Nature and Environment

Because at 160,000 years, the party is just getting started.


3/21/2014

Running a rubbish removal company in London brings me into contact with all sorts of people who have noble ideas with regards to the best methods to use to encourage recycling. The large majority of these proposals aim to extol the benefits of increasing the levels of environmental awareness in local areas whilst also improving hard infrastructure. My company, JunkWize, agrees with them to a certain extent.

Recycling Education and Infrastructure

Education clearly has an important role to play. It’s obvious that if we can educate the younger generation about the impact their actions can have on their surroundings, then they will be more likely to care about those same surroundings in the future. Over the last few years in London this kind of education has really grown in both scale and scope. As such, it’s now not uncommon to see groups of schoolchildren being supervised whilst they cheerily pick up litter and remove old bikes and trolleys from city streams.  

It’s also clear that public infrastructure must also be up to the job if we are to witness recycling rates increase. It’s of no use for councils to spend thousands on telling people why they should recycle their junk at rubbish tips, if those same tips are so small that tiresome traffic jams are always present outside them. Equally, if there are simply not enough bins then the results will be inevitable.

Financial Incentives for Recycling

On the subject of financial incentives for recycling, though, we differ greatly. Where environmental groups claim them to be a costly and unnecessary form of expenditure, we see them as the only realistic option available which actually produces the desired effect.

The effect money has on ingrained habits is remarkable. For instance, in London the price of property has reached unbelievable high levels, with rises of more than 10% in less than a year in numerous boroughs in the South West of the city. Indeed, many are saying that a property bubble is in the making and that only bad news rests on the horizon. However, my team have seen that as the value of land per square meter increases, that people become keener to keep it clutter free so they can maximise their financial income from it.

This has resulted in us being called out to clear and recycle rubbish from gardens so that people can build extensions and erect garden offices. Landlords are now also keen to remove their detritus from attics and basements so that they can be converted into further accommodation. In both cases the amount of this kind of stuff that can be recycled is enormous and – because a financial incentive exists – we are able to do just that.

Doing the Right Thing

Recycling is perceived to be an in intrinsically decent thing to do and the marketing departments of businesses have certainly noticed this. Just think about the number of car adverts that you have seen recently where manufacturers wax lyrical about their environmental credentials. Linked to this is the growth of a sense of corporate social responsibility and this leads to increased recycling. We know this is a fact because we have in the past been drafted in to work specifically so that companies can claim to use a sustainable rubbish collection provider.

In Britain perhaps the most apparent and financially enticing recycling scheme in recent years was the ‘scrappage scheme’. If people scrapped a car more than 10 years old when they bought a new one then they received £2,000. This had an unexpectedly big impact and it is now thought that it resulted in 330,000 cars being recycled properly. It is thought that if the scheme was not in place then most of these would have just been dumped or left to rot.

Germany and Switzerland both seem to have realized that money can take recycling levels to the next level. In both countries it is common practice for people to be financially rewarded for recycling things as mundane as fizzy drinks cans!

The point is that people are more willing to recycle if they are being paid to do so.



3/20/2014

wheat roots

I have recently written about wheat’s many excellent properties, both as a crop and as a food. (See the April-May and February-March issues of Mother Earth News and my blog posts on the “Great Gluten Panic” and wheat diseases.) Now it’s time to reverse field and mention wheat’s biggest deficiency: it’s an annual plant.

The world's natural landscapes are covered mostly by perennial plants growing in long-lived mixed stands, whereas more than two-thirds of global cropland is sown to monocultures of annual crops that require soil disturbance and re-sowing every year (with wheat prominent among the latter). The conversion from perennial to annual plant cover has dramatically altered the soil’s ecological health. Perennial plants are highly efficient and responsive micromanagers of soil, nutrients, and water, while annual crops such as wheat are not.

With shorter growing seasons and ephemeral, often small root systems, annuals provide less protection against soil erosion, waste water and nutrients, and store less carbon in the soil. In a field experiment in Missouri encompassing 100 years of data collection, perennial crops were more than fifty times more effective than annual crops in maintaining topsoil.

So-called “no-till” methods (in which annual crops are farmed with little or no tillage) reduce soil loss but require heavy chemical inputs and can actually increase nitrate pollution of water resources. (Nitrogen losses from annual crops may be 30 to 50 times higher than those from perennial crops.) Meanwhile, organic farming with wheat or other annuals addresses the problem of chemical contamination, but usually requires as much or more soil-wrecking tillage than does conventional agriculture. And the inadequate root systems of annual species handle water and nutrients inefficiently even when crops are grown organically.

Given these problems, interest in breeding a perennial version of wheat is once again on the rise. Hybrids between wheat and related grass species, once sown, can re-emerge each season without further sowing, as do pasture grasses. The idea dates back to the early twentieth century, when breeders found that they could do in their nurseries something that nature had done many times during the evolution of wheat and its many relatives: hybridize different species and double the chromosome number of the hybrid to produce what is in effect a new, fertile species.

This is a process similar to the one through which the highly successful feed- and food-grain called triticale was developed. But triticale, like its parents durum wheat and rye, is annual and must start from seed each year. In contrast, hybridization of an annual wheat variety with perennial grasses belonging to the related genus Thinopyrum (no GMOs needed!) can produce perennial plants. They have wheat's grain-producing ability along with the perenniality that's characteristic of Thinopyrum. And growing perennial wheat would help reduce soil erosion, maintain soil cover, and cut back on fossil-fuel and chemical inputs.

A few perennial wheats were developed in the past, including a grain-forage type called ‘MT-2’ released by Montana State University in the 1980s. Washington State University has worked on perennial wheat since the 1990s, as has The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (TLI, where I work as a perennial sorghum breeder) since 2001. But perennial wheats developed to date have had problems with sparse seed-set, low productivity, and spotty post-harvest survival. Populations currently in experimental plots are much better than the older ones but still not farm-ready, and more breeding will be required. TLI's perennial wheat breeder/geneticist, Shuwen Wang, says his goal is to identify perennial plants that have the right balance between numbers of chromosomes from the annual and perennial parents, then interpollinate such plants and select perennial, genetically stable plants with better seed production. Stay tuned.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).



3/19/2014

Drip, drip, drip … do you have a leak? The average household’s leaks can account for more than 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year – enough to wash 270 loads of laundry. Nationwide, household leaks can waste over 1 trillion gallons in a year. That’s equal to the annual household water use of more than 11 million homes!

Viewer Tip: During Fix a Leak Week, March 17-23, 2014, the U.S. EPA’s WaterSense program encourages you to chase down leaks at home and fix them to save water and money. Fixing household water leaks can save homeowners about 10 percent on their water bills.

Check, twist and replace to stop leaks in their tracks:

Check your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter changes at all, you probably have a leak. 

Check for silent leaks in the toilet by dropping a few drops of food coloring in the tank and seeing if the color shows up in the bowl after 10 minutes.

Check your sprinkler system, if you have one, for any winter damage.

Twist faucet valves, tighten pipe connections and secure outdoor hoses to spigots.

Still leaking? Replace old plumbing fixtures and irrigation controllers that are wasting water. Look for WaterSense labeled models, which are 20 percent more efficient than average products and perform just as well.

Need help fixing a leak? This how-to guide will get you started.

See what’s going on near you: Check out the Earth Gauge map of Fix a Leak Week events.

fix a leak



3/18/2014

palm plantationPick up the nearest consumer product lying around and take a look at its ingredients. Chances are somewhere on that list you’ll find palm oil or palm kernel oil. That’s because as the worlds most widely used vegetable oil, palm oil finds its way into a staggering number of consumables. However, our demand for palm oil has a devastating effect on the local ecosystems in which it is harvested and contributes to global warming. In fact, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, tropical deforestation alone causes 10 percent of all global carbon emissions.

Here’s the long and short of it. As it stands, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil has set standards to try and make palm oil production more sustainable, however these standards fall short. Many oil producers are still using techniques that cause deforestation, peat land destruction and the release of drastic amounts of carbon emissions. One such technique is the draining of peat lands to make way for palm plantations. Once the land is dry, the carbon-rich peat is exposed to oxygen causing it to decompose and release its stored carbon into the atmosphere; but the carbon emissions don’t stop there. After the land is dried, the carbon-laden peat is burned off, releasing even more carbon in a process that can take up to a few months!

The effects of current palm-harvesting practices aren’t limited to the environment. The health of those who live in the region is also at risk. With the smoke from peat-fires invading nearby towns and villages, these regions have seen a rise in respiratory problems. In many of the regions where palm is harvested for oil, workers receive low wages, often have poor working conditions, or are forced into labor. The region’s lax laws on child labor also invite abuse. These practices have proved devastating to local wildlife, such as the Sumatran Orangutan.

However, all is not lost. Palm oil and palm kernel oil can be produced in an environmentally friendly fashion. In fact, many companies are now reforming the way that they work with palm oil. Brands like Nestle, Unilever and L’Oréal, as well as Golden-Agri Resources (the second largest palm oil producer) and Wilmar International (the largest palm oil trader) have already made commitments to be more transparent with their palm oil sourcing and to only do business with those who harvest in a sustainable way and treat employees ethically. Curious to see how your favorite brands hold up? Check out the Union of Concerned Scientist’s palm oil scorecard, or send a message to those companies still using harmful harvesting methods and voice your concern.

Photo by Foto 76/Fotolia



3/14/2014

wheat rustIn the April-May and February-March issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I discuss some aspects of growing your own wheat: variety selection, growing methods, and processing of the harvest. One of the more important considerations in deciding which kind of seed to plant is the variation among wheat varieties in their reaction to fungi, bacteria, and viruses that can cause disease.

Wheat is plagued by a wider assortment of diseases than are most other grain crops. (North Dakota State University provides a good photographic compendium of wheat diseases.) The particular array of microbial threats varies from region to region and year to year, but few places escape completely. And when severe, diseases can wreck both the yield and the quality of harvested grain. Over the past century, wheat breeders have put at least as much effort into selecting for naturally-occurring genetic resistance to disease (no GMOs needed!) as they have into breeding for higher yield. In general, recently-developed varieties tend to have better resistance than do older ones; however, that is not always true, and almost every variety has one or more Achilles heels.

The risk-averse should simply avoid varieties that are especially susceptible to diseases that often strike wheat in their area. Many wheat growers plant a blend of two or more varieties. The logic of blending is that a mixture is more well-buffered against weather, diseases, and insects: when one variety has a bad year, others may take up the slack. But varieties included in the blend should be either all winter or all spring types with similar heights and harvest dates.

Guides to varieties, with disease-resistance ratings, are available for Eastern soft wheats, Great Plains hard winter wheats, and Northern hard red spring wheats, and there's also a guide for growing variety blends.

For wheat growers, it's a truism: Sow varieties that are resistant to prevalent diseases. But what if the wheat plant has to give up something for its resistance, so that it is less productive or its grain makes poorer bread? Would the resistance then be worth it?

Those are not questions that can be answered without controlled experiments. Simple observation can be deceptive. Close your eyes and think of any two wheat varieties; they will very likely differ in their geographical adaptation, yield potential, and reaction to the huge range diseases that infect wheat. If, for example, you happen to compare a specific rust-resistant variety with a susceptible variety, the resistant one might yield less or make poorer-quality bread than the susceptible one in a year without rust. (Depending on which ones you've picked, it could also yield more or make better bread.) However, that does not mean that resistance causes lower yield or quality. The two varieties differ not only in that rust gene, but also carry contrasting genes throughout their genomes. Any of those genetic differences could contribute to a difference in performance.

Field Experiments

Over the years, controlled field experiments in wheat and other crop species — all of them designed to answer the question, “Does the plant pay a price for resistance?”—have provided us with a clear answer: “Flip a coin.” A survey of these comparative studies, published in the 1990s, found that in exactly 44 out of 88 cases covering a wide range of species and genes, resistant plants were less productive than susceptible ones in the absence of the relevant disease, insect, or herbicide. In the other 44 cases, there was no difference or, rarely, the resistant plants were more productive. The results of studies done since that time have continued to give widely varying answers to the questions of whether there's a yield effect and if so, how big it is.

In wheat as in other crops, some resistance genes reduce yield or quality while others do not. Many of wheat's genes for resistance have been transferred from related species. In the process, long stretches of DNA extending to either side of the resistance gene came along for the ride. Once in a wheat variety, some of those hitchhiking genes may affect other traits even if the resistance gene itself is benign. This has happened in the past with a chromosome segment from Aegilops umbellulata carrying the Lr9 gene for leaf-rust resistance; it depressed yield by 5 to 14 percent. There are other genes such as Fhb1, which protects against Fusarium head blight, that appear to have brought no yield- or quality-reducing hitchhikers with them. Then there's a chromosome segment transferred from rye that carries genes for leaf, stem, and stripe rust resistance; it has had a positive effect on productivity but a negative impact on quality.

Sometimes the resistance gene itself appears to have a direct impact. The Lr34 gene, which confers adult-plant resistance to leaf rust, originated within common wheat, but its yield-depressing effect is well known. But whether a yield reduction is caused directly by a resistance gene or indirectly by its bad neighbors, it is crucial to remember that these negative yield impacts have all been measured when there is no disease present. To the wheat grower, such an effect may be less important than the impact of the disease when it does strike.

For example, Lr34 reduces yield of spring wheat by about 6 percent if there is no leaf rust infection. But when leaf rust infects the plant, it can cause 43 to 84 percent yield losses in varieties that are not protected by Lr34 or other genes. At Kansas State University in the 1990s, my colleagues and I found that a leaf-rust gene transferred into wheat from the wild grass Ae. tauschii provided a 42 percent yield advantage under heavy leaf rust, while it had no yield-depressing effect when leaf rust was absent. And when fungi, bacteria, or viruses infect a wheat plant, they can decimate the bread-making or nutritional quality of the harvested grain. The rust diseases, for example, result in shriveled seed with poor gluten, while Fusarium head blight (a.k.a. “scab”) produces a dangerous toxin.

You never know at planting time which diseases will be the biggest threats over the coming season, but for diseases that are locally common, the possibility that a gene may have a modest negative effect on yield or quality in the absence of disease is probably less important than the risk of taking a much bigger hit to yield and quality that comes with sowing a susceptible variety.

And finally, there's no need to worry about at least one thing: wheat breeding for disease resistance has not made wheat's gluten proteins hazardous to your health.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author most recently ofAny Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).



3/12/2014

When rain falls, some of the water ends up in lakes and rivers, some is used by plants, some evaporates back into the atmosphere, and some seeps through the ground into aquifers – large, natural underground water storage areas.  This groundwater provides more than 40 percent of the U.S. population with drinking water.  Not only does groundwater quench our thirst, but it is also important in protecting water quality and quantity in surface rivers and streams – during drier times, these waters are derived almost completely from groundwater supplies.  In coastal areas, pumping too much water from aquifers can increase the amount of salt water entering groundwater supplies, sometimes making it undrinkable.

Viewer Tip: March 9-15, 2014 is National Groundwater Awareness Week.  One of the easiest ways to protect groundwater supplies is to save water at home.  Try these simple tips to save 30 gallons in one day:

Save 5 gallons: Shorten your shower by just two minutes.

Save 5 gallons: Turn water off between rinsing dishes, rather than running water continuously.

Save at least 20 gallons: Water your lawn and garden in the early morning or evening hours, when the weather is cooler and water is less likely to evaporate.

(Source: National Groundwater Association. “National Groundwater Awareness Week; The 40 Gallon Challenge)



3/11/2014

Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design Issues Request for Proposals for Rural Communities Facing Design Challenges 

Washington, DC—The Citizens' Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) has issued a request for proposals to rural communities facing design challenges - such as Main Street revitalization, how to manage and direct growth, design community-supportive transportation systems, preserve natural and historic landscapes and buildings, protect working agricultural lands, and provide adequate and affordable housing - who are interested in hosting a local workshop in 2014-2015. Successful applicants will receive a $7,000 stipend and in-kind professional design expertise and technical assistance valued at $35,000. The Request for Proposals is posted on the CIRD website.
 
The deadline for submitting a proposal is Tuesday May 6, 2014 at 9:00 pm EST 
 
CIRD works to help rural communities with populations of 50,000 or fewer enhance their quality of life and economic vitality through facilitated design workshops. CIRD brings local leaders, non-profits, and community organizations together with experts in planning, design, preservation and placemaking – all in an effort to help communities address pressing design challenges and to put design tools into the hands of the people who can create local change. CIRD does this by offering an opportunity for four rural communities to host local design workshops, and by offering free public webinars, conference calls, and a resource-rich website to practitioners and community leaders across the country. Since the program's inception in 1991, CIRD has convened 70 workshops in all regions of the country with results that range from strengthened local economies, enhanced rural character, the leveraging of cultural assets, and design of new housing and transportation systems. 
  
Each community selected to participate in the Institute will receive $7,000 to support planning and hosting a two and a half day workshop. Communities are required to provide $7,000 in matching funds (cash or in-kind services). CIRD will work with community leaders to assemble teams of specialists most qualified to address the community’s identified design challenges. The workshops will be augmented with conference calls and capacity-building webinar presentations led by professionals who will discuss a range of rural design topics. All calls are also offered free to the general public through CommunityMatters, a program of the Orton Family Foundation. 
 
The CIRD website is a portal to resources on many aspects of rural design gathered from diverse organizations across the country including information on past CIRD workshops. It is a place for citizens and practitioners alike to get information about improving their own communities. Read more about last year’s workshops here
 
Find the RFP and application guidelines here. Selected communities will be announced in June 2014, and workshops will be held during the fall of 2014 and first quarter of 2015. 
 
CIRD will offer two pre-application assistance conference calls to answer questions and guide interested applicants in assembling their proposals. The first of these calls is scheduled for Tuesday, April 2, and the second call will take place on Thursday, April 24. Both calls will begin at 3:00 pm EST and last approximately one hour. Participation in each call is free but registration is required. Go here to register.
 
The Citizens’ Institute on Rural DesignTM is a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Project for Public Spaces, Inc., along with the Orton Family Foundation and the CommunityMatters Partnership. 

***** 

The National Endowment for the Arts, established by Congress in 1965, is an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. Join the discussion on how art works. Visit the NEA to learn more.

USDA Rural Development administers and manages housing, business and community infrastructure programs through a national network of state and local offices. Rural Development has an active portfolio of more than $176 billion in loans and loan guarantees. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America. Visit the USDA website here.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Founded in 1975, PPS has completed projects in over 2,500 communities and all 50 US states. PPS has become an internationally recognized center for resources, tools, and inspiration about Placemaking; check out their website.

The Orton Family Foundation seeks to empower people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately strengthening the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of each place. The Foundation's Heart & Soul approach supports citizens in steering their towns’ future by discovering the characteristics and attributes valued most by residents and, then, by placing those shared values at the center of future decisions. Visit the Orton Family Foundation
 
CommunityMatters® is a program of the Orton Family Foundation that equips cities and towns to strengthen their places and inspire change. Together, the CommunityMatters partnership, conference calls and other projects fuel a growing network of leaders, thinkers and doers in a variety of disciplines. The CommunityMatters partnership is driven by seven national organizations with the common goal of building strong communities through the improvement of local civic infrastructure. The partners are: Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Grassroots Grantmakers, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, New America Foundation, Orton Family Foundation, Project for Public Spaces, and Strong Towns. Visit their website here.

This press release is presented without editing for your information. To learn more go to www.rural-design.org.












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