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EcoFacts: Two Glimpses of Farming

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

strawberries3Santa Barbara County’s top crop in 2013 was strawberries, their commercial value being nearly three times that of the next one – wine grapes. Delicious sweetness and intoxicating pleasure, these crops give us a snapshot of our region and its small farms, including the people who pick the fruits. Strawberries and wine grapes are economically robust despite the current drought. (Strawberries require much water while grapes are far more drought tolerant.) Many who partake of these can afford organic, and fortunately we have many local farmers who want to fulfill that need. For the rest, pesticide use on strawberries has increased in California in the last few years. A new regulation will limit one of them.

A world away, most of the farms in India are also small, but  they don’t worry about drought.  March was the wettest in a century and thousands of acres of crops were destroyed by the rains. Most people rely on their small farms for their living, cotton and grains are the biggest crops.  India is one of the largest producers and users of pesticides in the world. Chemicals are aggressively marketed, expensive and unregulated, education about their use is lacking and serious health effects are common, not to mention those of the soil and general environment.

Healthy sustainable farming is spreading among small farmers in India, with help from the government and the World Bank. In one large state, 15% of the land is now farmed without any pesticides. Much of this work is organized by thousands of self help groups, mainly women, who learn together and help each other employ the new agroecological techniques that will “take the poison out of the food chain.”

EcoFacts: Juicy Flesh, Butter on Our Toast‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No one wants their meat bony and dry, at least the animals themselves and those who eat them don’t. The point being, in the words of a favorite eco writer –  “It takes a lot of water to grow and feed a large mammal, and yet more water to cut it up into small pieces and clean up the mess.” Besides beef and pork, the raising and processing of our poultry and of our dairy cattle for our milk, butter and cheese are also water intensive. Growing alfalfa here uses more water than cash crop almonds, and most of it goes to dairy cows.

ecocattleHow much water? California, behind only Texas, uses between 100 and 250 million gallons of water PER DAY of freshwater withdrawals for livestock production – 47% of all water used in California. In short, most of all of the water used in agriculture in the state is for meat and dairy.  A pound of beef took at least 1600 gallons of water, some estimates run much higher. A half pound burger required the equivalent of tens of showers (at 2-4 gallons per minute).

21% of the country’s milk comes from California and dairy farmers are struggling in this drought. Estimates do vary but some say it takes 109 gallons of water to produce one stick of butter, 683 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. (Soy or coconut milk wins in the milk category, using the least.)

Clearly vegetarians and vegans win with their water footprints.

Thanks to reader Susan for inspiring this research!

EcoFacts: Almonds and Economies‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

I sat this morning happily eating a dish of local almonds and strawberries with some (not local) cereal, coconut and soy milk, and was grateful to have been able to speak to Nate, of Fat Uncle Farms where my almonds came from. Since almonds are a huge product of California AG and use lots of water in a drought stricken state, they’ve been a controversial item in the news lately. Nate’s family relies on these bits of goodness for their living, and he is a cool and articulate guy. As one who is truly knowledgeable, he made it clear to me that this is indeed a complex subject. And so here I am trying to express a nut’s worth of it here.

almondsThere are basically two types of irrigation used for almonds, etc., flood and drip. Flood, as its name would express, uses much more water than drip, which is an expensive system that bigger farms have come to employ, to save on water bills, a good thing. There can be a positive side to the flood type though, and that is that it goes into the ground and recharges acquifers, the water is not “used up”. If there are no bad things in that water, e.g. pesticides and chemical fertilizers, we get it back.

Most of California’s almonds are exported, 80% of the world’s supply comes from California. It is a lucrative cash crop for the state. This gives the big growers more political clout and subsidies, but can also make them less responsive to local conditions. A farmer who sells his goods locally, like Fat Uncle, is perhaps more aware of any local, social and climate repercussions of their activities. Water prices will go up, and the almonds will cost more, people will make that connection. Right now, all almond farmers are risking that they will continue to be profitable, meaning that they will be able to get the water they need, and that is between nature and the state’s water infrastructure and regulations to determine.

More on Less Water in California

Column by Barbara Hirsch

almondsCalifornia – great place to live, except for the not anywhere near enough water part!  After yet another rainy season, very low reservoirs and not enough snow to feed our rivers. A third of our water comes from Sierra Nevada snowpack which is now 5% of normal levels, the Lake Tahoe Basin is at 3%.

Governor Brown just announced that historic drought restrictions will be enacted, mostly for residents.  The state’s agriculture will be less affected  and uses 80% of the state’s water, but has already been hit hard and subsequently we can expect food prices to rise – rice, fruits and veggies, dairy… wine. The state’s oil and gas industry uses two million gallons of fresh water per day, and will be able to continue, and pollute aquifers as they have been doing. That is a lot of long showers – many 10s of thousands in fact, every day.

The New York Times published this interactive map that shows current residential water use throughout the state. The national average is 80-100 gallons per day.  I am proud to note that Santa Barbarans are doing well at 52 gallons per day, although Goleta has us beat at 47! Considering that water runs from our taps at 1-4 gallons per minute, it is clear that quite a few of us are taking short showers ! Not many cities use less than this in the state, Santa Cruz is among the lowest at 46 gallons per day, so congratulations Goleta! Obviously those people with lots of landscaped grounds are using much more. This map is fun, and telling.

Water savings tips abound, but knowing that you can look at your water meter can really help. One HCF is 748 gallons. Some meters have a fine gauge that can be seen moving with a leak.

EcoFacts: Toilet to Tap

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsWe spend so much of our time thinking about, and doing our personal acts of consumption – eating and drinking, and with the water we use, washing.

Then there’s the outgo. We are relieved to wash, to pee and poo, but generally choose not to think much about that part, who wants to? But think for one minute and you realize how essential a well designed and maintained infrastructure is for sewage, as much as for drinking water. And with our drought and little to waste, even moreso!

I was privileged recently to have a tour with our Mayor of the El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant. It is where everything that goes through our plumbing – dishwater, garbage disposal sludge, utility sink drainage, shower water, and sewage – ends up, our average 5 bathtubs full per person – 8 million gallons per day!

Here is the process, in short. Wastewater is managed in primary and secondary tanks and systems, solids are filtered and settled out, “digestion” is helped along with aeration and biological processes, accelerating the decomposition that would naturally occur. Final solids get trucked to composting facilities. The wastewater then goes either out to the ocean, or to a tertiary system which further removes contaminants and pollutants for the water to be recylced/reclaimed, and used to water public grounds,. Currently that system is offline while a bigger and better one is being built, expected to begin operation in the early summer.

Toilet-tapI was only able to experience the large open secondary tanks, and probably should be grateful for that, but it was not at all unpleasant. And the tertiary system being built, which will handle more than half of that 8 million gallons per day, is truly impressive looking. I wondered, is toilet to tap in our future, with an even more advanced tertiary (or quaternary) system? Appealing, eh? Would probably cost less than desal. We’ll check in again in 5 years.


Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsI recently met someone who is helping to build another kind of bio-economy, a rural, local economy that employs people and banana fibers to solve an age old problem.

Menstruating girls and women in developing countries who cannot afford access to hygenic methods of dealing with their periods must often miss school or work for days every single month. The alternatives are rags, leaves and/or mud to avoid lost dignity, lost income.

The banana plant is grown in over 100 countries and besides the up and downsides of the commercial growing for exports, on a local scale it has served people well for millennia. Banana fiber is highly absorbent. It can be used for cleaning up oil spills and bioremediation. The fiber is used to make paper and textiles. Banana plants are perennial, the fruit and fiber can be harvested without having to replant. The fruit is a tidy dinner, its leaf makes an excellent plate for a messier one. And now there is another use.

Elizabeth Scharpf is the chief instigating officer of SHE – Sustainable Health Enterprises – which she launched in 2008, determined to empower women both personally and economically in Rwanda. The work resulted in techniques, materials and equipment for manufacturing maxipads locally. Since then, through community initiatives, thousands of people have been educated on menstrual health issues, women and girls have been happily equipped with these pads, hundreds of farmers have more work and small businesses are growing to produce and sell them. Great work, Elizabeth!

EcoFacts: Bioeconomy, Food‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsModern humans rely on about 150 plants for their diet, out of tens of thousands of edible ones (FAO estimates more than a quarter million). Of those, corn rice and wheat make up two thirds of the world’s calories (pdf), and are grown on two thirds of all arable land.

And here is a shocker from the FAO: “Today 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species”. These few plants have been cultivated for highest yield, with intensive inputs – tilling, fertilizer, pesticides – not for adaptabiltity to changes in climate. For example, in 2012, heat and drought in the U.S. had lowered yields of corn by 20% in Iowa, 33% in Illinois.

One of the new realms of the bioeconomy is perennial grains. These, rather than being sown and harvested anew every year, are grown sequestering more carbon, causing little soil erosion and depletion, requiring less farming equipment energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and seed purchase.

Kernza is one of these, developed through selective breeding by the Land Institute in Kansas, an organization devoted to the transformation of agriculture to be as “sustainable as the native ecosystems it displaced, to find a way of growing crops that rewards the farmer and the landscape more than the manufacturers of external inputs.”

Here is a wonderful piece on one journalist’s experience with Kernza and the potato-bean.

EcoFacts: The Bioeconomy, Part 1

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

The Bioeconomy – the fruits of this economy will move us away from synthetic goods whose production and disposal continue to pose risks for us, and will also decrease our need for fossil fuels. This realm encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food (obviously), bio-based products and bioenergy. This goes far beyond the now ridiculous seeming idea of growing food crops to power our vehicles.

Last week’s mention of Yulex, the new natural rubber, is a perfect example of this unseen world of research and development that is beginning to blossom. Here is potential for a model for 21st century manufacturing – resource efficient, bio-based and circular in its nature.

Guayule grows easily in arid and semi-arid regions on marginal land that would otherwise be difficult to grow on. It requires little water …Yulex has identified strains that maximizes yield with minimal or no soil additives. The crop is perennial, and is harvested every 12-24 months, thus helping in dust and topsoil erosion control. Besides being a replacement for latex and synthetic rubbers, a goal of Yulex’s zero waste manufacturing is to derive its own energy from the biomass residues of its own production. Finally, recycle the no longer useable product (most rubber is not recycled) and voila! – you have a perfect cradle to cradle system, regenerative as in nature. Well, big picture anyway, as perfection is by definition, pretty hard to achieve. But some strive for it, thankfully.

EcoFacts: Surfing Sustainability

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Sustainable_Surf_logo_stacked_300x300_400x400Surfers are certainly passionate about the ocean environment, and riding the waves is pretty darn clean fun. But what do they ride? Generally boards made of oil derived chemicals – foam cores, fiberglass and resins – polluting and toxic in their manufacture. And what do they wear? Neoprene wetsuits, also a synthetic petro product, which can be bought from China for a buck a yard. One wonders about the conditions at those factories, like so many others.

The main maker of the boards’ foam cores for decades – Clark Foam – was shut down by the EPA in 2005, being unable to comply with various regulations, including its use of a carcinogenic chemical. Time magazine called it “Surfing’s Sudden Wipeout“, and it began a shift in the production of surfboards, including to more eco-friendly types.

surfNow, with the help of non profits like Sustainable Surf’s Ecoboard Project, some boards, at least, are being made more environmentally sound with recycled foam cores, and bio-resins. Wood boards have also made a come back from the ancient Hawaiian sport, wood being sustainably grown or reclaimed, and with old fashioned finishes such as linseed oil. Among these makers are a local fellow - John Birchim – who builds them lovingly here in SB. A small company in Maine made the NY Times doing the same thing, or you can buy kits from them to make them yourself.
Continue reading…

EcoFacts: MENA, Water & Energy

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The Middle East – MENA (Middle East North Africa) is a unique region in the world’s energy and water nexus. It is loaded with fossil fuel, holding nearly 60% of the world’s oil reserves, and nearly 45% of its natural gas reserves. Fuel rich and water poor, it is home to 6.3% of the world’s population and has access to only 1.4% of the globe’s fresh water supply. 14 of the world’s 20 most water scarce countries are in this region.

mit_solar_powered_desalination_system_jbq98How, you might wonder, could they be interested in renewable energy, even if it is really sunny there? In fact they are developing solar potential rapidly. Most of their electricity is from petroleum and some of their cities are the most polluted in the world. And then there is the water – these countries generate over half of the desal water on the planet and that water is costly, using more than ten times more energy (and their precious export resource, fossil fuels) than needed for pumping well water, and their aquifers are running dry.

The World Bank has produced a 200 page report on Renewable Energy Desalination in MENA that emphasizes the necessity of this work for future stability of the region. A Spanish energy company is developing the world’s largest solar operated desal plant in Saudi Arabia. This news comes from “b green”, a business publication in the Middle East. Practically all of the renewable energy powered desalination is already in this part of the world, but is currently a very small percentage.

Let’s hope this type of investment in the future spreads to other parched coastal areas, like oh… California, perhaps?