Monday, May 24, 2010

Inequality and Wealth

The unlinking of Top 1% income from all those below them is simultaneous of another trend which is hard to measure, and often overlooked: increasingly, health and human hapiness have stopped tracking GDP and wealth. Correlation, or causation? Would greater equality lead to higher standard of living? Why? In the 1960's President Kennedy stated that a "rising tide would lift all boats," which was generally true, but something changed in the early 1980's.

The Environment and Natural Resources


A number of attempts have been made to conceptualize humanity's use of the planet: are we using too much? Calculations based on how much land is needed to produce the food, fuel, housing, transportation, and consumer products for the average American are used to show that it would take five planets to sustainably produce what Americans consume every year. These measurements, codified as the Ecological Footprint (seen above for the entire Earth), are based on the renewable productivity of standardized land uses such as agriculture, forest, and grassland.

Ecological Footprint versus Ecological Health
However, the size of the Ecological Footprint does not take into account most forms of pollution (heavy metals, estrogen mimics, etc) and in general does a poor job of accounting for the differing health of ecosystems. Indeed, according to the Ecological Footprint, non-renewable high-intensity resource use may "use" less land than renewable low-intensity resource use. The problem with this landscape landuse metric is that its focus on "biocapacity" can be at odds with biodiversity and ecosystem health, which the Ecological Footprint does not measure.

Much of this analysis is taken directly from Lenzen, M., C. Borgstrom Hansson and S. Bond (2007) On the bioproductivity and land disturbance metrics of the Ecological Footprint. Ecological Economics 61, 6-10.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can biotechnology feed the world?

Some discussions recently have been inspired by the recent visit of Ms. Revathi, a schoolteacher-turned-organic farming advocate from India. Ms. Revathi visited the School of Environment and Natural Resources at OSU last week, bringing stories of widespread suffering from the Green Revolution and ongoing injustices from free trade, industrialization, capitalism, and corporations. She argues that ecologically- and traditionally-minded development can create healthy, prosperous farmers, while the American model has brought environmental, social, and economic ruination.

from Diaz, Robert J. and Rosenberg, Rutger. Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems. Science 15 August 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5891, pp. 926 - 929

Her viewpoint is uniquely different from that of main-stream American discourse about globalization, free markets, and the benefits of technology. Her years of experience growing sustainable farms in India seems similar to the experience of independent American local organic farmers, but leads her to make conclusions almost opposite to beliefs so accepted they are almost obvious to most Americans; for example, that the world has become better: wealthier, healthier, happier, etc because of technology, corporations, and development.

In some ways, the arguments of those who speak for the establishment, pass right through and do not apply to those who see the world differently. One of the best examples of this is a Congressional meeting held almost exactly 10 years ago. For the most part, these issues about biotechnology and aid, are still unresolved. This meeting was notable because it brought together some of the biggest hitters from both camps, who proceeded to talk right past each other, thoroughly confusing the moderater. Can there be a middle ground?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sustaining Lives through Organic Farming

Association for India's Development, Columbus, along with the EARTH Center and Students for Food Sovereignty welcomes AID Fellow and organic farming expert, Ms. Revathi.

Revathi has worked with more than 32,000 farmers in the organic movement in Tamil Nadu and her work has been recognized by the governments of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. She has hands-on knowledge in the importance of rejuvenating the soil using a holistic approach towards soil restoration, seed selection techniques, methods to create organic pest repellent and herbicides. She described the use of Sesbania ("dhaincha") to reclaim soils made saline by the tsunami as well as conventional agriculture.

More info.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Soybeans as a Nitrogen Sink?

"Field Investigations of Manure and Synthetic Fertilizers on Agronomic Crops in Ohio" a talk by Keith Diedrick, OSU School of Environment and Natural Resources Soil Science Graduate Program.

This talk described the problem of too much fertilizer: large factory farms produce huge amounts of manure, which then must be disposed of. Whereas city and municipal biosolids (human waste) must be handled with extreme caution including up to a year of filtration, settling, fermentation, and more filtering, animal waste is treated differently. It is spread directly on conventional farm fields.
Current agricultural practice includes spreading manure on top of snow (which then melts directly into local streams).

This research aimed to determine how much of this goop could be applied before the fields became over fertilized. This research should help farmers know when and how much animal waste they can apply to their fields. Ironically, the research was conducted on crops that actually require no fertilizer: soybeans. Because soybeans are legumes, they fix their own nitrogen and increased fertilizer has not shown increased productivity. While there may have been some productivity increase with increased use of manure, the limiting factor appears to be the production of dissolved forms of nitrogen in the soil. If farmers hypothetically wanted to limit the amount of fertilizer running off their fields, how much manure can they apply? Unfortunately, given that no groundwater or runoff samples were taken, it is not clear that this research can answer this question.

Maybe when will we stop researching factory farms and Roundup Ready soybeans and start researching solutions to the ecological and agricultural problems of today there will be better news to report here. This talk completely omitted the issue of antibiotics, surfactants, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in manure and what effect these compounds might have on downstream ecology. I'm not just questioning the blatant narrow mindedness of this research, but the entire mindset that could lead someone to claim that this toxic manure is "just NPK" [nitrogen, phosphate, potassium] and that those three chemicals are the only thing important to plant nutrition and ecosystem functioning.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Environmental Causes of Cancer

from: Environmental Health News and World Wire News

The President's Cancer Panel reported that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated" and strongly urged action to reduce people's widespread exposure to carcinogens.

The panel advised 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."

The 240-page report by the President's Cancer Panel is the first to focus on environmental causes of cancer. The panel, created by an act of Congress in 1971, is charged with monitoring the multi-billion-dollar National Cancer Program and reports directly to the President every year.

Environmental exposures "do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program," the panel said in its letter to Obama that precedes the report. "The American people --even before they are born-- are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures."

The panel, appointed by President Bush, told President Obama that the federal government is missing the chance to protect people from cancer by reducing their exposure to carcinogens. In its letter, the panel singled out bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic and can linings that is unregulated in the United States, as well as radon, formaldehyde and benzene.

"The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm." - Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., chair of the President's Cancer PanelEnvironmental health scientists were pleased by the findings, saying it embraces everything that they have been saying for years.

Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health and one of the nation's leading cancer epidemiologists, called the report "a call to action."

Environmental and occupational exposures contribute to "tens of thousands of cancer cases a year," Clapp said. "If we had any calamity that produced tens of thousands of deaths or serious diseases, that’s a national emergency in my view.”

These include:

* Malignant melanoma of the skin in adults has increased by 168 percent due to the use of sunscreens in childhood that fail to block long wave ultraviolet light;

* Thyroid cancer has increased by 124 percent due in large part to ionizing radiation;

* Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has increased 76 percent due mostly to phenoxy herbicides; and phenylenediamine hair dyes;

* Testicular cancer has increased by 49 percent due to pesticides; hormonal ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products; and estrogen residues in meat;

* Childhood leukemia has increased by 55 percent due to ionizing radiation; domestic pesticides; nitrite preservatives in meats, particularly hot dogs; and parental exposures to occupational carcinogens;

* Ovary cancer (mortality) for women over the age of 65 has increased by 47 percent in African American women and 13 percent in Caucasian women due to genital use of talc powder;

* Breast cancer has increased 17 percent due to a wide range of factors. These include: birth control pills; estrogen replacement therapy; toxic hormonal ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products; diagnostic radiation; and routine premenopausal mammography, with a cumulative breast dose exposure of up to about five rads over ten years.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

"America is the Saudi Arabia of negawatts"

Amory Lovins goes on to say that "more productive use of energy is not, strictly speaking, a physical "source" of energy, but is only a way to displace physical sources. This distinction is rhetorical, since the displacement or substitution is real and makes supply fully fungible with efficiency."