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.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
Is More CBD Really Better?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzYxMDMzN30.6B08i5QYW_Iq5bUf3qtm8oK8o6FKsRUZ74gdakgJ_TY/img.jpg?width=980" id="0ef5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bac86abf3ce246742b18b0dc4052f4dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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The Truth About CBD Product Potency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODMyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDc2NTg1N30.OAm3iOTO_pKZLXi7KdJ7n0DGOFMdOmIYuG4ArGooFC4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d657c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee016a81b29caa699b9185b64ce345d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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