Food vs. Fiber

2 03 2011

We’ve often been asked where we stand on the question of growing fiber crops on agricultural land when so many people go to bed hungry each night.  In today’s world, you must add another “F” to the equation:  fuel, because there is such a growing interest in biomass as energy. In fact, the picture is even more complicated than the phrase “food, fuel or fiber” suggests, because of the increasingly complex interactions between agriculture and industry.

One facet of the complexity of the situation is that most of these crops have multiple uses.  Sixty-five percent of the cotton crop, the world’s most popular natural fiber, is used for products other than fiber.  Or, put another way, we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear.  Other natural fibers also have multiple uses:

  • Cottonseed, flaxseed and hempseed are all used in food products
  • Biomass from hemp is much greater than that of any other natural fiber crop, and made hemp a darling of the biofuel industry.  All fiber crops can be used for biofuels
  • Many crops are used in livestock feed, pet food, and animal bedding and litter
  • They are all components of biobased polymers and other biocomposits

There was a wonderful explanation of the Food v. Fuel and Fiber argument made on Wordchanging.com, in December 2008, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy” by Alan Atkisson.  We have summarized the major points below:

The question is, do we have enough land to grow all the food, fuel and fiber that we’re likely to need?  The answer to that question appears to be yes — but only in theory. The International Energy Agency notes that estimates on the potential for growth in biofuel production “vary considerably,” and that the most optimistic numbers “are based on the assumption of no water shortage and increased food agriculture yields in the coming decades, partly due to genetically modified crops.” This is a controversial assumption, to say the least.

Surveys from space show that there is still quite a lot of natural-plant-covered Earth remaining, which could be used for producing food, fuel, and fiber for human use. NASA recently studied how much of the Earth’s total land-based “Net Primary Productivity” — that is, the amount of solar energy captured by plants — is being used by humans, and it amounts to only 20% at the global scale. In other words, we could theoretically grow a lot more of everything on the productive land that remains.  Theoretically.

But of course, “growing more of everything” means converting more natural ecosystems into human agricultural and industrial systems. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have already used up about half of the earth’s ecosystems, by converting them not just into agricultural land, but into houses, roads, cities, industrial installations, and even (unfortunately) deserts. To make matters still more complicated, draw-downs in things like ecosystems and other forms of “natural capital” are not a predictable, linear processes. There are “tipping points” in those systems, points of no return beyond which gradual change switches to sudden, irreversible change. As an example, while the IUCN, the world’s largest conservation organization, was preparing its report that a quarter of the world’s mammals face extinction, a scientist for energy giant BP was being quoted as saying that his company was interested in “the green parts” of the entire globe for possible development into biofuel production.

In systems-thinking terms, this change in energy technology, policy, and markets has greatly expanded and complexified a system that was not exactly simple to start with. The growth of biofuel and fiber demand has created new couplings, new feedback loops, and new, unpredictable complexities in the global agro-economic system. The global energy/food/fiber market has become the very definition of a “wicked problem,” which is a term invented by design theorist Horst Rittel. Wicked problems are “messy, circular, and aggresive” — a very apt summary of how the food-fuel-fiber system is behaving.

Wicked problems, said Rittel and his co-theorist Webber, are a special breed of problem. There is no way to get complete information about them. There is no “best” solution to them. Trial-and-error is the only strategy; better or worse is the only way to characterize the results. In the coming years, the world economy will be involved in a vast trial-and-error effort to “balance the books” between fuel, food, and fiber, while also trying to solve the other wicked problem that triggered the increase in biofuel production in the first place: climate change.

So is it possible to find evidence of the possibility of success now?  Fortunately, yes. Worldchanging pointed to a small farm in Italy which aims to be the world’s first carbon neutral farm – in just one year.  This optimism makes it possible to imagine the entire global farming sector following a similar stragety, guided by sustainability principles.  And new research is constantly being done which changes the expected parameters.  For example,  it’s possible, through biotechnology and other agricultural improvements, to increase yields of fiber and fuel crops using marginal lands.  For example:

  • We can grow fiber/fuel crops on barren land, brownfields, and  salt marshes.  A recent study has found that we can even grow fiber crops on radioactively contaminated arable land.
  • We can irrigate and fertilize with wastewater

As a result, we can have schemes for biomass energy plants, sugar plantations growing both sugar and ethanol, and wastewater-treating algae harvested for fuel.

Flat statements about fuel and fiber competing with food are ultimately products of limited imaginations.

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Our oceans and your textile choices

23 02 2011

I just don’t know what it takes to change people’s habits.  We need a huge wake up call about the disastrous state of our oceans!  Our oceans are our life support system.  And they’re in trouble.

Because this is a blog about textile issues, I wanted to remind you that  the textile industry is the world’s #1 industrial polluter of fresh water.    So remember that  each time you choose a fabric that has been processed conventionally, in a mill which does not treat its wastewater, you’re  adding to the problem.  We’re all downstream.  And please also remember that a fabric marked “organic cotton” – though decidedly better than conventional cotton – is still a fabric which is 27% synthetic chemicals by weight,  processed at a mill which returned the untreated, chemically infused effluent to our oceans.

Sorce: NOLA.com

People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels. But in reality, they have not disappeared – and some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated as they have entered the food chain.

Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they do not break down easily, the chemicals accumulate in these organisms, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies than in the surrounding water or soil. These organisms are eaten by small animals, and the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, which can travel large distances with their even further increased chemical load.

Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.

Some scientists describe the chemical change in the ocean as throwing evolution into reverse: the chemical composition is going back toward the “primordial soup,” favoring the simplest organisms – indeed, algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked –  and threatening or eliminating the more complex.  There are so many jellyfish in the ocean that many fisheries have given up their normal catch and are just harvesting jellyfish.[1] Clickhere to view Jellyfish Gone Wild by the National Science Foundation.  In fact, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, these most primitive organisms are exploding:  it’s a ‘rise of slime’ as one scientist calls it.   It’s killing larger species and sickening people.

Los Angeles Times report  in 2006 (click here to read the entire article)  sounds like something from a horror movie:  A spongy weed, reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute – literally fast enough to cover a football field sized area in an hour – has been plaguing fishermen in Australia.  The culprit, it was found, is a strain of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya majuscula, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.  It has since shown up in at least a dozen places around the globe. It thrives in oxygen depleted water.   Once established, Lyngbya creates its own nitrogen fertilizer from decaying parts of the plant.

Many fishermen in Moreton Bay avoid working in the four months every year that Lyngbya clogs their waters because it is highly toxic to them.  When fishermen touch it, their skin breaks out in searing welts.  Their lips blister and peel.   As the weed blanketed miles of Moreton Bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn’t eat solid food for a week.

Scientists in labs studying the bacteria couldn’t even be in the same room with it, the smell was so pungent.  It’s like “The Blob” come to life.

Scientist Jeremy Jackson says that we have forgotten the basic rule of thumb:  “Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working.”

And to add insult to  our ocean’s injury, the number of dead zones – where there is so little oxygen only microbes can survive – has doubled every 10 years since the 1960s [2].  In 2008, there were 400 dead zones [3].   So does that make you worry?  It should.   This is an example of what mathematicians call “exponential growth”, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really impact us until we’re about to be kicked in the teeth.

To demonstrate the concept, there is an old story about a king who was presented with a gorgeous handmade chessboard by one of his subjects.  The king was delighted, and asked what the man wanted in return.  The courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought.   But there was not enough rice in the world to fill the courtier’s request (see note below) – the total amount of rice required would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.   This is about  460 billion tons, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth’s biomass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And to see how the problem can become critical overnight (because according to the laws of exponential growth, the larger the quantity becomes, the faster it grows):  Imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. We want to save the pond, so we check the lilies every day.   Yet day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. But the pond doesn’t becomes half covered until day 29 – leaving just one day to save the pond.  (4)

This concept has even led to the phrase “second half of the chessboard”, which refers to a point where an exponentially growing factor begins to have a significant impact.

So this news about the ocean dead zones – you might think that a dead zone the size of the state of Oregon is no big deal, but the area is growing exponentially.  How many years do we have until we reach the second half of the chessboard?

We must stop messing up our oceans.   If not for yourself, do it for your children. “You wouldn’t let a child open up a cabinet under the sink and start tasting the chemicals down there,” Fabien Cousteau says. “So why would you dump those chemicals down the drain and have them end up on your plate, which you then feed to your child?” (5)

NOTE regarding rice on the chessboard:

The total number of grains of rice on the first half of the chessboard is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 + 1024 … + 2,147,483,648, for a total of exactly 232 − 1 = 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, or about 100,000 kg of rice, with the mass of one grain of rice being roughly 25 mg.

The total number of grains of rice on the second half of the chessboard is 232 + 233 + 234 … + 263, for a total of 264 − 232 grains of rice. This is about 460 billion tonnes, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth biomass.

On the 64th square of the chessboard there would be exactly 263 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. In total, on the entire chessboard there would be exactly 264 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.


[2] Diaz, Robert J., and Rosenberg, Rutger, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”, Science, August 2008.

[3] http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/ocean-dead-zones-increasing-400-now-exist.php

(4)  Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: University Books. ISBN 0-87663-165-0

(5)  http://www.oprah.com/world/Ocean-Pollution-Fabien-Cousteaus-Warning-to-the-World/4





Wool

9 06 2010

When we talk about wool, we almost always mean the fiber from sheep, although the term “wool” can be applied to the hair of other mammals including cashmere and mohair from goats, vicuna, alpaca and camel from animals in the camel family and angora from rabbits.

As with many discoveries of early man, anthropologists believe the use of wool came out of the challenge to survive – Neolithic man used pelts from animals to keep warm.

Sheep (Ovis aries) were first domesticated 10 000 years ago.  The British sought to protect their own wool industry during the eighteenth century, and passed laws requiring native English wool be used – for example, judges, professors, and students were required to  wear robes made of English wool. Another law required that the dead be buried in native wool. When the American colonies began to compete with the motherland, the English passed a series of laws in an attempt to protect their “golden fleece.” One law even threatened the amputation of the hand of any colonist caught trying to improve the blood line of American sheep.

Today, wool is a global industry, with Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand serving as the major suppliers of raw wool – but wool is produced worldwide in about 100 countries on half a million farms.   Wool producers range from small farmers to large scale grazing operations.  While the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric, Australia is the leading supplier. Australian wool accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world’s production.

The annual global output is now estimated at 2.2 billion pounds, yet wool represents less than 5 percent of the world consumption of fibers. Wool is an expensive fiber to produce and process.  Though cotton is the number one plant used for fabrics and the number one natural fiber overall, the number one source for animal fiber is still wool.

Two terms one often sees are Merino and worsted.  The main difference between them is that Merino pertains to the type of fiber while worsted pertains to the process the fibers go through:

Merino is a term used in the textile industry which has varied meanings:  originally it meant wool made from a specific breed of sheep:  the Merino.  Merino sheep are regarded as having some of the finest and softest wool of any sheep: it is finely crimped and soft, fibers are commonly 65 – 100 mm (2.5 – 4 inches) long and generally less than 24 microns in diameter.

But now the term has broader use and may pertain to an article which just contains some percentage of wool from Merino sheep – or even just a fine wool and cotton yarn!  The Australian Wool Testing Authority Ltd is trying to institute a definition for Merino wool, citing fiber diameter and comfort factors.

The essential feature of a worsted yarn is its long, straight fibers which lie parallel to each other, the result of having been both carded AND combed.

So yes, you can have Merino worsted wools!

THE FIBER:

In scientific terms, wool is considered to be a protein called keratin. Its length usually ranges from 1.5 to 15 inches (3.8 to 38 centimeters) depending on the breed of sheep. Fiber diameter ranges from 16 microns in superfine merino wool (similar to cashmere) to more than 40 microns in coarse hairy wools.  Wool has several qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it is crimped (meaning it has waves),  it has a different texture or handle, it is  elastic, and it grows in staples (clusters).

Each wool fiber is made up of three essential components: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla.

  • The cuticle is the outer layer. It is a protective layer of scales arranged like shingles or fish scales.   They are sometimes described as little “barbs” because it’s the points of the scales that give wool the reputation for being prickly.
    • When two fibers come in contact with each other, these scales tend to cling and stick to each other. It’s this physical clinging and sticking that allows wool fibers to be spun into thread so easily.  And it’s also what causes the fiber to interlock – or felt.   See below for more information on this.

    Scales on a wool fiber under electron microscope

  • The cortex is the inner structure made up of millions of cigar-shaped cortical cells. The arrangement of these cells is responsible for the natural crimp unique to wool fiber.  The amount of crimp corresponds to the fineness of the wool fibers.  A fine wool like Merino may have up to 100 crimps per inch, while the coarser wools may have as few as 1 to 2. Hair, by contrast, has little if any scales and no crimp, and little ability to bind into yarn.  Its wool’s scaling and crimp that make it easier to spin into yarn, because the individual fibers attach to each other, so they stay together.
  • Rarely found in fine wools, the medulla comprises a series of cells (similar to honeycombs) that provide air spaces, giving wool its thermal insulation value.

The Manufacturing Process

The major steps necessary to process wool from the sheep into yarns are:  shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding.

SHEARING:

Sheep are usually sheared once a year—usually in the springtime. The fleece recovered from a sheep can weigh between 6 and 18 pounds (2.7 and 8.1 kilograms); as much as possible, the fleece is kept in one piece. While most sheep are still sheared by hand, new technologies have been developed that use computers and sensitive, robot-controlled arms to do the clipping.

GRADING AND SORTING:

Grading is the breaking up of the fleece based on overall quality. Wool fibers are judged not only on the basis of their strength but also by their fineness (diameter), length, crimp (waviness) and color.  In wool grading, high quality does not always mean high durability.

In sorting, the wool is broken up into sections of different quality fibers, from different parts of the body. The best quality of wool comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep and is used for clothing; the lesser quality comes from the lower legs and is used to make rugs.

CLEANING AND SCOURING:

Scouring in the true sense of the word in the textile industry means simply removing any foreign material from the fabric; the term scour grew up around the washing of cottons and linens.

Wool taken directly from the sheep is called “raw” or “greasy”  wool.  It contains a substantial amount of natural contaminants, such as  sand, dirt, grease, and dried sweat (called suint) as well as pesticide residues from the treatment of sheep to prevent disease; the weight of contaminants accounts for about 30 to 70%  of the total weight of the fleece.

To clean the wool, the fiber is washed in a series of alkaline baths containing water, soap, and soda ash or a similar alkali. The scouring effluent contains these impurities, which has high levels of COD (chemical oxygen demand) and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), suspended solids, organic matter and sheep dip chemicals.  These levels represent a significant pollution load:   the organic effluent from a typical wool-scouring plant is approximately equal to the sewage from a town of 50,000 people.[1]

The effluent is separated into three categories:

  1. grease – when refined, this is known as lanolin, which is saved and sold for a variety of consumer products.
  2. liquor (water) – discharged to sewage works or open waters
  3. sludge – this needs to be disposed of too:   The sludge contains high levels of organic materials such as the potentially toxic sheep dip pesticides (such as organochlorines, organophosphates and synthetic prethroids).   In the EU, landfills will now only accept non-recoverable and inert waste.  Since the global production of wool sludge is over 930,000 tons, research is being done on the feasibility of disposing of scouring waste by composting, incineration and other methods.

The processing stages to this point cause the natural fiber alignment of the scales (or “barbs” as mentioned above) to be completely disrupted; the scales no longer line up “tip to base” as they would in the fleece. Those scales make raw wool itchy and also cause the fiber to shrink when wet.

In order to prevent this shrinkage (also called felting), and to make the wool more comfortable when worn next to the skin, many producers use chlorine to “burn” off the scales…this doesn’t entirely remove them, but it does lessen their profile, and then the fibers are coated with a synthetic polymer resin, which essentially glues down the scales. This allows the wool to be machine washed without felting, and gets rid of the shrinkage of the fabric associated with felting.  This is the chemistry behind Superwash wool.  The tradeoff, of course, is that this chlorination process is highly toxic.

See our blog post on Organic Wool to read about the environmental effects of wool scouring and chlorination.  It’s not pretty.

CARDING:

Next, the fibers are passed through a series of metal teeth.  The teeth untangle the fibers and arrange them into a flat sheet called a web. The web is then formed into narrow ropes known as silvers.   Carding  is one of the processes that untangles the wool fibers and lays them straight; it also removes residual dirt and other matter left in the fibers.  Combing is the next process, which removes shorter length fibers and helps to further straighten the fibers and lay them parallel.  Combing also helps to clean more debris from the fibers.

  • Carding only produces woolenyarn.   Woolen yarns:
    • Have a short staple (1-4 inch long fibers).
    • Are carded ONLY
    • Have a slack twist
    • Are weaker, softer and bulkier than worsted
  • Carding and Combing produces worsted yarn.Worsted yarns:
    • Have a long staple (4 inch and longer)
    • Have a tight twist in spinning
    • Are stronger, finer, smoother and harder than woolen yarns.

CHARACTERISTICS of WOOL:

Wool is highly regarded as one of the most lavish natural fibers in the world.  Lightweight, versatile, resistant to dirt and considered somewhat water repellant, non wrinkling, and durable, wool:

  • Can absorb almost 30% of its own weight in water – and it can also release it.  This makes it breathable and extremely comfortable next to the skin.  It can absorb sweat and release it as vapor, keeping you cool and dry.  It prevents the clammy, cold feeling you may experience when wearing some types of synthetic clothing and sweating.
  • Is resistant to static electricity,  because the moisture retained within the fabric conducts electricity. This is why wool garments are much less likely to spark or cling to the body. The use of wool car seat covers or carpets reduces the risk of a shock when a person touches a grounded object.
  • fabrics have a greater bulk than other textiles because of the crimp, and retain air, which is a great insulation.  It keeps you warm when you’re cold, but insulation also works both ways – Bedouins and Tuaregs use wool clothes to keep the heat out.  And it does not cling to the skin, allowing for air circulation next to the skin.
  • fibers can be bent 20,000 times without breaking (compared to cotton, which breaks after 3,000 bends or rayon, which can be bent only 75 times without breaking), and have the power to elongate (it can be stretched 25 – 30% before breaking), stretch and recover. This natural elasticity and memory  returns to its natural shape
  • doesn’t readily catch fire – its ignition point is higher than cotton and some synthetics.  Even if it does burn, it burns slowly (not melting or dripping as in synthetics) and self-extinguishes when the source of the flame is removed.  It contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than synthetics, and is therefore often specified for high safety environments such as trains and aircraft.
  • has a naturally high UV protection, which is much higher than most synthetics and cotton.
  • is considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic.
  • is hydrophilic—it has a strong affinity for water—and therefore is easily dyed.

[1] Christoe, Jock; The treatment of wool scouring effluents in Australia, China and India”,  project # AS1/1997/069; http://aciar.gov.au/system/files/node/9074/AS%2003-04%20AS1-1997-069.pdf





Thanksgiving blessings

25 11 2009

I have been trying to think of a good subject for this week – one that isn’t too dire and downbeat – while we in the United States are in the midst of our national feast called Thanksgiving.   We’re living in a country where I can get a free range turkey with all the bells and whistles – or soybeans from Texas, the best orange marmelade from Scotland or fresh raspberries from Chile.  This abundance comes at a cost –  it is estimated that if United States’ consumption rates were mimicked by the entire human population,  it would take the resources of 5.3 Earths.(1)  It is this abundance that allows us to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world.  Doesn’t have a direct bearing on textiles, but the long term implications are there.

An inescapable fact in most of the developing world – and largely unnoticed in the United States except in slightly higher food prices –  is that in the past couple of years, food prices have soared.  Between the mid-1970’s and 2005,  grain supplies rose and prices fell by about a half, leading “many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself.” (2)  But then in 2006, the situation reversed:  food prices rose slightly that year, then increased by about a quarter in 2007, and finally skyrocketed in 2008.  Between 2006 and 2008, average world prices for rice rose by 217%, wheat by 136% and corn by 125% (3)  These rising prices meant that many people could not afford food – and  this led to riots  in 15 countries around the world in 2008.  Countries that could produce enough food for export worried about feeding their own populations, and placed restrictions on exports.  This became a serious problem for countries which were not fully self sufficient in food production.

Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, said that by 2020 they think there could be genuine food shortages in the world.   During a talk on Africa’s agricultural potential, she showed a series of slides citing chilling statistics:

  • grain stocks worldwide are at their lowest levels in 60 years
  • global warming is turning arable land into desert
  • freshwater is dwindling and China is draining its reserves
  • and the really big problem:  the world’s population is growing by 80,000,000 hungry people each year.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected population in 2050, we need to increase the amount of cereals in the world’s food supply to an amount equal to the total production of Australia in 2008.

Indeed, the food crisis of 2008 has put the spotlight on a new area of business potential, where the payoff could be immense: the area of agricultural investment and the newly lucrative world of food trade.  Financial firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas agricultural projects.   Africa is the focus of their interest because in Africa land and labor come so cheaply that the risks are assumed to be worthwhile.  As a example, an Ethiopian farmer’s  yields for their wheat crops  are only about a third as much per acre as their counterparts in other parts of the world.  But with the addition of advanced implements, and improved seeds and fertilizer, these yields can be doubled.  Ethiopia, like all of Africa, is full of such opportunities.

Andrew Rice wrote an article in the November 22 New York Times Magazine in which he describes what some of the wealthy nations are doing to ensure a food supply for their people.

The nations of the Persian Gulf already import 60% of their food, and Saudi Arabia plans to phase out wheat production by 2016 in order to maintain its supply of underground freshwater.  Instead of relying on technology to increase their capacity for growing food  (along the lines of the Green Revolution of the 1960s),  these countries feel that they must control the means of production.  They want land.

The Saudi Arabian government and individual Saudi bankers and executives have said they intend to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in Africa, in nations like Mali, Senegal,  Sudan and Ethopia.  A newly formed company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development, announced it’s plans to “obtain the rights” to more than a million acres – that’s about the size of Delaware – in Ethiopia.  And in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, farms are already growing fruits and vegetables for export to the Persian Gulf.(4)

This raises the question:  what about the people who live in Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethopia?  Do they benefit from these investments?  Am I the only one who thinks this spells trouble?

(1) New Economics Foundation, http://www.naturalnews.com/022890.html

(2) Rice, Andrew, “Agro-Imperialism”, New York Times Magazine, November 22, 2009

(3)  “Cyclone fuels rice price increase”, BBC News, May 7, 2008

(4) Rice, op.cit.





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.





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.