Sunday, March 28, 2010

Push to Eat Local Food Is Hampered by Shortage

March 26, 2010

By KATIE ZEZIMA, New York Times

EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. — Erica Zimmerman and her husband spent months pasture-raising pigs on their farm here, but when the time came to take them to slaughter, an overbooked facility canceled their appointment.

With the herd in prime condition, and the couple lacking food and space to keep them, they frantically called slaughterhouses throughout the state. After several days they found an opening, but their experience highlights a growing problem for small farmers here and across the nation: too few slaughterhouses to meet the growing demand for locally raised meat.

In what could be a major setback for America’s local-food movement, championed by so-called locavores, independent farmers around the country say they are forced to make slaughter appointments before animals are born and to drive hundreds of miles to facilities, adding to their costs and causing stress to livestock.

As a result, they are scaling back on plans to expand their farms because local processors cannot handle any more animals.

“It’s pretty clear there needs to be attention paid to this,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. “Particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of slaughterhouses nationwide declined to 809 in 2008 from 1,211 in 1992, while the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000 in the past five years.

Fewer slaughterhouses to process local meat means less of it in butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants. Chefs throughout the Northeast are partnering with farms to add locally-raised meat to their menus, satisfying a customer demand. But it is not always easy.

“There are a lot of people out there who raise great animals for us to use, and they don’t have the opportunity to get them to us because the slaughterhouses are going away,” said Bill Telepan, chef and owner of Telepan, a high-end restaurant in New York.

Mr. Telepan’s veal supplier, Duane Merrill of Walton, N.Y., said there was no slaughterhouse in Delaware County, “and it’s the size of Rhode Island.” Mr. Merrill said he also had difficulty finding adequate transport for veal cattle down to New York City.

Brian Moyer, director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, uses the image of an hourglass. “At the top of the hourglass we’ve got the farmers,” he said, “the bottom part is consumers and in the middle, what’s straining those grains of sand, is the infrastructure that’s lacking.”

Vermont, a locavore’s paradise, is seeing increased demand for the facilities from both small-scale meat producers and dairy farmers, who are facing some of the lowest milk prices in years and are trying to diversify with beef cattle.

“People are trying to figure out how to get a little more money out of their herds,” said Randy Quenneville, program chief for the Vermont meat inspection service. “And with the interest in stuff being local, wanting to know where their food is coming from and how it was raised, there are more people looking to do this.”

The state has seven operating slaughterhouses, down from around 25 in the mid-1980s, Mr. Quenneville said. One is a state-inspected facility, meaning that meat inspected there cannot be sold over state lines.

Two slaughterhouses recently closed, one destroyed by a fire and the other shuttered because of animal cruelty charges. The closed facility is expected to reopen soon.

Mr. Quenneville said a number of small, family-owned slaughterhouses started closing when strict federal rules regarding health control went into effect in 1999. Large corporations like Cargill also began to take over much of the nation’s meat market.

He and Mr. Vilsack are both urging farmers to band together and open local cooperatives or mobile slaughter facilities. The Agriculture Department is financing some mobile units and helping to build a regional facility near the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa. Helping small farmers, Mr. Vilsack said, will improve struggling rural economies.

“We recognize that the buy-local food movement is a significant economic driver in rural communities,” he said.

But building a regional facility is not always easy. As the locavore movement and self-butchering movements grow, so do cries of “Not in my backyard.”

Some residents in the quaint town of Woodstock, Vt., raised more than $1 million to buy a water buffalo farm whose owner wanted to convert it into a slaughterhouse. Some said the facility would have been too big for the town. Vince Galluccio, who helped organize opposition, was concerned that waste from the proposed plant’s feed lot and manure piles would run down a hill and into town. Now the owners plan to turn the property into a dairy farm and educational center.

Mr. Galluccio says the state needs more slaughterhouses and hopes to help build one that would be a better fit for the community. “We’re not against slaughterhouses,” Mr. Galluccio said. “But you wouldn’t open up a discotheque next to a church.”

Some would not open a “slaughterhouse” anywhere, preferring to discard the term in favor of the French “abattoir.” There are hurdles, whatever the name.

“You need skilled management and work force, a cooperative town, a good supply of water, a good way of getting rid of waste,” said Ed Maltby, a spokesman for Adams Farm, a slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., that reopened in 2008 after a fire. “It’s not a problem that can be easily solved.”

The mobile units have been popular for poultry, and many farmers are trying to replicate the system with larger animals. Cheryl Ouellette, a farmer from Tacoma, Wash., known as “the pig lady,” helped secure a U.S.D.A.-certified mobile processing unit with $250,000 in local conservation money. It opened in August and expects to process 10 animals — mostly cows, pigs and sheep — each day.

In Washington, Ms. Ouellette said, some farmers were driving animals more than 300 miles to slaughter. “Farmers had problems, butchers couldn’t get U.S.D.A. carcasses to sell in meat cases, and chefs couldn’t get local meat,” she said. “Here there are no small processing facilities left for that food to get into commerce.”

The mobile unit goes from farm to farm with a U.S.D.A.-approved butcher and inspector aboard. It contains heaters, potable water and dumps wastewater at RV stations.

Ms. Zimmerman and her husband, Kevin McCollister, would like to see the rules relaxed on farm slaughter. Their slaughterhouse is an hour and a half away — long enough for the pigs to be stressed and not in optimal shape for processing, Ms. Zimmerman said.

“We have a product that people really wanted; we should have a system that would allow us to produce it as efficiently as possible,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “There’s not enough room for all the people like me.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Greenest Building in the US is a Monastery


The greenest building in the U.S isn't a fancy hotel, apartment complex, or office building. It's a monastery. The US Green Building Council recently awarded the Benedictine Women of Madison’s Holy Wisdom Monastery a Platinum LEED rating with 63 out 69 possible points--the most points of any certified building in the country.

The Sisters at the 30,000 foot, two-story monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin never intended to set a LEED record. Apparently, they have always prized sustainability--just take a look at their restoration of 95 acres of farmland to prairie and their project to dredge a glacial lake that had been previously been filled with silt.

Of course, the monastery still had to work hard to set the record. Some of the ultra-green features in the Hoffman LLC-designed building include a geothermal heating and cooling system, a photovoltaic system on the Chapel roof, windows with special glazing that allow for light and climate control, and the restoration and reuse of old pipe organs and bells. Almost 100% of the 60,000 square foot old Benedictine House was also recycled or reused in the building process. Not bad for a bunch of Sisters with a dream.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

First Solar Flies Too Close to the Sun


MARCH 22, 2010

By PETER EAVIS, Wall Street Journal

First Solar's reign as the sun king could be coming to an end.

The Tempe, Ariz., company has long stood out from its peers in the solar-panel manufacturing sector. Not only is First Solar's balance sheet sturdier than rivals', but its panels are cheaper, resulting in enviable profit margins and revenue growth. Trouble is, the picture darkens over the next few years. Solar power relies almost completely on subsidies, and those are being slashed in Germany, where First Solar made 65% of its sales last year.

Arguably, the company's stock, down more than 40% in two years, already reflects the subsidy cuts. But investors should remain cautious for two reasons about First Solar, which trades at 19 times estimated 2010 earnings. First, the company may find it hard to remain as competitive on cost, because rival-technology panels are falling in price due to oversupply from places like Asia. Perhaps more important, the company may find it hard to support profits by expanding its "systems" business—attracting outside money to help fund solar farms that use First Solar's panels.

In particular, skeptics ask why First Solar needs to expand the systems business. Surely, if solar demand is truly robust, the company should be able to stick to its proven business of making and selling panels, while letting others bear the full project risks. Perhaps few investors want that risk, because they are unimpressed with solar power's underlying economics. If that is the case, it hardly bodes well for First Solar's expansion.

The company's supporters say the economics aren't bad. And First Solar, with its expertise and strong balance sheet, is more robust than other project developers. However, the economics deserve closer scrutiny, particularly in a big market like the U.S. First Solar has negotiated large power purchase agreements—which are signed before a plant is built and typically before outside investors commit—for selling electricity at around 15 cents a kilowatt-hour. That doesn't look obviously attractive, given that, in Germany, solar electricity gets sold above 35 cents a kWh. The company says the main reason it can still make profits at the lower sales price is that key U.S. states have far more sunshine than Germany.

And investors have to keep a close eye on the extent to which First Solar is putting its own money behind new solar farms. If it overstretches, concern will grow it is sacrificing balance-sheet strength for sales. First Solar says it won't put any of its own capital into building larger plants, which means those that exceed roughly 100 megawatts of capacity.

So, where might First Solar trade if issues like these cause earnings to disappoint? Analysts have slashed 2010 estimates to just over $6 a share from $8.53 eight months ago. If that comes down to $5, and First Solar trades at the wider market multiple of 15 times, the stock would be at $75, or down a third from current levels. That would be a decidedly unsunny outcome.

Write to Peter Eavis at

Saturday, March 20, 2010

University of California Grow LA Victory Garden Initiative

Grow LA!

Rachel A. Surls

Friday March 12 2010

With more than 10 million residents, and a climate conducive to year-round growing, Los Angeles County is a gardener's paradise. Gardening has always been popular in Los Angeles but recently has become an even greater passion. This trend is evident nationally, with a 19% increase in Americans growing their own food, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Gardening Association. In the current economic situation, gardening is an important strategy to help families improve their food security. However, vegetable gardening can be intimidating for beginners, who need extra support.

With the help of our dedicated UC Master Gardener Volunteers and many community partners, UC Cooperative Extension has organized a new initiative to help Los Angeles County residents become successful vegetable gardeners. The Grow LA Victory Garden Initiative will offer a low-cost, four-session class, held at 10 locations around Los Angeles County, where new gardeners will learn the basics of successful vegetable gardening. These "Victory Garden Circles" will provide not only basic lessons, but also a way to stay in touch with fellow gardeners, ask questions, and share produce. Groups are gearing up to start in late March and early April. Participants who complete all four classes will become UC Certified Victory Gardeners. A google map shows the locations and contact information for each site. We hope to start ten more sites in the fall.

Why victory gardens? We've named the initiative for the World War II Victory Garden movement that inspired Americans to grow as much as 40% of the nation's fresh produce. (You can see one of the popular Victory Garden posters of the era, below.) Today, gardens will help us achieve victory over poverty, food insecurity, and lack of fresh, quality food.

The Grow LA blog will provide victory gardening tips and highlights from our Master Gardener Volunteers and their Victory Garden Circles around Los Angeles. We hope you continue to visit the blog, and our Initiative web page. Welcome!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Field Report: Plow Shares

February 28, 2010



“Who brought their own wheelbarrow?” Rob Jones asked the group of 20-somethings gathered on a muddy North Carolina farm on a chilly January Sunday. Hands shot up and wheelbarrows were pulled from pickups sporting Led Zeppelin and biodiesel bumper stickers, then parked next to a mountain of soil. “We need to get that dirt into those beds over there in the greenhouse,” he said, nodding toward a plastic-roofed structure a few hundred feet away. “The rest of you can come with me to move trees and clear brush to make room for more pasture. Watch out for poison ivy.”

Bobby Tucker, the 28-year-old co-owner of Okfuskee Farm in rural Silk Hope, looked eagerly at the 50-plus volunteers bundled in all manner of flannel and hand-knits. In five hours, these pop-up farmers would do more on his fledgling farm than he and his three interns could accomplish in months. “It’s immeasurable,” he said of the gift of same-day infrastructure.

It’s the beauty of being Crop Mobbed.

The Crop Mob, a monthly word-of-mouth (and -Web) event in which landless farmers and the agricurious descend on a farm for an afternoon, has taken its traveling work party to 15 small, sustainable farms. Together, volunteers have contributed more than 2,000 person-hours, doing tasks like mulching, building greenhouses and pulling rocks out of fields.

“The more tedious the work we have, the better,” Jones said, smiling. “Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together.”

The affable, articulate Jones, 27, is part of the group’s grass-roots core, organizing events and keeping them moving. The Mob was formed during a meeting about issues facing young farmers, during which an intern declared that better relationships are built working side by side than by sitting around a table. So one day, 19 people went to Piedmont Biofarm and harvested, sorted and boxed 1,600 pounds of sweet potatoes in two and a half hours. A year later, the Crop Mob e-mail list has nearly 400 subscribers, and the farm fests now draw 40 to 50 volunteers.

The Crop Mob works well partly because the area around Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham is so rich in small-scale, sustainable farms, and the sustainable-agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College draws students from across the nation who stay put after graduation.

One of the biggest issues facing sustainable agriculture is that it’s “way, way, way more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture,” Jones said. “It’s not sustainable physically, and it’s not sustainable for people personally: they’re working all the time and don’t have an opportunity to have a social life. So I think Crop Mob brings that celebration to the work, so that you get that sense of community that people are looking for, and you get a lot of work done. And we have a lot of fun.”

“It’s good to get off the farm you’re farming,” said Jennie Rasmussen, a 25-year-old Indiana native who traded an office job for community gardening before moving to the area to farm. “It’s great to meet other people who have the same challenges and just network and build community.”

“Networking” and “building community” popped up in almost every conversation I had that day, and it never came across as slick or earnest. Both have real context here, as these mostly farmless farmers hear about internships, learn about affordable land and find potential dates. For those who don’t farm, it’s a way to explore getting their fingernails dirty. One woman, who recently moved to the area from New Jersey after losing her job in the financial-services industry, was eager to plug in to the vibrant local food scene. “I’m trying not to hinder the effort,” she said with a laugh as she distributed twigs on a h├╝gelkultur bed made from dead trees.

The farmer Trace Ramsey, who is part of the Mob core as well as its documentarian, has watched the young-farmer phenomenon explode. “People are interested in authentic work,” he said. “I think they’re tired of what they’ve been told they should accomplish in their life, and they’re starting to realize that it’s not all that exciting or beneficial from a community perspective or an individual perspective.” At 36, Ramsey joked that he’s the old man of the project — remarkable considering the average American farmer is 57. But as people of all ages become involved, he said, “what started as a young-farmer movement is just becoming a farmer movement.”

By the end of the afternoon, the transformation was remarkable. The towering piles of soil and mulch had dwindled to child’s height. The greenhouse beds were filled and the walls framed out by older volunteers who knew what to do with the table saw. The Tamworth pigs had a new fenced-in grazing area to uproot. Thickets and trees were removed from the edge of a field, a bonfire built from the haul. Garden rows were tidied while someone sang. And the h├╝gelkultur beds were handsomely finished. The dreary mess of winter had been cleared to make way for a well-ordered spring.

There was even time for a pecan-tree-planting demo before the buffet lunch. (Farmers are required only to feed the workers; no money is exchanged.) Tucker, bleary from exhaustion, thanked the smiling gang. The group then threw around ideas for which farm should be Mobbed next. When it was agreed that a volunteer’s employer would win the reciprocal-labor lottery, she hopped around in excitement.

The idea is catching on, Jones said. Requests for advice on starting mini-Mobs have come in from around the state. Two Crop Mobbers are traveling to Spain to talk to farmers. In cities, Jones added, there’s no reason that backyard and community gardeners can’t mob, too. Because anywhere there’s dirt, a community can grow.

Monday, March 15, 2010

How the Global Food Market Starves the Poor


Fri Mar 12, 2010

How can 1 in 7 people be malnourished in the modern world? A beautifully illustrated video shows the causes.

To understand the complexities of the international food market--and how traders in Chicago can cause Africans to starve--you could get a ph.D. in economics, or read a 400-page report from the World Bank. Or you watch this superb nine minute video, directed by Denis van Waerebeke.

Though ostensibly created for a science show in Paris for 12 year olds, it's actually probably waaaay over a kid's head. Just watch--it's excellent, and very well illustrated:

How to feed the world ? from Denis van Waerebeke on Vimeo.

The video begins with a basic question: How is it that the first world has an oversupply of food, while 1 in 7 in the world go malnourished? Basically, farmers in developing countries have eschewed growing local food crops in favor of growing things like cotton for international export. For food, those countries instead import rice.

That can have disastrous effects. When cotton prices waver, trade revenues plunge, the economy sinks, and there's not enough money for food imports. Obviously, that's a bit of an oversimplification, but the basic story is real---it's called food dependence.

The solutions will involve everyone, the world over. Those in the developing world will need to reignite local food chains. And everyone else will have to become smarter: By 2050, our world population will double. But it's hard to imagine that we'll be able to feed that many people if we keep on consuming like we do. Instead, we'll have to rely on more sustainable farming techniques that don't leave sterile land in their wake--and we'll have to eat more vegetables and less meat--because every pound of meat takes about 7 to 12 times the resources to produce as a pound of veggies.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rising food prices may start with seeds

Thu 11 Mar 2010

By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

About 90% of U.S. soybean acres are grown with seeds that use Monsanto technology.

For 40 years, farmer Todd Leake and his family have battled bitter cold, hungry pests and a short growing season to coax soybeans out of their fields in eastern North Dakota.

The one thing they never had to fight for, though, was their seeds.

A decade ago, salesmen from as many as 50 seed companies would compete for their dollars. Each would promise healthier plants, richer yields or a better discount.

Today the Leakes have little choice: There are four seed companies in their area, and all sell seeds that include genetic traits patented and licensed by Monsanto Co., the world's largest seed firm.

"There's basically nothing else available," said Leake, 48. "You have to use their seeds and pay their prices."

The concerns of farmers such as Leake will take center stage in Ankeny, Iowa, on Friday as the Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture kick off the first of a yearlong series of public meetings to examine whether antitrust practices in agriculture are driving food prices higher.

The meetings are intended to allow producers, competitors and activists to air their concerns about the grain, poultry, dairy and livestock industries. The government is also trying to ferret out reasons for the sometimes vast gaps between what farmers are paid for producing food and the prices shoppers pay at the grocery store.

Justice Department officials, who spoke on background because they said it was too early to comment about concerns raised at the meetings, said the workshops were a chance for the government to examine the changes the food sector had undergone in recent years.

The push to hold such events, the officials said, was driven in part by President Obama's concerns over how consolidation has affected industry competition.

Many experts believe that rising food prices start with seeds.

In recent years, the companies that develop seeds for farmers to sow in their fields have consolidated. Complaints about unfair competitive practices by the few giant firms left have soared. As a result, critics say, the effects of more costly seeds have rippled out to the nation's dining tables.

The farm community -- which produces more than $80 billion annually in soybeans and corn -- has been pressuring lawmakers to investigate why it's costing them so much more to grow their crops. U.S. farmers spent about $17 billion on seeds last year, up 56% from 2006, the USDA said.

Yet over the last decade, the number of independent seed companies in the U.S. has shrunk to fewer than 100 from more than 300, said Bill Wenzel, national director of the nonprofit Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, a network of 34 farm groups.

Today, four companies account for 50% of the world's proprietary seeds for major crops. The leader is Monsanto Co., whose marketing practices the Justice Department is investigating.

"There's a growing sentiment in this White House administration that competition, and the lack of it, is getting to be a serious problem in the food sector," said Neil E. Harl, an Iowa farmer and a retired Iowa State University economics professor. "The question will be whether the government will, after these hearings, take a more active approach."

By anyone's standard, Monsanto is huge, as is its influence on consumers: Ninety-two percent of the U.S. soybean acres and 85% of the fields planted with corn are grown with seeds that use Monsanto technology, according to a 2009 report issued by Farmer to Farmer.

Crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes probably contributed to the pancakes served at breakfast, the hamburger eaten at lunch and the fruit punch poured at dinner.

The federal government has company in its scrutiny of Monsanto. At least three state attorneys general have begun probes into whether the St. Louis company has abused its market dominance to undermine rivals and raise prices.

The company also is embroiled in a sweeping legal fight with rival DuPont Co. and its subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which has claimed that Monsanto violated antitrust laws by using its gene licenses to quash competition.

Monsanto insists that it has done nothing wrong.

"Monsanto believes an objective review of the agricultural sector will reveal that competition is alive and flourishing," it said in a statement this week. A Monsanto executive is expected to speak in Iowa on Friday.

About 75% of processed food -- such as margarine and chicken soup -- on the country's grocery shelves contains engineered ingredients. These include soybeans that have been genetically modified to be more resistant to pests and weeds.

It was the lowly soybean that was the first staple crop to be successfully engineered and widely planted, thanks to Monsanto.

In an effort to bolster sales of its herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup, Monsanto turned to its laboratories to create crops that would tolerate the weed-killer. Instead of trying to alter soy's genes, they layered on new ones.

As a result, the Roundup Ready soybean seed and its patented traits were born and hit the market in 1996. Sales skyrocketed.

So did a new business model, in which farmers aren't buying a 50-pound bag of seeds but paying for a license of Monsanto's biotechnology patents and the right to use those patents for one production year. The price tag can also include additional costs, such as a technology fee.

Now, with the patent on the Roundup Ready soybean expiring in 2014, along with the company's ability to draw royalties, Monsanto is pushing farmers to switch to its second generation of Roundup Ready seeds.

Farmers such as Leake say they have little choice but to go along.

"I ran out of conventional seeds in 2004," Leake said. "I had to shift over to seeds with Monsanto's genes."

He said he's also paying more. In 2000, a bag with enough Roundup Ready soybean seeds to fill 1 acre of land would have cost him $17. Now, he said, he pays as much as $50.

He and his neighbors tried to figure out why the cost of seeds has jumped when they visited a Monsanto demonstration field last summer.

"Someone asked, 'Why are they priced so high?' " Leake recalled. "They told us, 'The price of soybeans has gone up and our company believes we are deserving of higher seed prices because of the extra traits we're giving the farmer.' "

"What can you do?" Leake asked. "There's really no alternative."


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Pintos of Point Arena (CA) Blog

The Fence and Update on the Pintos


I am now the proud owner, actually I don't like that word, the new guardian of the 7 wild pintos! My neighbor where the horses lived, had to sell his land and his only choices for the pintos was to find them a new home right away or they would have had to go to auction.

Since the horses basically adopted me about a year ago (see older posts below), there was no way I was going to let them go to auction or leave this area. They have become the local celebreties of Point Arena and I am touched by how many people care about these lovely animals.

As you can see from the above photo, the fence line is down between the two properties and we don't have any fencing on our property, so we need to build a a fence around 60+ acres to keep them safe from wandering around the neighborhood or getting onto the highway. We have taken out a personal loan because we need to start fencing right away, so building will start March 18th. I will be posting pictures of the fence as it is being built.

Presently, I never know when the horses will come over from the other side of the fence. Sometimes every day and sometimes not for several days. While we were in the middle of the paper work transferring the horses to me, they showed up! It is as if they knew!

Several local people have offered financial help and have given suggestions, for which the pintos and I are very grateful. It is a large project and if there is anyone else who wishes to make a donation please email me at . Any amount is appreciated and because we are not a foundation, your donations will not be tax decutible. You can also purchase pinto cards at my website the profits from these cards goes towards the pintos care.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

10 Companies Reinventing Our Energy Infrastructure

Wired Science

By Alexis Madrigal

March 2, 2010

When most people think about changing the way America uses energy, they imagine new ways of generating electricity like solar farms or new nuclear reactors.

But at an innovation summit organized by the Department of Energy’s high-risk, high-reward research branch, ARPA-E (modeled after Darpa), it’s not just power generation that’s getting a makeover. The companies hawking their ideas there, which all received grant money from ARPA-E or were finalists, are trying to reinvent the entire energy system. Everything is getting a technological re-evaluation from the actual wires that power is transmitted on to the waste heat produced in industrial processes.

And of course there are also new ways of making electricity beyond just burning some rocks or oil to create steam to drive a turbine.

Here are 10 companies that caught our attention. Any one technology is unlikely to solve the looming climate change and peak oil problems, but working together within the larger system, they could tilt the globe away from catastrophe and towards a sustainable future.


Now, ethanol is made with corn cobs, which are just a small amount of the corn plant’s total biomass. For years, people have been trying to come up with ways to use all the rest of the plant to make fuel. They call that stuff “cellulosic ethanol,” because it doesn’t just use the sugars in the cobs, but the cellulose in the rest of the plant. It turns out, though, that it’s not so easy to do the chemistry that transforms a corn stalk into a liquid fuel that works.

Agrivida is working on plants that release enzymes to degrade the cellulose in their own cell walls — on command. They throw a molecular switch, and the plants start turning themselves into sugar, saving fuel processors a key and energy-intensive step.

Phononic Devices

Most industrial processes generate heat as a byproduct. Not only does that heat do no useful work, it also damages machinery. But there are materials that can directly convert heat into electricity without running some working fluid through a traditional generator. Phononic Devices is out to make these thermoelectric materials, which have been around for a good while, much more efficient and cheaper through nanotechnology.

If scavenging heat to make electricity gets a lot cheaper, it could increase the overall efficiency of many processes. But to do that, you need much better materials.

“Thermoelectrics is a pure materials field,” said Gerbrand Ceder, an MIT materials scientist who is not associated with Phononic Devices. “Thermoelectrics is going to leapfrog forward if you have better materials.”

Makani Windpower

Wind power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels (.pdf) in many places — and cheaper in really windy places. But it’s not perfect. The wind close to the ground is streakier than the stuff higher up, and it doesn’t blow as hard. Because the power available in the wind varies with the cube of its speed, a bit more speed gets you a lot more power. The best ground-based sites have a wind-power density of about a kilometer per square meter of area swept. The wind-power density near the jet stream above New York is more than 15 times better than that.

Makani Power wants to use large kites tethered at high altitudes to take advantage of the better wind resource that exists up there. It sounds crazy, but Google has already invested $15 million in the company.

Graphene Energy

Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but graphene, the one-atom thick configuration of carbon atoms, is every nerd’s favorite form of C. Researchers can already imagine all kinds of wonderful applications for the stuff — like bendy electronics — but it might come in handy for energy storage, too.

Graphene Energy is developing ultracapacitors based on the material. Ultracaps are considered a very attractive technology because — unlike your laptop battery — they can be cycled many times over and they can also provide big bursts of power. The problem is that they don’t have anywhere near the energy density. Graphene Energy’s technology is based on the work of the University of Texas’ Rod Ruoff. Ruoff has claimed that graphene could double the capacity of existing ultracapacitors by increasing the amount of carbon surface area that’s actively storing energy.

Superconductor Technologies

The existing power grid has received a lot of attention because it loses some of the electricity that’s pumped into it. New, long transmission lines would also be required to get power from windy and sunny places to where people live if those renewable technologies are going to provide large amounts of power in the future.

While many people are focusing on new meters or other “smart grid” ideas, Superconductor Technologies is trying to reinvent the actual power line. Not the idea of it, but the wire itself. They claim that by replacing the copper and aluminum wires in the grid with a ceramic, high-temperature superconductor, the lines could have five times the capacity and waste less electricity.


An energy system that can accommodate the intermittency of renewable power will probably need large-scale storage. Companies are trying to commercialize all kinds of storage technologies, from pumping compressed air into caverns to using new kinds of ultracapacitors.

Flywheels are another promising technology. They store the energy mechanically by rotating mass around an axis. Energy placed into the system by a motor gets the flywheels spinning, and the same motor can be run the opposite way to pull energy out of the system. They are commonly used in industry, but are considered too expensive and immature for deployment.

Velkess has a promising flywheel system that the company claims could reduce storage costs by a factor of 10.


Biofuels have come under attack as a solution to climate change, but if world oil production has peaked, coming up with a cheap way to make liquid fuels out of something else would still be very important technology. The Fischer-Tropsch process is a well-known way of making synthetic fuels from other types of carbon. In the past, that’s largely been coal, such as when the Germans used the process (see the plant above) to manufacture fuel during World War II. But it could also be used with biomass to make biofuel.

The downside to Fischer-Tropsch is that it’s an energy-intensive and therefore expensive chemical process. Velocys says it has a better way of mixing the ingredients in the process to bring down the cost of making hydrocarbons out of regular old carbon.

Wildcat Discovery Technologies

New materials have driven the power industry for decades, as better heat- and pressure-resistant materials allowed electrical plants to grow larger and larger. Now, there are all kinds of new materials that would be nice to have. Better batteries, carbon capture and photovoltaics all depend on the material science, yet it’s still a very trial-and-error science. Wildcat Discovery Technologies is trying to bring high-throughput automation to the discovery and synthesis of new materials. Their technology is one way to bring the accelerating advances in robotics and computing to bear on the energy problem.

Xtreme Energetics

Photovoltaic panels have to do two jobs, which often come into conflict. First, because sunlight is a diffuse energy source, they need to spread out over a large area as cheaply as possible. Second, they need to convert those photons into electrons as efficiently as possible. Those two tasks call for different kinds of materials. Collecting photons isn’t difficult and can be done with cheap materials, but converting them into electrons is really tough. But what if you could separate those tasks? That’s the idea behind concentrating photovoltaics technologies like Xtreme Energetics. You use a cheap material to focus the sun’s rays on a very efficient, very expensive small piece of photovoltatic material.

Xtreme Energetics says its technology could make electricity at a cost of $1.50 per watt with 43 percent efficiency and a smaller footprint than traditional solar panels.

Potter Drilling

Tapping the heat of the Earth has proven a cost-effective way of making electricity in most of the places around the globe where earthquakes are likely. Geothermal reservoirs are like capped geysers: When humans drill a hole, hot stuff comes up, which can be used to run a turbine.

But the big play in geothermal energy has always been to simply use the hot rocks down there and create your own reservoir. To do that, you have to drill into rocks much harder than those you normally encounter in oil fields. Potter Drilling is trying to commercialize a new drilling technique that replaces drill bits with … hot water. The company thinks it can halve the costs associated with drilling enhanced geothermal fields.

Of course, right now, geothermal may have bigger problems than drilling. The bad press over small earthquakes caused by an enhanced geothermal project in Switzerland has taken some of the shine off a technology that had been anointed by a big MIT study as a big piece of out energy future. It’s worth noting, though, that the vast majority of human-caused quakes are caused by traditional mining and by hydroelectric-dam reservoirs.

Read More

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cleveland's Galleria Mall Turns Lost Retail Space Into Greenhouse Farm Stand

BY ARIEL SCHWARTZ Mon Mar 8, 2010, Fast Company

Shopping malls, those bastions of American consumerism, have not been immune to the recent economic downturn. In a recent piece by our own Greg Lindsay, we looked at the impending decline of the mall, which is part of the "single-use environment" category of real estate development that will slowly disappear over the next thirty years, according to one developer. But what will replace these environments, and more importantly, what will happen to the massive malls of today?

One possible solution can be seen in Cleveland's Galleria mall. The mall lost many of its retail shops over the past few years, leaving gaping holes in the greenhouse-like space. So employees of the Galleria came up with the idea for the Gardens Under Glass project, a so-called urban ecovillage inside the mall that features carts of fruits and vegetables grown on-site. The project was recently given a $30,000 start-up grant from Cleveland's Civic Innovation Lab.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer explains:

Poole and Hamilton put in the first green stuff this week--a 12-foot cart of lettuce and other greens near the Galleria's first-floor escalators. Their aim is to start an education center and store in a former candy shop, invite sustainable-product makers to display and sell their items, and sell produce to restaurants and individuals. They dream of hosting school groups and teams of volunteer urban gardeners eager to work beds of herbs and greens and vine systems raised hydroponically, aquaponically and in organic soils.

We can see it now: the malls of today turned into the suburban (and urban) farming powerhouses of tomorrow. And while we're at it, why not turn entire economically depressed cities into agricultural centers as well? It's already happening in Detroit, where entrepreneurs are turning vacant lots into factory-side farms. And if Cleveland's mall farm works out, maybe New Jersey can become the next big agricultural innovator--the state has the most malls per square mile in the country.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Spread of Superbugs

March 7, 2010



Until three months ago, Thomas M. Dukes was a vigorous, healthy executive at a California plastics company. Then, over the course of a few days in December as he was planning his Christmas shopping, E. coli bacteria ravaged his body and tore his life apart.

Mr. Dukes is a reminder that as long as we’re examining our health care system, we need to scrutinize more than insurance companies. We also need to curb the way modern agribusiness madly overuses antibiotics, leaving them ineffective for sick humans.

Antibacterial drugs were revolutionary when they were introduced in the United States in 1936, virtually eliminating diseases like tuberculosis here and making surgery and childbirth far safer. But now we’re seeing increasing numbers of superbugs that survive antibiotics. One of the best-known — MRSA, a kind of staph infection — kills about 18,000 Americans annually. That’s more than die of AIDS.

Mr. Dukes, 52, picked up a kind of bacteria called ESBL-producing E. coli. While it’s conceivable that he touched a contaminated surface, a likely scenario is that he ate tainted meat, said Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious-diseases specialist and the author of “Rising Plague,” a book about antibiotic resistance.

Vegetarians are also vulnerable to antibiotic resistance nurtured in hog barns. Microbes swap genes, so antibiotic resistance developed in pigs can jump to microbes that infect humans in hospitals, locker rooms, schools or homes.

Routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock is widely seen as a major reason for the rise of superbugs. But Congress and the Obama administration have refused to curb agriculture’s addiction to antibiotics, apparently because of the power of the agribusiness lobby.

The ESBL E. coli initially remained in Mr. Dukes’s colon, causing no particular damage. But then he suffered an inflammation that perforated his colon — and the bacteria escaped.

Mr. Dukes began suffering stomach pains and saw his doctor, who gave him Cipro, a strong antibiotic that had previously worked against the infection. This time, the pain grew worse. The next evening, he was in surgery to remove eight inches of his colon.

A culture attributed the infection partly to ESBL E. coli. Doctors inserted a tube to administer an intravenous antibiotic in an effort to save his life.

If ESBL E. coli is frightening, there are even more potent superbugs emerging, like Acinetobacter.

“We are seeing infections caused by Acinetobacter and special bacteria called KPC Klebsiella that are literally resistant to every antibiotic that is F.D.A. approved,” Dr. Spellberg said. “These are untreatable infections. This is the first time since 1936, the year that sulfa hit the market in the U.S., that we have had this problem.”

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, an organization of doctors and scientists, has been bellowing alarms. It fears that we could slip back to a world in which we’re defenseless against bacterial diseases.

There’s broad agreement that doctors themselves overprescribe antibiotics — but also that a big part of the problem is factory farms. They feed low doses of antibiotics to hogs, cattle and poultry to make them grow faster.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that in the United States, 70 percent of antibiotics are used to feed healthy livestock, with 14 percent more used to treat sick livestock. Only about 16 percent are used to treat humans and their pets, the study found.

More antibiotics are fed to livestock in North Carolina alone than are given to humans in the entire United States, according to the peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America. It concluded that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise of antibiotic resistance.

Legislation introduced by Louise Slaughter, a New Yorker who is the only microbiologist in the House of Representatives, would curb the routine use of antibiotics in farming. The bill has 104 co-sponsors, but agribusiness interests have blocked it in committee — and the Obama administration and the Senate have dodged the issue.

After weeks of receiving intravenous antibiotics, Mr. Dukes is now recovering at home in Lomita, Calif. He must use a colostomy bag, but he hopes to be patched up and ready to return to work next month. Still, he knows that the ESBL E. coli remains in his gut.

“As long as it’s contained in my colon, I’m a happy camper,” he said. “But if it gets out again, I’m in trouble.”

Dr. Martin J. Blaser, chairman of the department of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, and a former president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, agrees that agricultural use of antibiotics produces cheaper meat. But he says the price may be an enormous toll in human health.

“You could have very lethal pandemics,” he said. “We’re brewing some perfect storms.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People (Part II)

Originally published in Science Express on 28 January 2010
Science 12 February 2010:
Vol. 327. no. 5967, pp. 812 - 818
DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383

BY H. Charles J. Godfray, John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence,James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M. Thomas, Camilla Toulmin

Increasing Production Limits

The most productive crops, such as sugar cane, growing in optimum conditions, can convert solar energy into biomass with an efficiency of ~2%, resulting in high yields of biomass (up to 150 metric tons per hectare) (33). There is much debate over exactly what the theoretical limits are for the major crops under different conditions, and similarly, for the maximum yield that can be obtained for livestock rearing (18). However, there is clearly considerable scope for increasing production limits.

The Green Revolution succeeded by using conventional breeding to develop F1 hybrid varieties of maize and semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties of wheat and rice. These varieties could be provided with more irrigation and fertilizer (20) without the risk of major crop losses due to lodging (falling over) or severe rust epidemics. Increased yield is still a major goal, but the importance of greater water- and nutrient-use efficiency, as well as tolerance of abiotic stress, is also likely to increase. Modern genetic techniques and a better understanding of crop physiology allow for a more directed approach to selection across multiple traits. The speed and costs at which genomes today can be sequenced or resequenced now means that these techniques can be more easily applied to develop varieties of crop species that will yield well in challenging environments. These include crops such as sorghum, millet, cassava, and banana, species that are staple foods for many of the world’s poorest communities (34).

Currently, the major commercialized genetically modified (GM) crops involve relatively simple manipulations, such as the insertion of a gene for herbicide resistance or another for a pest-insect toxin. The next decade will see the development of combinations of desirable traits and the introduction of new traits such as drought tolerance. By mid-century, much more radical options involving highly polygenic traits may be feasible (Table 1). Production of cloned animals with engineered innate immunity to diseases that reduce production efficiency has the potential to reduce substantial losses arising from mortality and subclinical infections. Biotechnology could also produce plants for animal feed with modified composition that increase the efficiency of meat production and lower methane emissions.

Domestication inevitably means that only a subset of the genes available in the wild-species progenitor gene pool is represented among crop varieties and livestock breeds. Unexploited genetic material from land races, rare breeds, and wild relatives will be important in allowing breeders to respond to new challenges. International collections and gene banks provide valuable repositories for such genetic variation, but it is nevertheless necessary to ensure that locally adapted crop and livestock germplasm is not lost in the process of their displacement by modern, improved varieties and breeds. The trend over recent decades is of a general decline in investment in technological innovation in food production (with some notable exceptions, such as in China and Brazil) and a switch from public to private sources (1). Fair returns on investment are essential for the proper functioning of the private sector, but the extension of the protection of intellectual property rights to biotechnology has led to a growing public perception in some countries that biotech research purely benefits commercial interests and offers no long-term public good. Just as seriously, it also led to a virtual monopoly of GM traits in some parts of the world, by a restricted number of companies, which limits innovation and investment in the technology. Finding ways to incentivize wide access and sustainability, while encouraging a competitive and innovative private sector to make best use of developingtechnology, is a major governance challenge.

The issue of trust and public acceptance of biotechnology has been highlighted by the debate over the acceptance of GM technologies. Because genetic modification involves germline modification of an organism and its introduction to the environment and food chain, a number of particular environmental and food safety issues need to be assessed. Despite the introduction of rigorous science-based risk assessment, this discussion has become highly politicized and polarized in some countries, particularly those in Europe. Our view is that genetic modification is a potentiallyvaluable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis: Genetic modification should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed. We also accept the need for this technology to gain greater public acceptance and trust before it can be considered as one among a set of technologies that may contribute to improved global food security.

There are particular issues involving new technologies, both GM and non-GM, that are targeted at helping the least-developed countries (35, 36). The technologies must be directed at the needs of those communities, which are often different from those of more developed country farmers. To increase the likelihood that new technology works for, and is adopted by, the poorest nations, they need to be involved in the framing, prioritization, risk assessment, and regulation of innovations. This will often require the creation of innovative institutional and governance mechanisms that account for socio-cultural context (for example, the importance of women in developing-country food production).New technologies offer major promise, but there are risks of lost trust if their potential benefits are exaggerated in public debate. Efforts to increase sustainable production limits that benefit the poorest nations will need to be based around new alliances of businesses, civil society organizations, and governments.

Reducing Waste

Roughly 30 to 40% of food in both the developed and developing worlds is lost to waste, though the causes behind this are very different (Fig. 3) (16, 37–39). In the developing world, losses are mainly attributable to the absence of food-chain infrastructure and the lack of knowledge or investment in storage technologies on the farm, although data are scarce. For example, in India, it is estimated that 35 to 40% of fresh produce is lost because neither wholesale nor retail outlets have cold storage (16). Even with rice grain, which can be stored more readily, as much as one-third of the harvest in Southeast Asia can be lost after harvest to pests and spoilage (40). But the picture is more complex than a simple lack of storage facilities: Although storage after harvest when there is a glut of food would seem to make economic sense, the farmer often has to sell immediately to raise cash.

In contrast, in the developed world, pre-retail losses are much lower, but those arising at the retail, food service, and home stages of the food chain have grown dramatically in recent years, for a variety of reasons (41). At present, food is relatively cheap, at least for these consumers, which reduces the incentives to avoid waste. Consumers have become accustomed to purchasing foods of the highest cosmetic standards; hence, retailers discard many edible, yet only slightly blemished products. Commercial pressures can encourage waste: The food service industry frequently uses "super-sized" portions as a competitive lever, whereas "buy one get one free" offers have the same function for retailers. Litigation and lack of education on food safety have lead to a reliance on "use by" dates, whose safety margins often mean that food fit for consumption is thrown away. In some developed countries, unwanted food goes to a landfill instead of being used as animal feed or compost because of legislation to control prion diseases.

Different strategies are required to tackle the two types of waste. In developing countries, public investment in transport infrastructure would reduce the opportunities for spoilage, whereas better-functioning markets and the availability of capital would increase the efficiency of the food chain, for example, by allowing the introduction of cold storage (though this has implications for greenhouse gas emissions) (38). Existing technologies and best practices need to be spread by education and extension services, and market and finance mechanisms are required to protect farmers from having to sell at peak supply, leading to gluts and wastage. There is also a need for continuing researchin postharvest storage technologies. Improved technology for small-scale food storage in poorer contexts is a prime candidate for the introduction of state incentives for private innovation, with the involvement of small-scale traders, millers, and producers.

If food prices were to rise again, it is likely that there would be a decrease in the volume of waste produced by consumers in developed countries. Waste may also be reduced by alerting consumers to the scale of the issue, as well as to domestic strategies for reducing food loss. Advocacy, education, and possibly legislation may also reduce waste in the food service and retail sectors. Legislation such as that on sell-by dates and swill that has inadvertently increased food waste should be reexamined within a more inclusive competing-risks framework. Reducing developed-country food waste is particularly challenging, as it is so closely linked to individual behavior and cultural attitudes toward food.

Changing Diets

The conversion efficiency of plant into animal matter is ~10%; thus, there is a prima facie case that more people could be supported from the same amount of land if they were vegetarians. About one-third of global cereal production is fed to animals (42). But currently, one of the major challenges to the food system is the rapidly increasing demand for meat and dairy products that has led, over the past 50 years, to a ~1.5-fold increase in the global numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats, with equivalent increases of ~2.5- and ~4.5-fold for pigs and chickens, respectively (2) (Fig. 1). This is largely attributable to the increased wealth of consumers everywhere and most recently in countries such as China and India.

However, the argument that all meat consumption is bad is overly simplistic. First, there is substantial variation in the production efficiency and environmental impact of the major classes of meat consumed by people (Table 2). Second, although a substantial fraction of livestock is fed on grain and other plant protein that could feed humans, there remains a very substantial proportion that is grass-fed. Much of the grassland that is used to feed these animals could not be converted to arable land or could only be converted with majorly adverse environmental outcomes. In addition, pigs and poultry are often fed on human food "waste." Third, through better rearing or improved breeds, it may be possible to increase the efficiency with which meat is produced. Finally, in developing countries, meat represents the most concentrated source of some vitamins and minerals, which is important for individuals such as young children. Livestock also are used for ploughing and transport, provide a local supply of manure, can be a vital source of income, and are of huge cultural importance for many poorer communities.

Reducing the consumption of meat and increasing the proportion that is derived from the most efficient sources offer an opportunity to feed more people and also present other advantages (37). Well-balanced diets rich in grains and other vegetable products are considered to be more healthful than those containing a high proportion of meat (especially red meat) and dairy products. As developing countries consume more meat in combination with high-sugar and -fat foods, they may find themselves having to deal with obesity before they have overcome undernutrition,leading to an increase in spending on health that could otherwise be used to alleviate poverty. Livestock production is also a major source of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, though this can be partially offset by the use of animal manure to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (43). Of the five strategies we discuss here, assessing the value of decreasing the fraction of meat in our diets is the most difficult and needs to be better understood.

Expanding Aquaculture

Aquatic products (mainly fish, aquatic molluscs, and crustaceans) have a critical role in the food system, providing nearly 3 billion people with at least 15% of their animal protein intake (44).

In many regions, aquaculture has been sufficiently profitable to permit strong growth; replicating this growth in areas such as Africa where it has not occurred could bring major benefits. Technical advances in hatchery systems, feeds and feed-delivery systems, and disease management could all increase output. Future gains may also come from better stock selection, larger-scale production technologies, aquaculture in open seas and larger inland water bodies, and the culture of a wider range of species. The long production cycle of many species (typically 6 to 24 months) requires a financing system that is capable of providing working capital as well as offsetting risk. Wider productionoptions (such as temperature and salinity tolerance and disease resistance) and cheaper feed substrates (for instance, plant material with enhanced nutritional features) might also be accessed with the use of GM technologies.

Aquaculture may cause harm to the environment because of the release into water bodies of organic effluents or disease treatment chemicals, indirectly through its dependence on industrial fisheries to supply feeds, and by acting as a source of diseases or genetic contamination for wild species. Efforts to reduce these negative externalities and increase the efficiency of resource use [such as the fish in–to–fish out ratio (45)] have been spurred by the rise of sustainability certification programs, though these mainly affect only higher-value sectors. Gains in sustainability could come from concentrating on lower–trophic level species and in integrating aquatic and terrestrial foodproduction, for example, by using waste from the land as food and nutrients. It will also be important to take a more strategic approach to site location and capacity within catchment or coastal zone management units (46).


There is no simple solution to sustainably feeding 9 billion people, especially as many become increasingly better off and converge on rich-country consumption patterns. A broad range of options, including those we have discussed here, needs to be pursued simultaneously. We are hopeful about scientific and technological innovation in the food system, but not as an excuse to delay difficult decisions today.

Any optimism must be tempered by the enormous challenges of making food production sustainable while controlling greenhouse gas emission and conserving dwindling water supplies, as well as meeting the Millennium Development Goal of ending hunger. Moreover, we must avoid the temptation to further sacrifice Earth’s already hugely depleted biodiversity for easy gains in food production, not only because biodiversity provides many of the public goods on which mankind relies but also because we do not have the right to deprive future generations of its economic and cultural benefits. Together, these challenges amount to a perfect storm.

Navigating the storm will require a revolution in the social and natural sciences concerned with food production, as well as a breaking down of barriers between fields. The goal is no longer simply to maximize productivity, but to optimize across a far more complex landscape of production, environmental, and social justice outcomes.

References and Notes

33. R. A. Gilbert, J. M. Shine Jr., J. D. Miller, R. W. Rice, C. R. Rainbolt, The effect of genotype, environment and time of harvest on sugarcane yields in Florida, USA. Field Crops Res. 95, 156 (2006). [CrossRef]
34. IAASTD, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report, (2008).
35. P. G. Lemaux, Genetically engineered plants and foods: A scientist’s analysis of the issues (part II). Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 60, 511 (2009). [CrossRef] [Medline]
36. D. Lea, The expansion and restructuring of intellectual property and its implications for the developing world.Ethical Theory Moral Pract. 11, 37 (2008). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
37. Cabinent Office, Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century (Cabinet Office Stategy Unit, London, 2008).
38. Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), The Food We Waste (WRAP, Banbury, UK, 2008).
39. T. Stuart, Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, London, 2009).
40. FAO, (1997).
41. California Integrated Waste Management Board, (2007).
42. FAO, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 (FAO, Rome, Italy, 2006).
43. FAO, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 (FAO, Rome, Italy, 2003).
44. M. D. Smith et al., Global overview on the use of fish meal and fish oil in industrially compounded aquafeeds: Trends and future prospects. Science 327, 784 (2010). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
45. A. G. J. Tacon, M. Metian, Global overview on the use of fish meal and fish oil in industrially compounded aquafeeds: Trends and future prospects. Aquaculture 285, 146 (2008). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
46. D. Whitmarsh, N. G. Palmieri, in Aquaculture in the Ecosystem, M. Holmer, K. Black, C. M. Duarte, N. Marba, I. Karakassis, Eds. (Springer, Berlin, Germany, 2008).
47. P. R. Hobbs, K. Sayre, R. Gupta, The role of conservation agriculture in sustainable agriculture. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol. Sci. 363, 543 (2008). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
48. W. Day, E. Audsley, A. R. Frost, An engineering approach to modelling, decision support and control for sustainable systems. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol. Sci. 363, 527 (2008). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
49. J. Gressel, Genetic Glass Ceilings (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, 2008).
50. FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO, Rome, Italy, 2006).
51. C. P. Reij, E. M. A. Smaling, Analyzing successes in agriculture and land management in Sub-Saharan Africa: Is macro-level gloom obscuring positive micro-level change? Land Use Policy 25, 410 (2008).[CrossRef] [Web of Science]
52. UNEP, Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment (UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya, 2008).
53. The authors are members of the U.K. Government Office for Science’s Foresight Project on Global Food and Farming Futures. J.R.B. is also affiliated with Imperial College London. D.L. is a Board Member of Plastid AS (Norway) and owns shares in AstraZeneca Public Limited Company and Syngenta AG. We are grateful to J. Krebs and J. Ingrahm (Oxford), N. Nisbett and D. Flynn (Foresight), and colleagues in Defra and DflD for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. If not for his sad death in July 2009, Mike Gale (John Innes Institute, Norwich, UK) would also have been an author of this paper.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Suit Pits Historic Town vs. Big Pig Farms

MARCH 3, 2010

In Missouri, Where Push Began for Local Control Over Siting, Attorney General Sides Against Tiny Arrow Rock

By LAUREN ETTER, Wall Street Journal

ARROW ROCK, Mo.—This tiny historic town has emerged as a battleground over rules that agricultural groups say have hog-tied big pig farms.

In 2007, residents of the town of 79 filed a lawsuit to stop a farmer who wanted to build a farm with 4,800 pigs on the outskirts of town.

They not only won the case but a ruling that appeared to keep any future applicants at least two miles away from town. "We were elated," said Julie Fisher, a landowner in Arrow Rock.

Then, last year, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster appealed the decision in state court, vowing to roll back a thicket of local obstacles to big farms that largely began in "The Show Me State" and rippled across the Farm Belt in recent years.

"In the eyes of the agricultural community, this is starting to spin out of control," said Mr. Koster, a former state senator whose pending appeal has the backing of the Missouri Farm Bureau, one of the biggest farm groups in the state.

As livestock operations have grown more industrialized, residents across rural America have banded together to try to keep them out. They say the bigger farms are wreaking havoc on their communities, polluting waterways with manure that can kill fish and sicken people. A popular tool has been county-level "local control" ordinances that govern where a large farm can locate.

While many states have retained authority over the siting of livestock farms, Missouri has a staunch local-control movement that took root in the early 1990s as corporate-controlled hog processors moved in. In 1999, the Missouri Court of Appeals held that a county can implement an ordinance governing livestock farms, including where they are located, if it is rooted in concerns over public health. Today, more than a dozen of Missouri's 114 counties have the ordinances.

In Arrow Rock, residents used another means after learning that a big hog farmer had won a permit. In late 2007, the village of Arrow Rock and others sued the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which had granted the permit. Residents said the permit conflicted with the state's constitutional duty to protect historic sites.

Arrow Rock was designated a national historic landmark in the 1960s for its role in westward expansion and its painstakingly preserved 19th century buildings. Today, it attracts 150,000 visitors a year to a Main Street that boasts a quaint boardwalk and the Arrow Rock Tavern, which opened its doors in 1834.

In Arrow Rock, tourism and large-scale farming "are conflicting interests," said Kathy Borgman, executive director of nonprofit Friends of Arrow Rock.

Judge Patricia S. Joyce of the Circuit Court of Cole County said the state department couldn't issue a permit to the hog farmer, Dennis Gessling, or any similar operation within two miles of Arrow Rock, because the "odors and volatile and dangerous airborne pollutants" would "decimate" the historic area.

Even though the original applicant decided to locate his farm elsewhere, Mr. Koster appealed. He said he was worried that if the ruling stood, Missouri's more than 300 circuit and associate circuit judges could begin ruling separately on the matter, adding another layer of complexity to county health ordinances. Mr. Koster added that while he was in favor of protecting historic parks, he believed the state needed a "unified regulatory structure so that we don't have 500 different zoning units over agriculture."

Oral arguments will be heard later this month in the Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City.

In recent years, the Missouri Legislature has tried at least four times to roll back the county rules, citing conflicting state statutes that prevent counties from zoning animal agriculture. Mr. Koster, a former Republican state senator who is now a Democrat, sponsored one such bill in 2007.

Backers of local control view the attorney general's appeal as a power grab. An editorial in The Kansas City Star said Mr. Koster's effort could "kill local control" and is the "wrong approach."

Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke in Arrow Rock in 2007 against the proposed "factory farm," declined to comment through a spokesman, citing the litigation.

Farm lobbies in other states recently have defeated budding local control movements, including a case that went to the state Supreme Court in Iowa and an appeals court in Ohio.

"We will do everything we can in our power to preserve our exemption from local control," says Larry Gearhardt, director of local affairs at the Ohio Farm Bureau. "It's not a pretty fight."

Write to Lauren Etter at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Star Fund Manager Goes From Gold to Manure as He Remakes Life

Bloomberg News

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Graham Birch was the best natural- resource stock picker in Britain for a decade. Now most of the stock he owns has four legs and a tail.

His knee-high boots are caked thick with mud as he climbs onto his tractor to stack hay in a barn on one of his two dairy and sheep farms, which at 3,658 acres are more than five times the size of the City, London’s financial district where Birch worked for a quarter-century. The first time he showed up at the farm in Dorset in southwest England with his Aston Martin Vantage, people snickered. He leaves the sports car home now.

At 49, Birch abandoned his life at New York-based BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest money manager, where he oversaw $36 billion and ran five commodities-related funds himself. He said he became exhausted worrying about other people’s pensions.

“It’s not the hours themselves -- it’s the responsibility,” said Birch, who headed BlackRock’s natural- resources team for 11 years. “At the peak we had $40 billion of people’s savings. That’s like a weight that pushes down all the time. I couldn’t do that forever.”

The BlackRock Gold and General Fund, which Birch managed from 1999 until last year, was the top performer among 858 U.K.- domiciled mutual funds over the last decade, rising almost 23 percent annually, according to Chicago-based investment research firm Morningstar Inc. The fund lost 17 percent in 2008, when the global financial crisis caused the biggest declines in commodities since at least 1956, still better than the 20 percent drop among its peers, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

‘Very Knowledgeable’

Birch was widely quoted on the commodities boom over the last decade, offering up opinions on everything from gold to aluminum to Russian mining stocks. He steered his funds through a thicket of takeovers, including BHP Billiton Ltd.’s failed attempt in 2008 to buy Rio Tinto Group, which would have been the largest mining acquisition in history.

“Graham is very knowledgeable on his sector,” said Jackie Beard, head of U.K. fund research at Morningstar in London. “His entire life has been spent looking at resources.” Unlike some other managers, Birch and the group he built wouldn’t buy shares in any company unless they visited the mines, Beard said.

Birch has traded a life he knew well and made him wealthy - - one lived in dark business suits, on airplanes, and delivering speeches and forecasts at mining conferences -- for a world he didn’t. “I had never driven a tractor,” he said.

And that was just the point. “I needed a complete change,” he said.

‘Can’t Be Sentimental’

He spends most of his time managing his two farms near Blandford Forum, Dorset, a scenic market town 118 miles southwest of London on the bank of the River Stour. He has 560 dairy cows, 1,000 pregnant sheep and a storage tank filled with four million liters (1 million gallons) of manure used for fertilizer. He produces three million liters of milk a year, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.

Birch, who helped start and run a BlackRock hedge fund focused on agriculture, brings a money manager’s sensibility to raising cows. “You can’t be sentimental about it,” he said, the snow coming down around him. “These are adorable, but in a year we’re going to sell them.”

With the guidance of Scott Bagwell, his 30-year-old farm manager who grew up a mile away as a son of a herdsman, Birch learned to drive a tractor. He sometimes helps with the afternoon milking. He makes his own cheddar cheese and sloe gin.

Birch tested the water by taking a sabbatical leave from BlackRock from April 2009 and was supposed to return this year. In January, he resigned instead.

Didn’t Miss Job

“I wanted to see whether I would miss the job and discovered that I didn’t miss it much at all,” said Birch, who has a doctorate in mining geology from Imperial College in London.

“Fifteen years is long enough to do one thing,” he said. “I’ve been to every Rio Tinto results presentation for like 25 years. I began to think I’m not learning anything new. If you stop learning new things, life becomes very, very boring.”

His wife, Margaret Scribbins, 50, said change has been good for the whole family, including their five children. They live in St. Albans, 126 miles from Dorset, and plan to stay there until the youngest children, 13-year-old twins, finish school. Scribbins, an accountant by training, keeps the books.

“He looks five years younger with the farm,” she said of her husband, who has lost 14 pounds.

Follows Industry

Birch hasn’t completely abandoned his old life. He still holds some agricultural stocks including St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed maker, and follows the mining news from his computer in his spartan office on the farm. He joined London-based gold producer Petropavlovsk Plc this month as a non-executive director. If he ever went back to managing money, it would have to be a much smaller place than BlackRock “where I could make a real difference as an individual,” he said. He has no plans to do that, though.

Birch has gone from being “very well paid” at BlackRock to pouring money into his farm: 400,000 pounds ($609,300) for a grain storage building, 150,000 pounds for a new harvester, 50,000 pounds for new barns. He hopes to start turning a profit this year. He takes no salary from the farm.

The number of U.K. dairy farms has fallen 54 percent since 1995, according to the Dairy Farming Information Centre, a non- profit group funded by milk producers. Prices paid to farmers were down 5 percent last year compared with 1995, data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show.

Birch is betting the market is turning. He has seen this before in the commodities cycle.

‘Prices Too Low’

“As more of the farms get pushed out of the business, the farms that remain get the opportunity,” said Birch, whose largest farm is 17 times the average size in the U.K. “As long as demand is there, which is the case for dairy products, then prices will go up.

‘‘We’ve seen it in gold, copper,’’ he said. ‘‘I think we’re heading that way with agricultural business. That’s why we got into agriculture. Prices have been too low for too long.”

Rising prices for U.K. farmland have made Birch’s gamble a good bet so far. Since he first bought land in southwest England in October 2007, prices have risen 28 percent, according to London-based property adviser Knight Frank LLP. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner held by BlackRock, is up 1.9 percent. Gold is 36 percent higher.

It’s about more than money, he said. He’s done that. Now, on the cusp of 50, it’s about trying something new.

“Two thousand lambs are going to be born over the four weeks” starting in late March, Birch said. “It is going to be hectic.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chanyaporn Chanjaroen in London at .

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling E.P.A.

February 28, 2010


Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators.

As a result, some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

The Clean Water Act was intended to end dangerous water pollution by regulating every major polluter. But today, regulators may be unable to prosecute as many as half of the nation’s largest known polluters because officials lack jurisdiction or because proving jurisdiction would be overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming, according to midlevel officials.

“We are, in essence, shutting down our Clean Water programs in some states,” said Douglas F. Mundrick, an E.P.A. lawyer in Atlanta. “This is a huge step backward. When companies figure out the cops can’t operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to just dump stuff in a nearby creek.”

“This is a huge deal,” James M. Tierney, the New York State assistant commissioner for water resources, said of the new constraints. “There are whole watersheds that feed into New York’s drinking water supply that are, as of now, unprotected.”

The court rulings causing these problems focused on language in the Clean Water Act that limited it to “the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters” of the United States. For decades, “navigable waters” was broadly interpreted by regulators to include many large wetlands and streams that connected to major rivers.

But the two decisions suggested that waterways that are entirely within one state, creeks that sometimes go dry, and lakes unconnected to larger water systems may not be “navigable waters” and are therefore not covered by the act — even though pollution from such waterways can make its way into sources of drinking water.

Some argue that such decisions help limit overreaching regulatory efforts.

“There is no doubt in my mind that when Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 they intended it to have broad regulatory reach, but they did not intend it to be unlimited,” said Don Parrish, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director of regulatory relations, who has lobbied on Clean Water issues.

But for E.P.A. and state regulators, the decisions have created widespread uncertainty. The court did not define which waterways are regulated, and judicial districts have interpreted the court’s decisions differently. As regulators have struggled to guess how various courts will rule, some E.P.A. lawyers have established unwritten internal guidelines to avoid cases in which proving jurisdiction is too difficult, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former E.P.A. officials.

The decisions “reduce E.P.A.’s ability to do what the law intends — to protect water quality, the environment and public health,” wrote Peter S. Silva, the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for the Office of Water, in response to questions.

About 117 million Americans get their drinking water from sources fed by waters that are vulnerable to exclusion from the Clean Water Act, according to E.P.A. reports.

The E.P.A. said in a statement that it did not automatically concede that any significant water body was outside the authority of the Clean Water Act. “Jurisdictional determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis,” the agency wrote. Officials added that they believed that even many streams that go dry for long periods were within the act’s jurisdiction.

But midlevel E.P.A. officials said that internal studies indicated that as many as 45 percent of major polluters might be either outside regulatory reach or in areas where proving jurisdiction is overwhelmingly difficult.

And even in situations in which regulators believe they still have jurisdiction, companies have delayed cases for years by arguing that the ambiguity precludes prosecution. In some instances, regulators have simply dropped enforcement actions.

In the last two years, some members of Congress have tried to limit the impact of the court decisions by introducing legislation known as the Clean Water Restoration Act. It has been approved by a Senate committee but not yet introduced this session in the House. The legislation tries to resolve these problems by, in part, removing the word “navigable” from the law and restoring regulators’ authority over all waters that were regulated before the Supreme Court decisions.

But a broad coalition of industries has often successfully lobbied to prevent the full Congress from voting on such proposals by telling farmers and small-business owners that the new legislation would permit the government to regulate rain puddles and small ponds and layer new regulations on how they dispose of waste.

“The game plan is to emphasize the scary possibilities,” said one member of the Waters Advocacy Coalition, which has fought the legislation and is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Home Builders and other groups representing industries affected by the Clean Water Act.

“If you can get Glenn Beck to say that government storm troopers are going to invade your property, farmers in the Midwest will light up their congressmen’s switchboards,” said the coalition member, who asked not to be identified because he thought his descriptions would anger other coalition participants. Mr. Beck, a conservative commentator on Fox News, spoke at length against the Clean Water Restoration Act in December.

The American Land Rights Association, another organization opposed to legislation, wrote last June that people should “Deluge your senators with calls, faxes and e-mails.” A news release the same month from the American Farm Bureau Federation warned that “even rainwater would be regulated.”

“If you erase the word ‘navigable’ from the law, it erases any limitation on the federal government’s reach,” said Mr. Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It could be a gutter, a roadside ditch or a rain puddle. But under the new law, the government gets control over it.”

Legislators say these statements are misleading and intended to create panic.

“These claims just aren’t true,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland. He helped push the bill through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “This bill,” he said, “is solely aimed at restoring the law to what it covered before the Supreme Court decisions.”

The consequences of the Supreme Court decisions are stark. In drier states, some polluters say the act no longer applies to them and are therefore refusing to renew or apply for permits, making it impossible to monitor what they are dumping, say officials.

Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M., for instance, recently informed E.P.A. officials that it no longer considered itself subject to the act. It dumps wastewater — containing bacteria and human sewage — into a lake on the base.

More than 200 oil spill cases were delayed as of 2008, according to a memorandum written by an E.P.A. official and collected by Congressional investigators. And even as the number of facilities violating the Clean Water Act has steadily increased each year, E.P.A. judicial actions against major polluters have fallen by almost half since the Supreme Court rulings, according to an analysis of E.P.A. data by The New York Times.

The Clean Water Act does not directly deal with drinking water. Rather, it was meant to regulate the polluters that contaminated the waterways that supplied many towns and cities with tap water.

The two Supreme Court decisions at issue — Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers in 2001 and Rapanos v. United States in 2006 — focused on the federal government’s jurisdiction over various wetlands. In both cases, dissenting justices warned that limiting the power of the federal government would weaken its ability to combat water pollution.

“Cases now are lost because the company is discharging into a stream that flows into a river, rather than the river itself,” said David M. Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who led the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department during the last administration.

In 2007, for instance, after a pipe manufacturer in Alabama, a division of McWane Inc., was convicted and fined millions of dollars for dumping oil, lead, zinc and other chemicals into a large creek, an appellate court overturned that conviction and fine, ruling that the Supreme Court precedent exempted the waterway from the Clean Water Act. The company eventually settled by agreeing to pay a smaller amount and submit to probation.

Some E.P.A. officials say solutions beyond the Clean Water Restoration Act are available. They argue that the agency’s chief, Lisa P. Jackson, could issue regulations that seek to clarify jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

Mrs. Jackson has urged Congress to resolve these issues. But she has not issued new regulations.

“E.P.A., with our federal partners, emphasized to Congress in a May 2009 letter that legislation is the best way to restore the Clean Water Act’s effectiveness,” wrote Mr. Silva in a statement to The Times. “E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers will continue to implement our water programs to protect the nation’s waters and the environment as effectively as possible, including consideration of administrative actions to restore the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.”

In the meantime, both state and federal regulators say they are prevented from protecting important waterways.

“We need something to fix these gaps,” said Mr. Tierney, the New York official. “The Clean Water Act worked for over 30 years, and we’re at risk of losing that if we can’t get a new law.”