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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Drought dowsing goes hi-tech

California Magazine | Aug. 11, 2014

Wellntel pilot

Wellntel is conducting its first pilot with farmers and residents in the drought-stricken town of Templeton, Calif. Photo credit: Wellntel

This year, groundwater is serving as California’s pinch hitter, supplying about 60 percent of the state’s needs during this historic drought. But until now, it’s been an impossible resource to manage.

We don’t have enough data to know just how much groundwater is hanging out below any given house or farm. Because it’s unregulated by the state, anyone can pump as much water as they want—a point of contention between those who think people own the water underneath their property and those who believe groundwater is a communal resource. To make matters worse, groundwater hasn’t been replenished during these dry times, and there’s been a recent rush to drill more wells in the San Joaquin Valley.

But while we can’t make it rain on California, nor force the legislature to pass two bills currently being considered that would mandate local governments to regulate their groundwater, new technology is allowing us to better “see”  the water beneath the ground and could help us make smarter decisions about how best to use it.

A recently developed sensor-based device that measures groundwater is helping UC Berkeley researchers understand just how much of this resource we’ll have in the coming decades. Developed by Wisconsin-based startup Wellntel, the product attaches to the top of a well and uses sonar to measure water levels and a well’s pumping rate every 30 minutes, then sends the data to the computing cloud, allowing researchers to make use of it.

In the last few months, geography department professor Norman Miller and recent Ph.D. graduate Raj Singh have started incorporating data from the devices into the computer-based groundwater model they’ve been developing for the last four years. “One of the big problems I see is the availability of water due to land use stressors under climate change,” says Miller, a hydrometeorologist. “So one of the outstanding questions is how much (groundwater) is left on planet, who’s using it, and when. But there’s a lot of water that we can’t see.”

The current problem, the researchers say, is that while satellite data can show how much groundwater there is on a regional level—in the Central Valley, for instance—it can’t capture how much there is under a city, or at the farm level. There just isn’t enough data from U.S. wells to get a deep understanding of how groundwater flows. The predominant techniques used to measure well water levels—measuring tapes or pressure sensors—are labor-intensive and costly. The U.S. Geological Survey monitors less than 10 percent of its 20,000 wells, California’s Department of Water Resources monitors a few hundred.

But by integrating the Wellntel data into their current model, the Cal researchers believe they can provide a deeper understanding of how much groundwater we have now, and how much we’ll have in the future as climate change takes its toll.

“It’s like moving from a black-and-white to an HD television,” Singh says of the difference in resolution—which with the new data has advanced from gathering data at the 10-20 kilometer level down to a 100-meter level. At that resolution, he says it’s possible to discern the land’s topography and groundwater level differences from houses a few blocks apart.

With this knowledge, farmers and landowners could be better equipped to allocate their consumption, plan their growing seasons and save for dry times—not unlike the way we manage our bank accounts.

Wellntel is partnering with Miller and Singh on a pilot research project in Templeton, a town just outside Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast. The area has sprouted a number of vineyards and hobby farms in recent decades after its almond groves turned fallow.

“There’s been a huge increase in vineyard development in Paso Robles, and many residents saw dramatic declines in their water levels and had to dig new wells because the water table dropped,” says Wellntel co-founder Nick Hayes. “And some of the new wells have had to go so deep that they have to tap into mineral and sulfur-smelling water—it’s pretty severe and it feels dire to them, and their property values are tied to water in the area.” Some even have had to truck in their water, Hayes adds.

Every two weeks, Miller and Singh receive data (stripped of any identifiers) from 12 Wellntel sensors installed every half-mile throughout the 9-square mile pilot area.

By assimilating this data into their current groundwater model, the researchers say they’ll eventually be able to predict how groundwater levels will change from season to season over the next few years, as well as over the coming decades based on a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios up to 2050.

Miller says it’s not clear right now just when they’ll be able to make those predictions. But the Cal researchers have met several times and shared their model with Frances Chung, the chief of the modeling branch at the state’s Department of Water Resources, and they say the state is interested in making use of the new technology. Such an ability to collect information about groundwater levels could boost the state’s pro-regulation movement.

“If you limit water it has to be based on what you know, and right now it’s extremely difficult to control and monitor,” Singh says. “But as we get more information and it becomes more scientific—and more objective based on facts—it will be easier to regulate.”

View the original story here.

Ready to charge your EV when driving?

TakePart | May 24, 2014

A road lights up in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo credit: Mats Lindh courtesy Creative Commons

A road lights up in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo credit: Mats Lindh courtesy Creative Commons

Despite the growing popularity of electric vehicles—U.S. sales almost doubled from 2012 to 2013—fewer than 100,000 Americans drove one home last year. One reason is that it takes longer to fill a battery with electrons than to put gasoline in a tank, and consumers don’t want to wait longer than they’re accustomed to. But what if cars could be charged while driving over a road that can wirelessly transmit grid electricity from cables underneath? Could such technology be the convenience drivers are looking for to make the switch to electric?

A new partnership between Volvo and the Swedish government is trying to chip away at both ends of a catch-22 scenario that’s among the obstacles the concept faces: Nobody wants to pay extra for a wireless-charging feature that can’t be used yet, and no one wants to invest in infrastructure for a fleet of cars that doesn’t exist. Along with the Swedish Transport Administration, the car manufacturer recently announced an effort to study the potential of building electric roads that can power EVs wirelessly, a process also known as inductive charging. If everything checks out, so to speak, the duo will construct a stretch of road up to one-third of a mile long as early as next year in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city.

“Electric roads are another important part of the puzzle in our aim of achieving transport solutions that will minimize the impact on the environment,” said Niklas Gustavsson, the Volvo Group’s executive vice president of corporate sustainability and public affairs.

The Swedes will not be the first to debut this type of cleantech infrastructure. Last year, the city of Gumi, South Korea, led the way by installing a 14-mile electric road that wirelessly charged electric buses equipped with an underside device. When the bus drove over cables embedded underneath the road surface, the device converted the cable’s magnetic fields to electricity, according to Discovery News.

A few years ago, a version of the South Korean buses ended up in Park City, Utah, and McAllen, Texas, via WAVE, an American company that licensed the technology. But unlike Utah, which now runs the buses (that get charged by parking over pads, not driving on a road) on its University of Utah campus, McAllen ran into financial problems, and the project stalled. Last November, the city decided to jump-start it once more. Other cities reportedly exploring these buses include Long Beach, Calif.; Monterey, Calif.; New York City; and Seattle.

How soon could wirelessly charged EV cars hit the market? With Toyota in the midst of testing three modified Prius models in Japan, it could be just a few years away.

Volvo has also been conducting experiments with wirelessly charging EV cars in Belgium with its C30 Electric model, according to Green Car Reports. If the car manufacturer’s electric road in Gothenburg becomes a reality, it will be built along a new bus line dubbed “ElectriCity,” and three of its plug-in hybrid buses currently running in the city will be modified to charge while in operation.

“Close cooperation between society and industry is needed for such a development to be possible,” said Gustavsson, “and we look forward to investigating the possibilities together with the city of Gothenburg.”

Photo of Gothenburg, Sweden road by Mats Lindh courtesy Creative Commons

View the original story here.

How innovative solar is trumping oil in Tanzania

TakePart | May 20, 2014

Mtae Village in Tanzania. Photo by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons.

Mtae Village in Tanzania. Photo by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons.

While nearly 20 percent of people worldwide lack access to electricity, the rate is even higher in the East African nation of Tanzania: 84 percent of the country is off the grid. In the country’s rural areas, access is even sparser.

Sounds like a sweet spot for solar, right? But the up-front costs for a solar panel, battery, and charger are out of reach for the average village resident, not to mention the additional costs of equipment maintenance and repair. Rent-to-own schemes, which require users to pay for their system over time, aren’t practical either, given today’s rapid advancements in technology. So kerosene lamps and diesel fuel generators have remained the default go-to for most.

What if rural Tanzanians could bypass the financial barriers and lease their solar systems instead? What if this enterprise could create local jobs by employing agents to sell electricity services door-to-door?

That’s the business model of Off.Grid:Electric, a start-up founded in 2012 by a trio of American social entrepreneurs.

“We’re the SolarCity of Africa,” said cofounder Erica Mackey. She was originally interested in finding a solution to last-mile rural health care delivery in Tanzania, but switched to energy services after locals told her the lack of access to electricity was the largest obstacle to rural development. “We realized that the biggest barrier to implementing solar on a wide scale was because customers had to assume a lot of risk. So we take on that risk and deliver energy services.”

Off.Grid:Electric customers get a solar panel and metered battery storage and have electrical accessories (such as a charger) installed in their home. They prepay for as much electricity as they want—24 hours of power costs the equivalent of 20 cents a day, or about $6 a month—about what the average Tanzanian household spends on a night’s worth of kerosene for a single lantern. Families might use as many as three lantern loads per night, depending on the circumstances, Mackey says. Solar power can provide 35 times more light—and charge phones. An app enables subscribers to re-up their accounts using their phones.

Affordable electricity provides families with more time for work, study, and leisure activities. And clean electricity offers big health and environmental benefits over kerosene and diesel. Apart from the carbon emissions associated with the fuels, Mackey said that operating a single kerosene lamp indoors for four hours is the equivalent of secondhand smoke from two packs of cigarettes.

By using the “Avon lady” sales model that deploys locals to sell Off.Grid:Electric’s services door-to-door—more than 300 agents are in the field—the company has created jobs that pay three to four times more than what individuals were earning before, Mackey says.

The company operates in three regions of Tanzania and has enrolled more than 70 percent of homes in some villages, according to Mackey. Thanks to a recent $7 million funding round from high-profile investors such as SolarCity, Vulcan Capital, and Omidyar Networks, Off.Grid:Electric plans to move into other parts of the country, anticipating it will have close to 1,000 agents on the ground by the end of the year. It hopes to expand to Uganda and Kenya.

“That’s one of the most exciting things we can do—to make an African rooftop investable for a Western investor,” Mackey said. “That alone puts resources behind a big problem.”

Photo of Mtae village, Tanzania by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons

View the original story here.

Will UC make history and pull the plug on fossil fuels?

CALIFORNIA Magazine | April 21, 2014

When 29-year-old UC Berkeley student Ophir Bruck spotted Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount Pictures, on her way to a University of California Regents meeting, he was holding on to a key that he hoped she wouldn’t refuse.

“We’re here to call on the UC Regents to take bold action on climate change,” Bruck told Lansing last May, as she walked past 58 chanting students chained to two homemade structures designed to represent oil drilling rigs. “Will you symbolically unlock us from a future of fossil fuel dependence and climate chaos?”

“I drive a Prius,” Lansing replied, without stopping.

But now the issue is coming to a head at the University of California system, as activists push hard for it to become the nation’s first large public research institution to jettison fossil fuel investments. Over the coming months, the UC Board of Regents—trustees of a $6.4 billion endowment, one of higher education’s greatest—will be forced to grapple with the question.

As climate change accelerates faster than ever before—and with the world’s top oil, gas and coal companies already controlling a tremendous amount of fossil fuels—college students all over the country are urgently pressuring universities to divest their holdings of these corporations. Thus far 10 U.S. colleges and universities have committed to divest, and the movement is active on 450 campuses nationwide. To date, over 60 more entities (mostly municipalities, churches and foundations) have heeded the call to divest, attributing their actions in part to a desire to leave a world that future generations will be able to inhabit.

But it has particular frisson at UC Berkeley, where on Monday student activists dressed in black kicked off Earth Week 2014 by lying down in Dwinelle Plaza to simulate a “human oil spill”—and to demand the UC system divest itself of fossil fuel companies. With historically successful divestment campaigns targeting then-apartheid South Africa, tobacco companies and Sudan, Cal students have been catalysts for turning financial calculations into moral ones.

“If we do not divest from fossil fuels, and continue business as usual, future UC students will not have livable futures—and it’s part of the Regents’ fiduciary duty to ensure that they do,” says 21-year-old UC Berkeley junior Victoria Fernandez, one of Fossil Free Cal’s campaign leaders.

Student activist Victoria Fernandez chained herself to a mock oil rig as a protest against UC fossil fuel investments at a May 2013 Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Student activist Victoria Fernandez chained herself to a mock oil rig as a protest against UC fossil fuel investments at a May 2013 Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Fernandez, an environmental studies major, has made her cause consistently visible to the Regents over the past year. She repeatedly turns up at their meetings to give public comments, was one of the 58 chained to the oil rig, and regularly tries to engage the throng of students rushing through Sproul Plaza to join divestment efforts.

She’s motivated by her father, the son of a braceros agricultural worker from Zacatecas, Mexico who labored on a date farm in Indio, Calif. “My dad never wanted to waste anything and recycled everything—those values were cemented in me growing up,” she said. When her father immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 5, the family lived in the one tiny shack sitting in the midst of a huge stand of palm trees.

Bruck, an environmental studies re-entry student who is poised to graduate next month, says that divesting presents transformational promise for society. “It’s more than about just reducing carbon emissions—it’s a justice issue,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to rethink outdated political, economic and social systems out of which the crisis was born.”

While UC has been listening to what Fernandez and Bruck are saying about the need to divest, it’s not fully convinced. UC Regent Bonnie Reiss—who served as a climate advisor to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—and UC Chief Financial Officer Peter Taylor question the benefits of divestment from a portfolio tasked with bringing in returns to support faculty research and student scholarships, as well as whether divestment would actually weaken the industry at all.

“UC’s mission is not just to fight climate change—our primary mission is access and affordability to receive a great education,” Reiss says. “So it should be a really rare incident where you’re putting any restrictions on your investment criteria that are anything but maximizing your return on investment.”

Both Reiss and Taylor point to the UC’s decision to divest from tobacco stocks in 2001 as proof of such risk. Each year, the university system analyzes how the portfolio would have performed had it not divested. During the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the portfolio earned $44.9 million more without the tobacco stocks.

But when looking at its cumulative difference calculated between the portfolio and its hypothetical alter ego between 2001-2013, the portfolio lost $471.6 million. “Are tobacco companies any less vibrant since 2001?” Taylor asks. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for staff members make value judgments on whether we should invest in tobacco companies, if genetic engineering is good or bad, if fossil fuels are good or bad. Where do you draw the line? What’s the answer to that? I’d love to know.”

Back in 2011, a divestment campaign targeting a select group of coal companies failed to take off on campus. But a broader initiative gained momentum last spring, a few months after climate activist Bill McKibben spoke at Berkeley as part of a national tour to rally supporters around the campaign organized by his nonprofit organization 350.org. Its call: Institutions should divest from the top 200 oil, gas and coal companies.

Bruck was in the crowd that evening—one of just 15 to 20 students among a few hundred people, he observed, when McKibben asked all the students in the room to stand up.

“He called upon us, saying that you have the power to take action and to leverage your position as students and push your institutions to act on climate,” Bruck says. “The whole presentation—it gets you mad, it gets you scared. Not fearmongering-scared, but realistically concerned about everything you care about.”

350.org’s argument is based on research showing that if the top companies burned all of their reserves, it would raise the earth’s temperature beyond 2 degrees Celsius—the amount that governments agreed not to exceed collectively in the international climate agreement brokered at Copenhagen in 2009. Anything beyond this threshold, U.N. climate scientists predict, will create a world of heat waves, unprecedented sea-level rise and not enough food and water to support an increased population of nine billion people by 2050. Recently, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report concluding that greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut from 40 to 70 percent by midcentury in order to prevent a climate catastrophe.

And according to Carbon Tracker, the London-based think tank that conducted the top 200 companies research, these corporations have five times more carbon to burn than the amount that would keep the earth below the two-degree limit.

After McKibben addressed the students, Bruck recalls feeling a responsibility to take action, though he had never really committed himself to organizing on an issue before. “Things in my life culminated where I was ready to engage myself at this moment—and climate change was not one of those issues until I came out of that talk,” he says.

Students try to catch the attention of UC campus chancellors and the Board of Regents outside its May 2013 meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Students try to catch the attention of UC campus chancellors and the Board of Regents outside its May 2013 meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Students at Cal and other UCs adopted 350.org’s call for action. They began asking the Regents to divest $11.2 billion  (a $6.4 billion general endowment pool and an additional $4.8 billion sitting in campus endowments) from these top 200 companies within five years of making the commitment. Their kickoff rally was at the Regents’ Sacramento meeting last May, when they chained themselves to the symbolic oil rig, chanted calls for divestment and gave a 15-minute speech to the regents via 15 students speaking one minute at a time, so as not to violate the one-minute public comment limit.

In January, after Fernandez and Bruck discussed the issue with a group of Regents over lunch, the Regents agreed to set up a task force comprised of students, Regents and faculty that would examine the issue and bring its findings to the Regents’ Committee on Investments. The task force would then make a recommendation to the committee, which would in turn make their recommendation to the full body of Regents. Finally, Regents would vote on whether to divest its endowment.

“It’s the same process that the Regents went through before voting to divest from Sudan in 2006,” says Bruck.

But unlike the Sudan divestment—one that involved just nine companies—oil, gas and coal companies are a trickier and more pervasive proposition. Taylor estimates that of the university system’s $6.4 billion general endowment holdings, “just north” of $100 million are invested in fossil fuel stocks.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s an uphill battle for the Regents to approve this,” says Reiss. “We need to analyze the true costs and benefits.”

She contends that UC initiatives such as its green building requirements, and UC President Janet Napolitano’s goal to get the nine-campus system carbon neutral by 2025, are more effective ways to fight climate change. Green construction, she says, not only reduces carbon emissions, but also creates markets for sustainable building materials and clean technology.

Students such as Fernandez and Bruck admit that if UC decides to divest from fossil fuels, it would be a symbolic gesture and probably not make an impact on the huge corporations’ bottom lines. But they insist there is more to gain by changing public opinion.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and take away their social license to operate,” Fernandez says. “The harmful things fossil fuel companies do to communities are not seen by the economy and the world as a whole. They hurt them economically and health-wise. Look at Chevron in Richmond.”

Creating that social stigma has worked before. Although UC Regents and Berkeley chancellors initially resisted thousands of anti-apartheid activists pushing for divestment from South Africa, the university system did so in 1986 after 18 months of demonstrations and physical confrontations between protestors and campus police, anti-apartheid activist and Berkeley alumni Steve Masover has recalled. In 1990, Nelson Mandela credited the Berkeley movement with playing a significant role in the downfall of apartheid.

Bruck is bracing for the long haul. After graduation, he says, he can see himself continuing to do climate change organizing full-time.

CEO Andrew Behar of As You Sow, an Oakland-based shareholder activist group, sees another compelling financial reason to divest. He’s among a growing group of investors warning of the risk of investing in fossil fuel companies because of the “carbon bubble”—the idea that the value of fossil fuel stock is overpriced. The theory goes like this: If governments pass climate regulations or carbon taxes to prevent the earth’s temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius, fossil fuel companies will be forced to leave most of their reserves in the ground. To keep that temperature threshold, according to a 2013 study by Carbon Tracker, only 20 to 40 percent of those reserves could be burned.

Behar estimates the value of the carbon bubble, or the industry’s “stranded assets,” as they’ve also been dubbed, to be $20 trillion. He says that in the last year, the bubble has already started to burst as coal has been dumped in favor of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

“Nine coal companies went bankrupt last year. If you bought coal two years ago, you lost 58 percent of their portfolio’s original value,” he says. “It’s moving more rapidly even than anyone thought possible.”

In March, in a response to pressure from activists, ExxonMobil released a report to shareholders that concluded “we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded.’ We believe producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide, and in preventing consumers—especially those in the least developed and most vulnerable economies—from themselves becoming stranded in the global pursuit of higher living standards and greater economic opportunity.”

Out of the 10 colleges that have chosen to divest in fossil fuels, most are small and private. The largest was Pitzer College, which announced on April 12 (via trustee Robert Redford) its decision to divest its $130 million.

There’s a reason why no large public institution has stepped into the ring thus far. “Many universities remain unwilling to risk their endowments and need, frankly, more certainty,” says Taylor, citing an op-ed by the University of Michigan’s Chief Investment Officer Erik Lundberg arguing that divestment was impractical.

And with a $32.7 billion endowment—the largest treasure chest among all U.S. colleges and universities—Harvard President Drew Faust emphatically dismissed divestment, citing concerns that the university would inappropriately appear to be a “political” actor, as well as risk future returns. (Recently, the university signed on to UN-backed principles for “responsible investment.” That is a non-binding framework, which critics see as an empty gesture).

But those who have studied the impacts of fossil fuel divestment—as well as at least one college that divested—refute the idea that it will inevitably lead to financial losses.

“Our analysis found that if you are doing market cap weighted indexing, there is very little cost to divestment from a risk standpoint,” said Liz Michaels of Aperio Group, a Sausalito, Calif.-based investment management firm specializing in value-based investing. The company doesn’t maintain a position on fossil fuel divestment.

Aperio—which subscribes to the philosophy that investors can only match the market, not beat it—used Barra proprietary software to remove a portfolio’s holdings in the fossil fuel sector, then asked it to reinvest and reweight them to match market performance as much as possible.

“We’ve done much better after divestment,” said Stephen Mulkey, the president of Unity College in Maine, which divested in November of 2012. “We’ve achieved significant gains because we are paying closer—almost daily—attention”—a constant watch of its portfolio funds to ensure that fossil fuel holdings stay below 1 percent of the college’s endowment. The college also invests all proceeds from the fossil fuel holdings into an internal fund that provides financing for energy efficiency, renewable energy, or other sustainability projects, with the money saved then invested back into the fund.

The UC Regents’ Committee on Investments Task Force has yet to be convened. At last month’s Regents meeting, Fernandez and Bruck dutifully waited their turn to speak at the public comment session and remind the assembled group of the task force’s importance. Still, the students say that a vote on divestment is possible within the year; Taylor says a Regents discussion by November is realistic.

Many divestment backers simply advocate switching from fossil fuel holdings to cleantech and green bond holdings. But Berkeley energy professor and divestment advocate Daniel Kammen, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says it’s also important to draw on the expertise of the oil, gas and coal companies, spurring them to help create an economy that does not rely on fossil fuels.

“In the transition to renewable energy, we need to move them from extractive companies to knowledge-based companies,” he says. “There are more people that are really well versed in technology and economic policies in the big energy companies than anywhere else. So it would be crazy not to forge partnerships with them and build on their resources.”

All photos of Fossil Free UC action at University of California Board of Regents Meeting by Mauricio D. Castillo

View the original story here.

There’s no price tag on a clear mind

The Guardian US/UK | April 8, 2014

Person walking alone on train tracks

Photo by SubliminalFox courtesy of Creative Commons

At any given moment during the workweek, there’s a high possibility that employees at Silicon Valley tech companies are trying to disconnect from the very same products they have developed. Whether it’s via deep breathing, meditation or a quiet moment to reflect, companies like Google, Twitter and Medium encourage the use of mindfulness techniques as a way to trade digital clutter and stress for greater clarity and purpose.

But away from the spotlight, one of the sector’s oldest companies is quietly making plans to expand its program to a greater level than ever before. After two years of running an under-the-radar program at two locations in California and Oregon – initiated by a manager in its engineering department, no less – Intel is moving to make a nine-week mindfulness program available to its workforce of over 100,000 employees in 63 countries across the globe.

“There’s going to be a quantum leap,” said Lindsay Van Driel, the Hillsboro, Oregon-based manager who co-founded Awake@Intel with Portland leadership consultant Anakha Coman.

Using a train-the-trainer model, the program will be rolled out over the next six months to its first office locations. An employee is currently being trained in India, and others in China, Chile, Costa Rica and Ireland have expressed interest. Van Driel is adamant about making sure that Awake@Intel grows slowly so that the course is implemented in a way that stays true to its original intention.

“The right teachers [who will all be employees] will have to emerge as leaders before we can offer it there,” said Van Driel, who is also a certified meditation and yoga instructor. “It’s not something that anyone can teach. It has to be lived and embodied.” All sessions will be held with teachers and students in the same room.

Though Van Driel did consult with Chade-Meng Tan, the Google engineer who co-wrote the company’s Search Inside Yourself course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence with meditation teacher Mirabai Bush and San Francisco Zen Center priest Norman Fischer, she and Coman created a program that met the needs of a company mainly comprised of scientists and engineers, and one that cultivated the Intel values of innovation, candor, possibility thinking, risk taking and moving quickly and decisively. The curriculum was developed in three months.

Before the first weekly session, each participant identifies what he or she is most interested in improving. During the first month, the class learns to quiet their minds. They set intentions and explore the components of emotional intelligence. For the last part of the course, participants are exposed to mindful listening, delve into Brené Brown’s ideas on the influence that vulnerability has on innovation, then discuss Otto Scharmer’s concept of collective mindfulness. Each week, participants share their experiences and insight utilizing what they’ve learned over the course of the past week – for example, talking about how they moved from compulsion to choice.

“People get more authentically related to each other – beyond competency levels and their roles. So real ideas are heard and received, and people are much more generative together. The corporate mask that people put on when they walk through the door comes down,” Coman said.

Evaluation results have been notable among the 1,500 employees who have participated in 19 sessions to date. On average, participants responding to pre- and post- self-evaluation questionnaires report a two-point decrease (on a 10-point scale) in experiencing stress and feeling overwhelmed, a three-point increase in overall happiness and wellbeing, and a two-point increase in having new ideas and insights, mental clarity, creativity, the ability to focus, the quality of relationships at work and the level of engagement in meetings, projects and collaboration efforts.

Since the program is voluntary, it seems that employees aspiring to be mindful would surely be derailed by colleagues. But there’s still value, according to Coman. If one person can maintain presence in a conflict it won’t escalate, and it can help others to stay calm, she said.

How did a top tech company make the decision to invest in such a large program without a clear numerical return on investment?

Van Driel said that she focused on presenting scientific studies showing the health benefits of meditation, as well as the effect of the program on workers’ ability to relate better to each other and improve team performance. The company has not determined the amount of money it will put into the program at this time.

“If we show people pages and pages of our feedback, there’s nothing that anyone can say that takes away the validity of that experience,” she said. “If I have an engineer that says ‘I can solve a technical problem in two less weeks [after applying what was learned during the class]’, you can monetize it anywhere.”

View the original story here.

IBM, SAP open big data platforms for citizen science

The Guardian US/UK | January 27, 2014

Ant in Amazon Rainforest

Ectatomma tuberculatum, an ant species that lives in the Amazon Rainforest

Sujeevan Ratnasingham is on a race to identify all living species on earth. With the tally anywhere between 10 million to 100 million – and one-third estimated to become extinct by the next century – it’s a Herculean task in the least.

But undiscovered species are just as likely to be found in one’s backyard as the Amazon rainforest. So it’s no surprise that in this age of crowdsourcing and citizen science, the bioinformatics expert and his colleagues at the International Barcode of Life (iBOL), a consortium of universities, natural history museums and research institutes, are asking people around the world to gather samples. Then, back in their labs, scientists can identify the species by sequencing a section of its DNA (a procedure known as barcoding).

With hundreds of millions of records to analyze – and even more data per record poised come in over the next year, iBOL decided to host its database on HANA, SAP’s enterprise platform that makes data available in a computer’s memory. The switch will allow researchers and citizen scientists to quickly analyze the huge volumes of data in the cloud.

By merging their records with other datasets such as weather, researchers can conduct predictive analyses that can reveal patterns between species and location. The results can provide clues into how outside forces – from invasive species to climate change – are affecting the environment, and suggest how to manage wild land and agricultural land more sustainably.

IBM, too, has been working on a platform to support crowdsourced citizen scientist data. Its research lab in São Paulo, Brazil, developed a portal and mobile app as a way to gain more knowledge about biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest. Users of all ages and educational backgrounds will be able to collect data points and identify species.

Sergio Borger, an IBM team lead in São Paulo, devised the crowdsourced approach when Brazil’s Ministry for Environment and Innovation approached the company in 2010. They were looking for a way to create a central repository for the rainforest data.

Borger and his team developed a platform and mobile app that allowed users to upload photos of a plant species and its components, enter its characteristics (such as color and size), compare it against a catalog photo and classify it. The classification results are juried by crowdsourced ratings.

Titled Missions, the platform will enable multiple users to collect data and monitor conditions on the same plant or tree over time through uniquely identifying characteristics such as the diameter of a tree trunk. Borger’s team is currently working through how to handle monitoring of more mobile species, such as frogs and insects.

Borger used the knowledge gained in IBM’s first experiment with gathering crowdsourced data as leverage for the new platform. Developed in partnership with California’s state water agency, the Creekwatch app enables citizens to help the government monitor drought conditions in local watersheds via uploading photos and evaluating water levels, flow rate and amount of trash present.

The company has also developed Accessible Way, an app allowing citizens to report accessibility problems in the urban environment.

The beginning of a new trend?

Could the forays by IBM and SAP signal a larger trend of IT companies opening up their platforms to crowdsourced citizen science projects?

Since the excitement and interest in big data dawned a few years ago, startup Kaggle has helped companies, organizations and researchers gain insight from their data by holding crowdsourced predictive analysis contests, while Crowdflower, another startup, has provided the service of generating the “crowd” itself. Although both Microsoft and Google have engaged in data-related conservation projects, large IT companies have mostly shied away from crowdsourced citizen science, for what could be a seemingly obvious reason, one scientist says.

“Citizen science is not the most lucrative [venture],” said Dawn Wright, academic oceanographer and chief scientist for Esri, the Redlands, California-based company behind the GIS (geographic information system) mapping platform ArcGIS.

Yet despite this disincentive, Wright says she’s seen an increased interest from industry over the past two years, despite its rise in the academic community in the past five.

Benefits to business

But while devoting resources to citizen science projects can be viewed as part of a company’s goodwill efforts, are there other business benefits to be gained?

After all, independent efforts by local groups are already underway. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Nerds for Nature has organized several ‘bioblitz’ events where volunteers document biodiversity using the iNaturalist smartphone app. They’re also working with a small biotech company and hackerspaces to perform DNA barcoding independently.

SAP says it’s not trying to sell HANA for those wanting to analyze iBOL’s biodiversity database. For these users, access will be given to the data platform at no cost.

“This is not an effort to sell our products,” said SAP’s David Jonker, head of big data marketing. “We’re passionate about using our technology for good in this world and applying it to citizen science.”

Still, Mike Gualtieri, an IT industry analyst for Forrester Research, says that there are reasons why large IT companies might be interested in making their products available for free to a non-enterprise audience.

Gualtieri says that the rise of Hadoop – an open source system enabling storage, processing and quick analysis of big data – has disrupted these companies’ core products such as databases, data analytics and data warehousing.

Although Hadoop will not necessarily replace the larger vendors’ technology, Gualtieri says they will have to work with Hadoop.

“They see a threat, so they figure they better get it out there and let people use it,” he said. “By making them available, they’re building awareness among the average user.”

As a result, Gualtieri expects to see more of these large IT companies use their platforms for more crowdsourced citizen scientist data analysis projects in the future.

Commercial applications

In five to 10 years, SAP says the public will have the ability to identify species on the spot, thanks to a DNA barcoding mobile app it’s working on with the International Barcode of Life. While the technology is being developed in part for the citizen science biodiversity project, Jonker says that the technology can be used in a commercial context.

There does appear to be a demand for it, if recent food mislabeling scandals – from horsemeat masquerading as beef, to fox meat sold as donkey meat, and mislabeled fish are any indication. Shopkeepers would be able to verify products by identifying a sample on the spot via DNA barcoding.

SAP is already in talks to commercialize the product with a few partners. In the meantime, the company will release an app enabling anyone to contribute samples to the International Barcode of Life project through uploading a photo (with location metadata) and mailing in a sample for analysis. The app is scheduled for launch in late March.

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Photo of Ectatomma tuberculatum, an ant species that lives in the Amazon Rainforest, by Alex Wild via Wikimedia Commons

Happiness: the next big business metric?

The Guardian US/UK | September 16, 2013

smiling face made from nature

A smiling face made from nature that was found along a hiking path. Photo credit: Frerk Meyer/Creative Commons

Whether it’s words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, guidance from an empathetic career counselor or advice from a friend, we’re often told that it’s more important to be happy than anything else.

But for the more than 1 billion people around the world fighting hunger and poverty, happiness seems fairly irrelevant – a luxury for the middle and upper classes. Does happiness matter if daily needs are not met? Certainly the primary focus should be on taking care of the basics. Happiness is a bonus.

Most, it seems, would agree. But increasingly, the answer depends upon whom you ask. In certain academic and human development circles, the stock in happiness has been rising. So much, in fact, that in the last two years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (run by UN Millennium Development goals guru and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs) has published the “World Happiness Report,” researchers’ attempts to measure happiness in 150 countries around the world.

That raises the question: As more thought leaders pay attention to happiness, should companies also consider happiness as one measure of their social impact?

“All businesses should care about happiness,” said Mark Williamson, founder and director of the London-based Action for Happiness Project, who joined Sachs in New York last week to release the latest report. “The happiness of a company’s people is vital to their business success.”

Companies with happier staff outperform their competitors, Williamson said, and a happier staff is sick less often, more engaged, more creative, more productive and better at working collaboratively.

Consumer-facing businesses also affect the wellbeing of their customers, production services and their supply chain, Williamson added, so responsible businesses should not be hawking products or services that they know will decrease wellbeing.

The happiness metric: more important than GDP?

Government will likely play a role in driving the happiness agenda, if it progresses. “There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their wellbeing,” said Sachs, one of the report’s co-editors.

Life satisfaction – a self-evaluation of how well a person’s life is going – is the cornerstone of what the report aims to measure. According to researchers, a person’s happiness, or wellbeing, can be traced back to GDP per capita (as a measure of one’s standard of living), but also to the extent of one’s social support, freedom, generosity, healthy life expectancy and perceptions of corruption.

In recent years, Williamson said, Sachs came to believe in wellbeing’s potential as the “ultimate beyond-GDP measure.” Sachs, a senior advisor on sustainable development to Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, is pushing to place wellbeing at the heart of the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development goals.

Does more happiness really mean more sustainability?

But is a goal to improve the life satisfaction of people around the world really a means to an end? How would this accelerate or enhance ongoing work to secure access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, a sustainable food supply and a stable source of education?

“Wellbeing is really the driver that underpins all the development goals,” Williamson said. “Whether we’re aiming to alleviate poverty, ensure maternal health, support gender equality, or promote sustainability, the reason that all these things matter ultimately comes down to their impact on human wellbeing.

“If we get them right, wellbeing goes up,” he said. “If we fail to deliver on them, wellbeing goes down.”

Mental health and productivity

Mother and daughter, Bhutan

Mother and daughter in Bhutan. Photo credit Christopher J. Flynn/Creative Commons

But even Bhutan, the world’s most famous proponent of happiness, is starting to cast doubt on its devotion to the measure. Its society struggles with a range of social concerns including poverty, education, unemployment, gender inequality and a perceived increase of corruption – and even, perhaps, mental illness.

Yet Williamson points to both ends of the scale in this year’s World Happiness Report as examples of wellbeing’s power. The happiest countries – Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden – all have reasonably high GDP, he said, but likely rank high on happiness because people in these countries tend to have higher levels of social support and more collaborative and supportive social systems than most other developed economies.

On the other hand, countries that experienced the greatest falls in happiness over the last year – Greece and Egypt – are countries whose residents have had to contend with massive upheavals to financial and political systems that influence their quality of life. And it’s no surprise that Syria – now in the spotlight for atrocities inflicted on citizens throughout its ongoing conflict – placed among the most unhappy countries worldwide.

Another reason to include wellbeing in the UN post-2015 Sustainable Development goals, Williamson said, is that its existing goals do not include mental health, something he considers to be the among most important determinants of wellbeing. According to the report, mental illness – which counts depression and anxiety among its forms – is among the main causes of unhappiness worldwide.

Unhappiest people get happier

Perhaps some of the greatest insights into the determinants of wellbeing can be gleaned from the region with countries ranked among the least happy worldwide. All are in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region where residents battle infectious disease, poverty and corruption.

Yet at the same time, Sub-Saharan Africa – along with Latin America – is counted in this year’s report as one of two areas where happiness levels are increasing the most. The reasons? Higher levels of social support, generosity and the freedom to make key life decisions, the report said.

“Social relationships matter much more for happiness than possessions,” Williamson said. “Every organization should recognize that human wellbeing is at the heart of success and progress – and that they can play a role in contributing to this by the way they treat their people, the products and services they offer and the impact they have in the community.”

Bringing happiness to mainstream business

Some organizations, like John Lewis, have always put employee wellbeing at the heart of their business models, Williamson said. But happiness is gaining ground: companies such as Southwest Airlines, BT, Semco, Marks & Spencer, Zappos, Innocent Drinks and NixonMcInnes are increasingly taking it seriously, he added.

Happiness hasn’t yet become a top priority for sustainability-minded companies, but Williamson expects the trend to persist. And if its popularity continues to rise among nonprofits, policymakers and thought leaders, we could soon see it become a common corporate social responsibility metric as well.

Should businesses consider happiness as part of their social impact? And what can businesses do to boost happiness? Please send us your thoughts by commenting below or by tweeting #GSBhappy.

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Can the apparel industry pin down worker safety?

The Guardian US/UK | September 10, 2013 | Original headline: Bangladesh factory collapse: can Gap and others pin down worker safety?

Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and injuring 2,500 more in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo credit: rijians via flickr/Creative Commons

Nearly five months after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building that killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500 in Bangladesh, the reverberations continue to impact the apparel industry.

The incident – and it lessons about supply-chain vulnerabilities – has boosted efforts to improve worker and building safety.

“[Bangladesh] is an inflection point for monitoring and auditing supply chains,” said Kindley Walsh Lawlor, vice president for corporate social responsibility at Gap, speaking at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco last week.

But companies remain divided on how best to do this in a country that’s one of the industry’s top suppliers.

Different approaches

Gap is part of an alliance of more than 15 companies – including Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and Macy’s – which has agreed to require factory inspections (and publicly release the results) in Bangladesh, develop common safety standards, provide loans to factory owners to improve safety, establish a worker hotline before the end of the year and establish “worker participation committees” selected by their peers.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has set a five-year timeline for the project.

Lawlor – who has focused on fire and building safety in Bangladesh since 2010, when a factory fire near Dhaka killed more than 25 people – says Gap is bringing in professional engineers to inspect supplier factories and also is following up with remediation.

“We’re seeing the suppliers through the process and making sure they make the changes,” she said.

But Gap’s approach has been controversial. The company and its partners have been criticized by labor rights groups for not including for a requirement to allow supplier workers – mostly women earning low wages – to organize unions.

Meanwhile, more than 70 other companies have signed a different accord, which does endorse the right of workers to organize as part of an overall strategy to improve factory safety in Bangladesh. H&M, Zara, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein were among the companies to sign the accord, which requires independent factory inspections and public release of the results. Unlike Gap’s initiative, this accord is legally binding.

Taking a systemic approach

Racheal Meiers, head of BSR‘s HERproject, a factory-worker education project in Bangladesh, India, China and a half dozen other countries, said the Bangladeshi government also must play its part in fixing the health and safety problems.

HERproject works with Gap, in addition to Marks and Spencer, HP and J.Crew.

“We have to take a systemic approach for progress to be made,” she said. “If Gap has a robust fire safety standard, there aren’t many people in the country who can do those international fire safety and building safety inspections.”

But many of the factory owners in Bangladesh also have high influence in the government, she said.

“Even if factory owners do make changes – such as the two years it took to raise worker wages by between $6 to $7 a month – the impacts on workers’ lives are limited within the workplace itself,” she said. “Once the slum landlords found out that the workers got a raise, they increased the rent.”

For that reason, Meiers says, HERProject focuses on increasing the wellbeing of workers by educating the mostly female workforce on menstruation, infectious diseases, maternal health and HIV/AIDS. It teaches women how to make more nutritious food choices and how to access improved health care.

Education sessions are designed for a workplace setting and present factory owners with the business case for a healthy workforce. “The business case is important,” Lawlor said.

Boosting the business case

Aside from working with HERproject, Gap also runs a life skills education and technical training program – called Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) – for female garment workers.

“It’s proven these women [who participate in P.A.C.E.] have longer tenure and are being promoted more often,” Lawlor said. “They are making more money, can stay consistently in one location and factories are coming to us now. Management is starting to understand the workers aren’t replaceable.”

Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. – which has said it will not join the Bangladesh accord – said that getting suppliers to agree to sustainable production methods through market demand will be a motivating force for change.

“We can try to get suppliers to comply [with us] and struggle,” he said. “But they will respond to consistent business.”

Kobori shared a success story: Levi’s 501 WaterLess jeans, debuted a few years ago, cut the amount of water used in the production process by almost a third, on average, and were favorably received by consumers.

But the benefits expanded beyond conservation and sales.

“That connection [of the product] with the consumer was rewarding to suppliers,” he said. “This way worked much better – we harnessed the power of market and the consumer to drive sustainability.”

View the original story here.

Can impact investing cross from land to sea?

The Guardian US/UK | September 5, 2013 | Original headline: Can impact investing successfully cross from land to sea?

Impact investors have plunged headfirst into food and agriculture deals, but when it comes to ocean ventures, they’re just starting to learn how to swim.

Fishing pier

Fishing pier by timparkinson via flickr/Creative Commons

Impact investing in fisheries and oceans has been slow to emerge, compared to dairy, poultry and beef ventures — in part, it seems, because these companies can seem like a safer bet. The supply is fairly predictable, and there aren’t as many middlemen cutting into producer profits.

Yet it’s possible to apply the lessons learned from food and agriculture deals toward investing in fisheries and ocean-related businesses, which could lead to larger profits for fishing communities, restored fish stocks and improved marine health.

“We see tremendous opportunity because of issues and gaps in the marketplace,” said Taryn Goodman, director of impact investing at RSF Social Finance, during an ocean investing panel Wednesday at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco.

Know the differences

That said, investors also should realize there are differences between the ocean and agriculture sectors. Knowing those differences, panelists emphasized, can help craft a deal that meets both investors’ financial and impact requirements.

For one thing – as Goodman observed through a RSF Social Finance loan to Kuskokwim Seafoods, a Native Alaskan-run fishing company – the seafood supply chain is made up of a more concentrated monopoly of only a few companies and is disconnected from local food systems.

“The system is broken,” Goodman said. “Getting in to process fish is very difficult – you go head to head with the big guys.”

Though Kuskokwim made a deal agreeing to process everything it caught, Goodman said, “the deal went south. No money was made because you’re competing with others and not building out your supply chain.”

Seafood supply chains are filled with middlemen, explained Beau Seil, managing partner of Unitus Impact. “Fish can change hands 14 to 15 times before it gets to our plate in the US.”

Not being able to predict how much fish would be caught, Goodman said, also made it difficult to know the maximum processing capacity needed or how to get the greatest profit margin. The unpredictable length of the season, as well as Alaska-issued quotas, also threw her off.

Consumers as influencers

The public, Goodman noted, also influences how the seafood supply chain works.

“The majority of chefs, once you take the skin off, can’t identify what fish it is,” she said. “It’s lack of knowledge and awareness. It surprises me.”

Many restaurants don’t want to take a chance with smaller suppliers, who might not have what they need on any particular day, she said.

A lack of transparency creates another challenge. “Opaqueness in the space enables more poor behavior . . . you can create monopolies,” she said. “It’s like the underworld in there.”

See the original story here.