Getting Back to Our Roots

Photo: Volunteer Works at Hooulu Aina

Living in Honolulu, it’s so easy for me to forget that I live on land that is still very much alive. This past December, a group of thirteen Down to Earth team members (including myself) dedicated some time to volunteer at a special place tucked deep in Kalihi Valley. Ho’oulu ‘Aina is a beautiful nature preserve and organic community garden -- if you haven’t been there, it’s truly breathtaking! Every Thursday, Ho’oulu ‘Aina invites the public to their Growing Farmers community workday from 9:30am to 12:00pm. Check out their website for more info at The amazing work they do is a true testament to the power of community coming together to heal the land and its people.

We were all mesmerized by the lush green around us, and by the outgoing and passionate staff there. Our guide Jessica welcomed all of us with her warm heart and enthusiasm for healing the ‘aina. Jessica shared traditional organic farming techniques handed down from our ancestors and elders. Our team spent the day mulching and creating new garden beds.

There is something very special about the energy of Ho’oulu ‘Aina -- despite being tired and muddy, we all had huge smiles on our faces at the end of the day. Adding to the experience was the chance to harvest fresh kale, wing beans, chard, and turmeric for our lunch. Some of our team members joined with folks from Ho’oulu ‘Aina in preparing a beautiful lunch for everyone on the farm. Spending the time to malama the land, and cooking together as a community was a wonderful way, albeit a small one, to help make positive change in Hawai‘i.  You can too! 

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.

Your Health and the Environment

Photo: Cows Standing in a Pasture

What we eat can cause or worsen diet-related illnesses and thus has a significant impact on our quality of life.

Virtually all the major scientific and medical institutions in the world agree that the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, obesity, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cancer, and diabetes, among other diseases is linked to a meat-based diet consisting of highly processed foods laden with fats and artificial ingredients. These institutions further agree that the risk is greatly reduced by adopting a healthy low-fat, high-fiber diet.

So what is the prescription for a healthier body, both now and in the future? Simple. Eat less meat, or even better give it up completely, as meat has all too often been blamed for the above mentioned diet-related illnesses, and replace it with an all-vegetarian diet. This makes sense for a number of reasons.

At the most basic level, meat, fish, and eggs have high cholesterol. Their wide-scale consumption has contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of premature deaths from heart disease, strokes and cancer; and meat-based diets contribute to a host of other health-related problems.

In contrast, a plant-based diet is generally low in fat, including saturated fat, which can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease. Flesh foods, on the other hand, are high in saturated fat, which is the biggest contributor to blood clotting, which can result in heart disease and stroke.

And, plant-based proteins have zero cholesterol. High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease. Meat is high in LDL (bad cholesterol) and the more LDL you have in your bloodstream, the more likely plaque (atherosclerosis) will form in your arteries.

A meat-based diet is an extremely wasteful use of the earth's limited resources, as it requires many times more resources to create a pound of animal flesh than a pound of vegetarian foods. Whether it's unchecked air or water pollution, soil erosion, or the overuse of resources, raising animals for food is wreaking havoc on the Earth.

And finally, from an ethical point of view, eating animals causes extreme pain and suffering to billions of innocent creatures. Given the suffering these animals endure, and given that all our nutritional needs can easily be satisfied without eating these animals, vegetarianism is morally required. The fact is that eating animals is unnecessary because nature has provided ample vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and dairy products for human sustenance. Therefore, the slaughter of animals for food is a luxury rather than a necessity and is morally wrong

The single most important thing you can do for your health, the environment, and the innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

"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

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

Mark Fergusson

Electric cars, are they the best way to reduce greenhouse gases?

Front page news today in the Honolulu Advertiser is that "a private company that state officials hope will put Hawaii on the road to the widespread use of electric vehicles expects to begin installing infrastructure here in about six months."

The company plans to install "between 20,000 - 30,000 recharging stations that can be used by electric vehicles in homes, office buildings, parking lots and public and private facilities."

The recharging stations will use energy from the electric grid, currently produced from fossil fuels, to recharge car batteries. It is hoped that in the future the electricity used to recharge the vehicles will come from clean energy such as solar, wind, and ocean power.

However, given Hawaii's unfavorable attitude towards business (note the irony that the Honolulu Advertiser article shares space with news of Superferry abandoning the ferries) maybe these clean energy projects won't get off the ground. We could end up with the illusion of green power, i.e. we could have electric vehicles powered by fossil fuel electricity sources.

In addition to this, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, the cost of electric vehicles is prohibitively high and will require large government subsidies to make it economical for the already ailing auto manufacturers to make them. In other words, the switch to electric and hybrid vehicles is going to be very very expensive.

There is a big contradiction here. Individuals and governments are prepared to spend large amounts of money in an effort to reduce their environmental footprint, yet the things they spend the money on will actually only have a small impact on greenhouse gasses and global warming. In contrast, adopting a plant based vegetarian diet will have a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gases, yet the government is not prepared to come out and do anything about it. In fact they do just the opposite by supporting the meat industry through huge (mega $billions) grain and other subsidies.

The following article from the United Nations News Center explains the environmental impact that the meat industry has on the release of global warming greenhouse gases:

"29 November 2006 – Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation, and smarter production methods, including improved animal diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, are urgently needed, according to a new United Nations report released today.

“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld said. “Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

"Cattle-rearing is also a major source of land and water degradation, according to the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow–Environmental Issues and Options, of which Mr. Steinfeld is the senior author.

“The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level,” it warns.

"When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

"And it accounts for respectively 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

"With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year, the report notes. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes."

Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns.

If you are concerned about the environment, and want to participate in reducing the impact of global warming, please consider that adopting a vegetarian diet is the single most important thing you can do to reduce global warming. If you are not vegetarian then all your efforts to reduce your impact on the environment are more or less window dressing, they look good but don't accomplish much.

Thanks for reading.

Mark Fergusson

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:

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.

Make a Difference this Earth Day!

Although Earth Day is officially April 22nd, Down to Earth will be celebrating it on Sunday April 27th with a special day of fun and music. Proceeds from tickets sold will go towards supporting an awesome new sustainability charter school in Kaimuki, the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability (SEEQS). Here's a great opportunity to support a worthwhile cause and have fun doing it! Learn more about Down to Earth's Earth Day Celebration

We’re so excited about this partnership event that we want to give away two FREE tickets on our social media to two lucky winners! The contest is simple: Share our post on Facebook and Instagram (@downtoearthhi). . The person to get the most likes on their shared Facebook post wins 2 FREE Tickets. Whoever tags us on Instagram #SEEQSDTE and gets the most likes, will also win 2 FREE tickets!

Although we discuss SEEQS in some detail in this month's feature article, I'd like to elaborate a little bit.

Several weeks ago, I had the awesome opportunity to meet and speak with SEEQS founder, Buffy Cushman-Patz. A recent grad from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Buffy has been a school principal, has taught math and science in public, charter, and independent schools across Hawaii, and has led math and science workshops for teachers in South Africa. She’s an amazing woman with a passion for making a difference in education by encouraging students to take ownership for their own learning and helping them to expand their awareness of the world around them. For Buffy, “Raising a new generation with a deep understanding on how to treat and respect our planet is critical."

Photo: Lettuce Growing in Raised Beds

As Buffy and I chatted, it didn’t take long for us to realize our vision for helping others to respect the land, or ‘aina, was completely aligned. Earth Day has always been one of Down to Earth’s favorite times of year as it gives us an opportunity to celebrate our passion and appreciation for the ‘aina (earth, land). In addition to our devotion to sustainability through a commitment to organic and natural foods, we also support sustainability efforts in our local community. It was easy to see this would be the perfect partnership.

We hope you’ll join us on Sunday April 27th at Hawaiian Brian’s to help raise funds for SEEQS mission. You can attend the all-day event or any portion of the day, which includes yoga, zumba, keiki fun: face-painting and mini-cooking class, music performances by Mike Love and Ooklah The Moc, and healthy organic food from Life Foods, Inc. It’s going to be a blast!

We are so honored to align ourselves with a community organization that is concerned about our environment and wants to help make a better tomorrow with a lighter footprint.

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.