Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Organic Farming's Energy Efficiency

I subscribe to Stoneyfield Farm's monthly newsletter. For those not familiar with Stoneyfield, they are an organic yogurt producer in the United States (Western?). This month, they linked to a very interesting report by The Organic Center analyzing the energy consumption of our food supply, specifically comparing Organic production with non-organic production. The report provided greater insight into the industry, and gives me one more reason to buy organic.

You can access a 2 page summary here, or the full 40 page version here.

Some interesting statistic from the report

  • The American food system uses 19% of the nation's total fossil energy use - 7% for production, 7% for processing/packaging, and 5% for distribution.
  • It takes about 30% less energy to produce a bushel of organic corn, than a bushel of non-organic, although it requires 25% more labor.
  • It takes 20% less energy to produce organic soybeans than conventional.
  • The biggest difference is in nitrogen fertilizer consumption and pesticide use which is very dependent upon fossil fuels.
  • Soil erosion was significantly reduced in organic production.
  • Water resources were conserved in organic production. (organic farm yields were 30-50% higher in drought years than non-organic).
  • An organic grass fed beef operation requires 50% less fossil energy than conventional grain-fed systems.

It is a very interesting read.

Karyn and I have converted to organic foods as much as possible. This was before knowing the above facts. I hope we can continue to improve our food supply, and decrease our energy consumption in the process. Seems like a win-win to me.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Returning to Nature

I came across this article on the TreeHugger Blog about natural cemeteries. This is a topic that I think about occasionally, usually when I pass by a large cemetery. I think the Green Springs Natural Cemetery is a step in the right direction, but it falls short of what I would like to see in the world.

In general, the burial processes in the United States are non-sustainable, hypocritical, and outright bizarre from a nature perspective. I am strongly opposed to displacing nature by creating a cemetery so that we as people can be preserved forever with toxic chemicals. We then hypocritically claim that by doing so we are returning to nature after death.

My thoughts on the topic are first and foremost, that I do not believe I should consume land on this planet after I die. This planet should be available for life after I die, not for my remains. This is one place where the natural cemetery mentioned above falls short. The second issue is the embalming process. The specific injection of toxic chemicals into the ground. It is good to hear that this is an optional process. My Will instructions currently say that I wish to be cremated. This is considered the best alternative as it does not consume land, but does consume a great deal of energy and pollutes at the same time.

My ideal would be to either be buried in a shallow grave naturally (no box) or just laid out on top of the land for nature to take its course. The biological processes are fairly efficient at cleaning up the waste and truly returning our bodies to nature. I have watched in Yellowstone National Park where a full sized bison is literally returned to the land in a period of 5-7 days, with nearly all traces gone within a month or two. Millions of animals die every day and this is the process that returns their nutrients to the planet, why not use it for us?

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Idaho Wolf Kill Proposal Rejected by the Federal Government

In February of this year, I started this blog because I had a number of things to say. One of the first topics was about a controversial plan that the Idaho State Fish and Game Department had to kill 80% of the wolves in a particular area of Idaho (a total of 43 wolves in the Lolo Region). You can read my original post here which includes a link to the proposal and my comments against their plan. This plan was proposed just three days after the state took over management of wolves in Idaho. The plan was based on poor science, bad assumptions, and did nothing to address the real issue at hand - the fact that the Clearwater elk herd was in trouble through human actions long before wolves were reintroduced to Idaho.

In March we received word that, after reviewing over 40,000 comments on the proposal, 99% against, the Fish and Game commission voted unanimously to continue anyway. My blog post is here.

Well the news came out today that the Feds, also citing bad science, rejected Idaho's plan. This is a tremendous victory for the wolves, the environment, the people of Idaho, and reasonable minds. It sets the expectation that wildlife should be managed by science not politics.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Idaho Bird Observatory - September 4, 2006

Karyn and I returned from our labor day camping trip a day early so that we could visit the Idaho Bird Observatory on Monday morning.

"The Idaho Bird Observatory (IBO) is a cooperative, non-profit research and education organization that conducts long-term monitoring of western migratory landbird populations and promotes public education, involvement, and wildlife viewing".

We had conflicting information about what time we were supposed to be there. One item said sunrise and the other said 8am (about a hour later this time of year). Not knowing if we had to be precisely on time added to my over-obsession with being on time, we of course chose the earlier of the two. Our friend Julie decided to go along as well. The road to the observatory is a very steep road requiring a high clearance vehicle. The observatory is located on Lucky Peak (the mountain not the identically named reservoir in the bottom of the valley). We arrived in plenty of time to acquaint ourselves and head out on the first patrol. We found out that you don't have to be there at any particular time. The team begins work at sun up and works for 5 hours.
Yellow-rump Warblers (Butter Butts) (click to enlarge)
The IBO project involves netting landbirds, weighing and measuring them, noting likely age, banding them, and then releasing them. All of the data is recorded for research and tracking purposes. The team has a series of eight vertical nets in the brush that catch the birds as they fly from bush to bush. Every 30 minutes the team will patrol the nets, removing any captured birds and placing them in cloth bags. They then carry the birds back to the research station where all of the measurements are taken. As an observer you are free to go on the patrols, or just wait at the station until the staff returns with the captured birds. The staff was extremely helpful in answering questions and showing the process. They even let us release some of the birds.
MacGillivray's Warbler
For the first hour and a half it was just the three of us and the staff, providing lots of interaction and learning opportunities. About 8:30, the local chapter of the Audubon society showed up, decreasing some of our direct interaction, but it was still very educational. We stayed until 11:30 before return to Boise.

The list of birds banded while we were there: Hammond's Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Warbling-Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Western Tanager, and Lazuli Bunting.
Overall the experience was very educational from a bird biology, bird identification, and migration perspective. It was fascinating to see the birds up close and observe subtle differences that I would never notice in the field. The staff was extremely helpful in answering questions and providing their insight and perspective. While our entire experience was positive, I couldn't help but get the uncomfortable feeling that we were being too disruptive to nature. The staff took every measure possible to ensure the safety of the birds, yet they were being captured in nets and handled by people. This is the same feeling I get about wolves being collared and leatherback turtles being harnessed. I understand it is necessary for us to help the species as a whole, but it is still obtrusive to the individual. I dream of a day when this is not necessary.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this experience to others and I plan to participate again myself.

The IBO also has a hawk watch program which is just ramping up for the fall and an owl watch program. We hope to participate in these as well.

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