Nature and Environment

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

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11/17/2014

The following are blog posts that I’ve written that provide information and links related to energy, power, fuel, and/or climate change—with a strong focus on solutions.

These posts are the most directly related to such topics:

And these posts are also related to energy and climate issues, in ways that might be less obvious but are equally important:

In the future, I will also be writing posts on fossil fuel divestment and renewable energy investment; local, distributed power (including zero-down solar loans, and local renewable electricity utilities); reforestation and carbon sequestration initiatives; and other important efforts to slow the progression (and mitigate the severity) of climate change.

Here are a few other online resources for information about climate change and climate solutions:

Photo from SolSolutions.

Miriam Landman is an accomplished writer, editor, and sustainability advisor with expertise in green living, green operations, and green building. For daily links to sustainable solutions and success stories, connect to her Facebook page for The Green Spotlight.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


11/14/2014

Whether you’re planning a last minute day trip or multi-week expedition, these five hiking tips are a must for seasoned hikers and newcomers alike.

1. Know your personal abilities.

Before any trip, whether it be big or small, it is important to assess and understand your abilities. How strong are you physically? What sort of distances have you covered on previous trips and how did your body respond? Does your body handle well in extreme temperatures, hot or cold? Do you have any existing medical conditions or allergies? How confident are you in first aid and emergency treatment? If you are planning to travel in a group it is important also to know and understand each members ability levels as well.

2. Know your gear.

Whether you chose to carry an ultra-light, minimalist, kit or an eighty pound, “everything plus the kitchen sink” pack, matters very little. What is important, is that you know how to use what’s in your pack effectively. If you do not understand the role that each piece of gear you carry serves, than you will not be able to rely on it when needed. Furthermore, if you do not know how to use the gear, and have not used it before (at least in some form of trial scenarios), you may find that in your moment of need you are unable to operate it effectively. For instance, a free-standing, fully enclosed tent, certainly provides more protection from the elements than a simple tarp, but both need to be pitched and pitched correctly. Practice operating stoves and pitching your shelter in the dark. Keep your gear organized and have a consistent system so that if and when you need something, you can locate it within your pack effectively under any and all conditions.

3. Plan ahead.

What is the weather forecast during your trip? How many miles do you plan to cover? How many miles per day? How many days of food will this require? Will you need to resupply at some point during your trip? How? Knowing your personal abilities and your gear will allow you to cover your bases and plan a successful trip, as well as to identify potential issues that may arise and prepare yourself with a few contingency plans. Any hiking or backpacking trip carries a certain level of risk with it. It is therefore important to know and understand not only what your “best case scenario” plan of action is, but also what you will do if things do not work in your favor. Identifying nearby access points along your intended route is relatively simple, but should a situation arise, you’ll thank yourself.

4. Know how to navigate appropriately.

Your navigational needs, and therefor abilities, will vary based on the type of trip you have planned. Most trips will not necessitate advanced orienteering knowledge, though certain trips certainly could. At a minimum all hikers should understand the basics. Simply internalizing that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as well as some basic astrological features will do you wonders. From there, make it second nature to constantly assess your direction of travel as well as where major and distinct terrain features lie in relation to your path. Knowing, for instance, that you are headed East, on relatively level terrain, and that you crossed a stream approximately a mile ago that was flowing north/south, will help pinpoint your location should the need arise.

5. Bring a sense of humor.

If you chose to spend time in the great outdoors it must be accepted that all conditions can and will change and accidents can certainly happen. Bad weather, difficult terrain, injury, and even simple fatigue or hunger are all part of the experience. Your laugh, even potentially at your own mistakes, will often be your strongest ally in overcoming difficult conditions. Stay positive, keep an open mind, and most importantly, have fun!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



11/7/2014

Seeds Sprouting from Dirt 

Everything starts with seeds.  Whether you’re an organic farmer looking for seeds that will work with your specific organic growing practices or looking for wheat varieties adapted to your specific growing climate, seeds are the foundation of every piece of food we put on our plate and central to everything crop farmers do.

The continued growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and local, healthy food systems across the country – along with farmers’ ability to meet the challenges of climate change and food security – depends on this critical first building block.

That’s why NSAC is very excited about a much-anticipated analysis of the state of our country’s plant and animal breeding infrastructure and seed supply that was released today, marking the first such analysis in over ten years.  The proceedings from the Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture were published today by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a farmer-based non-profit organization based in Pittsboro, NC and an NSAC member group.

In the proceedings, RAFI and other key stakeholders within the agricultural research community express their increased concerns about farmers’ limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country’s agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development (i.e. developing new crop varieties for the public good that can continue to be shared and improved by farmers and researchers), and how these trends are impacting farmers’ abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

There has been a steady decline in our nation’s public investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities.  Over the past 20 years alone, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs.  This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.

For example, farmers in many regions of the country currently rely on seeds that were bred for other regions of the country or that no longer meet changing climatic growing conditions and pest and disease pressures.  Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage and struggle to meet the future challenges related to climate change and food security, and less able to take advantage of economic opportunities within the value-added, artisanal, organic, and local and regional food markets.

Key Findings On Our Seed Supply

The report released today outlines seven major challenges that have contributed to the decline in the supply of publicly available and regionally adapted seed varieties and animal breeds.  Click here for a downloadable PDF of the key findings.  These key findings include:

Shrinking Public Funding For Developing Better Seeds – Federal funding has been the lifeblood of public breeding programs that develop new, improved seed varieties and animal breeds, but funding has declined steeply.  This has decimated breeding infrastructure and capacity at our academic research institutions, meaning we have fewer people actually doing the research to develop new publicly available varieties that farmers can use.

Fewer Seeds Means Less Biodiversity And Resiliency – As fewer crop varieties are developed and offered by commercial seed companies, farmers have been left with fewer seed choices.  Fewer seed varieties in the public marketplace translates into less biodiversity on our nation’s farms.  This makes our entire food production system more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate change – and means farmers struggle to access the best-adapted seeds for different regions.

Concentrated Seed Ownership Limits Farmer And Consumer Choice – A handful of giant chemical companies control more and more of our nation’s seed stocks (“germplasm collections”) and breeding infrastructure – and, in turn, controls our current and future seed supply.  They focus on seeds they can sell the most of, big acreage commodities such as soybeans, and neglect crops with a smaller market like small grains, fruits and vegetables, organic crops, cover crops, and regionally adapted grain and oilseed varieties of major commodities.  Three firms now control over more than half of the global seed market, up from 22 percent in 1996.

Restrictive Patents Prevent Seed Sharing And Strip Farmers Of Control – Big seed companies use restrictive patents and licensing agreements to restrict the use of the seeds they develop.  This means farmers often can’t save or share their own seeds with other farmers, and even other plant breeders have trouble improving seeds bred by others.  This means farmers and researchers have fewer choices for the seeds they can use, share, and improve.

Almost No Public Seed Developers Are Left – The number of professionals who develop seeds and breeds – public breeders – continues to decline, and universities and public institutions are losing ground on training future professionals who will be needed to address the needs of the next generation of American farmers and ranchers.  For example, there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s.

Few Regional Partnerships – There is a need for new and innovative partnerships to address more regionalized and farmer-driven approaches to developing new varieties that meet the needs of farmers in responding to growing markets and challenges.

Aging Seed Storage Systems Mean The Loss Of Public Seed ‘Brain Trust’ Forever – Our country’s public seed stocks are stored in “germplasm collections” that have been critically under-funded and under-staffed, forcing triage decision-making regarding which seeds will be kept up to date and viable for planting.  Every seed we fail to preserve represents a loss of that genetic diversity forever, and this diversity may hold the answer to future challenges the next generation of farmers will face.

Next Steps for Action

In response to these mounting challenges, the proceedings put forth the following key recommendations for action in order to revitalize public breeding programs and begin to make progress in getting new varieties out to farmers.  These recommendations are also available as a downloadable PDF.

National Plan to Restore Funding and Capacity – Develop a comprehensive national plan to restore funding and institutional capacity and support for public breeding programs at our nation’s land grant institutions.

Encourage Biodiversity for Resilience – Address the vulnerability of our agricultural systems by encouraging and rewarding agro-biodiversity on farms and in our commercial seed choices, in order to increase resilience against shifting and unpredictable climatic conditions and ensure farmers can choose well-adapted seeds.

Increase Seed Availability for Farmer Choice – Empower farmers to save and share their seeds, encourage the development of more independent regional seed companies who can help farmers respond to local and regional market demand and climate conditions, and address the negative impacts of consolidation and concentration in the ownership of seeds, including the enforcement of antitrust laws.

Reform Patent and Licensing Laws – Increase farmer and researcher access to and innovation in the development of improved varieties, and take steps to reverse the negative impacts of utility patents and restrictive licenses.

Expand the Number of Current and Future Breeders – Increase the number of public breeders in each U.S. climatic region with a focus on renewed institutional capacity to support the next generation of public plant breeders.

Create Innovative Partnerships to Spur Innovation – Develop new partnerships and models to address more regionalized and participatory approaches that more deeply involve farmers in the breeding process.

Democratize Access to Seeds for Public Benefit – Strengthen our country’s seed storage systems (public germplasm collection and storage) by revitalizing long-term funding to protect this critical ‘brain trust’ of seeds and increasing germplasm access and sharing at both the national and international level.

Increase Public Awareness of the Importance of Seeds – Develop a national campaign to educate the public and policymakers on the values and benefits of public plant breeding and linkages to climate change, dangers of genetic uniformity, role of public investments, demands for nutritious and local foods, and the need for regionally adapted seeds.

Seeds and Breeds 2014 Summit

Summit Background

The proceedings released today capture the discussion from a two-day summit held in Washington, DC in March 2014.  The summit brought together over 35 breeders, researchers, farmers, academics, and representatives of germplasm banks and non-profit organizations to discuss the state of our nation’s seed supply and develop recommendations for reinvigorating public breeding research and increasing seed availability in the country.

“The challenges we face in our U.S. and global food systems urgently require us to shift our focus toward building greater resilience into our agricultural systems,” says Michael Sligh, the Just Foods Program Director with the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  “Our current systems are too genetically uniform and have far too short cropping rotations – thus leaving our agricultural systems very vulnerable.”

The proceedings include eight scientific papers authored by well-known breeders and researchers in the field, including Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder with the University of Wisconsin; Major Goodman, a corn breeder with North Carolina State University; Michael Mazourek, a vegetable breeder with Cornell University; David Ellis, the head of the Genebank Unit at the International Potato Center in Peru; and Charles Brummer, the Senior Vice President Director of Forage Improvement at the Noble Foundation.

The former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, also presented a paper discussing the unique opportunities for galvanizing public and political support for this issue.

NSAC and RAFI are both members of the Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture Coalition, a collaborative that advocates for increased support for public sector plant and animal breeding research.

Both the full report and an executive summary are available for free download online. 

Photo by Fotolia/Vasily Merkushev


11/6/2014

Bee on a Plant

Independent scientists have been saying it for a while now: neonicotinoid pesticides aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And finally, scientists and economists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are showing signs that they’re listening to the science.

Last Thursday, EPA released preliminary findings on neonic-coated soybeans — a small part of the agency’s broader review of neonicotinoids. EPA’s headline finding? Neonicotinoid seed treatments “provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations.”

We know neonics are harmful to bees and other pollinators; a growing body of science has been pointing to these pesticides as a key factor in dramatically declining populations for years. But pesticide makers like Bayer and Syngenta have continued to claim that neonicotinoid products are essential for farmers' success.

This isn't the case, as EPA's recent findings highlight. Prophylactic uses of neonicotinoid seed treatments — that is, using neonicotinoids preventatively, before pest problems arise — don't actually increase farmer yields. As the agency's report says:

Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.

In other words, save your money folks; neonicotinoid seed treatments help soybean yields about as much as… applying no insecticides at all.

Beyond soy

For many independent researchers who study neonics, Thursday’s announcement from EPA isn’t big news. A report published by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) earlier this year summarized nineteen peer-reviewed studies and found that neonicotinoid seed treatments provide either inconsistent yield benefits — or no yield benefits at all — when used on corn, soy, wheat, canola and dry beans.

The only crop that covers more acres in the U.S. than soybeans is corn. And while EPA hasn’t made a public statement on corn just yet, independent research points to similar conclusions.

Dr. Christian Krupke, an entomologist from Purdue University, researches the efficacy of different pesticides by using them in areas where insect pests have caused problems for corn and soy crops in the past. In CFS’s report, he explains it like this:

“We have not demonstrated a consistent yield benefit of neonicotinoid seed treatments in either [corn or soybeans], over many sites and many years. …  Because there is no demonstrable benefit in the vast majority of fields/years we have surveyed, it is apparent that seed treatments are dramatically overused in these crops.”

Neonic seed treatments are frequently used on soybeans, but they're even more common in corn: around 94 percent of the corn planted in the U.S. is pre-treated with neonics.

What to plant?

Further into its assessment, EPA highlighted an important concern: the lack of availability of soybean seed that isn’t pretreated with neonicotinoids. Neonics don’t do much good for soybean yield, but growers may not have much of a choice in the matter.

Consolidation in the seed market means that the pesticide manufacturers and the seed companies are, for the most part, the same companies — and they don’t have much interest in selling neonic-free seeds. EPA signaled that the agency is aware of the problem:

“One issue of note is the availability of untreated seed relative to treated seed … Data from researchers and extension experts indicate that some growers currently have some difficulty obtaining untreated seed.”

Unfortunately, EPA stopped short of making recommendations. The largest seed companies aren’t going to start sourcing neonic-free seed on their own. The profit potential is too great. Instead, it’ll take restrictions on neonicotinoids from decision makers like the EPA to kick them into gear.

In the meantime, farmers can look to local, independent seed companies — some of which are already hard at work to supply neonic-free seeds for future growing seasons.

EPA, time for action

As the EPA starts acknowledging the shortcomings of neonicotinoids, the agency’s explanations for keeping these pesticides on the market are wearing thin. It’s past time for the EPA to restrict or suspend bee-harming neonics. They clearly threaten pollinator populations — and they're not doing farmers much good, either, it turns out.

Help us keep the heat on EPA » Over the summer, the White House announced a joint agency "Pollinator Health Task Force" to be led by EPA and USDA — hopeful news! But we need your help to ensure this task force includes meaningful action on pesticides in its plan. No more skirting the issue! Neonics are a problem decision makers can — and should — address. And quickly. 



11/6/2014

School Gardens MemeWhen I began researching whether there’s been an increase in school gardens in the last ten years, I assumed the simple answer to this question was, yes, of course. To my surprise, however, the early decades of the 20th century the United States had a vibrant school garden movement occurring in major U.S. cities, such as, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York. Local school districts even allocated money in these cities to support the development of school gardens. This seems significant given that only 39.6 percent of the US population lived in cities while the majority of the US population, 60.4 percent, lived in rural areas where they were likely actively engaged in agricultural and gardening endeavors. Even in the 1900s, people were concerned that young people were moving away from their relationship to the natural world, and school gardens were one place to reconnect them. This historical school garden movement went underground after World War I, when our educational priorities in the United States became focused on preparing youth for industry positions to further technological advancements. But, it was built on strong rootstock and the vision never died.

For the last 20 years, we’ve found ourselves in another burgeoning school garden movement. Not so different from the early 1900s, there is increasing concern that young people have lost a valuable relationship to the natural world, and school gardens are seen as a part of the solution. In the “...state of New York (alone), more than 200 schools, 100 teachers, and 11,000 students garden using a state curriculum”. And, according to the USDA, in a 2010 census administered to districts all over the United States, 31% of surveyed schools (2,401 schools), said they grew edible food gardens. The federal government is taking this issue so seriously that in 2010 The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Action (HHFKA) formally established a program to help provide resources to schools interested in providing local foods in their lunch programs.

The issues that have inspired this recent school garden movement differ slightly than those of the early 1900s. Today, one out of every three children in the United States is obese. Currently, over 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban centers; twice as many as during the original school garden movement. Opportunities for the majority of young people to interact and engage with the natural world are becoming less and less available. So, here returns the push for school gardens. Access to healthy fruits and vegetables helps address the obesity issue, students experience the therapeutic effects of spending time in green spaces, and habitat is created for wildlife in areas once denude of it, all while young people are actively engaging in learning. The early studies are showing all of these factors have a positive impact on student’s health and school performance.Birds Eye View

Thus, the not-so-simple answer to the question of whether we’ve seen an increase in school gardens in the past decade is, we’ve seen a return to the values of educating our youth using outdoor, green spaces. Though there is preliminary evidence that this form of education improves behavior, performance, health and nutritional choices; the data to support these claims are just beginning to be collected. Still, thousands of schools across the United States, eager to inspire their educational communities are asking their constituencies to pick-up their hoes, shovels, gloves and seeds to plant a school garden on their roof, playground, blacktop, front porch, or any space available. As one young man from the CitySprout program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, “If you take care of the garden, the garden takes care of you.” Is this not one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children? What we take care of, in turn takes care of us. Welcome back school garden movement, we need you now more than ever.

To learn more about school gardens and creating gardens all over your community, visit YardMap,  Cultivating Habitats. Or join the nearly 500 schools that have documented their schools and gardens using YardMap.

Trelstad, B. (1997). Little Machines in Their Gardens: A History of School Gardens in America, 1891 to 1920. Landscape Journal, 16 (2), 161–173.

Blair, D. (2009). The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening. The Journal of Environmental Education, VOL. 40( NO. 2), 15–38.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



11/5/2014

Akiko and Terumasa with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editorial team

Last week, the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editorial team was delighted to welcome visitors from Japan to our offices in Topeka, Kan. Akiko and Terumasa came to Kansas to attend the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR the weekend of October 25 and 26, and then stayed to pay us a visit. For the past couple of years, Terumasa has been working with a team to translate MOTHER EARTH NEWS into Japanese. He has been providing translated PDFs, along with the print magazine copies in English, to subscribers in Japan.

We’re thrilled to have a partnership that brings the “Original Guide to Living Wisely” to like-minded sustainable-living, DIY enthusiasts in Japan. You can learn more about finding our magazine in Japan, and sign up for a translated subscription if you’d prefer to read the magazine in Japanese, at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS: Japan website. Thanks for the visit and the great work, Terumasa and Akiko!

Photo by Ben Sauder: The MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors pose with Terumasa and Akiko in the magazine office’s organic vegetable garden.


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.



11/5/2014

On the eve of the largest annual gathering of synthetic biologists in the world, ETC Group and the Bioeconomies Media Project are launching a new animated explanation of the workings of this emerging “SynBio” industry, often dubbed extreme genetic engineering. Thousands of scientists, students and vendors will converge at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Jamboree in Boston to share the latest advancements in what has become a multibillion dollar industry based on the industrialization of life at the molecular level.

Increasingly, scientists and civil society are sounding the alarm about the risks posed by unregulated commercialization of SynBio’s untested, experimental and unprecedented manipulation of life forms. The new ten minute video, produced in collaboration with award-winning Canadian animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre and narrated by ETC’s Jim Thomas, is the first output from a new Bioeconomies Media Project. Featuring work of researchers from Canadian universities and funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the video provides a succinct introduction to the science and emerging industry of synthetic biology as well as some of the ethical, biosafety and economic impacts that these "genetically engineered machines" may have.

"The synthetic biology industry is already a multibillion dollar enterprise involving some of the world’s largest food, chemical and agribusiness companies," said Jim Thomas, ETC's Program Director. "The leaders of that industry are targeting markets supplied by small farmers in the around the world; this is likely to have real negative impacts on poorer communities in the global south."

SynBio companies have commercialized several products already, including a vanilla substitute grown by synthetically modified yeast, a coconut oil replacement produced by engineered algae, and engineered versions of patchouli and vetiver fragrances. Less than two weeks ago, 194 nations at the United Nations convention on Biological Diversity unanimously urged governments to establish precautionary regulations and to assess synthetic biology organisms, components and products. Many countries had called for a complete global moratorium on the release of synthetic biology organisms.

"Small farmers feed over 70% of the world; if SynBio companies cut into the tiny profits they are able to make, it could have a growing negative impact on the world's food supply," Thomas added. "Given how little we know about the potential effects of these highly novel life forms, there are also concerns about the risk of synthetic microorganisms escaping into the air and water."

The video released today features the work of Montreal-based animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre, who has dozens of film festival awards to her name, most recently for Best Short Documentary at the Saint Louis International Film Festival in 2012. Saint Pierre’s last animation was featured at the most recent Cannes International Film Festival.

"Since I started working on this video, I've learned that synthetic biology is quite dangerous, and without regulations it can have repercussions for workers and farmers," said Saint-Pierre. "It was important for me to make something that’s easy to understand, so that anyone can access information about SynBio and process it."

The video can be viewed at the following locations:
SynBio Watch

ETC Group

Youtube

For information, please contact:
Jim Thomas
, phone 1 514 516 5759
Dru Oja Jay
, phone 1 438 930 4693












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