Tag Archives: ecosystems

Putting it all together: local food, agricultural policies, and the environment

There’s all sorts of reasons to eat and enjoy local foods:  taste, the satisfaction of contributing to your local food economy, health, opting out of agribusiness.  In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemna guy) knocks it out of the park with a detailed and lenthy essay about why our agribusiness food system is bad for us and bad for the planet, and what we need to do to change it.
Titled Farmer in Chief, the essay acts as an open letter to the presidential candidate elected on November 4th.  The style is a little affected, with lots of second-person and references to ‘sun-food’, but the content is right on.  The basic premise:  “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

On the environment:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.

The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

On health care:

Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.

On foreign policy:

In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.  They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers.

He also provides a good brief history of the industrialization of the U.S. food system. It’s good reading, but repetitive if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most usefully, Pollan provides a fairly concrete list of things that can be done to improve our current food system, if not transform it.  FUndamentally, he argues that we need to:

1. encourage polyculture farms with a variety of crops and animals on the farm, farmed with far fewer chemical and petroleum-based imputs, with less soil depletion.

2. re-regionalize the food system by doing things like establishing more year-round farmers’ markets, encouraging instutional food buyers to buy locally, and rationalizing the FDA rules regarding small producers and small farms to that they make sense, rather than the one-size-fits-all rules oriented towards industrial agriculture we have today.

3. change the American culture of food.  This is vaguest part of Pollan’s essay, but he argues for a revived victory garden movement, educating kids about healthy eating, and public health campaigns about diabetes and obesity.

Many these ideas are excellent, and would go a long way to encouraging a more sustainable, healthful, regionalized economy of food.  The big obstacle?  The money and power of the agrobusiness lobby.  Monsanto, ADM, the Cattleman’s Association, the grain lobbyists, the hog lobbyists; they are going to work as hard as they can to shut down any kind of reform like this before it becomes a serious threat to their profits.  Reform of the federal farm subsidies and CAFOs, in particular, are going to be a very uncomfortable, protracted battle, if it happens at all.

Many, many senators and representatives have been treated very well by the agriculture lobby, and have received a lot of money and favors.  Reforming the food system in such broad strokes would go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissisons, reducing pollution that makes living near a hog farm unbearable and causes the huge and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, getting Americans to eat more healthily, support small farmers and local economies and communities, and improve our national security.  But achieving it will require the same kind of battle against the lobbyists and vested interests that transforming our healthcare system into a single-payer federal system would.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a federal reform to start changing the food system.  Stop buying CAFO meat.  Get your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, as much as you can.  There’s more of them then ever before, and they’re growing.  Many of them have meat, dairy and eggs, too.  If you can’t afford to get the majority of your food from the farmers’ market, still go pick up a couple things, whatever you can afford.  Even if its only $2 of apples, thats still $2 that’s going to a nearby farmer, rather than a big company.  Maybe there’s a CSA near you.  Many CSA’s offer subsidized low-cost shares to those who can’t afford a full-price share.

See if your grocery store carries anything made or grown nearby.  Ask the produce manager where the apples or cucumbers come from, and ask them to carry vegetables grown closer than Chile.  Sure, you probably won’t see a display of local apples next week in place of the ones from New Zealand, but it’s another reminder to the big corporations that people care where their food comes from.  Start a garden, and give your extra zucchini and tomatoes to a neighbor who will put them up, or do it youself.    Even if it only happens an inch at a time, each of these things helps to build a local food economy rather than one build around chicken factories in Maryland and  Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans of Monsanto.

Pacific Samon Fisheries in Collapse

For a long time, scientists have been warning that we’re depleting the oceans faster than they can replenish themselves. We’ve been catching smaller and smaller fish, leaving fewer mature adults to repopulate fish stocks, and illegally fishing protected waters. Now we’ve done it again, with the Pacific salmon.

Chinook Salmon

As an article in today’s New York Times points out rather calmly, the entire Western Pacific wild salmon stock has collapsed. Pacific salmon stocks aren’t diminished, or threatened, or in decline. They have collapsed.

Federal officials are probably going to close the both the commercial and sport fisheries from Mexico up through Oregon, leaving the Washington state and Alaska fisheries. At this point, it’s not clear that that’s enough to rejuvenate the fishery. Robert Lohn, the regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that, “the Central Valley fall Chinook salmon are in the worst condition since records began to be kept. This is the largest collapse of salmon stocks in 40 years.” In fall 2007, the number of adolescent salmon, one year away from adulthood, was 6% of the long-term average. This is not a hiccup, it’s part of a larger catastrophe. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the most prominent fisheries experts believe that fish catches peaked in 1994, and are in a steady decline thereafter. Moreover, it’s not clear how much of an effect closing fisheries will have, as some federal oceanic scientists speculate that abnormal ocean conditions are negatively affecting the young salmons’ food chain. In either case, this is a bad sign.

An Oceanic Addendum

On the heels of yesterday’s post about how to measure human impact on the oceans comes a New York Times follow-up article on exactly that subject. After mentioning the Science mapping effort, the author goes on to discuss the declining alkalinity of the oceans, and efforts by teams of scientists to map the number of invasive species worldwide, and to complete a Census of Marine Life, which I will address in a later post.

This study, funded by The Nature Conservancy, represent the first international survey of the number of invasive marine species. Classified by eco-region, the paper analyzed the threat posed by invasive marine species according to their ecological impact, geographical extent, invasive potential, and management difficulty. This paper provides both an extendable framework with which to analyze the ecological impact of invasive species, and the knowledge of their means of introduction necessary to prevent their spread.

Map of Invasive Species
Map of Invasive Species. You can download the full text of the article here.

The numbers are striking: 84% of the world’s 232 marine eco-regions have documented invasive species. 57% of the invasive species are harmful to their new ecosystems, including 84% of plants. The average harmfulness invasive species fell in between “disrupts single species with little or wider ecosystem impact” and “disrupts multiple species, some wider ecosystem function.”

Harmfulness of invasive species

The most heavily impacted areas were around shipping ports, including the North Sea, Northern California, the Hawaiian Islands, and the eastern Mediterranean. This is particularly significant as shipping introduced the greatest number of alien species, 69% of the 329 invasive species analyzed, compared to 41% introduced by aquaculture and 17% by canal construction. However, of those species introduced by aquaculture, 64% were harmful, compared to 57% of species introduced by shipping.

means of transport and harmfulness

This study, in both quantifying the number and harmfulness of invasive marine species, also points towards the potentially most effective means to limit their spread. For example, of the 205 species introduced by shipping where more specific information is known, 39% were introduced by ship fouling, i.e. on the sides or hulls of ships, while 31% were transported in the ballast water taken up in the departure port and discharged at the arrival port. 31% of shipping-introduced species were transported either by ship fouling or by ballast water.

This strongly suggests that while global measures to manage the discharge of ballast water will have a significant effect, a means of preventing the introduction of invasive species by ship fouling is also necessary to slow the introduction of alien marine species via sea transport. Furthermore, the harmfulness of species introduced by aquaculture must not be overlooked, especially considering the high concentration of aquaculture ventures in specific eco-regions, for example oyster farming off of the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

Jennifer L Molnar, Rebecca L Gamboa, Carmen Revenga, Mark D Spalding. 2008. Assessing the global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 6, doi:10.1890/070064.

How to measure the ocean

Humans have always looked to the ocean. Immensely vast, covering 71% of the earth’s surface, is has always been an important source of food and wealth, as well as sea transportation and trade routes. Access to the ocean has historically been a decisive strategic factor for countries and empires. It still remains poorly understood, and new and bizarre species of fish still being discovered (or rediscovered in the case of the coelacanth), and the bottom has barely been mapped. It’s volume is a staggering 1.37 billion cubic kilometers, which undoubtedly contain many more unknown animals.

However, as we’re learning to measure the ocean, we’re learning how dangerously unbalanced it has become as a result of human activity, both directly and indirectly.

A recent article in The Economist describes how the sea is becoming increasingly acidic. The oceans, like forests, function as what is known as “carbon sinks”, absorbing the ever-increasing amount of carbon emitted by humans. This reduction of carbon in the atmosphere is incredibly important, and is often relied-upon in calculating the amount of CO2 that humans can emit, and is factored in when calculating the reductions in emissions necessary to mitigate global warming. However, as the article lays out, when CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, it forms carbonic acid. As more and more carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, more carbonic acid is produced, slowly tilting the oceans pH from alkaline towards acid. This trend is a potentially major disruption to marine life.

“[C]alculations suggest that if today’s trends continue, the alkalinity of the ocean will have fallen by half a pH unit by 2100. That would make some places, such as the Southern Ocean, uninhabitable for corals. Since corals provide habitat and food sources for many other denizens of the deep, this could have a profound effect on the marine food web. ” The research of Dr. Hoffman, a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara, implies that the combination of heat and a decline in alkalinity is more deadly to marine life than either alone.

This is particularly worrying news, as many oceanic ecosystems, particularly those relied on by humans for food, are already in collapse. There have been many newspaper articles and troubling reports over the years that many fisheries are severely depleted. However, the vastness of the ocean makes the scope of the problem that represents is difficult to understand.

This map, from a recent Scientific American article, makes the profound effect of human activity on the oceans very clear.


(The Torres Straight is the channel between Australia and Papua New Guinea.)

Continue reading