stood firmly against the typical practices of mulesing (where folds of skin around the sheep’s anus are cut off with shears during the wool shearing) and live export of sheep to halal butchers when their wool production becomes minimal.  Other companies such as H&M,  Marks & Spencer,  Nike, Gap,  Timberland, and Adidas (among others) have since joined, sourcing wool from South Africa or South America (where mulesing is not done).  The result of this outcry has led to the increased production of both organic and ethical wool, though it is still relatively minor when compared to the overall global wool production.

To complicate things a bit more, each country maintains their own standards for “organic wool” – Australia, for instance, has no equivalence or agreement with US organic standards.  The International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO) has adopted a new organic wool standard (closely aligned with GOTS) which they hope will be accepted by its members.  In addition, many companies use the term “eco wool”, which means the wool is sheared from free range roaming sheep that have not been subjected to toxic flea dipping, and the fleece was not treated with chemicals, dyes or bleaches – but this is wide open to interpretation and exploitation.  According to the IWTO, “Eco wool” must meet the standards set by the EU Eco-label.

Wool is a fabulous fiber – in addition to its many other attributes, it smolders rather than burns, and tends to be self-extinguishing.  (Read what The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CISRO), Australia’s national science agency,  has to say about the flame resistance of wool by clicking here:   http://www.csiro.au/files/files/p9z9.pdf )  So if you can find organic wool  – making sure, of course, that the term “organic” covers:

  • management of the livestock according to organic or holistic management principles
  • processing of the raw wool,  using newer, more benign processes rather than harmful scouring and descaling chemicals; and wastewater  treatment from scouring and processing
  • weaving according to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS).  Read more about GOTS here.

…then go for it!  Nothing is quite like it in terms of comfort, resilience, versatility and durability.

But first you have to find it.  And that means you’ll have to ask lots of questions because there are lots of certifications to hide behind.


[1]The Cleanier Production Case Studies Directory EnviroNET Australia, Environment Protection Group, November 1998

[2] “Textiles: Shrink-proof wool”, Time, October 17, 1938

[3] “Fabric: Chlorine Free Wool”,  Patagonia website, http://www.patagonia.com/web/us/patagonia.go?slc=en_US&sct=US&assetid=8516





Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?

4 08 2009

The more I learn about organic farming the more impressed I become with the dynamics of it all.   As Fritz Capra has said, we live in an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy. Everything has an intrinsic pattern which in turn is part of a greater pattern – and all of it is in flux.  That sure makes it hard to do an LCA, and it makes for very wobbly footing if somebody takes a stand and defends it against all comers.

For example, I have been under the impression (based on some published LCA’s) that the production of wool is very resource inefficient, largely based on the enormous need for water: it’s generally assumed that 170,000 litres of water is needed to produce 1 KG of wool    (versus anywhere from 2000 to 5300 to produce the same amount of cotton).  That’s because the livestock graze on land and depend on rainwater for their water – and some LCA’s base the water use on the lifetime of the sheep (reminding me to check the research parameters when referring to published LCA’s).

In addition, industrial agricultural livestock production often results in overgrazing.  As we now see in the western United States, overgrazing in extreme cases causes the land to transform from its natural state of fertility to that of a desert. At the very least, it severely limits plant reproduction, which in turn limits the soil’s ability to absorb water and maintain its original nutrient balance, making overgrazing difficult to recover from. And then there’s methane: livestock are often vilified for producing more greenhouse gases than automobiles.

The exciting thing is that what is known as “holistic management” of the soil makes it possible to use animals to improve, rather than degrade, land.  What’s consistently ignored in the research  is the failure to distinguish between animals raised in confined feedlots and animals grazing on rangeland  in a holistic system.  Research on holistic land management is, in fact, showing that large grazing animals are a vital and necessary part of the solution to climate change and carbon sequestration. Read about holistic land management on the Holistic Managmeent Institute (HMI) website.

The reason holistic practices work, according to HMI, is that grazing animals and grassland co-evolved.  According to the HMI website, hooves and manure accomplish what mechanical tilling and petrochemical fertilizers cannot: healthy, diverse grassland with abundant root systems and improved soil structures that makes highly effective use of existing rainfall.  Domestic animals can be managed in ways that mimic nature, called “planned grazing”:  rather than allowing animals to linger and eat from the same land repeatedly,  animals are concentrated and moved according to a plan which allows the land long periods of rest and recovery.   This planned grazing allows the animals to till packed soil with their hooves, distribute fertilizer and seed in their manure and urine, and move from one area to another before they can overgraze any one spot. In fact, the animals help maintain the soil, rather than destroying it, and increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, making it function as a highly effective carbon bank. Properly managed, grazing animals can help us control global climate change:  soil carbon increased 1% within a 12 month period  in a planned grazing project (a significant increase).

This carbon is essential to not only feeding soil life and pasture productivity, but it also affects water infiltration rates. On one trial site where planned grazing was implemented, within two years, the  soil water infiltration rate increased eightfold in comparison to the conventional grazing treatment.

In addition, holistic management of grazing animals eliminates the need for the standard practice of burning crop and forage residues.  That burning currently sends carbon directly into the atmosphere.  If we convert just 4 million acres of land that’s operating under the traditional, conventional agriculture model to holistically managed land – so the residue is not burned – the carbon is captured rather than released.   Look at the difference in erosion in the picture below: compare the severely eroded, conventionally managed riverbank on the left with the Holistically Managed bank on the right.  All the shrubbery and grass means abundant root systems and healthy soil infrastructure underground – both of these sequester CO2.

HOLISTIC mgmtWhat you see on the right is the result of managed animal impact.                     Source: Holistic Management International

According to Christine Jones, Founder, Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation, “The fabulous thing about sequestering carbon in grasslands is that you can keep on doing it forever – you can keep building soil on soil on soil… perennial grasses can outlive their owners; they’re longer-lived than a lot of trees, so the carbon sequestration is more permanent than it is in trees: the carbon’s not going to re-cycle back into the atmosphere if we maintain that soil management… and there’s no limit to how much soil you can build… for example, we would only have to improve the stored carbon percentage by one percent on the 415 million hectares (1,025,487,333 acres) of agricultural soil in Australia and we could sequester all of the planet’s legacy load of carbon. It’s quite a stunning figure.”

 

Data from a demonstration project in Washington State is confirming other worldwide research that grazing could be better for the land than growing certain crops in dryland farming regions – it reverses soil decline (erosion and desertification), restores soil health, and instead of losing carbon through tilling or systems requiring inputs (like wheat farming) planned grazing sequesters carbon; biomass to soak up carbon is increased, and the use of fossil fuel has been reduced by more than 90%.  Wildlife habitat has improved.  The Washington State project even sells carbon credits.

In April of this year, Catholic Relief Service, one of the country’s largest international humanitarian agencies, is launching a worldwide agricultural strategy that adopts a holistic, market oriented approach to help lift millions of people out of poverty.   Read more about this here.





Organic agriculture and climate change

29 07 2009

global6

The debate over sustainable agriculture has gone beyond the health and environmental benefits that it could bring in place of conventional industrial agriculture. For one thing, conventional industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil, which is running out; and it is getting increasingly unproductive as the soil is eroded and depleted. Climate change will force us to adopt sustainable, low input agriculture to ameliorate the worst consequences of conventional agriculture, and to genuinely feed the world.

And climate change is upon us.  I’m sitting in Seattle experiencing an “historic heat wave” while reading that the Hadley Center of the British Meteorological Organization has said the world’s temperature will increase by 8.8 degrees F rather than 5.8 degrees F this century.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said we can expect a considerable increase in heat waves, storms, floods, and the spread of tropical diseases into temperate areas, impacting  the health of humans, livestock and crops. It also predicts a rise in sea levels up to 35 inches this century, which will affect something like 30% of the world’s agricultural lands (by seawater intrusion into the soils underlying croplands and by temporary as well as permanent flooding). If the Hadley Center is right, the implications will be even more horrifying: Melting of the Antarctic, the Arctic, and especially the Greenland ice-shields is occurring far more rapidly than was predicted by the IPCC. This will reduce the salinity of the oceans, which in turn  weakens (if not diverts) oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from their present course . And if that continues, it would eventually freeze up areas that at present have a temperate climate, such as Northern Europe.

According to the Institute of Science in Society, “It is becoming clear that climate change and its different manifestations (as mentioned above) will be the most important constraints on our ability to feed ourselves in the coming decades. We cannot afford to just sit and wait for things to get worse. Instead, we must do everything we can to transform our food production system to help combat global warming and, at the same time, to feed ourselves, in what will almost certainly be far less favorable conditions.”

But before we tackle the question of how best to feed ourselves during these “less favorable” times: how can organic agriculture help with global warming?

It’s generally assumed that various Greenhouse Gases (GHG) are responsible for
global warming and climate change.   On a global scale, according to a study commissioned by IFOAM, agriculture has been responsible for approximately 15% of all GHG emissions:

  • 25% of all CO2 emissions come from agriculture
  • 60% of CH4 (methane) emissions come from agriculture
  • 80% of N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions  come from agriculture

About 60% of the CO2 emissions from human and animal activities is absorbed by the oceans and plants; the remaining 40% builds up in our atmosphere.    So what to do about the 40% that’s building up in our atmosphere?  Where can it be stored?

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In  looking at ways to “defuse” this CO2 build up, scientists began looking at carbon “sinks”.  Carbon sinks are natural systems that suck up and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The main natural carbon sinks are plants, the ocean and soil. Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to soil as plants die and decompose. The oceans are a major carbon storage system for carbon dioxide. Marine animals also take up the gas for photosynthesis, while some carbon dioxide simply dissolves in the seawater.

Initially forests were thought to be the most efficient way to sequester (or absorb) this carbon.  It was thought that escalating fossil fuel consumption could be balanced by vast forests breathing in all that CO2.   But  these sinks, critical in the effort to soak up some of our greenhouse gas emissions, may be maxing out, thanks to deforestation, and human-induced weather changes that are causing the oceanic carbon dioxide “sponge” to weaken.

New data is beginning to show that it may be that the soil itself makes more of a difference (in terms of carbon sequestration)  than what’s growing on it.  On a global scale, soils hold more than twice as much carbon as does vegetation (1.74 trillion tons for soil vs. 672 billion tons for vegetation) – and more than twice as much as is contained in our atmosphere.

The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST), launched in 1981, is a 12 acre side by side experiment comparing three agricultural management systems: one conventional, one legume-based organic and one manure-based organic.  In 23 years of continuous recordkeeping,  the FST’s two organic systems have shown an increase in soil carbon of 15 – 23%, with virtually no increase in non-organic systems.

carbonsoil

This soil carbon data  shows  that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [2]

But although it is well established that organic farming methods sequester atmospheric carbon, researchers have yet to flesh out the precise mechanisms by which this takes place.   One of the keys seems to be in the handling of organic matter – while conventional agriculture typically depletes organic matter, organic farming builds it thru the use of composed animal manures and cover crops.  In the FST, soil carbon levels increased more in the manure-based organic system than in the legume-based organic system, presumably because of the incorporation of manures, but the study also showed that soil carbon depends on more than just total carbon additions to the system–cropping system diversity or carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of inputs may have an effect. “We believe that the differences in decay rates [of soil organic matter] have a lot to do with it,” says Hepperly, since “soluble nitrogen fertilizer accelerates decomposition” in the conventional system.

The people at Rodale put the carbon sequestration argument into an equivalency we can all understand: think of it in terms of the number of cars that would be taken off the road each year by farmers converting to organic production.  Organic farms sequester as much as 3,670 pounds of carbon per acre-foot each year. A typical passenger car, according to the EPA, emits 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year (traveling an average of 12,500 miles per year). Here’s how many cars farms can take off the road by transitioning to organic:  car

U.S. agriculture as currently practiced emits a total of 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. cropland to organic would not only wipe out agriculture’s massive emission problem, but by eliminating energy-costly chemical fertilizers, it would actually give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.

Organic 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.  In addition to emitting fewer GHGs while sequestering carbon, organic agriculture uses less energy for production.  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.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
  • 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.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles.  As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change.[3] For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

And actually, it seems that modern industrial agriculture is on the way out.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years  – blamed on the fact that fertilizers are becoming  less and less effective, as are pesticides.   The farmers are losing the battle.  Conventional agrochemical use (which includes many highly toxic substances) also has many immediate human impacts:  documented cases of short term illnesses, increased medical costs and the build up of pesticides in human and animal food chains.  The chemicals also contaminate the drinking and ground water.  And industrial agriculture is far too vulnerable to shortages in the availability of fuel and to increases in the price of oil.

That’s a lot to think about when looking for your next T shirt, so before you plunk down your money for another really cool shirt,  think about what you  will be getting in exchange.


[1] I should point out that although “sinks” in vegetation and soils  have a high
potential to mitigate increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, they are not
sufficient to compensate for heavy inputs from fossil fuel burning.  The long-term solution to global warming is simple:  reduce our use of fossil fuel, somehow, anyhow!
Yet the contribution from agriculture  could buy time during which
alternatives to fossil fuel can take affect – especially if that agricultural system is organic.

[2] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[3] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19





Cotton is a good way to buy oil.

21 07 2009

Provocative title, isn’t it?  But I didn’t say it, the statement comes from Jim Rogers, one of the world’s most successful investors and co-founder of the Quantum Fund (with George Soros) from which he retired in 1980.  Since then he has been a college professor, world traveler, author, economic commentator and creator of the Rogers International Commodities Index.  And now, Jim Rogers says he’s investing in agriculture.

Jim Rogers is looking at cotton as a commodity (and an investment strategy), based on the fact that almost everything has some dependence on energy prices, based on  the embodied energy of the product.  He bases his decision on the fact that so many textiles today are made from synthetics – which come from oil.  Since the price of oil is going up (and will likely continue to go up) the price of synthetics is also going up.  So textile makers are reverting to natural fibers.  Cotton is the most popular natural fiber in the world, and the cotton – oil connection is both direct (through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), and indirect  (land formerly used to grow cotton can be shifted to other production to feed ethanol demand).  As Jim Rogers says,  “I hadn’t thought of this cotton-oil connection before, and it’s drawing these connections before others do that makes a great investor.”

If we are going to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” (as the government likes to put it), shouldn’t we be looking at agriculture?  Dr. Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University, Boulder, has said that the definition of “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food”.

I checked the web – and agriculture is really an energy hog.  According to the website Food and Water Watch:

  • 20% of the fossil fuel used in the US goes toward food production.
  • This inefficient system spends 10,551 quadrillion joules of energy each year – about the same as used by all of France.
  • The US EPA reported that US agriculture is responsible for the same amount of CO2 emissions per year as 141,000,000 cars.  Emissions DOUBLE when electricity usage is included.

Kenneth Watt, on the very first Earth Day in 1970, said that our very existence is dependent on the massive import of energy into industrial agriculture from petroleum, natural gas and coal – and this massive energy use creates a “fossil fuel subsidy”:  that means the use of petroleum has enabled fewer farmers to produce much more food on less land, so the population can grow.

Petroleum-based agriculture has reduced the proportion of the US population engaged in agriculture from about 50% about 75 years ago to less than 2% today.  In other words, the average American farmer feeds lots of people, as well as having enough left over to ship abroad. Petroleum also lets Floridians eat salmon from Alaska, and Alaskans enjoy orange juice from Florida. Between 1950 and 1970, the last 11 million horses were taken out of American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by crude oil. Since it takes very roughly four times the acreage to support one horse as a person, this means we have been able to add 44 million people to the American population [in those twenty years] for that one cause alone, because of a fossil fuel subsidy.

According to Kenneth Watt, “mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. We are letting the population build up and up and up, by increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth for people, using a crude-oil energy subsidy, on the assumption that there’s no inherent danger in this because when the need arises we’ll be able to get ultimate sources of energy.”

But what happens if we don’t have alternate sources of energy,  when the oil crunch appears?  As oil production declines, prices will rise – especially commodities – and most especially food.

So how can organic agriculture help us with this dire picture.  You’ll be surprised!  Check in next week.








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