2014 Growing Green Awards Honor Innovators in Sustainable Food and Farming
Yesterday, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) celebrated four remarkable leaders who are advancing sustainable food and agriculture at the sixth annual Growing Green Awards. Chosen from hundreds of nominations submitted across the country by a renowned panel of judges, the 2014 winners are changing the way America eats and farms. They have helped transform the nation’s agricultural landscape by protecting insect pollinators from the over-use of chemical pesticides, encouraging pasture-based meat production, educating the next generation of agricultural scientists and building sustainable regional food systems.
“Conventional food production is putting an incredible strain on our health and natural resources,” said Jonathan Kaplan, food and agriculture program director at NRDC. “These award winners are living proof that there’s a better way.”
“We are delighted to recognize these inspiring leaders. They have undertaken remarkable work to advance sustainable food and agriculture systems through innovative approaches,” said Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute.”
The 2014 Growing Green Award winners are:
Sustainable Livestock Producer: Will Harris, White Oak Pastures farm (Bluffton, GA)
After decades of raising cattle on pastures purged by pesticides and finishing them on a diet of grain, hormones and antibiotics, Will Harris drastically changed his practices and converted to organic and grass-fed. His Southwest Georgia farm, White Oak Pastures, has been in Harris’ family since 1866. Yet, by the mid-1990s, Harris started to rethink the conventional shortcuts he used to push his cows to the feedlot. Instead of applying toxic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, Harris learned to prevent overgrazing, protect water resources and generally promote soil health through intensive land management and rotational grazing. He went further, sending multiple species (five kinds of poultry, hogs, sheep and goats) through his fields in sequence to control weeds and insects. Green pastures now nourish his animals, which in turn aerate and enrich the land with natural fertilizer. In order to respect his livestock from birth to death, Harris constructed a humane-kill abattoir on site (designed with help from Temple Grandin). He proved his business model is scalable, growing White Oak Pastures from a half million dollar enterprise to the largest organic certified farm in Georgia, taking in over $25 million annually.
“The market demand has developed for antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meats. My own family’s experience is proof that sustainable agriculture is economically sustainable too,” said Harris. “What makes your soil and animals strong, will make your customers healthy, your employees happy, and your investments profitable.”
Regional Food Leader: Sibella Kraus, Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) (Berkeley, CA)
Sibella Kraus has long called upon cities to embrace the farms at their borders. It was Kraus’ vision as founder of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) that gave rise to San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in 1992. Her articles and advocacy have been a driving force in the Bay Area food movement for decades. Today, as president of the nonprofit organization SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education), Kraus continues to foster urban-rural linkages through the development of urban-edge Ag Parks and the production of agricultural resource assessments for regional planning efforts. A vibrant nexus of organic farm, education center and nature preserve, SAGE’s Sunol Ag Park in Alameda County provides beginning and immigrant farmers with land access and urban dwellers with a connection to their food. Kraus is now spearheading another game-changing project to create an agriculture and conservation resource area within the 7,400-acre Coyote Valley, just south of San Jose—the region’s largest and fastest growing city. She’s determined to preserve the invaluable connections between farmer and consumer, urban hub and working landscape.
“Bay Area farms and rangelands cover 1.87 million acres and produce almost enough food to feed all Bay Area residents,” Kraus said. “For a fraction of the money running through the virtual-tech world these working landscapes could be protected. The time has come to make investments in agricultural resources and local food systems synonymous with regional sustainability planning.”
Pollinator Protector: Orley “Chip” Taylor, Monarch Watch (Lawrence, KS—University of Kansas)
Since insect ecologist Chip Taylor founded Monarch Watch in 1992, the organization has enlisted thousands of citizens to protect the monarch butterfly from extinction. The butterfly’s numbers have sunk to 10 percent of what they were in 1996, largely because milkweed—the only food source for monarch larvae and where adults lay their eggs—has been wiped out by herbicides and the relentless expansion of corn and soy acres in the Midwest. Based out of the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted hundreds of thousands of volunteers each year to track the butterfly’s population and advocate for its protection. Now Taylor is on a crusade to plant new milkweed habitat through Monarch Watch’s “Bring the Monarch Back” initiative. Beginning in 2005, the program has sent milkweed plugs to over 160,000 schools, parks and home gardens, creating vital fuel sources for butterflies on their migration path from Canada to Mexico. For Taylor, the monarch’s decline signals a larger crisis affecting all pollinators, upon whom much of our food system and the food sources of so many animals depend.
“By planting milkweeds and other nectar rich flowers, we offer an invaluable lifeline to monarchs and their fellow pollinators. So start a milkweed project at a school, church or nature center. And spur the demand for food that’s pesticide-free and pollinator-friendly,” said Taylor.
Food and Farm Educator: John Reganold, Washington State University (Pullman, WA)
For Regents Professor John Reganold, the best classroom is a farm and the best textbook is a handful of dirt. In a career spanning more than three decades, Reganold is regarded as an internationally renowned soil scientist and one of Washington State University’s most beloved teachers. He founded the first organic agriculture major in the U.S. and the nation’s largest certified organic teaching farm at WSU. Backed by academic research from more than 1000 farms on four continents, he has bravely called upon students, scientists and policymakers to reimagine conventional farming in America. Reganold has helped train the next generation of sustainability leaders, with more than 4000 undergraduate students in his classes to date. He stands at the frontlines of an educational movement, determined to transition farmland away from toxic chemicals and the marks of erosion, toward healthy soils and sustainable, abundant harvests.
“I urge students in my classes to consider soil science in the broader picture of American agricultural policy, because ultimately it’s not enough just to churn data—we have to apply it,” Reganold said. “We have to stop judging a farm by the size of its yield and start considering the health of its soil, the happiness of its employees and the financial stability of its owners.”
The 2014 Growing Green Awards panel of judges included Gary Hirshberg, founder and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm; Kathleen Merrigan, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture; Fred Kirschenmann, President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York; and Russ Kremer, the 2013 winner of the Growing Green Awards Food Producer Award.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>