It’s Now Legal to Sell Seeds in California

Civil Eats | October 6, 2016

seed packets available at seed swap

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

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

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

Now the tide may be starting to turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will this get Big Chicken to clean up its act?

Civil Eats | January 26, 2016

cooked chicken on gingham tablecloth

Cooked chicken. Photo credit: Hannah Downes via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmland on Chesapeake Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billion dollar seafood waste upcycled into profits

The Guardian US/UK | December 14, 2015

TidalVision_founders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tidal Vision salmon leather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algae grown in the RiverBox

Algae grown in the RiverBox. Photo courtesy SabrTech

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

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

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

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

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

New startup hopes to develop faster-growing crops

Modern Farmer | Nov. 10, 2015

BioConsortia Photo of plants being tested in various soils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does eating organic reduce pesticide exposure?

Kale at Pescadero Farmer's Market

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

Civil Eats | Nov. 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Farms without wildlife don’t produce safer food

Civil Eats | Aug. 11, 2015

Lettuce crops

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 9.53.09 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

New kind of agrihood in Northern California takes root

Civil Eats | July 28, 2015

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

Cannery Barn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian US/UK | Feb. 5, 2015

EcoTeas organic tea plantation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EcoTeas plantation, Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View the original story here.

New biopesticide offers hope for honey bees

TakePart | June 6, 2014

Honey bee pollinating lavender plant by Peter Giordano courtesy Creative Commons

Honey bee pollinating lavender plant by Peter Giordano courtesy Creative Commons

There’s finally some good news about the plight of the honeybees, which pollinate a third of our food but whose populations have been crashing over the past eight years.

Scientific studies have implicated a class of agricultural pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, along with other factors such as poor nutrition. Now researchers in the United Kingdom have created a nontoxic biopesticide made from spider venom and a plant protein. The substance, called Hv1a/GNA, is experimental, and its effectiveness in killing agricultural pests remains unproved. But it’s one indication that biopesticides could one day serve as an alternative to bee-killing chemicals.

“Our findings suggest that Hv1a/GNA is unlikely to cause any detrimental effects on honeybees,” said Newcastle University professor Angharad Gatehouse about the biopesticide, which combines an Australian funnel-web spider’s venom and snowdrop lectin protein, which is found in potatoes, rice, and other plants.

In the study, published this week in Proceedings B, the Royal Society’s biology research journal, the scientists found that the survival of honeybees exposed to a variety of doses of the biopesticide for more than a week was only “slightly” affected. The biopesticide also had no measurable impact on their learning and memory. That’s important because bees memorize the route to a food source and communicate it to the hive.

Lead study author Erich Nakasu believes that because the honeybees’ learning and memory capacity did not change, the biopesticide does not interact with the insects’ calcium channels, which are linked to those characteristics.

Hv1a/GNA has to be ingested by the honeybees, such as when they eat pollen, to have any effect, and thus it cannot be absorbed via routine body contact with plants during pollination, he added.

Researchers said that it also did not affect the larvae, as the developing honeybees were able to break down the biopesticide in their guts.

In addition to U.S. agriculture—which is a big consumer of neonicotinoid pesticides, especially for genetically modified corn—the research has implications for Canada, another large pesticide user. Citing high risks for honeybees, the European Union last year imposed a two-year ban on the use of three types of neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam.

Yet despite Hv1a/GNA’s potential as an alternative, Gatehouse warns that a range of strategies must be used to keep bees alive.

“There isn’t going to be one silver bullet,” she said. “What we need is an integrated pest management strategy, and insect-specific pesticides will be just one part of that.”

View the original story here.

Tapping the sun to put more food on Africa’s table

TakePart | June 3, 2014

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

For farmers in Mozambique, every harvest is bittersweet. That’s because up to 40 percent of their crops can spoil, as there’s no way to keep them cool. It’s a common and costly problem in countries that lack reliable power grids—or have no access to electricity at all—and that can ill afford to throw away food.

Farmers can use diesel generators to refrigerate produce, but they’re expensive and cause pollution. What if they could tap carbon-free solar energy to power a device that chills newly harvested crops, thus extending their shelf life? Better yet, that device could be manufactured locally, creating jobs.

Rebound Technology of Boulder, Colo., is trying to do just that. Formed by two solar industry exiles, the start-up is developing a 3-D-printed heat exchanger and a membrane made from a Gore-Tex-like material that uses solar thermal heat to create refrigeration.

“If we can cool the products in the field, then that will be really beneficial. In Mozambique, crops are being harvested in 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Kevin Davis, Rebound’s cofounder and CEO. “By lowering the temp of that product you’re stunting some of the metabolic processes that lead to spoilage.”

Higher-quality produce could be sold for up to four times more than the price of fruits and vegetables that have not been chilled before being transported to market, Davis says. Because women are buying the food from farmers to sell at the markets in Mozambique, it would also help women small business owners, according to Koos Van Der Merwe, the co-owner of Mozambique Organicos, a farm that is partnering with Rebound to field-test the technology next year.

Here’s how it works: Salt is dissolved in warm water running through a 3-D-printed heat exchanger. The saltwater solution absorbs the heat from the warm water, which makes it colder. That dip in temperature chills another pool of water that the farmers dunk their produce into after harvesting. To ready the process for the next day, a membrane placed into the saltwater uses heat generated by a solar thermal panel to separate out the salt and water across the membrane.

As simple as it sounds, Rebound’s product—dubbed SunChill—has some way to go before it can be deployed to Mozambique farmers. With $1.4 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development—via “Powering Agriculture,” a new program aimed at fostering clean-tech solutions to boost agricultural productivity in developing countries—Davis and cofounder Russell Muren will spend the better part of the next year designing and testing the SunChill prototype.

The pair will meet with smallholder farmers in Mozambique this month to gather information for the design process. They’re also working with German collaborators to finalize the membrane’s design.

One challenge the company is still working out, Davis says, is the best way to get SunChill into the hands of small farmers, given the system’s expected $6,000 price tag. Rebound thinks it’s feasible for larger operations such as Mozambique Organicos or agricultural co-ops to purchase the equipment for use by a large group of farmers.

Van Der Merwe, who is about to start a business working with small farmers, says SunChill can fill a void. “I’m quickly running out of capacity to accommodate all small-scale production,” he says. “Being [that we supply] mostly produce for the local markets, we’re hoping that the SunChill technology can provide the answer to this need.”

View the original story here.

Does fake meat have legs? The case for alt-proteins

GreenBiz | November 27, 2013

Beyond Eggs and real eggs

Hampton Creek Foods’ Beyond Eggs is one of the new protein substitutes that has hit the national marketplace.

Recently, two American chefs were asked to cook a meal of steak and potatoes. But when they got to the supermarket, none were in sight.

Sound implausible? True, the barren aisles were staged by Food Network TV producers. And the shortage had little consequence. No beef? They cooked habanero chicken sausages instead.

Less than 40 years from now, however, food shortages could become serious. By 2050, the world’s population could reach 9 billion. Environmental pressures will put a squeeze on farmland, water and fisheries, making it harder to feed everyone using current practices, according to a June report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

This means bad news for those who count on resource-intensive protein such as beef.

Instead of cuing in the doom and gloom, however, a swell of entrepreneurs have captured the public’s attention with alternative protein offerings that appear to be more sustainable. On the menu are edible insects, plant-based imitation eggs, fake meat and “schmeat” – that is, in vitro meat as found in Mark Post’s cow stem cell hamburger.

Go ahead and giggle at the term “schmeat” — yet, as Oxford Dictionary’s runner-up word of the year, the concept has legs. Will the emerging industry have a market for mainstream growth?

Is that a cricket you’re eating? I’ll take two

Edible insects are low cost, low-carbon emitting and full of protein, vitamins, fiber, minerals and fat, according to the FAO report. Its researchers also concluded that boosting insect populations by raising them for food would provide ecological benefits such as helping with plant pollination, improving soil fertility and controlling harmful pests.

“There’s an industry that wasn’t there before three years ago,” said David Gracer, a Rhode Island resident who has been educating the public about entomophagy — human consumption of insects — since 2001.

Gracer, who started eating insects out of curiosity in 1999, has traced mention of the practice in the media and academic journals. In the last four years, he has counted 1,200 articles about entomophagy in the media and 800 technical articles about the subject — a tremendous difference over prior years.

But the public’s mindset about entomophagy, shown via the comments on articles in American media, he says, shows a lot of disgust and mockery of the practice, which is commonplace in parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

What would it take to change these mainstream attitudes and increase market viability in America? “If things get scary out there in terms of climate change and food production and food stability, and [there’s] not complete mayhem, that’s going to be something that will change the game in terms of people’s perceptions,” he said.

Nevertheless, he continued, “When I got started, there were only a few people, and now there are domestic manufacturers for insect foods. There’s a much bigger community than there was five to six years ago.”

Tiny Farms

Berkeley, Calif.-based Andrew Brentano, wife Jena and friend Dan Imrie-Situnayake decided a little over a year ago to start Tiny Farms, a business that would support individuals and entrepreneurs interested in developing a steady supply of edible insects. Their idea wasn’t too outlandish.

After all, the Bay Area already had seen the debut of edible insect food truck Don Bugito, which hit San Francisco streets in 2011. Well before that, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences and the city zoo served samples to the adventurous. [In years past, I’ve sampled edibles at Don Bugito and the Academy of Sciences, along with chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Mexico].

Tiny Farm’s co-founders observed that there wasn’t enough supply to meet the needs for new businesses making insect food products, such as the Exo cricket bar funded on Kickstarter.

“It’s really tricky to get food-grade insects,” Brentano said. “That’s also an issue overseas because of import regulations and food safety issues.” In addition, most insects overseas are wild harvested and as a result likely will have accumulated metals and pesticides.

The emerging for-profit company’s core product will center around Web-based management tools to enable individuals and businesses to track their insects, receive alerts, and conduct data analysis.

“Right now, there’s not a market for our larger-scale plans,” Brentano said. “But there needs to be a feed-in. … Hopefully we’ll be growing with them so we can help with technical matters.”

In step with demand, then, Tiny Farms’ first offering will be open-source home assembly kits for bug farms. Brentano anticipates that the kits will be available in the first quarter of 2014.

Beyond Meat

Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, sought to develop a version of plant-based meat that was seamless with the real thing. He collaborated with biological engineering professor Fu-hung Hsieh and researcher Harold Huff at the University of Missouri, who had developed on a fake chicken product made from soybeans. The product got off the ground in 2012 at Beyond Meat’s Columbia, Mo. factory.

Company investors include the Obvious Corporation startup incubator and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.

Hampton Creek Foods

In 2011, Josh Tetrick founded Hampton Creek Foods in a quest for the perfect plant-based egg substitute. He was motivated to provide an alternative to eggs laid in unsafe, environmentally polluting industrial facilities (he explains in the video above).

“Since one-third of those eggs end up in food products, we focus on the products these caged chicken eggs end up in,” he said.

Heading up R&D is Johan Boot, who left his post as head of global R&D at Unilever to join Tetrick. In early research, Hampton Creek’s biochemists screened the molecular structure of more than 2,000 plants. Then, the company’s culinary director and food scientists took over. Eleven plants were “highly functional” as an egg substitute, Tetrick said, because they could aerate, emulsify and coagulate just like the real thing. The result was Beyond Eggs, a powder that can be used in place of eggs in baked goods.

Hampton Creek Foods also has developed a mayonnaise made from yellow peas. It’s available at 120 Whole Foods markets and will launch nationwide Dec. 5. Cookie dough and scrambled “egg” products are in the works.

Other large companies have shown interest in the San Francisco-based startup’s work, which counts Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and Kat Taylor’s Emerging Impact Fund among its investors. Tetrick said Hampton Creek Foods is currently collaborating with three Fortune 500 companies. Although he said he couldn’t talk much about this due to a nondisclosure agreement, there is a joint research project with General Mills.

“These companies see the prices of caged chicken eggs going up because they’re fed massive amounts of corn and soy,” he said. “They’re watching the problem, and it’s a natural way for them to save money.”

View the original story here.

Image of eggs and Beyond Eggs courtesy Hampton Creek Foods; image of cricket flour courtesy Exo

Can tech startups change the way we eat?

The Guardian US/UK | October 31, 2013

Good Eggs site produce

Good Eggs offers a range of produce from local producers that can be ordered online.

These days, even the most casual observers can’t go long without hearing about yet another potentially disruptive business model hoping to redefine an industry.

But when that industry is food, it’s worth paying extra attention. Food, after all, affects everyone. And as the appetite for local food grows stronger than ever, a new crop of tech startups are moving to circumvent the industrial food system in favor of small, regional producers.

Innovative? Certainly. Disruptive? Maybe.

Founders from two promising examples, Good Eggs and Freight Farms, spoke at the Net Impact conference in Silicon Valley last week.

Farm-to-doorstep food, ordered online

Good Eggs, based in California, launched earlier this year after two years of research and testing to find unfilled needs in the food system. Co-founder Rob Spiro, an ex-Google employee, hung out with farmers, spent time on their ranches and tagged along on shoppers’ food-buying trips.

“There’s more demand than there is supply for local food … it’s very rare that you find a dynamic like that,” Spiro said at the Net Impact conference. The highly perishable nature of food, he added, causes the imbalance. Good Eggs’ solution is an online farmers’ market, complete with delivery. With more than 150 profiles of regional producers to pore through, San Francisco Bay Area residents can shop for food the way one might approach online dating.

First, find the type of product you’re interested in, whether it’s seasonal fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats and seafood, baked goods or snacks. Then, see if the accompanying description and photos appeal to you. When you find something that meets your requirements, you can arrange to pick it up at a regional location or schedule a home delivery.

Good Eggs will aggregate orders from multiple vendors; delivery costs $3.99 per order. The idea is that shoppers have a better chance of finding what they want without having to visit multiple farmers’ markets while producers will only harvest what’s been ordered for the week, reducing food waste.

Aside from the Bay Area, Good Eggs is piloting test programs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New Orleans and plans to expand to hundreds of cities, Spiro said. He aims to take market share away from traditional grocers, including Walmart and Target, as well as from Amazon. “We would love to take them on,” he said.

But Good Eggs will have its work cut out to make sure it signs on enough producers to meet customer demand and vice versa. If it can’t meet most of shoppers’ grocery needs, they may not be willing to switch from bigger chains. The company also will need to keep a tight rein on quality control and – given the many different producers – make it easy for customers to choose between different products without being able to see, touch or smell them in advance.

In New Orleans, its fastest-growing market, the company already has signed on producers that weren’t previously selling at farmers’ markets, Spiro says. “We’ve got Vietnamese fishermen selling on the New Orleans [Good Eggs] market now that have not been hooked into the farmers’ markets or the local food scene,” he said.

Farm in a crate: year-round hydroponics

Two friends in Boston, Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman, were frustrated by the inefficiencies of growing plants in rooftop greenhouses. So they designed a hydroponics farm in a shipping crate that can be installed anywhere with electricity and water hookups.

That led to the founding of Freight Farms in 2010, then the raising of nearly $31,000 via Kickstarter for the company’s first unit in 2011.

The idea is a portable farm that users can use to grow local, fresh produce year round – instead of relying on food trucked or flown in from warmer climates. “Our main goal is to allow people to create small and medium-sized food businesses that can supply fresh and local foods to any environment,” McNamara, Freight Farms’ CEO, said at the Net Impact conference.

By doing that, the company hopes to ultimately change the way food is grown and distributed on a large scale. “The food system is linear, which creates inequality, access issues, price issues and spoilage,” McNamara said. “The system is ripe for disruption – and tech is a way to do that.”

Inside Freight Farms’ 40-foot-long shipping crates, users can grow their selection of more than 3,600 plants, including leafy greens, herbs and mushrooms. The system is climate-controlled, lit by LED lights and electronically monitored. Freight farmers can view the conditions in their farms via their smartphone and customize alerts, for instance, when the temperature or humidity exceeds a certain level.

The freight farms have the potential to be installed in a range of locations, such as underutilized land at schools or recreation centers, side lots or vacant lots. And, in order to use land more efficiently, the crates can be stacked four high and eight deep.

One developer in Massachusetts plans to install freight farms on three acres of an abandoned strip mall – farming a few crates himself and renting the rest to others – instead of putting in new stores. The system is designed to be accessible to those with little farming experience, McNamara claims. Inexperienced farmers have achieved crop yields of 60%, while experts have yielded 95%, he said. And the company also networks its farms so that users can support each other and share farming strategies and techniques.

Freight Farms has received a lot of interest from regional food distributors who haven’t been able to meet the demand for fresh local produce after the local growing season ends, McNamara said. “It’s cheaper for them to buy from a freight farm versus putting another truck on the road,” he added.

One distributor in Minnesota was so happy with the basil grown by a freight farmer that he offered $1.75 more per pound than the price he was initially willing to pay, he said.

With a price tag of $60,000 per shipping crate – and a threefold increase in price if the farm is solar-powered – McNamara acknowledges that a freight farm is not affordable for everyone.

In the past few weeks, though, he says he’s been exploring the ideas of regional food distributor sponsorship for crate farms in low-income communities. The distributor would pay for the farm with stipulations that a certain percentage of the vegetables would be grown for their inventory.

Freight Farms has also been tweaking its user instructions to make them more visual and to simplify the process. The hope is that this could make the farms more accessible to a broader swath of people, including those with little education or without strong English skills.

“We want to have these changes buttoned up by the middle of next year,” McNamara said.

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.