Bulk is green

The following is from Progressive Grocer magazine: A recent study conducted by the Bulk Is Green Council confirms what the Little Rock, Ark.-based advocacy group is seeking to advance with consumers: that retail prices of bulk foods vs. their packaged counterparts are an average of 35 percent lower. Indeed, bulk foods were lower for all of the 16 foods compared, with savings ranging from 3 percent to 96 percent. Additionally, the majority of bulk foods compared in the study were organic while their packaged counterparts were often not.

Conducted at multiple grocery stores in three metropolitan markets, the study measured average prices with suggested retail prices of a leading national food distributor of both bulk and packaged foods.

The advocacy organization, which is charged with helping consumers, food manufacturers and grocers learn about the environmental and economic benefits of bulk foods, says bulk foods offer consumers a variety of shopping and sustainable advantages, including:

  • Packaging-free products, as packaging drove up the price of the average product evaluated in the study. Packaged foods were generally more competitive in price in situations where minimal packaging is the norm (i.e. beans, rice and nuts).
  • Enabling the consumer to purchase as much or as little of a product he wants, without paying a penalty for a small quantity. This is especially meaningful when a recipe calls for a small amount of an ingredient seldom used by that consumer.
  • Environmental benefits, because the foods are sold without a package, resulting in a reduction in deforestation and the use of petrochemicals for the manufacture of paper, plastic, ink and cardboard.

The study found that bulk herbs and spices offered the greatest savings. The most dramatic difference was bay leaves, with bulk savings of 96 percent, meaning that on average, packaged bay leaves cost 24 times more than bulk bay leaves. Almost as dramatic was thyme, with bulk savings of 87 percent.

More information about bulk foods can be found at www.bulkisgreen.org.

Mark Fergusson

Bottled water banned in move to protect environment

Bottled water is coming under even more pressure following the action of a small Australian town to ban sales of bottled water. Bottled water sales, once a major growth industry, has slowed considerably as people have considered the adverse environmental impacts of the plastic bottles, production costs, and trucking and transportation involved. It is cheaper and more environmentally sound to properly filter tap water. The following is from the Associated Press story:

Residents of a rural Australian town hoping to protect the earth and their wallets have voted to ban the sale of bottled water, the first community in the country — and possibly the world — to take such a drastic step in the growing backlash against the industry.

Residents of Bundanoon cheered after their near-unanimous approval of the measure at a town meeting Wednesday. It was the second blow to Australia's beverage industry in one day: Hours earlier, the New South Wales state premier banned all state departments and agencies from buying bottled water, calling it a waste of money and natural resources.

Vegetables not as nutritious as they were 40 - 50 years ago

The following excerpt is from Natural Foods Merchandiser's blog:

Store-bought vegetables are not as good for you as they were 40-50 years ago.

According to the USDA, fruits and vegetables were packed with far more nutrients back then than they are now.

Experts attribute the nutritional drop to hybrid breeding of crops, designed more for size and color and ability to survive transport, than nutritional value.

With the $25.2 billion supplement industry showing a 5 percent growth in the last year, perhaps many of us are aware that we can no longer eat enough food to get all the nutrients our bodies need. Monavie acai berry drink officials claim you would have to eat 7-9 peaches today to get the same level of nutrients from eating one peach in the 1950s.

Go to Mother Jones to click through a slideshow of fruits and vegetables “that have gone to seed,” according to the website.

"Save the planet; kill yourself?"

Photo: Woman Holding a Sign that Reads Save the Planet Kill Yourself

Everyone is trying to reduce their carbon footprint and their negative impact on the environment. Businesses are starting to be required to measure and report on their carbon generation, and the trading of carbon credits is now commonplace in many countries of the world. In a growing trend individuals are eating local in an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint of their dietary choices by reducing the amount of miles that their food travels to get to them. People are opting to ride in cars with huge batteries (despite the largely unknown dangers of electro magnetic fields, and the problems of disposing of the battery at the end of its useful life), or downsizing to more fuel efficient cars, or even deciding to catch the bus, walk or bike when they go shopping to reduce their impact on the environment. We are switching to corn fuel for vehicles (ethanol), corn bags, corn plates, and corn utensils in an effort to avoid plastics, but the unintended consequence was a dramatic increase in food prices that in 2008 led to riots in third world countries.

The reality of modern living is such that no matter what you do, or how committed to green principles you are, you are still having a negative impact on the environment by your very existence. You are breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. You are traveling places using vehicles that create pollution while using roads made of converted fossil fuels. You are buying things that come in plastic or foam packaging and cardboard boxes, and were manufactured using electricity in facilities that have raw materials transported around the world to them, and which generate pollution or waste of some sort. You are eating foods that are transported to you, and you are evacuating and passing urine that goes into the sewer system, and you are using a computer that uses electricity, etc. etc.

If you become fanatical in our goal to have the minimum impact you can on the environment you could come to the rather bizarre but somewhat obvious conclusion that a woman in a photo I saw came too. She was holding a sign that said:


The obvious answer to this is, “No need; you can save the planet simply by not raising animals to kill and eat them”. The raising of animals to eat them has about the biggest impact on the environment than almost any other human activity. If you are truly serious about being green, adopt a vegetarian diet. That will have a much bigger impact and will have no negative unintended consequences. Do what you can for the environment, don’t go crazy over it, and do the easiest thing you can that will have the biggest positive impact – go vegetarian (while eating organic and natural foods free of GMOs).

Thanks for reading.

Mark Fergusson
Chief Vegetarian Officer

Locavorism: Elitist food snobbery or practical solution to global warming?

Locavorism, for those who haven't heard the term, describes the practice of buying food grown within a 100 mile radius of where one lives, in an effort to cut back on one's carbon footprint. Once upon a time, access to imported, specialty items was reserved for the rich or well-connected connoisseur. Now, however, the committed locavore has to go far out of his or her way to forage enough food from their local region to survive. This is especially true in Hawaii, where most of our food is shipped over thousands of miles.

Is it worth the effort? Some say locavores could save the world. How much damage are we doing to the planet by transporting our food over more miles than most of us will travel in a lifetime? Some studies say not much, comparatively speaking. According to a study cited in Canada's National Post, 83% of emissions involved in the food you eat result from its manner of production. Only 4% result from its final delivery to the retailer. So, for example, if you live in England and buy your tomatoes from local heated greenhouses, you are actually contributing to four times the amount of CO2 than if you buy them from Spain, where heated greenhouses are unnecessary. The National Post concludes, "If left-wing posturing and green-posing is your priority, then stick with your 100-mile diet. Leave it to average consumers, buying the globally sourced groceries at their local, corporate, big-box retailer, to do genuine good for the planet."

Hmmm....Genuine good? How about "leave it to average consumers, buying globally sourced groceries at their local, corporate, big-box retailer, to inflict comparatively less damage on the planet." The fact is that human activity generates greenhouse gases. If you want to get really serious about solving the problem, you could try not driving, lighting a fire, opening the refrigerator or, um, breathing. Short of that, there are very practical ways to cut your greenhouse gas contribution in half. James McWilliams at Forbes.com, after pointing out how difficult it is to calculate the impact of processing methods, packaging, water usage and fertilizer application for local versus global food sources, concludes, "Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef....Give up red meat once a week and you'll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer. If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer's market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian."

The locavore movement is founded on very real, practical concerns about the impact of agribusiness on food security, soil depletion and genetic diversity of crops, but I think the above critiques point out a flaw in following the letter of the locavore law, rather than the spirit. Growing up in Vermont, eating locally wasn't an –ism; it was a practical reality. We planted our own garden, harvested our own apples, canned our own applesauce, picked our own blackberries, pickled our own dilly beans and boiled down our own maple syrup. Eating local wasn't about making a statement; it was about taking advantage of the food in our backyard. Essentially, the success of locavorism rests on our willingness to be satisfied with the kinds of produce that grow naturally in our own region without extensive fossil fuel inputs. However, whether we’re able to limit ourselves to food grown in our immediate area or not, simply adopting a vegetarian diet will cut our contributions to greenhouse gases in half.

At Down to Earth our credo is that “the single most important thing an individual can do for their health, for the environment, and for the sake of the innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet.” Down to Earth is a big supporter of buying locally, and we do it whenever possible, but as the National Post and McWilliams point out, sometimes it may have unintended negative consequences. The adoption of a well-balanced vegetarian diet, however, is always a positive step.

Q: What can you do with 87,000 pounds of shit? A: I don't know, but think fast, factory farms produce that much every second

In this chapter of Eating Animals, Foer pulls back the curtain to reveal the end product (literally) of the factory farming system: shit. Boatloads of shit. Communities surrounded by shit. Landscapes overrun by shit. Shit in the air, shit in the water, shit in the food. Foer recounts the time in 1995 when 20 million gallons of liquid toxic hog shit spilled (or was dumped) into the New River in North Carolina, courtesy of Smithfield Foods (the nations largest pork “producer”). The environmental devastation that occurred as a result was twice as bad as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. But no one remembers it. One might be tempted to write it off as an unfortunate accident except that, within the next year, Smithfield was penalized for seven thousand additional violations of the Clean Water Act.

To help us visualize the amount of animal waste produced and mismanaged by Smithfield operations alone, Foer offers this scenario: “Imagine if, instead of a massive waste-treatment infrastructure that we take for granted in modern cities, every man, woman and child in every city and town in all of California and all of Texas crapped and pissed in a huge open air pit for a day. Now imagine that they don’t do this for just a day, but all year round, in perpetuity.” That’s eighty six trillion, eight hundred and twenty two billion pounds of shit annually. And that’s just one corporation. All told, the total amount of shit produced by all factory farms in this country is roughly 87,000 pounds per second.

This constant stream of shit is stored in massive “lagoons” adjacent to the factory farms more or less indefinitely as far as I can tell (I don’t know about you, but “lagoon” is not the first word I would choose to describe an open air sewer the size of a Las Vegas casino). Foer doesn’t describe what is supposed to happen with these tons of shit, possibly because there is no “supposed to,” because no one’s thought it through that far. I did read in a recent National Geographic article that farmers meet the “zero discharge” law that prohibits any nitrogen or phosphorous runoff from animal operations by “collecting pig waste in pits and lagoons until it can be treated or recycled as fertilizer.” They don’t say when they plan to treat it, or why, if they can’t treat it now, they imagine that the task will be easier a few years (and trillions of tons of shit) later.

What Foer does mention (and the National Geographic article does not) is that “When the football field sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up in the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage.” In case anyone is thinking that spraying raw sewage onto a field is the same thing as recycling it for fertilizer, here's a list of substances found in untreated hog feces, (lifted from an eye-opening article by Jeff Tietz of Rolling Stone that should be essential reading for everyone in this country): ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates, heavy metals, salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptococci and giardia. This ain’t your backyard compost.

The problem of pig shit is raised by National Geographic not as an expose on the massive ecological damage done by these factory farms, or the damage to the health and property values of surrounding communities, but rather to celebrate the engineering of a new breed of pig. Essentially, pigs are incapable of processing the type of phosphorous found in corn, which is their primary feed in factory farms because it’s cheap. As a result, high amounts of phosphorous are excreted in their urine and feces, which makes its way into the water supply. Most farmers feed their pigs the supplement phytase, which is supposed to aid in the digestion of phosphorous. However, the enzyme is more effective if it’s created inside the pig itself, so scientists have spent more than a decade searching for an organism in which this enzyme naturally occurs. They finally found it in…drum roll please…the E. coli bacterium. So they injected a piece of the E. coli genome into a microscopic pig embryo to create an “Enviropig” capable of processing the phosphorous produced from corn which pigs weren’t meant to eat in the first place.

Is it just me, or is not eating pigs an easier, cheaper and less icky solution to the problem of massive pig shit pollution?

Another Alternative

An article in the Honolulu Advertiser today talks about aquaculture in Hawaii, and how various environmental groups are opposed to it on the basis that it is harmful to the environment. Aquaculture is another way of saying a fish factory farm, a large number of fish concentrated together in a small area. The concentrated fish population releases huge amounts of excretment into a very small area of the ocean; antibiotic use by the farmed fish is also a concern, both for native fish populations, and for the human consumers of the fish.

Sims, the President of one of the state's fish farmers, is quoted as saying that ocean aquaculture is a solution to overfishing which is depleting global wild fish populations.  He also says, "We are pioneering something that is very hard, but is really necessary."

As I read it I thought, "Why is this so necessary? Isn't there another solution?  Like, maybe, just stop eating fish!"

Mark Fergusson

Teaching Children the Value of Aloha 'Aina

When I was nineteen years old, I dropped out of college, took the subway to the airport, hopped on the first flight to Spain, took a train out to the country and started walking, carrying only a change of clothes and some books I’d been meaning to read.

Two days into my adventure, I found myself at the crest of a hill overlooking a field of olive trees. The earth was a patchwork of red soil and bleached stones. The green olive branches rustled in the wind, and their silver underbellies shone like natures’ tinsel in the white sun. The sky was brilliant blue. The whole, saturated scene took my breath away. There were no people, no cars, no houses, no marks of human civilization for miles, save the olive trees, planted with care in neat, unending, rows. I spent a day walking through that valley. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life.

Everyone asks about the hows and whys of that trip. But I didn’t care then and I can’t drum up much caring now. What I remember is the wind tugging at my heels, the feeling that I could reach up and touch the sun as I walked the plateaus of the Sierra Nevadas, the fields of insistent wildflowers, the buzzing of their besotted companions. In those few months, nature lit a spark in me that had been dead a long time. Everywhere I looked, I saw life. I talked to the trees, to the birds, to the breeze. Every step became a prayer. I was by myself, but I wasn’t alone.

There is a sudden joy that seizes a person in the moment of discovery. This joy is the essence of learning, and it is intimately bound up with love. Where our heart goes, our interest follows close behind. A child might say he has no interest in geometry, but he can draw a perfect five-pointed star around the name of his secret crush. Teachers spend all day fighting the natural instincts of children in order to keep them in the classroom. But, I bet, if you bring them outside, and give them space to breath and move and play, they will fall in love with nature, and then that little spark will blaze up again, and they will give you their attention because they trust you to do something worthwhile with it. And maybe you can show them how to use geometry to plan a garden. Or how apples have perfect five pointed stars inside them.

This has been, as usual, a round about way of getting to the point: school gardens are a brilliant idea, and every school should have one. I was lucky enough to spend three days this month at a conference of local educators who are working in different capacities to integrate gardening and sustainability education into their curriculum. Over sixty teachers, farmers and community organizers from around the state, along with representatives from the Center for Ecoliteracy in California, gathered at Waimea Middle School garden to swap stories, strategies and lesson plans. Some have long established gardens, others are still in the planning stages, but all of them see the need to connect children with the natural world, both for the sake of their mental health, physical health, and the health of our planet. 

Hawaiian cultural studies kumu at Waimea Middle School, Pua Case, reminded us that some day we will be old and gray, and these children will be making decisions for us. Each teacher, each parent, each mentor should ask him or herself, “Have I taught this child well enough? Have I shown them what is special about this place, have I told them the stories of these islands? Do they know enough to make the right decision about which land can be built on, which land can be farmed, and which land must be protected?”

Hawaiian culture revolves around the value of “aloha ‘aina” or love of the land. This love is not a passing sentiment, a summer fling, or a fair weather affair. It’s a deep-seated commitment to the wellbeing of the earth, which sustains us like a parent. Love and interest go hand in hand. The more a child is brought outside to learn, the more opportunity is there for the child to fall in love with the beauty of nature, and to take interest in it, and by exploring more deeply, to fall more deeply in love with the special arc of the hills, the sway of the valleys and gulches, the sound of a timid stream building to a river and the rush of that river towards the ocean. We need this knowledge of the earth, this sense of place, to guide us in our decisions. We need to teach children that the earth is living, and is teeming with and supporting millions of other forms of life, of which we are only one. So we should step carefully, and choose wisely, and be generous with the time and attention we give to Mother Earth and all our siblings.

Asian Plant-Based Diet Can Help Prevent Water Shortage

Photo: Mobile Irrigation System

Water resources are growing scarce in Asia and experts say the primary culprit is changing diet. Increasing adoption of a western meat-based diet requires more than four times the amount of water to produce than tofu and ten times more than rice.

Two additional trends competing for water are Asia's population growth and economic development, which are making it more difficult to meet the demands of an increasingly thirsty land. Surprisingly, the water required to meet these trends is a relatively small amount compared to the water used to raise animals for slaughter. For example, a bowl of rice, tofu and vegetables takes about 570 kilos of water to produce. That same meal with beef instead of tofu takes about 2180 kilos of water. So while population growth may be a problem, clearly the bigger problem is what people choose to eat. A plant-based diet, like the one common in Asia for centuries, is the only sustainable solution.

The authors of a study on the rising consumption of meat write, “Whether it is a good thing is not the issue; it is a phenomenon that will occur.” If the situation isn’t reversed, the Asian Development Bank has predicted that by the year 2030 Asia will lack 40% of the water it needs for food. Some scientists claim that nothing can be done. But governments and social organizations around the world agree they can't give up. Paul Reiter, executive director of the International Water Association, has compared the water crisis to a slow-moving train wreck. He hopes a gathering of 7000 policy makers in September in Busan, South Korea, will provide a platform to discuss water scarcity and solutions. Hopefully, conferees will consider the impact of diet on water supply.

The Asia Foundation says food production uses more water than any other activity. Only 6% of water in Asia is used for drinking, washing and cooking. Another 10% is used in development and industry. Meanwhile, fully 84% of all water withdrawn in Asia each year goes to agriculture. So focusing on food is actually the quickest path to solving the problem of future water supply.

According to the United Nations, it takes about 1500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat, but it takes 10 times more to produce 1kg of beef! Producing feed crops for livestock, slaughtering and the processing of meat, milk and other dairy products also require large quantities of water. On average, meat production requires 2,025 liters of water for every 150 grams, while soybeans take 412 liters and fruit takes only 69 liters of water for the same amount.

Some experts look at the changing habits of 4 billion people in Asia and conclude that the rise in meat consumption cannot be stopped. However, no one is forced to eat meat. What we choose to eat is a decision that each of us makes individually. Each of us has the power within ourselves to make a difference. The good news is that no one has to learn new skills or adopt new habits. All that’s required is sticking with the traditional plant-based Asian diet, where meat is treated as a condiment rather than the main course.

Water shortages are a serious problem around the world. In the U.S. alone, nearly half of all the water used is squandered on animal agriculture. This situation is causing serious water shortages that will need to be addressed before long. At least in Asia a key solution already exists in the form of the traditional Asian plant-based diet.

What we choose to eat is one of the most significant factors in the personal impact we have on the environment and the fastest path to change. The single most important thing that an individual can do for their health and the environment—as well as to ensure future water supply—is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

It's Green to Adopt a Vegetarian Diet

Photo: Green Globe

What we choose to eat is one of the most significant factors in the personal impact we have on the environment and the fastest path to climate change. A recent study examining the impact of a typical week’s eating showed that plant-based diets are better for the environment than those based on meat. A vegan organic diet had the smallest environmental impact while the single most damaging foodstuff was beef. All non-vegetarian diets require significantly greater amounts of environmental resources such as land and water.

It is noteworthy that the United Nations and many leading environmental organizations have recognized that raising animals for food damages the environment more than just about anything else that we do. These include the Union of Concerned Scientists and the WorldWatch Institute; and in the United States the National Audubon Society; and the Sierra Club.

Our meat addiction is poisoning and depleting our water, land, and air. For example, more than half of the water used in the United States today is for animal agriculture. And as farmed animals produce 130 times more excrement than the human population, the run-off from their waste is fouling America’s waterways. Animal excrement emits gases, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, that poison the air around farms, as well as methane and nitrous oxide, which are major contributors to global warming.

In its 2006 report, the United Nations said raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Most of it comes from methane gas generated by manure.

The negative effects of the meat industry are far reaching.

Forests are being bulldozed to make more room for factory farms and feed crops to feed farmed animals, and this destruction causes soil erosion and contributes to species extinction and habitat loss. Raising animals for food also requires massive amounts of food and raw materials: e.g. farmed animals consume 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains grown in the United States. One third of all of the United States’ raw materials and fossil fuels go to raising animals for food. I suspect that the numbers are similar among other meat-eating nations of the world.

Sadly, animals on today’s factory farms are subject to cruel and inhumane treatment including neglect, mutilation, genetic manipulation, subjection to antibiotics and growth hormones, and gruesome and violent slaughter.

  1. Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettemanti, M. and Berati, M. 2006. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1-8.
  2. Livestock a major threat to environment,” United Nations FAO Newsroom, Nov. 29, 2006: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html