The Business of Farming Against the Odds

Civil Eats | November 28, 2016

Kitchen Table Advisors meets with Fifth Crow Farm

Kitchen Table Advisors founder Anthony Chang (R) provides business guidance to Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero, Calif. Photo credit: Jonathan Fong courtesy of Kitchen Table Advisors

As an immigrant farmworker in California who started her own organic farm in 2007, Bertha Magaña considered herself a success. Magaña Farms brought in stable income and generated enough revenue so that her husband was able to quit his job and join her.

But when the nine acres of land where she grew strawberries and a variety of vegetables went up for sale last summer, Magaña knew she might have to move—and she didn’t know where to turn. As a first-generation farm owner, she lacked connections to land and capital. And as a monolingual Spanish speaker, she couldn’t tap into many of the services offered to help farmers, since most are offered in English.

Enter Kitchen Table Advisors, a nonprofit organization providing business coaching and tools to farmers in Northern California who don’t have easy access to these resources. Along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and California FarmLink, Kitchen Table Advisors helped Magaña secure the loan she needs to buy the land.

“Before I started working with Kitchen Table Advisors, I was lost on how to manage the administrative parts of the farm,” Magaña said. “But now, I don’t have doubts and I feel better because of the support I have from them.”

Kitchen Table Advisors founder and executive director Anthony Chang said Magaña’s situation was an against-all-odds scenario.

“But our business advisor, David Mancera, was able to sit down with her and make sure it was a prudent move from a financial perspective,” Chang said.

After spending over a decade running small business support programs at Opportunity Fund and California FarmLink, Chang launched Kitchen Table Advisors in 2013. He was moved to act after discovering that many of the farmers at his local farmers’ market in Mountain View were barely getting by—and didn’t have anywhere to go for help.

“There are land trusts, farm incubators, and nonprofits that are dedicated to farmers’ markets,” Chang explained. “But business planning and financial management are the weaker parts of the ecosystem of support.”

After researching the economy of farming—an industry plagued by slim profit margins—he realized there was a need to support small farmers who were already growing their businesses, but faced challenges expanding further and establishing a sustainable income.

Eighty percent of the farmers who work with Kitchen Table Advisors are women, people of color, or immigrants.

“These folks face more barriers because of racism, sexism, or language in addition to all the other barriers faced by small farmers, and we help level the playing field,” Chang said. “While the USDA’s Farm Service Agency tries hard to help with its bilingual offices, the fact is there are fewer services available for non-English speakers.”

And even if there are services in different languages, being able to connect with someone who understands your background and experience is necessary to build the trust and relationships needed when borrowing tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

NewFamilyFarm_Oct2015_byJonathanFong-3693

Anthony Chang (L) sits down with New Family Farm in Sebastopol, Calif. as part of a regular business consultation. Photo credit: Jonathan Fong courtesy of Kitchen Table Advisors

That’s exactly how Mancera—a bilingual Salinas Valley native from a farmworker family with a strong background in business—made the difference for Magaña in her bid to purchase her farmland in Royal Oaks.

Although the cost per acre was steep, Mancera used his local knowledge of the area and nuanced understanding of the pressures on farmers in Central California to help assess whether buying the land made sense for Magaña in the long run.

And he trust that Mancera had developed with Magaña and her family was the other essential part of the equation.

“There was a part of the loan process where they might have backed out if they didn’t have anyone they trusted to explain it to them,” he said.

Instead of providing a business plan template, Chang and the group’s three business advisors (based in and around the Bay Area) work with clients over a three-year period to identify their needs, develop a plan of action, and assess how well the plan is working. Advisors meet with the farmers at least once a month.

In order to work with Kitchen Table Advisors, a farm or ranch must be certified organic. Qualifying ranches must raise their livestock on pasture. Chang adds that while it’s not a hard and fast rule, his organization is also looking for farmers that are at an inflection point in their business—either scraping by to make a living between $10,000 to 25,000 a year, or making more, but looking to gain long-term land stability by buying the land on which they’re farming.

During its first three years, Kitchen Table Advisors worked with 10 farms. The results were positive. On average, the farms’ net income increased by more 60 percent in three years. The group also increased their sales collectively by $1 million each year.

Farmers don’t pay for the group’s services. Instead, they work out an agreement with Kitchen Table Advisors that pays the group back by hosting farm tours and fundraising dinners, or through speaking at events aimed at both educating the public and building relationships with the partners and volunteers with whom Kitchen Table Advisors works.

Kitchen Table Advisors itself relies on funds from three main sources: Fifty percent of its budget comes from individual donations and 30 percent comes from tech companies (such as Adobe) and benefit corporations like Patagonia. The remaining 20 percent comes from large foundations and food businesses such as Bi-Rite Market, organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable, and Delfina restaurant in San Francisco

“[Our supporters] share our values in terms of the food systems we want to see,” Chang said. “And they have a business interest in what we do, because we have a part in their supply chain.”

Now, as Kitchen Table Advisors expands its reach—in the past year it has taken on 15 more farmer clients and will start working with 14 more in January—it’s looking toward the future. The original 10 farms will continue to work with Kitchen Table, but will mainly focus on two large projects a year.

“We’re looking to collaborate more closely with food hubs, land trusts, and finance partners,” Chang said. “And as more U.S. farmers near retirement, we’ve just started talking about how we can help to support the next generation as land changes hands.”

As a “graduate” of Kitchen Table’s three-year program, Magaña may not be working as intensively with Mancera as before. But he will still play an essential role in her business—from helping her determine which crops to plant next season to serving as a translator with produce marketers and government agencies.

“When you are older like my husband and me, it’s much more challenging to have a stable job working for other people,” Magaña says. “But since we work for ourselves, we have more control over our work and our future. David helps me keep my business going.”

It’s Now Legal to Sell Seeds in California

Civil Eats | October 6, 2016

seed packets available at seed swap

Seed packets on offer at a swapping event. Photo credit: Local Food Initative via Creative Commons

Free seed libraries, swaps, and exchanges increase access to local food and can play a large role in both expanding and preserving biodiversity. Yet for almost 80 years, these non-commercial operations have been running afoul of the law.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Federal Seed Act mandates that any activity involving non-commercial distribution of seed be labeled, permitted, and tested according to industrial regulations that would be both costly and burdensome to the over 460 estimated seed libraries operating in 46 states.

Now the tide may be starting to turn.

California—home to over 60 seed libraries and hundreds of swaps, according to Rebecca Newburn, co-founder and coordinator of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library—recently became the fourth state in two years to pass a law that exempts non-commercial seed activities from regulatory requirements.

“We wanted to create the legal framework for an alternative system that is not reliant on large companies to provide open-pollinated seed varieties,” said Neil Thapar, the food and farm attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). “Seed sharing has a direct connection to building local economic resilience.”

SELC partnered with a variety of groups throughout California—including local seed libraries, nonprofit organizations, and a class of fourth graders in Marin County—to advocate for AB 1810, the legislation co-sponsored by Assemblymembers Marc Levine and Devon Mathis.

While none of the seed libraries and seed exchanges in California had reported being targeted by the government, Thapar said, advocates nationwide became concerned when state officials shut down a Pennsylvania seed sharing library in 2014, citing the violation of a law mirroring the Federal Seed Act. The next year, Nebraska and Minnesota libraries faced similar crackdowns (seed control law is mostly uniform across all 50 states).

But in the last two years, Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota have all passed laws protecting non-commercial seed activity from regulatory requirements. And the effort appears to be spreading. Thapar says he has been contacted by residents in Florida, Ohio, and New York.

SELC is taking action to get laws changed in all 50 states. Almost all state seed control officials use “model legislation” (officially dubbed the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law or RUSSL) developed by the Association of American Seed Control Officials as the template for their own laws. SELC has been working with the Association to add a section to RUSSL specifying that noncommercial seed sharing activities be exempt from industrial labeling, permitting, and testing requirements.

“If we can get the RUSSL to change that, then it would facilitate more states to incorporate that language over time,” Thapar said.

Sara McCamant, the co-founder of Community Seed Exchange, a volunteer-run seed library and garden in Sonoma County, California, said she was never too concerned that state officials would attempt a crackdown.

“There are so many libraries here,” she said. “But there was concern that it could be a problem in the future. This legislation was a preventive action, as it’s becoming an issue with the seed controllers in every state.”

But McCamant emphasizes that the new protections for local seed sharing, saving, and swapping do have immediate significance for biodiversity in California

“Just one seed library can take [plant] varieties that have almost disappeared and are impossible to find and all of a sudden you can find it everywhere,” she says. By saving the seeds of the plants that appear to be the healthiest, gardeners can breed for strength of future seed generations.

Community Seed Exchange’s library includes 180 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains such as quinoa and amaranth. The group also maintains a garden and teaches classes on how to save seed.

But the most important impact of these programs, McCamant says, is that they build resilience in the local food system by taking power away from the handful of corporations that control the majority of the global seed industry.

“If we don’t have access to the first link of a food chain, we have no control over what to grow and what food is available to us,” she said. “The scale can be small, but the impacts can be so large.”

Note: In December 2016, Civil Eats announced that this story was one of its most popular in 2016. It was reprinted in KQED’s Bay Area Bites blog on October 11, 2016.

Will This Technology Make Fish Farming More Sustainable?

Civil Eats | July 6, 2016

Salmon farm

Salmon farm. Photo credit: antonalfred courtesy of Creative Commons

Wild seafood is disappearing rapidly and many consumers have turned to farmed fish as a way to help reverse the trend. But finding a sustainable source of food for carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna—which rank as the second and third most popular types of seafood in America—has been a persistent challenge for aquaculture producers.

Now, a group of scientists have developed a new form of fish feed that uses no agricultural land and requires very little water. It’s called FeedKind and it’s made from bacteria that eats methane and turns it into energy.

This approach is promising because for a long time fish farms merely fed these fish a diet consisting of wild “forage” fish and oil derived from wild fish. But it often took several pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish, making it a loss for the oceans.

Then, in recent years, the aquaculture industry turned to feed based on corn, soy, and wheat, usually using dried distiller grains. While these solutions are often better for the oceans, they also rely heavily on agricultural land, much in the way other animal feed does. Similarly, they rely on the use of pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean.

“We’re taking carbon from outside the food chain, which frees up more food for humans,” says Josh Silverman, the founder and chief products officer of Calysta, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley. “And we’re turning methane into a higher value product.”

Calysta says FeedKind could address sustainability problems plaguing aquaculture, which the Food and Agricultural Organization found is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries worldwide.

After raking in $30 million of capital from investors in a third round of funding—including animal feed giant Cargill—since December, Calysta is readying a R&D plant in England that plans to manufacture FeedKind at pilot scale by the end of this year. It’s also hoping to get a North American commercial production facility online by 2018.

FeedKind is made by first dissolving methane in water with the bacteria (methanotrophs that are commonly found in the top layer of soil). The bacteria gobbles up the methane molecules. Then, after the mixture is fermented, the protein produced from this process is extruded and formed into pellets.

“[People] have known about this bacteria for years,” says Silverman, who has a Stanford PhD in biotechnology and comes from the biopharmaceutical industry. “But no one had thought about how to use them in industrial applications.”

The alternative fish feed was originally developed over a decade ago by Norferm, a Norwegian company that won approval to sell FeedKind in the European Union. After Calysta acquired the company in 2014, Silverman says he refined the fermenting process.

Norferm only tested the product in salmon. But Silverman claims that FeedKind could also be used to feed other carnivorous fish such as halibut, sea bass, sea bream, eel, and shrimp—perhaps even terrestrial livestock and pigs, he adds.

Jan Brekke, the CEO of Sogn Aqua, a sustainable halibut farm in Norway, says he has not tested FeedKind on his fish, but is encouraged by its potential.

“The whole idea of [not] using biomass from the sea to produce fishmeal will turn global fish farming in a total different direction,” he said in an email.

FeedKind is not an environmentally pristine product. For one thing, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the fermenting process. And Silverman says that Calysta plans to source the methane for FeedKind from natural gas extracted from the electricity grid rather than capturing it from the atmosphere. (Methane is a significant component of natural gas).

Still, Carbon Trust, a London-based consulting firm, found that producing FeedKind consumed 76 percent less water than growing the same amount of protein found in soybean meal and 98 percent less water than wheat gluten. (Calysta sponsored the research, but Carbon Trust maintains that its conclusions were developed independently and the study was peer reviewed.)

Sourcing methane from the grid rather than capturing the emissions produced from human activities (such as fossil fuel production, livestock farming and decomposing landfill waste) may seem like a huge missed opportunity, considering that the greenhouse gas is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But because natural gas is so inexpensive, Silverman says there’s no significant infrastructure or market incentive in place for his company to capture methane at commercial scale.

Still, Jillian Fry, the director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, points out that the Carbon Trust study doesn’t take into account the large environmental impact associated with fracking, a process which is responsible for two-thirds of the natural gas produced in the U.S., according to the federal government.

“It’s a glaring gap,” she says. “Even if not 100 percent [of the natural gas and methane] comes from fracking, the water, land use, and the pollution need to be taken into account,” she says.

Silverman is hoping that commercializing FeedKind will help to stimulate further the unmet demand to convert methane into something more useful—and help to build the infrastructure Calysta needs to source methane more sustainably in the future.

Fry adds that because of the carbon dioxide that’s released and the methane sourcing, it’s difficult to say at this stage if FeedKind is something everyone should throw their support behind.

But she still thinks it has promise. “We need to strike a balance—we don’t want to kill all enthusiasm for a new product and say that there’s no progress unless it’s flawless,” she says. “It’s very exciting to hear about this kind of development.”

Note: This story was reprinted in GreenBiz on August 16, 2016.

A Local Grain Economy Comes to Life in California

Civil Eats | June 9, 2016

Bread made from local whole grains at Ponsford's Place Bakery

Whole grain loaves for sale at Ponsford’s Place Bakery in San Rafael, Calif.

When it comes to buying a local loaf of bread, most food conscious consumers find that supporting a small neighborhood bakery fits the criteria just fine.

But for longtime restaurateur Bob Klein, the owner of Oliveto in Oakland, California, that wasn’t enough. Klein, whose restaurant draws from Northern California’s bounty of vegetables, fish, and meat for its Italian-inspired meals, was troubled that he couldn’t find a local source of whole grain flour to make pasta.

“There’s no fully formed local grain economy in the U.S.,” Klein told Civil Eats after his company Community Grains hosted a conference that brought together farmers, plant breeders, millers, bakers, and researchers. (The first conference took place in 2014). “It takes lots of land and capital to be economically viable.”

Now Klein and his organization are making strides towards putting in place the missing components needed to advance that vision. What’s behind his quest to get locally grown and milled whole grains into the mainstream? Better nutrition, greater consumer availability, and higher prices for grain farmers, Klein says.

Last fall, Community Grains completed a feasibility study (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) showing that bakers were willing to pay over 25 percent more for their organic heirloom wheat flour (grown and milled in California) than the going market price for standard organic wheat.

Most of the so-called whole wheat bread found in grocery stores and artisan bakeries today isn’t made with a very high percentage of whole grains, says Craig Ponsford, a champion artisan baker based in the Bay Area who transitioned to baking with 100 percent whole grains six years ago.

“That’s because the market is geared towards white flour,” he says. “It’s really difficult for the consumer to read ‘whole grain’ labels and understand [what they really mean].”

Because of the industrial food system’s appetite for white flour, grain processing facilities in America are almost exclusively comprised of machinery that strips down the whole grain to its starchy white endosperm as quickly as possible—which effectively gets rid of its more nutrient-dense bran and germ. (The air classifier mill that Community Grains uses at Bay State Milling to grind its flour keeps the bran and germ intact).

This means that farmers have no incentive to grow higher quality wheat, such as organic or heirloom varieties, Klein says.

And what about the few who were doing just that? “The price [the wheat] commanded was 15 to 20 percent less than what the crop was worth,” Klein says. “It’s the disparity between the industrial model and what people value.”

Educating the public about the value of whole grains, Ponsford and Klein agree, is their biggest task in starting to shift the U.S. supply, infrastructure, and market demand needed for local, whole grain economies to thrive. There are a few exceptions, such as Camas Country Mill near Eugene, Oregon, which grows, mills, and sells whole grain; Farmer Ground Flour, located in upstate New York, a collaborative enterprise where the grain is grown, milled and baked for locals to enjoy; and Wild Hive Farm Community Grain project, which operates a farm and mill in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

So in 2009, Klein formed Community Grains with the intention to make that economy a reality. Since then the organization has been producing the grain for its “identity preserved” flours, polenta, and pastas. Each batch is branded with both the name of the grain (such as Hard Amber Durum) used entirely to make the pasta, as well as the farm that grew it, such as Fully Belly Farm). It’s available in Whole Foods Markets specialty grocers across the U.S.

Back then, when Community Grains first approached farmers Fritz Durst (Tule Farms) and Full Belly Farm’s Paul Muller about growing whole grains for the identity preserved products, Klein says he had no problem getting them on board.

“[Farmers] know better than anyone how broken our commodity food system is,” Klein said. “So, I think we all started from the same place, and it had to be a completely alternative system to succeed.”

Other Northern California farms (including Healdsburg’s Front Porch Farm and Coke Farms in San Benito) grow for Community Grains as well.

But there was no large granary that could both clean and store their grain. And Klein soon discovered that this lack of infrastructure restricted the venture’s efficiency and profitability.

“Right now we have kernels of wheat that have been thoroughly cleaned and they’re sitting in a defunct winery facility,” he says. “But we’re concerned about bugs in the warm months, so are so moving it into a rented refrigerated storage facility. If we had our own [cleaning and storage facility], we wouldn’t have to pay for storing it, and moving it in and out.” But, he adds, that’s going to be an expensive addition.

To address this issue, Klein brought on Heather Crawford, a business-minded colleague with the background to determine just how Community Grains can build this infrastructure. The two have found that building a granary and getting it online in California could cost anywhere between $500,000 to $1 million. But with donations from a crowdfunding campaign, as well as help from several investors and banks, Klein says there’s a chance Community Grains could get the structure up and running by 2017.

And while Community Grains has yet to work out the exact details of the business model, Klein says that the goal is make sure it’s profitable and 50 percent owned by the grain farmers themselves.

In the meantime, Ponsford is continuing to experiment with these whole grains. For the last five years, he’s run Ponsford’s Place, his bakery in the North Bay, where he uses only uses 100 percent whole grains such as hard white whole wheat and spelt.

Inside Ponsford's Place Bakery

Ponsford’s Place Bakery in San Rafael, Calif. Photo credit: Kristine Wong

“I’m incredibly disciplined about not using white flour,” he said. “I’m trying to prove a point.”

On a recent Friday morning, his tiny (800 square foot) bakery was filled with customers buying bread and choosing from a display case full of fruit turnovers, cinnamon morning buns, cookies, and quiche.

But what the customers don’t see is the experimental side of the bakery, when Ponsford works during the wee hours of the night with whole grain flour dropped off by several of the same farmers that work with Community Grains as well as a few others. He tests them by making different types of dough and experiments with a variety of final products. “The whole point of this place is to develop skill sets around whole grains and find the best use of each grain,” he said. “Wheat is complicated.”

That’s in part because the type and quality of the soil impacts the quality of the wheat, which in turn can determine if it will be better suited to, say, a loaf of bread or a tortilla.

Ponsford says that he has also been putting pressure on other bakers to start using whole grains. And he thinks he’s having an impact.

“I see a slow shift happening,” he said. “Five years ago my peers weren’t interested. But now I’m seeing more and more bakers using whole grains all over the world.”

This story was reprinted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites blog on June 9, 2016. Lead photo of wheat by Community Grains.

Getting Crafty: Brewing Beer From Wastewater

The Guardian US/UK | March 14, 2016

In autumn of 2014 – three years into California’s devastating drought– architect Russ Drinker became fixated on brewing beer from recycled greywater (that is, water that’s been treated after use in sinks, showers and washing clothes).

He was increasingly frustrated that the media paid little attention to water recycling. “They were focused on conservation instead. But if Californians really want to have an impact on our water use, we have to recycle our freshwater … and get over our psychological resistance to that.”

While some microbrewers have been working hard to get their water usage down – some to three gallons of water for every gallon of beer – the industry has a high water to beer ratio. Despite this, it took Drinker about a year to find a brewer up for the challenge. But when he broached the idea with the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a craft brewer located south of San Francisco, owner Lenny Mendonca didn’t hesitate.

Last October the brewery unveiled a version of its regular Mavericks Tunnel Vision IPA made with recycled water after a blind taste test at an urban sustainability conference in the Bay Area.

Can you tell which of the brews was made with treated wastewater? (It's on the left).

Can you tell which of the brews was made with treated wastewater? (It’s on the left). Photo credit: Half Moon Bay Brewing Company

Made using the same NASA water recycling technology as astronaut Scott Kelly used during his year long stint on the International Space Station, the tasting panel couldn’t detect which of the two pints was made with recycled water.

“This is the product [where] people think that water is the most important ingredient,” said Mendonca. “So if I can demonstrate to people that not only is [greywater beer] good, but it’s great, then why wouldn’t you use that water for everything else?”

Mendonca has only made the greywater beer available for sampling twice and says commercialising the product isn’t his first priority. California can’t legally directly pump treated recycled water back into the drinking water supply, so it’s currently not practical (shortage of supply) or cost effective. His focus instead is on using the beer as a tool to catch the eye of both policymakers and the public.

Getting the legislation to bring recycled water directly into the drinking water supply, would be the first step for mass application, just as Singapore has done with its recycled water plant.

Craft brewers turn green

Brewing beer from recycled water is an unusual approach. But a growing number of craft breweries in the US are finding new ways to reduce their environmental footprint.

Weak wort, a type of sugar wastewater generated by Colorado-based Avery Brewing Co, will be donated to the city of Boulder for use in its wastewater treatment plant to break down nitrogen. This will save the city $500 (£350) per day on the acetic acid it would have purchase to do the same job, said Chris Douville, Boulder’s wastewater treatment manager.

“We were looking for a local carbon source that others see as a waste,” he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Boulder is currently outfitting its plants to treat nitrogen using weak wort, says Douville, and should be ready to put the new equipment online by the end of the year.

Other craft breweries, such as Lagunitas Brewing Company and Bear Republic Brewing Co in Sonoma County, California, are using a new onsite wastewater treatment system housed in a shipping container.

In spring 2016, the EcoVolt was installed at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Calif.

In spring 2016, the EcoVolt was installed at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Calif. Photo credit: Cambrian Innovation

The EcoVolt, developed by Boston-based startup Cambrian Innovation, is powered by electrically active bacteria that use anaerobic digestion to scrub the breweries’ wastewater of up to 90% of pollutants, according to Baji Gobburi, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

Each EcoVolt unit, which is targeted towards other boutique food and beverage operations such as wineries and dairies, can process up to 300,000 gallons of wastewater per day, and enables the breweries to reuse water in their cleaning operations and produce methane that is converted into heat and electricity.

“When Lagunitas completes the installation of its second EcoVolt, its water footprint will drop by 40%,” said Gobburi. “And the systems will also recover 20% of its facilities’ energy needs.”

It’s also been a money, time and petrol-saver. Previously, Lagunitas had to truck over 50,000 gallons a day of its concentrated wastewater to a treatment plant in Oakland over 40 miles away.

In Dexter, a town of about 4,000 people nestled in the corner of southeast Michigan, the Northern United Brewing Company has installed a smaller version of EcoVolt to treat its wastewater onsite, helped by a $200,000 (£140,000) innovative technology grant from the state of Michigan.

The technology has saved the city the millions of dollars it would have cost to give Dexter’s wastewater plant the capacity to process yeasts and sugars, said Michelle Aniol, the city’s community development manager.

“Food production here in Michigan is more of a cottage industry,” Aniol said. “So this test of the [EcoVolt] system can have implications that could be utilised throughout the rest of the state – at [cost] levels that can be more affordable for communities and businesses to grow, but get their waste within the permitted limits for discharge.”

Will this get Big Chicken to clean up its act?

Civil Eats | January 26, 2016

cooked chicken on gingham tablecloth

Cooked chicken. Photo credit: Hannah Downes via Wikimedia Commons

Americans eat a lot of chicken—around 60 pounds of it per person, at last count.

Meeting that demand has come at a price along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, one of the most concentrated areas for industrial chicken farming in the U.S. Here, farmers often raise tens of thousands of birds at a time, and spread their manure on the surrounding land in quantities the land cannot possibly absorb. As a result, over 200,000 tons of excess manure seeps into nearby waterways every year, and from there it washes into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. These high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff can stimulate algae blooms, starving the water of oxygen, and killing fish and shellfish. The “dead zones” left behind also pose health risks to humans exposed to the contaminated water.

“We’re raising too many animals in a small geographic area and don’t have the cropland to use [the manure],” said Michele Merkel, co-director of the legal arm of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy group. “So farmers end up dumping it on the land because there’s nowhere else for it to go.”

Companies like Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire contract with farmers across the U.S. to grow their broilers—an estimated 300 million per year are raised in Maryland alone. These companies retain ownership of the chickens and expect farmers to take on debt for upgrades to chicken houses and equipment. As a result they are left with few resources to help get rid of the manure responsibly.

Taxpayers have often helped foot the bill, through state programs such as one that can help pay for transporting it. But, as Merkel and other advocates see it, “The [big chicken] companies have walked away from responsibility.”

Now, that could change. The Poultry Litter Management Act (which is expected to be introduced by Senator Richard Madaleno in the Maryland state legislature in the coming week) would absolve contract farmers of their disposal responsibilities—and pass on that requirement to the chicken companies. The legislation would follow new state regulations that went into effect in June, which barred the disposal of phosphorus on soil that has the greatest risk of runoff.

If passed, the Act would be the first U.S. state legislation to require companies to take responsibility for the waste caused by the farms they work with, according to Merkel.

The local trade association for the group is opposed to the Act. “If the chicken companies become the owners through state action, hundreds of chicken growers could have a loss of income or could be forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars for fertilizers,” Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. director Bill Satterfield told DelawareOnline last week.

Carole Morison, the Maryland chicken farmer who became known for showing the world her contract growing operations for Perdue in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., says that the expected proposed legislation is especially timely. Morison, who now runs a pasture-based farm, says she has seen a recent rise in extra large chicken production facilities along the Delmarva Peninsula, where she lives.

“Right now we are just barely getting a handle on what needs to be done [for] runoff from the poultry industry, yet 200 more chicken houses are slated [to be built] this year,” she told Civil Eats. “We have people coming in, buying up prime farmland, and building up huge warehouses—and they live elsewhere.”

The new houses, she says, will hold 60,000 birds each—more than two times the capacity of her houses back when she was a contract grower from 1987 to 2008.

Farmland on Chesapeake Bay

Farmland on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

This burst of development is paralleling the rise in global chicken consumption. In 2014, the U.S. produced over 38,000 million pounds of broiler chicken, according to the National Chicken Council. This year, the industry group expects that it will rise to almost 41,000 million pounds. And in less than 10 years, chicken is expected to become the world’s most consumed meat, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But residents along the Delmarva Peninsula who have had these mega chicken houses sprout up in their neighborhood have reported ill effects of the facilities, including the smell of ammonia and a dusty haze. In North Carolina, where large chicken houses are being built increasingly close to residential areas, neighbors have also encountering harmful gas emissions.

Regulations for the industry issued by county officials have allowed the houses to be built anywhere between 200 and 600 feet away from the road.

Residents and environmental groups have gathered at forums to figure out how to respond to the proliferation of industrial chicken farms. And they have asked for a moratorium on the farms until the government has completely phased in the tool that will show farmers which soil is at greatest risk for phosphorus runoff.

“It’s sad, because the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure,” said Morison. “But the people who live nearby [the large chicken houses] can’t enjoy it. They can’t go outside because it smells so bad, and they can’t open their windows.”

Featured photo of broiler chicken farm by Oikeutta Eläimille courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr.

Billion dollar seafood waste upcycled into profits

The Guardian US/UK | December 14, 2015

TidalVision_founders

Tidal Vision founders Craig Kasberg (L) and Zach Wilkinson in Juneau, Alaska. Photo credit: Alex Gaynor/Tidal Vision

Since he started working on commercial fishing and crabbing boats as a teenager, Craig Kasberg loved being out at sea. Yet he was bothered by the amount of fish waste he saw being dumped back on to the ocean floor.

“The seafood industry is behind the times when it comes to byproduct utilization,” says Kasberg, a fishing boat captain based in Juneau, Alaska. “Even though some companies are making pet food, fertilizer and fishmeal [out of the waste], there’s still a lot being thrown away.”

Every year, US fishermen throw out an estimated 2bn pounds (900m kg) in bycatch alone – an amount worth about $1bn (£660m), according to nonprofit organization Oceana.

Because the US Environmental Protection Agency does allow (in some cases) fish waste to be tossed back into the ocean, seafood processors commonly dispose fish guts, heads, tails, fins, skin and crab shells in marine waters. Once there, the decomposing organic matter can suck up available oxygen for living species nearby, bury other organisms or introduce disease and non-native species to the local ecosystem.

Last autumn, Kasberg took action. He recruited a small team of scientists and engineers. Together, they

Tidal Vision salmon leather

Salmon skin leather tanned by Tidal Vision using its vegetable-based process in Juneau, Alaska. Photo courtesy Craig Kasberg/Tidal Vision

developed a vegetable-based tanning process for salmon skin. Now – a little over a year later – his company Tidal Vision has launched a line of wallets made from salmon skin leather.

The company has also been working on an environmentally-friendly way to extract a compound called chitin from crab shells to make chitosan, which has many uses in agriculture and in medicine. The conventional method for extracting chitin uses sodium hydroxide, a caustic chemical.

Tidal Vision is getting ready to process the chitosan so that it can be turned into antibacterial yarn and fabric. One of the byproducts of its extraction process is an 8 percent nitrogen organic fertilizer, which the company is also working to bring to market.

Kasberg is part of a growing group of seafood industry entrepreneurs moving beyond fertiliser and fishmeal to upcycle the seafood industry’s waste in innovative new ways.

“Seafood is a tight margin business, so anything that can be done to reduce waste will help profitability,” says Monica Jain, founder and director of Fish 2.0, a pitching competition for sustainable seafood entrepreneurs. Finalists get exposure to potential investors and can win cash prizes. One of the winning startups at last month’s event in Silicon Valley offers a way for aquaculture farmers to turn their fish waste into algae.

SabrTech, based in Nova Scotia, Canada, took two years to develop a system called the RiverBox. Housed within a standard shipping container – picture a walk-in closet with shelves along one wall – it contains up to 10 tiers where algae grows. “Farmers pump the water [from their fish pen] straight into the RiverBox,” explains SabrTech founder and CEO, Mather Carscallen, who is finishing his PhD in ecology.

Algae grown in the RiverBox

Algae grown in the RiverBox. Photo courtesy SabrTech

The algae growing on each tier acts as a bio-filter to purify the water, according to Carscallen, by removing nutrients – such as nitrogen and phosphorous – which the algae uses to grow. The water then goes back into the fishing pen and farmers can harvest the algae to use as fish feed or for other applications (such as biofuel, fertiliser or industrial clean-up). This, says Carscallen, creates a closed-loop aquaculture system.

Another Fish 2.0 competitor focused on waste is HealthyEarth, based in Sarasota, Florida. The company is in the process of transforming the traditional mullet fishery in Cortez, a small Gulf coast fishing village considered to be one of the oldest in the US.

“Mullet is wild caught in the Sarasota area near Tampa Bay,” says Christopher Cogan, CEO of HealthyEarth, who is a longtime entrepreneur with an interest in impact investing. “But because the fish is prized for its roe [fish eggs], the rest of it is thrown away.” Last year, HealthyEarth initiated a FIP (fishery improvement process) as a way to formally set in place sustainable policies and practices for the mullet fishery. It collaborated with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mote Marine Laboratory (an independent marine research institution), and local mullet fishermen to help shape the process.

In order to give fishermen financial incentive to sell more than just mullet roe (a delicacy known as bottarga), HealthyEarth wants to build an $11m processing plant that can process the roe, extract omega 3 fish oil and process the carcasses into fish meal or fish feed. The two existing local processing plants only have technology to cut the roe out, Cogan says.

HealthyEarth plans to give local fishermen the opportunity to have shares in the processing plant. Cogan says the business should pay for itself once 20 to 30 fishermen come on board. “We want to give the local guys, who follow [the FIP] rules, equity in the business,” he says. “We’ll pay them premium for the roes and the fillets.”

New startup hopes to develop faster-growing crops

Modern Farmer | Nov. 10, 2015

BioConsortia Photo of plants being tested in various soils

Inside BioConsortia’s research facility, where plants are being tested in a variety of soils. (Photo credit: BioConsortia)

We talked with BioConsortia, an agricultural biotech company headquartered in Davis, Calif., that’s using a recently patented way to identify the specific combination of plant microbes to help improve crop yields in corn, wheat, and soybeans. It says that by 2017, it will be able to commercialize its first seed treatments containing the microbe combo that would enable a plant use less fertilizer yet get comparable yields.

The technology seems like what a plant breeder might do if collaborating with a microbiologist on speed.

One skeptic points out that it can be difficult to grow and mass produce such a group of microbes in the lab, so it’s not a done deal. Other companies—such as Novozymes and Monsanto—are also working with microbes. If it all pans out, it could change the face of agriculture as we know it by providing farmers with a natural alternative to genetically modified corn, soy, and wheat.

The process, dubbed Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS), inspired Khosla Ventures to invest millions in two rounds of BioConsortia’s R&D funding over the last four years. AMS scouts out each crop’s “dream team” of five to seven microbes, or microscopic organisms, that work together to boost a plant’s growth. (These microbes live both within the plant and in the soil.)

The technology seems like what a plant breeder might do if collaborating with a microbiologist on speed.

“It turns the traditional model—where microbiologists test microbes one by one—on its head,” says BioConsortia’s CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith. A serial biotech executive with a background in business and genetics, Meadows-Smith joined BioConsortia after a stint as the head of Bayer’s biological pest management division.

Here’s how the process (which was just patented last month) works, according to Meadows-Smith: First, scientists seek out the best-performing plants living in a variety of soil environments around the world, including ones stressed by drought, desert, cold, and wet conditions. Then they conduct DNA sequencing of the plants and the soils to determine what kinds of microbes are present.

Next, back in Bioconsortia’s California growth chambers, they root these plants in their original soils, then into normal and stressed soils. After observing which plants are thriving and which are faring poorly, they conduct another DNA sequencing round in the plants and the surrounding soils. The purpose is to identify all of the microbes hanging around. Some help to speed up growth by making nutrients more accessible, while others can defend against pathogens that might be present. (Think of the group as being there to help and protect—like a celebrity entourage of personal assistants and bodyguards.)

By looking closely at that entourage of microbes (collectively known as the plant’s microbiome), and comparing which specific microbes are present in the plants that are doing well with the ones those that are faring the worst, BioConsortia says it can nail down each crop’s “dream team” for each soil environment tested.

“We’re looking for that unique combination to keep the plants healthy—even with the ability to recover from drought and staving off the effects of a pathogen,” Meadows-Smith said. “The beneficial microbes have not been documented over the years, compared to the pathogens.”

To date, the company has performed experiments on corn, soybeans, and wheat. It’s in its second year of independent/third-party field trials that are testing the seed treatments (comprising the microbial “dream teams”) it has manufactured for these crops.

But even though Meadows-Smith says that the first year of field trials show that its approach increases yield by 6 percent (compared to an average of an <2 percent increase in yield for a genetically modified or hybrid approach) and a double-digit increase in stressed crops, he declined to show results or provide more details to Modern Farmer, citing confidentiality agreements.

Meadows-Smith says that the improved varieties include corn that produce greater yields, utilize fertilizer more efficiently, and are more drought tolerant, as well as wheat and soy that produce more. In the coming months, BioConsortia will start field tests for tomatoes and leafy vegetables.

“Using microorganisms is definitely the way of the future as it’s more environmentally sustainable [compared to using chemicals],” says Kari Dunfield, a professor of soil ecology at Ontario’s University of Guelph, who studies how agricultural practices affect microbial communities in soils. “The approach makes sense, as we know that microorganisms interact with each other and are synergistic.”

But the expert does express some reservations about BioConsortia’s process. “We know that it’s still really hard to grow those organisms in the lab, so that step will be tricky,” Dunfield says. “It’s one thing to know what organisms are there with the DNA, but when you have the DNA you don’t have enough to grow the organism, so that’s the rate-limiting mechanism.”

She also points out that since microbes are living organisms, they’re unpredictable—which adds a more complex aspect to production compared to working with chemicals. “When you’re selling a mixture [of microbes], you have to make sure they’re not outcompeting each other when you sell it to the farmer.”

A few years from now, Meadows-Smith wants to use Advanced Microbial Selection method to address food security for a growing world population.

But Meadows-Smith insists that BioConsortia’s approach could save millions of dollars. He says it takes $25 million to bring a microbial seed treatment to market, $60 million to do the same for a biopesticide (due to the global registration process), and $135 million for genetically modified trait (according to Peter W.B. Phillips, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan).

Advanced Microbial Selection can also speed up the research phase, Meadows-Smith claims, so products can get to market in about five years, compared to DuPont’s estimate of the 13 years it takes genetically modified crops to get to market.

“There is a long R&D phase [for GM crops], followed by field trials, field multiplication, and registration,” he said.

Meadows-Smith says that scientists first came up with the idea five years ago at BioDiscovery (BioConsortia’s subsidiary company in New Zealand) while conducting contract research for companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, and Bayer. “They had brainstorming sessions to find ways to improve the speed and efficiency of their discovery process,” Meadows-Smith said. “It was to this end that they had the breakthrough to think of this as a plant phenotype (or plant breeding question) and solution rather than a microbial question.”

He cites more dramatic numbers: The company screens 100,000 microbes in nine months, he says, while a conventional approach would take three to four years.

BioConsortia wants to sell the microbial seed treatments (which are applied directly to the seed) to distributors. If all goes well with the second year of field trials, Meadows-Smith says that a biofertilizer seed treatment—one that would need less fertilizer for comparable yields—will be commercialized by 2017.

But he doesn’t think the approach will necessarily replace other methods—such as genetic modification—across the board.

Currently, the company is focusing on the in the European and North American market. Next, Meadows-Smith says he wants to expand BioConsortia’s efforts to Latin America, Brazil and Argentina.

And a few years from now, he wants to use Advanced Microbial Selection method to address food security for a growing world population—something that’s projected to be a problem in the coming decades given stresses on the environment including drought, lack of arable land to grow sufficient amounts of food, environmental pollution, and climate change.

Meadows-Smith says that BioConsortia’s approach can develop crops that can create more harvestable yield, deposit more protein into wheat, or select for a microbiome that will improve the sugar content of plants.

“A few years from now we’d like to work on [applying this to] cassava, a staple carbohydrate for many parts of Africa,” he said.

Why Singapore won’t be going thirsty

TakePart/Participant Media | Nov. 5, 2015

Singapore's Marina Barrage reservoir

Singapore’s Marina Barrage reservoir. Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore

In just 10 years, two out of three people will be living in a country that’s struggling to meet demand for water, according to the United Nations. But even though Singapore has no aquifers or lakes, it’s unlikely that nation’s 5.5 million residents will be among the world’s thirsty.

That’s because the small island nation, which consumes 400 million gallons daily, has a water strategy that is arguably one of the most successful in the world.

“We have four national taps,” George Madhavan, the spokesperson for Public Utility Board, Singapore’s government agency in charge of water quality, conservation, and supply, said during a recent Meeting of the Minds urban-sustainability conference in California.

The “taps” flow from desalinated seawater, recycled wastewater, water collected from rainfall, and an imported supply from neighboring Malaysia.

Having a reliable source of water has always been on the government’s agenda, Madhavan said.

“Without secure and reliable access to water in Singapore, business will not come,” he said. “So that’s a top priority to get a bigger piece of the pie.”

The push to develop a mostly self-sufficient water supply has been credited to Lee Kuan Kew, the country’s first prime minister, who took on the task in response to water shortages in the 1960s and ’70s.

It wasn’t a quick fix. It took 30 years to put the system in place.

Singapore NEWater visitor museum

The NEWater visitor museum in Singapore. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

The PUB water agency says its “jewel” is the ability to recycle used water, or wastewater from sinks and toilets, into what it calls NEWater. The NEWater purification process, which Singapore launched in 2003 (after getting tips from the Orange County Water District’s wastewater-recycling plant in Southern California), meets 30 percent of daily water demand. While the recycled water is mainly used for industrial purposes, it also replenishes the country’s 17 reservoirs.

Recycled water can also supply water for drinking and cooking. According to PUB, NEWater has passed 130,000 scientific tests and exceeds the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

Here’s what happens: The wastewater travels through a network of deep tunnel sewer pipes, then goes through conventional treatment at a sewage treatment plant. It’s then either returned to the sea or sent to one of the country’s four NEWater plants for further purification, depending on demand.

The NEWater plants follow a three-step process. First, membranes filter out small particles such as solids and bacteria. Next, reverse osmosis takes out larger contaminants. Last, the water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide.

But Madhavan said the government knew a large part of successfully integrating recycled wastewater to its supply hinged on whether Singaporeans would want to drink it in the first place.

“The difficult part isn’t the technology,” he said. “It’s getting the community to embrace recycled water.”

NEWater

Bottles of NEWater filled with Singapore’s purified wastewater. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

To do that, the country had to get rid of the “yuck” factor. For its NEWater branding campaign, it bottled the recycled water with a label featuring a cartoon water drop with a gigantic grin—and constructed a slick visitor center showing how the purification process works via games and interactive exhibits. The water agency also brought reporters to the Orange County Water District’s water-recycling plant, as well as to one in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Another quarter of Singapore’s daily demand is met by its two desalinization plants, which together can process 100 million gallons a day. Because the plants are energy-intensive, the country is experimenting with electrodeionization, a process that consumes less power.

The third tap comes from rainwater collected from drains, canals, rivers, and storm water collection ponds. (Residents aren’t allowed to harvest water without the government’s permission.) In combination with water imports from Malaysia, the rainwater fulfills the remaining 45 percent of Singapore’s daily water needs.

PUB is preparing for a projected doubling in demand by 2060. (Singapore’s water agreement with Malaysia is set to expire in 2061.) The agency says it’s on track to triple its NEWater production and build two new desalinization plants that together will meet 80 percent of demand in 2060.

Madhavan said Singapore thinks about water in a different way.

“You don’t want to drain it—you want to collect it,” he said.

 

Does eating organic reduce pesticide exposure?

Kale at Pescadero Farmer's Market

Veggies for sale at the Pescadero Farmer’s Market. (Photo credit: Kristine Wong)

Civil Eats | Nov. 3, 2015

When parents spend the extra money to feed their children organic food, it’s often in hope of keeping the overall amount of pesticides in their bodies to a minimum. (If you’ve seen this popular video of the Swedish family that made the switch, you know what we’re talking about.) But a new study by a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that diet is only part of the equation, especially for kids who might be exposed to insecticides at home or pesticides from agricultural fields nearby.

Researchers fed 40 Mexican-American children in Salinas (a rural agricultural area) and in Oakland, California a diet of conventional fruits and vegetables for four days. Then they fed the kids (between the ages of three and six and 20 in each group) a week-long diet of organic produce before returning them to a conventional diet for the last five days. The researchers tested the children’s urine daily for the presence of insecticides and herbicides.

Overall, the results showed that the presence of two kinds of pesticides (organophosphate insecticides and the herbicide 2,4-D) in the children’s bodies decreased after eating organic produce (by 40 and 49 percent in the insecticides and by 25 percent in the herbicide).

But researchers didn’t detect any decrease in the levels of other pesticides (such as pyrethroid insecticides like home bug sprays), according to the paper published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“That could mean that the diet wasn’t an important source of exposure for those pesticides,” Asa Bradman, a researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health who led the study, told Civil Eats.

The study results, he emphasized, point to the importance of considering the cumulative amount of pesticide exposure levels in children from other sources when considering the greater health risks (such as lower IQs or delayed development) to this population—especially those living in areas where pesticides could be applied to farm fields or to areas nearby their schools or homes.

“The Salinas children generally had higher concentrations of pesticides than those living in Oakland,” said Bradman.

Pesticide use near California schools could be a significant factor, as documented by a state health department report last year. It found that Latino children were 46 percent more likely to attend schools with “pesticides of concern” applied nearby than other kids in the state.

Bradman’s previous research found that because several farmworker families often live together in one apartment or house, crowding occurs that can lead to pest infestations and increased pesticide use at home.

The Berkeley study is the first to look at the effects of an organic diet among a Mexican immigrant population and test the effect on insecticide levels. Other studies at Harvard looked at the effect of an organic diet on organophosphate pesticide exposure and found similar results.

“Any results like this are really valuable because there’s so little known when it comes to dietary exposure and pesticide residues,” said Emily Marquez, a scientist at the nonprofit advocacy group Pesticide Action Network. “We also don’t know about how exposure changes due to cultural differences in diet.”

While the Centers for Disease Control asks a sample of the U.S. population about exposure to chemicals in the environment ever year, Marquez says, it’s not clear whether respondents live in urban or agricultural areas. And though FDA and USDA test pesticide levels in food annually, she added, much of the focus is on imported produce.

California is the only state in the U.S. that requires the reporting of pesticide use (though the island of Kauai in Hawaii has a voluntary reporting system that could be expanded statewide later this year). Now the state is moving forward to regulate the application of pesticides near schools. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which gathered input this past summer from the public on how it might approach setting these limits, is planning to release draft regulations in December.

Parents and community groups are pushing for a one-mile buffer zone around schools, as well as two-day notice before any pesticides are applied, the Los Angeles Times reports.

And in Iowa, a coalition of farmers and the Pesticide Action Network are trying to get laws introduced that would improve reporting and regulations around pesticide drift.

Despite all of the talk regarding children’s health and safety when it comes to pesticide exposure, both Bradman and Marquez are quick to say that they don’t want to discourage children from eating conventional produce if their families can’t afford organic fruits and vegetables.

“When considering risk from exposure, I wouldn’t say that conventional foods are unsafe,” he added. “If you look at the American diet, there’s definitely great need for more fruits and vegetables and less refined carbohydrates.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reducing pesticide exposure overall. And Marquez says her organization is working toward that end.

“We can change the agricultural system so that it’s no longer dependent on pesticides,” she said. “One way to do this would be to subsidize farmers to help them convert their land—by improving biodiversity and creating a conservation wetland, for example. That will help them begin to transition away from pesticides.”

Coal barge sinks in world’s largest mangrove forest

TakePart/Participant Media | Oct. 30, 2015

Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh

The mangrove forest in Bangladesh’s portion of the Sundarbans. (Photo credit: Amio James Ascension/courtesy of Creative Commons)

A cargo barge carrying 570 tons of coal in Bangladesh has sunk in the world’s largest mangrove forest.

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to endangered species such as the Bengal tiger, the Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins, sea turtles, and the estuarine crocodile.

Tuesday night’s incident, which took place on the Poshur River, is the third spill in a year in the Sundarbans, which straddles the border with India. Last December, a ship spilled nearly 93,000 gallons of oil into a river in the Sundarbans after colliding with a cargo vessel, an incident that the Bangladeshi government called an ecological catastrophe. In May, a cargo loaded with fertilizer capsized in another river in the Sundarbans.

“In a worst-case scenario, it can cause fish kills and impact endangered fish species,” Donna Lisenby, a staffer with the international environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, said of the coal spill. “When a ship or barge loaded with coal sinks, it has big diesel fuel tanks that power the engines, batteries containing lead acid, and hydraulic fluids that all go underwater.”

She noted that coal contains heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury that can contaminate the river.

Local news outlets have reported that the ship’s captain and nine sailors were rescued.

Lisenby said local Waterkeeper affiliates who arrived at the scene the morning after the incident told her they did not witness any action taken by the Bangladeshi government or by the company that owns the ship.

“They were there throughout most of the day on Wednesday and didn’t see any buoys or lights to warn other vessels where the ship had sunk,” she said. “They didn’t see any cleanup or any oil response vessels either.”

One media outlet has reported that the government has formed a committee to investigate what happened and assess the incident’s impact on the mangrove forest.

It’s not clear what caused the ship to sink.

Lisenby said the incident underscores the need to fight the Bangladeshi government’s plans to build a 1,320-megawatt coal-fired power plant at the edge of the Sundarbans.

“If the proposed Rampal coal plant is not stopped, it will result in an exponential increase in coal barge traffic through the Sundarbans,” Sharif Jamil, a leader of BAPA, Bangladesh’s largest environmental organization, said in a statement. “This incident shows that current safety precautions governing boat traffic through the Sundarbans are not sufficient to prevent accidents that put tons of fossil fuel pollutants in the water.”

Lisenby, who visited the Sundarbans in May, said that more than 4.7 million tons of coal needed to fuel the power plant annually would have to be transferred by hand from large barges to smaller boats, because the rivers leading north to the proposed project site are too shallow to handle larger vessels.

Bangladesh, which signed an agreement with the Indian government to build the power plant three years ago, released an environmental impact assessment for the project in 2013. Lisenby said that although the assessment contained more than 30 issues that needed to be addressed, the government has moved forward with the project.

Three companies submitted bids for the power plant’s construction. Last month, the Bangladeshi government told the Dhaka Tribune that it plans to award the contract in January 2016.

Waterkeeper Alliance wants UNESCO to place Sundarbans on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

“The government responsible for protecting it isn’t doing its job,” Lisenby said.

Using nature’s designs to transform agriculture

The Guardian US/UK | Oct. 30, 2015

Jube insect catcher

A team of Thai designers developed Jube, an insect catcher that mimics the structure of the carnivorous pitcher plant. Photo credit: Pat Pataranutaporn/courtesy of the Biomimicry Institute.

From lab-grown burgers to farms monitored by sensors and drones, technology lies at the heart of many of today’s sustainable food solutions. Now, the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit, is taking the trend a step further with its new Food Systems Design Challenge, encouraging a cadre of entrepreneurs to improve the food production system by emulating techniques and processes found in nature.

At the SXSW Eco conference earlier this month, the institute announced the eight finalists in the challenge. “We want to help foster bringing more biomimetic designs to market … to show that biomimicry is a viable and essential design methodology to create a more regenerative and sustainable world,” said Megan Schuknect, the institute’s director of design challenges.

Just as natural processes often benefit multiple stakeholders, many competitors in the challenge are seeking to solve multiple problems. BioX, a finalist team from Bangkok, hopes to increase food security while helping users secure a steady source of income.

On the outside, BioX’s product, Jube, looks like a decorative hanging vase. Inside, it’s a bug trap that catches protein-rich edible insects. Lined with inward-pointing hairs that move insects downward and keep them from escaping, it mimics the structure of a pitcher plant.

“The product is designed to be artistic and crafted so that people in any community can make it and sell it to other people as an alternative source of revenue,” said Pat Pataranutaporn at the SXSW Eco Conference. Each vase is decorated with multicolored patterns designed to copy the plants’ mix of mottled colors. “We believe that we can spread biomimicry through culture and art,” Pataranutaporn said.

Easing into commercialization

By 2030, bioinspired innovations could generate $1.6tn of GDP worldwide, according to a 2013 report from Point Loma University’s Fermanian Business and Economic Institute. Another report from sustainable design firm Terrapin Bright Green, found companies that use biomimicry can reap greater revenues and have lower costs than those that don’t.

For years, large companies have increasingly employed biomimicry to solve difficult engineering challenges. Qualcomm’s Mirasol electronic device display imitates the light-reflective structure of a butterfly wing and uses a tenth of the power of an LCD reader, while Sprint worked with the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Bioinspiration to design more environmentally friendly packaging.

But developing biomimetic designs could be a steeper challenge for smaller companies. Tech startups have an estimated 90% fail rate, and biomimetic companies are no exception.

“Bioinspired innovation faces the same challenges as other forms of innovation – years of research, design and development, financial risk and market acceptance,” Terrapin Bright Green spokesperson Allison Bernett told the Guardian. “As they face increasingly rigorous testing and financial constraints, fewer technologies progress into the prototype and development stages, a typical pattern in product development.”

However, Bernett added, biomimetics can reduce the costs and difficulties of development. “Extensive prior research, a thorough understanding and a functioning model – with the living organism providing the ‘blueprint’ – can benefit a technology’s development costs by speeding up the R&D process,” she said.

The lessons of biomimicry could even extend to market politics. Portland-based business advisor Faye Yoshihara said that the disruptive nature of bioinspired products can be seen as a threat to entrenched competitors’ interests. “Market entrants need to identify mutually beneficial ways of working with industry players and points of entry into an ecosystem,” she told the Guardian.

Alternately, Yoshihara suggested, biomimetic firms could imitate the protected environments that encourage weaker species. “Innovators must sometimes create their own ecosystems to get their product or service to market,” she said.

With that in mind, the Biomimicry Institute has developed a business accelerator to help the competition’s finalists move their designs from the concept phase to the pre-commercialization stage. Over six to nine months, the program will give qualifying companies training and mentorship from experts such as Yoshihara.

Six-sided efficiency

Hexagro, another challenge finalist, has combined agriculture with the design genius of one of nature’s most famous structures. A modular aeroponic home-growing system, it is made up of individual hexagon-shaped bins that are inspired by bees’ honeycombs.

Designer Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel wanted his product to circumvent some of the environmental problems associated with large scale agriculture, such as carbon emissions, pesticide use and fertilizer runoff. His solution was to make it easier for people living in small urban spaces to grow pesticide-free food at home.

“I wanted to solve this problem as efficiently as possible,” he said. “And since many people can’t spend the time to garden, it needed to be something that wouldn’t take up a lot of personal time.”

The bins – which can grow lettuce, carrots, cilantro, spinach, herbs and even potatoes – evoke the resource efficiency of a beehive. They can be stacked to fit any available space. And, because the plants’ roots are in the air, they can be misted with a nutrient solution placed on an automatic cycle. Hernandez Villa-Roel claims that his pods can cut down water use by 90% compared to traditional farming.

The designer hopes that Hexagro could help decentralize food production and provide an economic opportunity for growers, who can sell their excess produce. He envisions a community of growers and distributors bringing locally grown produce to market, cutting down on the CO2 emissions commonly associated with food transportation.

“This system could also be used in Syrian refugee camps to grow food, or with the disabled or elderly,” he said. “The social consequences of this project are much greater than the project itself.”

Taking it underground

A team of students from the landscape architecture department at the University of Oregon in Eugene designed the Living Filtration System, an agricultural tool that imitates filtration processes used throughout nature. Designed to reduce fertilizer and chemical runoff from farms, the system is a new spin on traditional tile drainage systems designed to remove excess moisture from the surface of the soil.

“A [drainage] pipe made out of renewable material that mimics an earthworm’s villi to slow down runoff is one of the major components,” said Wade Hanson, a member of the team.

The students say that their drainage system also incorporates the mechanism used by wetlands to filter pollutants from water. Next fall, they will join the seven other finalists when presenting their prototype to judges in a final round. Teams will be evaluated based on a number of criteria, including proof that their technology works, the feasibility of bringing their product to market and validation that it provides a solution that customers will use.

The winner will take home $100,000 in prize money provided by the Ray C Anderson Foundation. It’s not clear if that will be an adequate sum for the winning team to develop their concept, considering the several years it usually takes to get a product on the market.

Still, Schuknect is optimistic. “Looking to nature for inspiration on how we live on this planet is essential to our future,” she said.

“The more we can expose both professionals and young people to the power of looking to nature and the power of biomimetic design, the sooner we’re going to get to a place where we are all working towards developing elegant solutions that support the needs of all life on the planet.”

Kids create street art that generates solar power

TakePart/Participant Media | Oct. 23, 2015

"Renaissance Gate" - Solar public art installation in Pittsburgh, Penn.

The “Renaissance Gate” is a solar public art installation in Pittsburgh, Penn. designed by youth in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. (Photo credit: Land Art Generation Initiative)

Pennsylvania’s coal industry may be in decline, but in one of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods, a solar project could become a symbol of a brighter future.

Since August, Homewood residents have walked through the Renaissance Gate—a public art and solar installation built and designed by local youths during a six-week summer camp—and seen the Western Pennsylvania sun power their cell phones and light up the community center next door.

“The idea of a ‘Renaissance Gate’ is a passageway through which visitors can walk from the old Homewood into a Homewood of the future—a place of prosperity and opportunity for those who call it home,” said Elizabeth Monoian, cofounder of the Pittsburgh-based Land Art Generation Initiative. The group sponsored an Art+Energy camp designed to teach young people about the social, political, environmental, and aesthetic aspects of energy production.

The 17 red, yellow, and orange solar panels are mounted atop the gate in a configuration mimicking the symmetry of a flower. The installation can produce enough electricity to power the lighting at the Homewood Renaissance Community Center through a hookup to its electrical meter. Two panels connected to a battery provide power for cell phone charging. The community center also receives a credit on its electricity bill by selling the energy that it doesn’t use to the local utility.

The 20 students enrolled in the camp learned about Western Pennsylvania’s deep roots in coal production and visited a local coal-fired power plant.

The Homewood Renaissance Association, which runs the community center, served as the link with the greater neighborhood community.

“All applauded the initiative to bringing solar energy to the neighborhood and loved that it was local kids leading the effort,” said Robert Ferry, LAGI’s other cofounder.

With only six weeks to complete the project, it was a race to the finish, according to Monoian, who said the team completed the detailed design drawings in the fourth week and sent them to a fabricator a week before the installation.

“We pulled it off, but it took some long nights and some good fortune,” she said.

Ferry said he hopes the Renaissance Gate will be a catalyst for the area’s transformation.

“Energy democracy is a critical issue that must be addressed in neighborhoods such as Homewood,” he said. “Why aren’t there more solar installations in neighborhoods that could benefit greatly from them? We hope that the impact goes beyond Homewood and Pittsburgh to ignite a conversation about both our visual landscape in all neighborhoods and in the usefulness of distributed energy systems for empowering historically disadvantaged communities.”

How schools are seducing students with food trucks

Civil Eats (reprinted in The Atlantic) | Oct. 21, 2015

Boulder Valley School District food truck

Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District was one of the first in the nation to start serving school lunch from its own food truck. (Photo credit: Curry Rosato, Boulder Valley School District)

Getting high school students to embrace healthy eating is an age-old battle. And when it comes to lunch, many eschew their school cafeteria in favor of eating off-campus, where healthy choices don’t always abound.

Now school districts are starting to lure their students into eating better—by getting their own food trucks up and running on campus.

“Food trucks are a great addition to school food service—both from a way to engage the older kids and a way to engage the community,” says Ann Cooper, director of food services at Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District. “It’s part of a great overall marketing strategy.”

Last year, Boulder Valley became one of the first districts in the U.S. to start serving school lunches at a food truck during the academic year. The truck, which has been attractively styled as a cross between a rustic farmhouse and a milk truck, was funded by a $75,000 grant from Whole Foods Market.

Cooper says that though the truck mostly serves the same food as the cafeteria and the prices are identical, the students find the truck food more appealing.

“It’s meeting the kids where they are to provide a cool environment,” Cooper says. “There’s a different vibe to it, with music playing.”

In addition to rotating among local high schools during the week, the truck also comes to the district’s elementary schools for special events.

“Cafeteria participation has been up and so is the number of kids eating at the food truck,” she says. “So we’re getting a demographic that never [ate at] the cafeteria before. … Kids who walked off campus are now eating at the food truck.”

This spring, the Minneapolis School District will start serving daily school lunch from its food trucks, which have successfully been feeding students at field trips and special events for three years. Like Boulder Valley, the truck will rotate among its high school campuses.

“Principals have been begging us to get the truck out there,” says Bertrand Weber, the director of food services. “The main challenge is that we can’t keep up with the demand.”

Weber worked with chefs at local restaurants to develop the truck’s brown rice-based carnitas bowl, orange chicken bowl, and curry chicken bowl recipes. They’re part of the district’s partnership with chefs to develop healthy recipes (such as beet hummus) made with local food.

“In just the first three weeks of this school year alone, we served 28,000 pounds of local produce,” Weber says. He also has found ways to work with producers to develop new markets for their products.

“I worked with a small local turkey farmer and developed a turkey burger and hot dog—and found a processor to do this,” he says. “We’re working next on a breakfast sausage. We’re another outlet for dark meat [since] not as many buy the leg and thighs.”

MinneapolisThe Minneapolis School District set up its first food truck three years ago, after Hunger Free Minnesota asked it to write a grant for a vehicle to feed underserved students during the summertime.

The district acted quickly. By June 2012—just four months later—its truck was out at parks and libraries dishing out lunches in four neighborhoods.

“It took about one and a half months to find a bus and two months to convert it,” Weber says. “We worked with our transportation program and they found us a minibus that had been used for disabled students.”

With only a food warmer, refrigerator, and sink on board, the truck isn’t well-equipped to prepare food. But when parked on campus, Weber says that it can serve up to 700 students in 90 minutes, thanks to the ability to bring in more food stored in school refrigerators.

The truck—which has been decorated with the district’s “True Food” campaign theme using bright photographs of fresh produce—has served students at special events such as parties, graduations, and school year kickoffs. It’s also tagged along on school field trips to serve up to 350 students hot lunches or dinners.

The strategy of using mobile units to feed hungry children isn’t entirely new. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began sponsoring summertime buses and food trucks across the country in areas in which it was difficult for children to access the agency’s established food service sites.

“Mobile feeding is a successful strategy that community and state partners have found to improve their capacity to reach food insecure children when school is not in session,” said Audrey Rowe, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administrator, in an email.

Minneapolis and Boulder Valley have also found that the trucks can help raise money for the district’s food service programs.

To break even, Minneapolis’s truck needs 200 students to buy meals during one lunch service—but has the capacity to serve 500 more during that time period.

“Anything above that helps our entire [food service] program,” Weber says.

And Boulder Valley’s truck moonlights for the district’s catering operation, where it has appeared at TEDx Boulder and a local harvest festival. (The district obtained a city and county license to serve food.)

For Cooper, using the food truck for catering provides more than just extra money.

“It’s a driving billboard,” she says. “That increases our visibility overall and the quality of what we do.”

 

How one company is feeding farms with food waste

Civil Eats | Sept. 21, 2015

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

You don’t have to dumpster dive to know that supermarkets send a steady stream of uneaten food to landfills.

Once there, the waste does more than smell bad. It also contributes to climate change by emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (one reason the USDA recently pledged to reduce food waste 50 percent nationally by 2030).

But when a new California state law [PDF] goes into effect this April, large grocery stores in the state will be required to ditch the landfill and compost or recycle their food waste instead.

In order for supermarkets to comply with the impending law, they’ll need more places to put the waste—and one Sacramento-based company appears to be well positioned to respond to this problem. California Safe Soil has developed a process that transforms truckloads of supermarket food waste into farm-ready fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest, or H2H.

“This was something that made perfect sense to me,” says CEO Dan Morash, who founded the startup in 2012, after leaving a career as an investment banker in the energy sector. “There’s this huge stream of waste from the supermarkets that is no longer safe to eat as it gets to the end of its shelf life, but it still has a lot of nutrients.”

Using fertilizer made from food waste also cuts down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, he adds, which can reduce the amount of nitrate runoff into local rivers and streams, which often lead to dead zones.

The company claims that since its launch in 2012, it has diverted over 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, preventing the emissions of 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases and preventing the need for over 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers.

Final Liquid Fertilizer ProductHow is Morash’s product different from standard compost? He worked with soil and fertilizer specialist Mark LeJeune to develop a method that fast forwards the composting process (which is fueled by aerobic digestion, or bacteria fed by oxygen that breaks down organic matter). The process turns food waste into liquid fertilizer in three hours.

First, the food is ground down into a liquid, then treated with enzymes to break down the protein, fat, and carbohydrates into the amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. Then, it’s pasteurized (that is, heated at high temperatures) to kill any pathogens that might be present.

“The average particle size is very small—26 microns,” Morash says. “This [enables it to] mix easily with water.”

There’s a separate stream for organic and conventional food, as California Safe Soil sells an all-organic version. Both are applied to the crops via drip irrigation.

In 2012, Morash and LeJeune opened a pilot plant in Sacramento to develop the technology. The product was commercialized in 2013 and is regulated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“The California Department of Food and Agriculture is concerned about food safety, so we had to prove that [the fertilizer production process] eliminates pathogens,” Morash says. “So we did a research project called a challenge test at the University of California, Davis.”

To show that the product was effective, the company conducted additional experiments with researchers, including one at U.C. Davis and a strawberry expert at U.C. Cooperative Extension.

Morash claims that use of his fertilizer on tomatoes has upped the rate of food production by between 10 to 15 percent.

California Safe Soil’s target market is mainly large farms that grow crops like strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens, almonds, and wine grapes. Several of the berry growers that he works with supply for Driscoll’s, Morash says.

Broccoli TrialBut orchard crops like fruit and nuts are especially well suited for this liquid fertilizer. Traditionally, orchard-based farmers “need to till the soil to get organic matter in without cutting up the roots,” he says. “So the ability to deliver organic matter to the soil in liquid form is a big positive.”

At the moment, the company processes food waste from 15 stores across five supermarket chains (Grocery Outlet, Nugget, Safeway, SaveMart, and Whole Foods) in Sacramento. Six days a week, the plant processes about 3,750 pounds of food from between seven to eight markets a day (each brings in an average of about 500 pounds daily).

The Sacramento facility is operating at capacity, but he hopes to build others in the coming years. The idea is to locate plants, like the one Sacramento, near grocery distribution centers. This way, after delivering goods to the stores, the centers’ trucks can fill up with food waste for the trip home, Morash says.

There are additional economic and environmental benefits to locating California Safe Soil plants near distribution centers, he adds. Turning food waste into fertilizer not only saves grocery stores the fees associated with sending it to a landfill, but it also prevents the greenhouse gas emissions and extra transportation costs often needed to deliver it there.

“This has a very positive environmental impact across the board,” Morash says. “It’s going to increase the sustainability of agriculture starting right here in California.”

Photos, from the top: Employees moving wasted produce into the processing machine; the final liquid fertilizer product; broccoli from a farm trial with the control on the left and the H2H produced product on the right. All courtesy of California Safe Soil.

Farms without wildlife don’t produce safer food

Civil Eats | Aug. 11, 2015

Lettuce crops

Lettuce crops. (Photo credit: Suzie’s Farm courtesy of Creative Commons)

 

Most leafy green lovers probably remember the moment when they became suspicious of spinach.

In 2006, an E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened about 200 more was traced to the cool-weather crop growing along California’s Central Coast. Despite the fact that federal and state investigators claimed it was not possible to determine exactly how the dangerous E. coli strain spread to the farm, cattle and wild pig manure were implicated as the sources of the bacteria.

The following year, the state’s farming industry pushed out the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a set of recommended practices based on previous guidelines issued by to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promote food safety on farms. Though voluntary, it covers over a dozen salad fixings (think spinach, arugula, kale, and several types of lettuce) and has since become widespread throughout the nation.

Simultaneously, many produce buyers began asking growers to clear areas near fields of any vegetation. As a result, the farm fields along the California coast changed radically after the outbreak, as farmers did away with wooded areas, medians, and hedgerows, and most farms became relatively sterile landscapes, aside from the crops.

Now a new study [PDF] is calling the efficacy of that practice into question.

“The bottom line is that removing habitat around farm fields is ineffective at making food safer from pathogens,” said Daniel Karp, a U.C. Berkeley postdoctoral researcher whose work is funded by The Nature Conservancy. “It has been shown in this region that there are a lot of benefits to surrounding vegetation as well, such as providing a home for pollinators, which are declining across the nation.”

The research—which was published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)—used three sets of industry data from 2007 to 2013 and mapped the results of 236,000 tests for E. coli and Salmonella on leafy greens, irrigation water, and rodents on Central Coast farms.

Karp and his collaborators found that among 57 farms in Salinas, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties—the source of three-quarters of the the country’s leafy greens—the overall frequency of disease-causing strains of E. coli increased in the six-year period. But it turned out the prevalence increased the most where surrounding wildlife vegetation had been cleared away.

In areas that had kept some natural vegetation intact—a fact the researchers verified using aerial imagery—the team also found that the overall presence of disease-causing strains of E. coli and Salmonella did not go up.

Karp says that by looking to California as an example, the study results could have implications for all of America’s 4.5 million acres of farmland where foods eaten raw are grown, and the wildlife habitat that surrounds this land.

“Federal legislation [enacted] in 2011 will give the FDA the ability to regulate farming practices,” he said, referring to the controversial Food Safety Modernization Act that has yet to be implemented. “While it doesn’t require farmers to remove habitat, my worry is that these practices will spread across the nation as buyers will put pressure on their growers and won’t buy from them unless they remove wildlife habitat.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 9.53.09 PM

The Wild Farm Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the importance of protecting native species through sustainable agriculture has expressed concern about the dangers of removing wildlife habitat near leafy green crops all along.

Karp points to ways that conservation, agriculture, and livestock can flourish side by side, such as maintaining natural habitat (like trees) as a buffer between livestock and leafy green fields. The vegetation could filter runoff from grazed lands in the soil, he said.

“Or you could plant crops that need to be cooked, like artichokes, corn or wheat,” as buffer between livestock and leafy greens, Karp said.

Another option that could possibly work, he said, is to fence off waterways upstream from leafy green fields in order to prevent wildlife and cattle from defecating in the stream, which might eventually transport the feces downstream.

“We need to talk about how we can manage farming systems that both produce food and livestock and conserve nature at the same time,” Karp said. “We need to think creatively.”

Figure from study: Promising practices include (1) planting low-risk crops between leafy green vegetables and pathogen sources (e.g., grazeable lands); (2) buffering farm fields with noncrop vegetation to filter pathogens from runoff; (3) fencing upstream waterways from cattle and wildlife; (4) attracting livestock away from upstream waterways with water troughs, food supplements, and feed; (5) vaccinating cattle against foodborne pathogens; (6) creating secondary treatment wetlands near feedlots and high-intensity grazing operations; (7) reducing agrichemical applications to bolster bacteria that depredate and compete with E. coli; (8) exposing compost heaps to high temperatures through regular turning to enhance soil fertility without compromising food safety; and (9) maintaining diverse wildlife communities with fewer competent disease hosts.

New kind of agrihood in Northern California takes root

Civil Eats | July 28, 2015

On land that once housed a tomato cannery, a new type of farm is slowly taking root.

Cannery Barn

The barn at the Cannery, a new agrihood in Davis, Calif. (Photo credit: The New Home Company)

The farm is a flagship feature of The Cannery, a residential development in Davis, California, slated for public unveiling next month. And it’s on of a growing number of agrihoods, planned communities that eschew golf courses and build homes around farms instead.

It might surprise some, but The Cannery will be the first* of a new generation of agrihoods in Northern California, an area known for its local food and farm culture.

Well-established examples of the model, such as Serenbe on the outskirts of Atlanta and Prairie Crossing outside Chicago, have been around for 10 and 20 years respectively. But they’re relatively new to the Golden State. The Rancho Mission Viejo development in Orange County plans to launch a farm in 2016, and plans for an agrihood on University of California land outside San Jose were also recently announced.

The Cannery will be also be noteworthy addition to the agrihood list because it is the first agrihood located on former industrial land. In addition, the Cannery’s farm will be managed by a nonprofit organization focused on educating students and would-be farmers—another unusual element.Cannery_pumpkinsplanted2

“Usually, agrihoods are taking over existing farmland, not reclaimed land,” says Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), the nonprofit that’s gearing up to run the farm next year. The Center runs educational programs across California for students aspiring to agricultural and environmental careers.

Ed McMahon, a sustainable development expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute currently tracks about 200 such projects nationwide (both complete and in development). He agrees that the model is unique.

The 100-acre development, located near the city’s downtown and the University of California-Davis campus, was the home of the Hunt-Wesson tomato processing plant (later taken over by ConAgra) from the early 1960s until 2000.

After several stalled efforts to build on the land by other developers, the city of Davis approved The New Home Company’s agrihood project in 2013. The project broke ground in May 2014. All 550 solar-outfitted homes in the development will be  located within 300 feet of a park or trail connected to the city’s bicycle path network. The Cannery is also the city’s first master-planned community in 25 years, according to Kevin Carson, the New Home Company’s Northern California division president.

“We didn’t just want to put in a community garden,” he said. “We wanted to put real value back in farming, and [we wanted] people to get out of their houses to visit each other. We want the residents of Davis to bike here for a picnic and a tour of the farm.”

This fall, the New Home Company will deed the Cannery’s farmland to the city of Davis. In turn, the city will lease it to CLBL, which  plans to make it one of several incubator farms managed by the organization’s graduates. Every few years, new farmers will rotate in and take over daily operations.

“It’s a model not just for California, but how these kinds of places can be reclaimed for innovative developments that have an urban farm,” Kimball said.

The farm, which occupies 7.4 acres of The Cannery, includes 210,000 square feet for growing crops, a barn, a farm house and a fruit orchard. The farmers will live offsite.

CanneryMapCLBL, which will receive $100,000 a year for three years from the New Home Company as seed money, plans to make it a working commercial farm specializing in organic vegetables. Kimball also expects that the farmers will establish a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service primarily for Cannery residents, and hold periodic tours or workshops for the community.

But residents shouldn’t expect the farm to be up and running shortly after they move in this fall, Kimball says. CLBL still needs to raise money for farm supplies and equipment—such as a tractor and drip irrigation tape, for example—and the incubator farmers have yet to be selected. The organization also plans to hire an employee who will serve as the farm’s community liaison.

And because the land was previously covered in concrete, Kimball says, the farmers will spend the first few years improving the soil. CLBL has trucked in a new layer of soil for starters. But the natural clay composition of the soil beneath will make it a challenging base for growing food.

“Environmental tests show that the soil isn’t contaminated,” Kimball said. “But for the first three to five years we’ll be doing a lot of reclamation and planting cover crops … we’ll also continue to add lots of manure to the soil to increase the organic matter.”

The New Home Company has planted pumpkins, tomatoes, and sunflowers on the lot for now, Carson said. And there’s also a 15-acre mixed use space at the Cannery that the New Home Company is currently marketing for lease. One possibility for the space, Kimball says, could be a public market of local artisan vendors similar to others that have sprouted around the country recently.

Agrihoods are a small part of the residential housing market—about 5 percent, McMahon estimates. But thanks to factors such as the popularity of farm-to-table dining and the rise of the grow/buy local movement, he says, the niche is growing by leaps and bounds.

The model is also attractive to builders, says McMahon. “You can create value at a low cost,” he said, adding that developers have found that onsite farms have had a greater impact on home sales than other amenities such as spas or swim clubs. “Ag is becoming a competitive differentiator in the development world.”

But the value of green space and the yearning for community, McMahon says, is also responsible for the strong pull towards agrihoods.

One example he pointed to was the Grow Community, a planned neighborhood on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. The developer was initially focused on creating “zero carbon” houses that produced as much energy as they consumed, but included a community garden as an afterthought.

The community garden ended up being the most important meeting place in the neighborhood. “This is where they hang out and talk with their neighbors,” he said. “It’s not just about growing crops. It’s about growing community.”

* A planned community called Village Homes brought gardens and edible landscaping to Davis residents in the 1970s, but it was not built around a working farm.

Middle photo: The first crops planted at the Cannery’s farmland. Photos and housing diagram courtesy of The New Home Company.

Are small farms in India the key to taking tea organic?

The Guardian US/UK | Feb. 5, 2015

EcoTeas organic tea plantation

Ramesh Babu’s EcoTeas organic tea plantation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo credit: Ramesh Babu/EcoTeas

When fourth-generation tea planter Ramesh Babu decided to leave his family’s plantation in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu to start his own organic operation, people called him crazy.

“It was unheard of in our part of the country,” the 54-year-old said of his decision in 2006 to take on 10 acres surrounded by forest in the hill town of Kotagiri nearby. “Initially, when you stop using [chemical] fertilizer you have a big fall in your production, so that’s one major factor which keeps other tea growers from going organic.”

Though rewarding, establishing an organic tea plantation has been challenging, Babu admits. There weren’t any other organic tea planters nearby, so he had to learn everything from vegetable farmers before launching his EcoTeas estate. And because there aren’t many small tea factories in India, he had to design his own processing machinery – a costly undertaking that took seven years. Selling the tea leaves he and his family can’t process or hand-roll on their own was also tough, Babu says, as tea companies pay the same going rate for organic leaves as for conventionally produced leaves.

It’s a lonely road that has left the family-run operation in the red to this day, but it could be an important one. A Greenpeace India report – which has been challenged as “pseudo-scientific” by the tea industry – released in August found that more than 90 percent of the domestic packaged and produced tea contained pesticide residues (pdf).

Yet despite the roadblocks, organic tea production could be moving closer to the norm in a country that produces more tea than any other except China. In the past few months, the two largest tea companies in India – Tata Global Beverages and Hindustan Unilever, which together comprise over 50 percent of the domestic market – announced it would set up pilot studies with the government to test how their growers can phase out pesticide use.

In a statement, Hindustan Unilever said it plans to work with nonprofit agricultural advisor Cabi on the feasibility study and source all of its agricultural raw materials using sustainable crop practices by 2020. The company aims to launch the pilot in April, according to Greenpeace India campaigner Neha Saigal, but it’s not clear when Tata – the second largest tea company in the world (hit in recent years with reports that female workers had been trafficked into domestic slavery from a plantation in Assam) – plans to kick off its program, which also has a goal to achieve sustainable sourcing by 2020.

More details about the pilots aren’t clear, as the companies have remained tight-lipped. (Both declined to comment). But when the largest players in any industry take their first steps towards sustainability, it raises the question: could this pave the way for smaller producers to shift to organic cultivation too?

There’s a huge need to bring down barriers that make it harder for growers to go organic, according to Saigal, whose organization pushed for the pesticide-free commitment, and is now keeping an eye on the companies to implement the pilots. India’s regulations for pesticide use in tea aren’t straightforward or consistent from one jurisdiction to another, nor comprehensive, she says.

“Pesticide regulation in India is in shambles,” Saigal said. “What this shows is that you need a policy level change.”

“Growers aren’t aware of what they are using and what they aren’t using,” she added. “It’s the government’s job to make these small growers aware of what’s toxic and what’s not. It’s their job to create those support systems creating a knowledge base and having a system to transform that knowledge to use ecological alternatives.”

Greenpeace India is in talks with the Tea Board of India – the government-run body with the authority to crack down on these regulatory problems – about setting up a support system for small tea growers so they can move away from pesticides.

In September, the Tea Board (which did not respond to interview requests) issued the second version of its Plant Protection Code that listed the approximately three dozen pesticides approved for use in tea. Yet maximum residue levels had been set for just 10 of them, according to the document.

Government support is needed for organic tea production to thrive in India, Babu says.

“The government of India and the Tea Board have got to come up with a very supportive package for small tea growers,” he said. “This would mean giving subsidies to help small tea growers convert to organic.”

EcoTeas plantation, Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

In direct opposition to the monoculture standard, Babu has not removed the trees that have taken root throughout his EcoTeas plantation. Photo credit: Ramesh Babu/EcoTeas

Babu has his own plan to jumpstart a new generation of organic tea growers in India. He expects his factory to be fully up and running in the next few months, which he believes will improve his financial position, since he’ll be able to produce up to 30 times more tea. Once that happens, he wants to teach other growers how convert to organic growing so he can process their leaves in his factory and start an organic growers association that could foster mutual support and push for higher payments for their leaves.

But Hope Lee, a business analyst who specializes in the hot beverages market for intelligence research firm Euromonitor International, says that small tea growers in India and other developing markets – such as Argentina, the Middle East, China and Kenya – face other challenges beyond their borders.

“They find it hard to export their product to developed markets because they don’t meet strict standards in developed countries,” she said. “Some companies in developing countries don’t have money to hire these expensive services [to test for pesticide levels] and they don’t see the short-term profit from it if they pay a lot of money for testing.”

But it also depends on how serious the national government is in promoting their tea exporting business and how they set their standards, she added.

“So this issue comes to the question [of] if Unilever or Tata have the resources to solve this problem,” Lee said. “Big companies like Twinings or Unilever or Tata – they can influence the government and they have the resources to train their suppliers and make their tea grow in a more sustainable way, but they need the cooperation of the local government,” she said.

Fair-trade and certification programs are used as additional strategies to move industries towards more sustainable practices. Yet Daan de Vries, the markets director at UTZ Certified, an Amsterdam-based organization, says that certification alone is not enough.

“In some places there’s value but it’s not the way to go to change markets,” he said. “Consistently, you’ll see no more than maybe 5% of people who would want to change their buying behavior based on sustainability claims or labels.”

Tea 2030 is an initiative that appears to be taking on a more comprehensive approach. Organized by UK-based nonprofit Forum for the Future, industry heavyweights like Unilever, Tata and Twinings have joined with the Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance to identify challenges facing the tea industry, such as competition for land, climate change, natural resource constraints and living wage issues. (Starbucks also joined late last year).

A report released by the initiative last year lays out these challenges, along with principles for a sustainable value chain, which the alliance would like to see in action by 2030.

“Of course the individual companies are pursuing their own sustainability [initiatives], such as Unilever and Tata on pesticides,” said Ann-Marie Brouder, Tea 2030’s coordinator. “But there are some problems too big for individual companies to tackle…. We believe that if we’re going to make change, it needs to be owned by the tea sector.”

In the meantime, Babu continues to quietly push forward, all the while tending his tea plants and the trees he’s allowed to intersperse among the crop in direct opposition to the monoculture plantation standard.

“It’s something that cannot be approached in terms of a business,” he said. “It’s a change of the mindset.”

View the original story here.

This stove cleanly burns plastic and charges a phone

TakePart | Mashable | Nov. 14, 2014

KleanCook stove

The KleanCook stove inspired the design for the K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

It’s no secret that the smoke spewing from open fires and from indoor coal-fired cook stoves is a silent killer in the developing world, and a contributor to climate change. More than 4 million people die each year from health problems related to inhaling carbon monoxide or particulate matter released from stoves that burn wood, biomass, or coal, according to the World Health Organization.

Despite a long-running government campaign to eradicate dirty fuels from households, the problem persists in China. But thanks to two young entrepreneurs, a new kind of cook stove—one that can cleanly combust small amounts of plastic trash and convert its excess cooking heat to electricity—could be on its way into kitchens across China.

“Smoke-related illnesses are a bigger issue than malaria or HIV,” said Jacqueline Nguyen, one of the entrepreneurs and a University of California, Berkeley, senior toxicology student. “It kills more than HIV and malaria worldwide per year.”

While Nguyen handles business and marketing for Energant, the company behind the device, her best friend, Mark Webb—a 2011 Berkeley graduate who studied biochemistry—designed the K2 cook stove.

The K2 reduces smoky emissions by 95 percent, according to tests Webb conducted. Using the excess heat created during operations, it can generate enough electricity to trickle charge a mobile phone. It has the ability to burn biomass briquettes cleanly as well.

It can also burn plastic and wood without toxic emissions as long as the material—which emits volatile organic compounds when burned—doesn’t exceed 8 percent of the mass being used as fuel, according to Webb.

The ability to burn plastic and wood cleanly is what distinguishes the K2 model from the KleanCook stove, the product Webb designed last year.

Webb got the idea for the K2 cook stove during pilot testing of the KleanCook model in the Philippines this past summer, when he and Nguyen noticed people cooking food over open fires all across the country—and burning plastic bags as a way to get those fires started.

“We decided to make the K2, which was centered specifically around being able to burn off all of the toxic material from this trash,” Webb said.

K2 cookstove from Energant

The K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

But because the two wanted the cook stoves to generate income for local people who would sell the devices for profit, they decided to target the Chinese market, as business costs in the Philippines were too high.

How does it work, and what differentiates it from other clean cook stoves?

The stove’s built-in fan has a geometric design and resembles the turbo fan of a jet engine. When the fan blows air into the fire, it creates forced convection, which makes the stove more fuel-efficient. Carbon monoxide is then converted to carbon dioxide.

The stove’s greater efficiency means that 50 percent less fuel has to be burned to create the same amount of heat, resulting in lower emissions, according to Webb. A patent is pending on the K2’s design.

The stove also contains a thermoelectric generator. When one side of the device is exposed to heat and the other is kept cool, an electric current is generated as the heat travels from one side of the generator to the other. That electric charge is then fed into a voltage regulator to produce a steady current.

Because it’s made from cheap metal, the stove costs only $16 to manufacture. Energant plans to sell the stoves to regional distributors for $20 to $25. In turn, the salespeople will sell the units at retail for $50—a price that Webb and Nguyen say the Chinese government has deemed an acceptable amount to charge based on disposable income.

The debut of the K2 cook stove could be timely, as recent reports from China indicate there’s been an increase in burning trash and plastic, which releases carcinogenic dioxins.

Webb and Nguyen’s clean cook stove venture attracted support from Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab after the pair won the lab’s “Big Ideas” student innovation contest with the KleanCook stove.

The development lab is one of seven university efforts funded by USAID via the U.S. Global Development Lab. That initiative gives money to seven centers at universities around the country that support students creating solutions to global problems such as climate change, food security, health, and poverty.

“Our whole market approach to the KleanCook was to have the cheapest possible thing that was the most scalable and can deliver electricity for devices,” Webb said.

KleanCook also won prize money from the Clinton Global Initiative University contest this past year, which allowed the entrepreneurs to fund KleanCook’s pilot testing in the Philippines.

Though the K2 cook stove—KleanCook’s more sophisticated sister—appears promising, it isn’t ready for market yet. Webb says Energant has a pre-manufacturing prototype that he’s tested for efficiency using a consumer carbon monoxide sensor that recorded the carbon dioxide output of the stove.

To win the confidence of Chinese consumers, he says K2 needs to be tested using validated equipment—something that Energant would have to pay for specialists to do at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The company hopes to raise $30,000 from an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the testing.

View the original story here.

Why saving lemurs will save this country’s rainforests

TakePart | November 6, 2014

Lemur in MadagascarMore than 90 percent of Madagascar’s lemur population faces extinction. Now scientist say that could threaten the future of the African island’s rainforests.

What do lemurs do for rainforests? Poop in them. Because lemur droppings contain tree seeds, they’re one of Madagascar’s best tree farmers, according to a new study published in the journal Ecology.

The study tracked the seed dispersal behavior of the island nation’s largest lemurs and followed the growth of a rainforest tree called Cryptocarya crassifolia. The findings revealed that seeds dispersed via lemurs were 300 percent more likely to grow into saplings than seeds that just dropped onto the ground.

“Lemurs may play an important role as gardeners of Madagascar’s rainforest, but they are at risk of extinction across the island,” said Amy Dunham, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University.

Onja Razafindratsima, a graduate student of Dunham’s, was the lead researcher in the study. “Only by understanding what role they play in the ecosystem can we hope to understand what the consequences of their loss may be,” she said.

A Malagasy native, Razafindratsima conducted the study in Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar’s southeast region. She spent a year following 24 groups of lemurs to figure out where they were dispersing seeds in the rainforest and noted the amount of sunlight that fell through the rainforest canopy. She then studied how those habitats affected the probability of seeds sprouting and thriving.

“One particular lemur species—the red-fronted brown lemur—tended to drop seeds away from parent trees in places where there’s opening in the rainforest canopy,” Razafindratsima said. The red-fronted brown lemur also tended to eat more seeds than its lemur brethren, making the species the most effective at seed dispersal, she said.

The other two lemur species studied, the southern black-and-white ruffed lemur and the red-bellied lemur, also promoted rainforest growth by moving seeds away from the parent tree—where competition for sapling resources is fierce, and chances of seedling development are lower.

“These two lemur species greatly enhance the recruitment of this tree species and its ability to regenerate,” Dunham said.

But knowledge of how important the species is to Madagascar’s rainforests doesn’t change the grim prognosis for the declining lemur population, which faces habitat loss from slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting.

“Some of the actions that need to be done would be to protect more forest habitat, to increase regulations on mining and wood extraction, and to provide alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture,” said Razafindratsima.

In February, a group of lemur conservationists published an article in the journal Science recommending local actions to address the population decline. Those included increasing protected areas managed by local communities, promoting greater ecotourism in Madagascar, and increasing the presence of field researchers.

While conservation is key, Razafindratsima and Dunham believe there needs to be a balance between lemurs and the needs of local villagers, who they say use slash-and-burn techniques on the rainforest to grow food to feed their children.

“It’s a difficult problem, because we have to consider not just the animals but the people who live around the rainforest,” Dunham said. “We need to be sensitive with both people and animals while we figure out ways to conserve there as well.”

Photo of lemur in Ramonafana National Park by Yves Picq via Wikimedia Commons

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