Northeast Grain Race and News

Catch up on the latest news about the Northeast Great Race, the forever chemical PFAS, neonicotinoid coated seeds, climate change, resilient plants and federal funding for car-free infrastructure.

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by Steven Woods
Apollonia is a carbon-neutral schooner that uses wind power to ship goods sustainably in the Hudson Valley.

Have you heard of the #FoodMovementMovement? This May, you can see it in action as sailing vessels, solar-powered boats, and more will be racing to deliver the largest amount of grains over the longest distance with the least possible use of fossil fuels. Popcorn, malted barley, and flour are all being considered as cargo for these voyages, moving between mills, malt houses, breweries, and bakeries with an absolute minimum of environmental impact.

Hosted by the Hudson River Maritime Museum, Northeast Grainshed Alliance, The Center for Post Carbon Logistics, and Schooner Apollonia, the Northeast Grain Race brings attention to the low-to-no-carbon movement of food from farm to table in New England, New York, and New Jersey. Any vehicle or combination of vehicles can enter a single voyage in the month of May, and contestants in four capacity-based categories will earn one point per ton-mile of grain they move, but they’ll lose five points for every liter of fuel they burn or every 10 kilowatt-hours of power they take from the grid.

Ensuring sufficient cargo capacity to keep cities fed in a carbon-constrained future will be a significant challenge for sustainability advocates, governments, and humanity in general. For example, the inhabitants in the New York metro area require 50,000 metric tons of food per day to stay alive, and much more for optimal health. To supply this volume of food without carbon emissions is possible; New York City has a port, and thus could be supplied principally through sail freight, the maritime movement of cargo by primarily wind power. With a mere 10,000 small ships and 65,000 sailors, this zero-carbon fleet could be created and crewed with trained sailors within 20 years if we put the resources behind sail freight as part of a comprehensive climate change policy. We could drop 220,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually by doing so, when compared with all of New York’s food arriving via massive container ships, the next most efficient means.

Northeast Grain Race logo

Sail freight has already proven practicable for supplying cities. It has been used for more than 40,000 years in the South Pacific, and evidence suggests highly advanced trade networks existed that moved cargo by sail in the Mediterranean more than 4,000 years ago. The last sail freight vessels only stopped trading grain from Australia to the U.K. in 1949. Small-scale revivals are currently underway in Europe, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Hudson Valley of New York.

While electric trains, trucks, cars, bicycles, and other electrified means of transportation are coming online and critical in supplying landlocked areas, the use of sail freight to reduce fuel use and stress on the grid by getting the shipment as close as possible to the food’s destination will help bring economical and ecological benefits.

Read the full rules for the Northeast Grain Race and a series of blog posts.
– Steven Woods

Military Bases Fail to Inform Farmers about Toxic Contamination

Red barn with silos behind it on a farm.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported in October 2021 that United States military bases have been contaminating farms across the country with PFAS – a group of compounds dubbed “forever chemicals,” because nothing in the natural environment (including the human body) can break them down. In a Bloomberg Law news report, Kay Fritz, a toxicologist with Michigan’s Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, said that PFAS are taken up by plants and animals exposed to contaminated water, and thereby pass them on to consumers. Often, farmers with PFAS-contaminated land and water opt to halt operations (though no laws require them to do so), but the EWG found at least 30 military bases that failed to notify nearby farmers of contamination.

Evidence of the dangers posed by PFAS has been growing since the 1970s. In 1999, a whistleblower at the chemical company 3M wrote a resignation letter calling PFAS “the most insidious pollutant since PCBs.” PFAS have been linked to cancer; hormone and immune system interference; and negative effects on growth, learning, and behavior in infants and children. Last year, Stockholm University released a field study showing that when PFAS runoff enters the ocean, it easily transfers into the atmosphere via sea spray aerosol. Researchers suspect the chemicals are dispersed far and wide inland. Soon, the “forever chemicals” could earn a new nickname: “the everywhere chemicals.”

Green Groups Sue EPA to Combat Bee-Killing Pesticide

Two groups are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to demand the labeling of seeds coated with neonicotinoids – insecticides known to kill bees. Without federal regulation, farmers currently decide whether to use neonicotinoids, but, as the Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network allege, many seeds escape labeling requirements. So, how’s a farmer to know what they’re using?

Bee on a lavender flower, Closeup view of a bee pollinating a la

Neonicotinoids have been a flashpoint in the fight between chemical companies and environmentalists for more than a decade. In 2018, under pressure from activists and amid growing evidence of harm to bees, the European Union banned all outdoor use of the three most common neonicotinoids. Meanwhile, their use in America has gone on unabated, despite a 2014 report from the EPA that noted, “[Neonicotinoid] seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations.”

The causes of bee population declines are myriad, but the scientific evidence is abundant and clear that neonicotinoids play a role. It’s been shown that plants take up the insecticides and incorporate them into their stems, fruits, and flowers, thereby threatening anything that eats those parts of the plant. It goes to show, even for plants, you are what you eat.

New Discovery on the Natural Resilience of Plants

Plants remember droughts, according to a discovery published in Food and Energy Security. That is, crops that experience drought early in their growing season adapt to better handle drought later on. This is the first time this effect has been shown outside of controlled lab settings. Researchers drew on data over a 20-year period, covering soybean and maize crops in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, a region expected to experience more extreme wet and dry seasons because of climate change.

Rows of green corn stalks growing in a dry cornfield

This discovery is important for understanding the impacts of climate change on crops, but it also presents an opportunity for creating new plant cultivars. If certain crops have the innate capacity to become more drought-resistant, researchers suspect that trait can be enhanced through breeding.
But beyond breeding for resilience, these findings could also justify the overreach of genetic engineering. The group behind the research, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), formed in 2012 with a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. RIPE’s stated goal is to help food production “keep pace with this century’s population growth” and “usher in the next Green Revolution.” So this may set the stage for the conflict of the century: Midwest weather versus engineers.

New Website Helps California Farms Fight Climate Change

As part of California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, a new website is helping farmers plan and implement composting. The initiative, started in 2015, has been providing technical and financial assistance to California farmers who want to compost on their farms. This year, the state is looking to award $67 million in funding to qualified applicants. As of this writing, they’ve received just over 1,000 applications and awarded $25 million. With growing demand for composting, the website “provides a single location to show … producers how to put it all together in compliance with California environmental regulations.”

The website is simple and intuitive, with links to regulatory documents and videos showing the ins and outs of real composting setups. By making composting more accessible, California regulators are hoping to curb greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security. They also see it as a potential blueprint for other states to follow.

Federal Program Retooled to Fund Car-Free Transit

Young organic strawberry plant in a gardenIn 2009, Barack Obama called it “TIGER” (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery); then, Donald Trump renamed it “BUILD” (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development); now, President Joe Biden calls it “RAISE” (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity). Currently, it’s a $1.5 billion grant program for infrastructure, and, under its new name, most of it is being disbursed to cities for projects such as transit planning and bike and pedestrian safety improvements.

These grants could be an opportunity for cities to fund creative programs that reduce inner-city pollution while connecting communities. Last year, the program gave out just under $1 billion, but this year, it’s up by $500 million because of popular demand. Those interested can apply at Discretionary Grants; applications are due April 14.

Climate Change Podcast Looks to Walk the Talk

Looking for a place to put all that pent-up environmentalist energy? Look no further than the “Green Dreamer” podcast’s directory. The directory is a digital map of “healing and regenerative projects,” so you can find one local to your community. On it, you’ll find projects such as Virginia Free Farm, which practices responsible land stewardship while providing free food to people in need, or D-Town Farm, an urban farm in Detroit “working to build self-reliance, food security, and justice in Detroit’s Black community.”

“Green Dreamer” is a podcast committed to a grassroots vision of fighting climate change and ecological breakdown. Often, the topics are fairly academic, but this directory is where ideology can turn into action.

The map still has gaps, such as the entire state of Kansas. Projects can apply to be listed at GreenDreamer.

  • Updated on Mar 5, 2022
  • Originally Published on Feb 24, 2022
Tagged with: climate change, Green Gazette, seeds