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American Farmers Are Struggling to Feed the Country’s Appetite for Organic Food

Consumer appetite for organic food reached $13.4 bn in the US last year, but only 1 percent of cropland is dedicated to organic farming

Marc Garibaldi, a farmer in California’s Central Valley, no longer uses conventional pesticides and fertilizers because he doesn’t want to work with toxic chemicals at his 40-acre cherry orchard. His farm was officially certified as organic a few weeks ago, but the path to securing that designation was long and costly: He spent three years working to demonstrate the use of eco-friendly pest and soil management practices and paid between 10 percent-20 percent in higher labor cost.

photo of vegetablesphoto by nosha, on FLickrThe time and expenses required to get organic certification present major roadblocks for increasing the amount of organic farmland in America.

Yet he was unable to convince processors that pack and ship his harvest to pay more for his fruit – which he was already cultivating by using the organic standards set by the federal government – during that period.

“Your farm is your financial life, and when you decide you’re going to change the way you’re doing your business, you’re kind of putting it at risk,” Garibaldi said of the challenge of making the transition to organic. “The grocery stores don’t give a crap whether you’re in the transition to being organic. All they care about is are you certified or not.”

The time and expenses required to get organic certification present major roadblocks for increasing the amount of organic farmland in America. It’s a problem not just for farmers but for food companies that are trying to meet an increasing consumer demand for organic products. The concern for a shortage of organic produce and ingredients is so acute that several corporate businesses and nonprofits launched new efforts recently to give growers better incentives to go organic.

“When you look at the percentage of the marketplace, what consumers are buying versus what farmers are producing, farmers aren’t producing as much organic as consumers are consuming,” said Alexis-Badden Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, an organics advocacy group.

The US Department of Agriculture estimated that only roughly 1 percent of the cropland nationwide met that designation. Yet consumer appetite for organic cereal, yogurt and other packaged organic products has grown, reaching an estimated $13.4 billion in the US last year from $12.8bn in 2014, according to research group Euromonitor.

Carrots, lettuce, and apples make up the top categories of organically grown produce, according to Catherine Greene, an agricultural economist with the USDA’s economic research service. Dairy comes in second, with organic corn and soybeans …more

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Oil Spills in the Sky

Looking back at a 1997 Earth Island Journal report on pollution from the airline industry

On July 25, CBS News joined the rest of the mainstream media to acknowledge mounting concerns over atmospheric pollution from jet aircraft. "The government has found that jet engine exhaust is adding to climate change and endangering human health, and needs to be regulated," CBS reported. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to employ the Clean Air Act to reduce the impacts of jet-pollution.

American Airlines B777, N730ANphoto by Aero Pixels, on FlickrEarth Island Journal’s Summer 1997 issue drew attention to the airline industry’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere.

The EPA’s action came in the wake of a mid-April US District Court lawsuit filed by the nonprofits Friends of the Earth and The Center for Biological Diversity alleging that the EPA had failed "to enforce limits on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft."

Meanwhile, a United Nations panel has suggested cutting airliner fuel consumption by an average of 4 percent — beginning in 2028. Unfortunately, the UN recommendation ignored the fact that aircraft fuel consumption (and, hence, pollution) is at its worst during takeoffs and landings — not while cruising at high altitudes.

These recent headlines brought to mind an Earth Island Journal cover story from the summer of 1997. Just as the Journal was the first magazine to feature a cover story on climate change ("The Climes They Are A-Changing," Summer 1988) it was also the first magazine to feature a cover story about the airline industry’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere ("Oil Spills in the Sky," Summer 1997).

Nearly 20 years have passed since the Journal first exposed these dangers. It is both gratifying and frustrating to see that action is finally being focused on addressing this serious environmental threat. In light of these recent developments here is a look back at our Summer 1997 report on aircraft pollution.

Oil Spills in the Sky

How Jet Aircraft Are Polluting the Skies and Changing the Weather

Viewed from space, there are four unmistakable signs that Earth is inhabited by humans: sprawling cities, forest fires, disappearing lakes, and aircraft contrails.

With 10,000 large commercial aircraft flying today and the number expected to double by the year 2020, contrails (short for "condensation trails") pose a growing environmental threat. Commercial jets have been crossing the skies since the 1950s, but scientists only recently have begun to notice evidence of climate change occurring beneath …more

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Could London Become the World’s First National Park City?

Popularity of the idea reflects growing understanding that built environments are a part of the natural world too

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

The emerging explorer and guerrilla photographer for National Geographic, Daniel Raven-Ellison, wants to make London a National Park City. He came up with the idea after visiting the United Kingdom’s 15 national parks in 2013. During the tour he realized a very important habitat was missing from this list of parks: Urban areas. That’s what led him to start the campaign “Let’s make London a National Park City.”

More than 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population live in towns and cities nowadays. Contrary to what it might seem, Raven-Ellison and his team believe these urban areas — which comprise a rich tapestry of gardens, rivers, parks, woodland, nature reserves, canals, meadows, streams, and lakes — have a deep connection with nature.

London is already one of the greenest cities in the world for its size. About 47 percent of the city is green. It is home to the world's largest urban forest. Its 8.6 million inhabitants share the city with 8.3 million trees, 13,000 different species of wildlife, 3,000 parks, and 1,400 sites of importance for nature conservation.

photo of St. James Park in LondonPhoto by Neil HowardSt. James Park in London, which is one of the greenest cities in the world for its size.

But the general definition of national park is not something that can be applied to a major city such as London. Nor is Raven-Ellison seeking the kind of regulatory powers for the city that traditional national parks have. “We’re looking to come up with a new definition for national park city, which will be a new kind of national park,” he explains, describing this as a semi-protected area, or a patchwork of formally and informally protected areas.

Growing populations create pressures on natural ecosystems that sometimes cannot be managed in protected areas and national parks. The real purpose behind making London a national park city, he says, is to connect people to nature. “One in seven children in London hasn’t been in a national park at all during the last year. This is a great opportunity to connect children to nature in the city,” Raven-Ellison says.

This involvement, he believes, could be crucial to saving ecosystems not just in the UK, but also across the world.

There are 7.3 billion people in the world. The United Nations expects this …more

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Animal Welfare Groups Push US to Classify All Leopards as Endangered

Raising the protection level for leopards would severely curb hunters’ ability to import body parts as trophies

Conservationists have demanded a crackdown on the import to the US of leopards killed by American hunters, in an attempt to replicate the protections introduced in the wake of the furor caused by the death of famed lion Cecil.

photo of leopardPhoto by Scott PresnellAnimal welfare groups have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to calsify all leopards as endangered.

A coalition of animal welfare groups have petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to classify all leopards as endangered, The Guardian can reveal. This would severely curtail the ability of American hunters to bring home “trophies”, such as leopard skulls, paws or skins, from hunting trips to Africa.

America is a leading collector of leopard parts. According to a Humane Society analysis of data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, US trophy hunters imported parts of 5,575 leopards between 2005 and 2014.

It is unclear how many leopards remain across Africa and Asia but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has warned the species has “declined substantially” due to habitat loss, paucity of prey and targeted poaching for sham medicinal products in Southeast Asia and China that can generate $3,000 for a leopard carcass.

The IUCN states that “poorly managed trophy hunting adds to pressure on local leopard populations”. In 2016, South Africa stopped the hunting of leopards, over concerns that untold damage was being wrought.

Currently, the FWS classifies leopards in northern Africa as endangered and sub-Saharan animals south of Gabon and Kenya as threatened. This distinction, drawn up in 1982 following lobbying by hunters, means that much less scrutiny is placed upon leopard imports from the southern half of Africa.

Buoyed by the success in getting lions classed as endangered last year following the controversial demise of Cecil, a famous Zimbabwean lion who was shot by a dentist from Minnesota, conservation groups want the FWS to extend endangered species protection to all leopards.

The petition states that leopards’ range “is in alarming and precipitous decline, including in southern Africa where leopards are currently listed as threatened.” It adds that the survival of the species is being risked by “Americans engaging in unsustainable trophy hunting and international trade of African leopards.”

The official request, lodged with the FWS on Monday, includes testimony from …more

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Squeezed for Space in the Vast Arctic

Saami reindeer herders hard-pressed by the conflux of rapid climate change and rapid human development

Where are you camped?” asks Mikkel Sara, an elderly Saami reindeer herder as I sit with him watching his family’s herd of some 2,000 reindeer graze.

“On Rypefjell,” I reply.

“Aha. On the Northwest end of the lake, in a shallow dug out?” he asks.

“Exactly,” I remark, a little surprised. I had understood that the Saami were intimate with the land, but this was uncanny.

Reindeer silhouettePhoto by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse The reindeer silhouette has been a fixture on these mountain ridges for millennia. Their chances of enduring the next century now hinges upon both the herd's and the herder's adaptability in the face of rapid climate change and human development.

“A beautiful spot,” he says somewhat nostalgically, and continues to consider the herd for a long moment in silence. His nine-year-old grandchild dodges adeptly amongst the reindeer, chasing and catching the calves by the antlers. His son stands to the side giving pointers, passing on the ancient knowledge of the trade.

“That campsite you are staying on was my father’s and grandfather’s summer camp. I grew up there,” Sara says, returning from his quiet reflections. “But we don’t use it anymore, there’s too much development.”

I’ve made my way to this northernmost region of Norway to meet with indigenous Saami herders like Sara, who have subsisted in this unsympathetic Arctic environment for generations by fishing, hunting, and herding reindeer. Although their way of life is in many ways dissimilar and incomparable to the societies to the south, I’ve travelled here hoping that their story will provide some insight into the challenges that may lie in wait for the rest of the world in the face of climate change.

Much of the research and media reports we read about climate change talk about the dire, not-so-far-off effects of changes that are unprecedented in human history. A constant barrage of this information can lead to the nerve-wracking experience of “eco-anxiety” — a feeling of being perched upon the precipice of ecological calamity, peering into the dark unknown. I feel that we need something more tangible, a real-world taste of what lies ahead, in order to cope with this kind of eco-anxiety. What if we could locate a unique geographic area that is undergoing dramatic climate change right now — one that is home to a group of people who are facing these challenges head on? 

The Arctic is one of the world’s so-called climate change “hotspots.” Here, temperature increases double the global average …more

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One Man’s Legal Quest to Change How We View Animals

In Review: Unlocking the Cage

Given that I’ve written in great detail about Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to get some animals recognized as “persons,” the basic premise and much of the convoluted legal gymnastics showcased in Unlocking the Cage were not new to me. Nevertheless, even for someone well informed on the subject matter and plotline, the documentary is a compelling watch.

Steven Wise and the NhRP teamPhoto courtesy of Pennebaker Heeds Films/HBOSteven Wise (second from left) and his team at the Nonhuman Rights Project wants to to punch a legal hole through the wall that separates animals from us.

The 91-minute film by celebrated documentarians Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (The War Room, Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back, and Kings of Pastry) follows Wise, founder of NhRP, and his colleagues over the course of three years as they file the first lawsuits aimed at changing the legal status of animals from “things” with no rights to a “person” who possesses, at the very least, the basic rights to life and liberty. 

Wise, who is in his mid-60s, has spent nearly three decades developing the legal strategy for this initiative. He changed the course of his legal career to focus on animal law in 1980 after reading philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1975 treatise, Animal Liberation, and experiencing a moral epiphany.

Citing reams of scientific evidence, Wise maintains that cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights that would protect them from abuse. Recognition as legal persons, he says, would protect these animals from being held captive by private citizens, or in zoos, circuses, and theme parks. It would also save them from being subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

poster of Unlocking the Cage

The NhRP’s focus on these particular species is basically a strategic choice. Given the evidence about the self-awareness and “humanlike” intelligence of great apes, elephants, and cetaceans, and the fact that none of these animals are native to the US, Wise and his team believe there’s a greater chance a judge would be willing to consider granting them special status as nonhuman persons.

The NhRP’s long-term goal however, is, as Wise told me back in 2104, “to punch a legal hole” through the wall that separates animals from us.

Unlocking the Cage picks up the thread of Wise’s …more

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When it Comes to GMOs, the Devil is in the Details

Unresolved safety questions about gene-editing technologies underscore need for caution

While expressing support for the watered-down GMO labeling bill, which was passed by Congress last week and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature, White House spokeswoman Katie Hill told Bloomberg News: "While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, (emphasis added) we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers' interest in knowing more about their food…."

Making these kinds of broad statements about all genetically modified foods being “safe” seem to be a common quirk among even among science journalists who write about  GMOs. There is a tendency to describe genetically engineered crops as though they are just one thing. True, GMOs have many traits in common, but so do planes, trains, and automobiles. Writers who lump them together often ignore important subtleties and distinctions between each GMO crop, how they are created and used, as well as the damaging agricultural practices most of the transgenic crops under commercial cultivation promote.

GMO corn field in KauaiPhoto by Ian UmedaA GMO corn field in Kauai. While a recent National Academy of Sciences study found no evidence that eating genetically engineered food can cause adverse health effects, it also found no evidence that GE traits have provided measureable increases in overall crop productivity.

Consider, for example, this story at Slate.com by William Saletan which proclaims that “there’s no good evidence” that GMOs are unsafe. “The deeper you dig,” he writes, “the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies.”

Saletan could find no room for a single mention of the nagging, unresolved safety questions involving new gene-editing biotechnologies like RNA interference or CRISP/Cas9, or to investigate industry claims about increased crop yields, or to note that while less than a handful of GM crops like the ringspot-resistant papaya (engineered to resist a virus that once threatened to wipe out the fruit from the Hawaiian islands) have definitely helped save a fruit crop, biotech corporations have largely focused on commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton, where the profit margin is higher.  

It’s not that he was crimped for space. He rambled on for 10,000 words, or about three times the length of a long-form magazine article. Although such details can annoyingly disrupt a story’s overall arc, they are newsworthy nonetheless. At the time his article was published (June 2015) the safety of these newer technologies was already generating robust debates among scientists.

You can find …more

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