Growing Green Awards: How Organic Farming Promotes a Sustainable Economy
By Larry Jacobs
The food we eat every day is intimately connected to our health and the health of the environment. Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) fifth annual Growing Green Awards celebrates the food producers, businesses, activists and bold thinkers who are making America’s food system healthier and more sustainable.
This year’s winners were selected from more than 200 nominees in the categories of food producer, business leader, food justice leader and young food leader by a panel of sustainable food and agriculture thought-leaders, including Michael Anthony, executive chef and partner at New York’s long-established and celebrated Gramercy Tavern; Gabe Brown, internationally-recognized soil health champion and 2012 Growing Green Award Food Producer winner; Marion Nestle, award-winning food policy author, professor and one of the nation’s most influential food thought-leaders; and Nell Newman, co-founder and president of Newman’s Own Organics.
This guest post originally appeared on OnEarth. It is one of four by the winners of NRDC’s fifth annual Growing Green Awards, which celebrate the farmers, business owners and bold thinkers who are making America’s food system healthier and more sustainable. See posts from all winners here.
"The only good aphid is a dead aphid" used to be my mantra. I would walk up and down rows of plotted trees, spraying the plants with Metasystox, oblivious to the risks to my own health. I didn’t bother with rubber gloves, a mask, or even rubber boots, leaving my skin exposed to this toxic pesticide. With the lid to the pesticide sprayer not properly sealed, Metasystox leaked down my back. Dizzy with nausea, I passed out. This was my harsh introduction to pesticides. It was also the last time I ever used anything toxic on my crops.
The reality of our dependence on toxic pesticides in the U.S. and around the world can be hard to stomach. The toxic chemicals we spray on our crops aren’t just killing pests—they’ve been linked to cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects and other health risks for humans. In recent years, we’ve made some progress: our organophosphate use is down 85 percent from 228 million pounds in 1980 to 33 million pounds in 2007. The holy grail of soil fumigants, Methyl Bromide, declined 10 million pounds between 2001 and 2007.
Still, we remain addicted to toxic pesticides to the tune of one billion pounds applied to U.S. farms, forests, lawns and golf courses each year, unnecessarily putting our health on the line every day.
I first started working with pesticides in my early twenties, when I grew pine trees in southern California. On a routine inspection, the county agricultural inspector discovered tiny green aphids in my nursery. They had to go, he said. So the inspector recommended a solution: a brown jug labeled with a skull and cross bones: Metasystox.
You’ll remember that this story doesn’t end well for me. Metasystox is extremely toxic, gets absorbed into plant tissue, and doesn’t wash off. Fortunately, the pesticide was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988. But that was too late for me. I found myself on the ground, dizzy and sick, and vowed never to use pesticides again.
I knew there had to be a better way. I got my first peek into the wonders of the insect world from a good friend, Everet (Deke) Dietrich, who was raising beneficial insects in Ventura, California. After all, as Deke pointed out, forests, meadows, and hillsides aren’t ravaged by chewing and sucking insects—other bugs naturally eat them, allowing plants to thrive. So I introduced green lacewing larvae into my nursery. Lacewing larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids. It worked.
It’s this same toxic-free principle of healthy and natural pest management that serves the foundation of everything we do at Jacobs Farm. Tucked away in a coastal valley near Pescadero (a hamlet on the California coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz), by the mid-1980s Jacobs Farm had become a successful organic venture. While others were skeptical about organic growing, my wife Sandra and I were committed to growing food that was healthy and fresh. We started with elephant garlic, peas, broccoli, squash and berries, gradually moving on to fresh culinary herbs. Today, we’re proud to be the nation’s largest producer of fresh cut organic herbs.
But growing without pesticides wasn’t the only thing on our minds. On a visit to Mexico in 1985, Sandra and I were lucky enough to meet farmers who were struggling to make it in their small town of 10,000 people. We knew the difficulties of growing, and wanted to help link these growers to larger markets, so they could feed their families well into the future. With this goal in mind, we started the Del Cabo cooperative that same year, with the explicit goal of creating economic opportunities for small-scale farmers at the tip of the Baja California peninsula. Our plan was simple: teach organic farming practices, create an organization that aggregates supplies and production, and connect them to winter markets in the United States. We began with eight families.
Getting started was anything but easy. The Baja was isolated from mainland Mexico by the Sea of Cortez, connected to California only through a windy, narrow two-lane road to the north of the peninsula. Supplies were scarce. For clothes or kitchen ware we'd drive three hours to La Paz. PVC fittings we'd bring down from San Diego, more than 800 miles away. At times, we feared the farms would disappear, as the region was branded “Los Cabos” and targeted to become a mega tourist destination. Would these farmers be forced to become dish washers and waiters?
What began in 1985 with eight skeptical families now includes more than a thousand families, encompassing the entire length of the Baja peninsula and mainland Mexico. With new access to U.S. markets, family incomes have increased ten-fold from an average $3,000 USD per year to $28,000 by 1990. Del Cabo replaced pressure to leave home, farm, and family for a better life in “el norte.” While many of the founding farmers have passed, their children and grandchildren continue making a decent living growing organic food. Del Cabo continues to expand, forming an alliance with Fairtrasa, a like-minded Swiss company working in Peru, Chile and Argentina, and is today planting the Del Cabo model in Guatemala and Tanzania.
Del Cabo's impact is perhaps best told by the families involved. One single mother, who grew basil and cherry tomatoes while raising two children, proudly told me that her basil harvest paid for her daughter's medical school and her son’s law education. For another family, organic farming helped encourage “reverse migration,” where the Espinoza brothers returned to their family farm from Los Angeles, where they were previously working illegally as welders.
We know that growing food is not trivial. Insects ravage crops. And when your livelihood depends on a successful harvest, it is easy to understand why farmers resort to pesticides that offer immediate, but often short-term and short-sighted solutions to complex problems. We know old and new innovative pesticide-free solutions to feed soil and plant health exist. And with our company Farm Fuel, Inc., we’re working with some of the nation’s best scientists and researchers to identify and scale up these ideas in the laboratories to bring productive solutions to our farmers’ fields.
We started working with Robert Van Buskirk, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Labs now with the Department of Energy, to grow Salicornia, a saltwater marsh plant, as an oil seed for biodiesel. This evolved to mustard because it grows with California's winter rains on open fields and hillsides.
Speaking of mustard, Dr. Matt Mora at University of Idaho is an expert in mustard plant chemistry. We're interested in their glucosinolates, the hot stuff you taste when you put mustard on your hot dog. With Matt's help, Farm Fuel developed a soil amendment that appears to create soils suppressive to fungal diseases and nematodes. Farmers who couldn't grow a straight carrot without fumigating with a nematicide now have a soil amendment that does a better job.
Joji Murimoto and Carol Shennan, researchers at University California Santa Cruz, adapted a soil treatment from Japan that uses short chain carbons (think rice bran or molasses) to accelerate an anaerobic soil reaction that will replace the widely used toxic soil fumigant Methyl Bromide. Farm Fuel saw the early potential and need to rapidly scale up and make this treatment widely available to provide growers with a management tool that provides comparable or better yields than chemical soil fumigants.
Dr. Jeff Aldrich, an entomologist and specialist in how plants and insects communicate, is helping us develop pesticide-free tools for farmers to increase populations of beneficial insects used to decrease populations of plant feeding insects. Lacewings have a voracious appetite for aphids, insects that feed on plant sap. Jeff discovered a chemical that attracts Chrysopa, a genus of lacewing that we hope to use to increase productive populations of in farms when needed.
With this NRDC Growing Green Award, we hope to encourage other businesses, farmers and innovators to join us in growing healthy food in a healthier way. Despite the skills required to manage soils, water systems, plants, people, and the vagaries of weather, insects, diseases, and markets, farming may never provide the financial rewards of other higher profile jobs. Farmers may never be household names like great athletes or movie stars. But we can’t think of anything more important and fulfilling than finding ways to grow healthy food without poisoning the planet. Like so many other good food stewards, we’re working to support healthy families, communities and economies, and are very thankful to NRDC for this award.
Visit EcoWatch’s SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE page for more related news on this topic.
The National Hurricane Center has run out of names for tropical storms this year and has now moved on to the Greek alphabet during an extremely active hurricane season. Late Monday night, Tropical Storm Beta became the ninth named storm to make landfall. That's the first time so many named storms have made landfall since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was president, according to NBC News.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
Between 2000 and 2013, Earth lost an area of undisturbed ecosystems roughly the size of Mexico.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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