Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sustainability and Meat Production

The New York Times has a great article on Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler. In the article they analyze the impact of our meat production on the world, specifically the huge resource consumption required to raise beef.  They compare meat production to oil - its subsidized by the government, demand is accelerating, and we are increasingly encouraged to consume less of it.

One interesting statistic is that between 1961 and 2007, the production has quadrupled with per capita consumption has more than doubled. It is expected to double again in the next 40 years.  The fact that meat production is intertwined with other staple food products and fuel consumption, will have significant price increase pressure on those other products which will effect all of the world. The article states specifically that while "800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feed cattle, pigs, and chickens."  Why is this important? Because it requires 2-5 times more grain to create the same number of calories in pigs and chickens, and up to 10 times more grain to produce the same calories in beef.

The article goes on to talk about the other costs of this growth in meat consumption - price pressure on other food and fuel, land required to raise the meat, pollution, increased disease risk, etc.

So what is my solution to this problem? I for one, believe that we need to decrease the subsidies. Subsidies have a market focus pressure to increase consumption which has significant ramifications through the economy.  I believe in subsidies when it relates to something we want to encourage, but do we really believe at this point we should be encouraging greater unsustainable beef consumption? Understanding the impacts, I do not. I am sure there are hundreds of arguments for continuing the subsidies as there always are, but I think we need to look at the global impacts.

The trends and the lack of sustainability only drive in one direction - toward a nasty crash.  Thus, the question - deal with it while we still can (now), or wait for the melt down. Based on our other non-sustainable decisions on oil subsidies, personal and national debt, etc, I am not optimistic in a short term course correction.

I am definitely going to check out Michael Pollan's latest book In Defense of Food. I have appreciated two of his previous books related to our food chain, The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Peregrine Falcon Speed

Attached below is an amazing National Geographic video on measuring the speed of a Peregrine Falcon. The video is the best and clearest I have seen of a Peregrine Falcon in its Stoop.

I have always been fascinated with the Peregrine Falcon for its position as the fastest in the stoop of all raptors (242mph in the attached video!), its role as a keystone predator, its recovery from the brink of extinction, and that fact that they nest locally and I can watch them. Unfortunately I have yet to see one in a stoop in the wild. I hope to remedy that soon.

Thanks to grrlscientist at Living the Scientist Life for the link.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Otters!

I have written before about our unsuccessful attempts to find and photograph river otters in Idaho and in Yellowstone. What is often the case, you end up finding what you are looking for when you are not looking.

This weekend we went to McCall Idaho for a few days of cross country skiing. We pulled into the city park and right in front of us were two Northern River Otters playing at the edge of the ice on mostly frozen Payette Lake. By the time I got the camera out, they were gone.  We waited for a while, but they did not return. Just as we were leaving to go ski, Karyn spotted them again.  This time they provided numerous posed for the camera.  Here are a few. Note the second otter in the water in the first photograph.

We returned after skiing and again the next day, but we couldn't find them again. Karyn did get this great photo of our sunset. The skiing was also excellent.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The Ways of Nature

Last week I wrote about my Backyard Siskin Invasion, the influx of about 40 Pine Siskin birds to my bird feeders. This week nature did what it does best. It tried to balance out the ecosystem and ensure that a given species doesn't spend too much time in one place and overrun the local food supply. It did so by introducing a predator into the mix. Not just any predator, but a keystone predator.

We initially saw an American Kestrel fly through the yard, chasing the Pine Siskins and House Finches, then this Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up and perched in the yard.  The Sharp-shinned Hawk is demonstrating its signature squared off tail with a central notch.

The presence of the bird feeders in our yard modified the behavior of the Siskins by attracting them to the yard. The presence of the Siskins modified the behavior of the Hawk by drawing him to our yard.  Now the presence of the Hawk has modified the behavior of the Siskins.  They still come to eat, but spend less time and are likely much more alert.  This is a small example of how nature operates. 

It fascinates me that people believe that the absence of predators can be a good thing. Repeated studies have shown that prey species are healthier in the presence of predators.  That the Trophic Cascade of the effects of keystone predators down through the food chain can have dramatic positive effects throughout the ecosystem and help the ecosystem to better respond to other stresses. The foundations of this concept have been known for 150 years, but our policies still reflect an absence of understanding.

Regardless, it is wonderful to have this brief and intimate view into the process at work.

Update 1/25/2008: This afternoon we had an American Kestrel fly through then a hour later two Sharp-shinned Hawks arrived! They stuck around the neighborhood for close to an hour.

Update 2/7/2008: This article featured in I and the Bird #68 blog carnival. "I and the Bird remains the undisputed champion of blog carnivals concerning birding and wild birds on the planet. Our far flung collaboration is still the best way for nature bloggers everywhere to reach an engaged, intelligent audience." - Mike Bergin, Founder of "I and the Bird".

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What's Worse - Cloned Cows or GM Vegetables?

I noticed the other day that the Food and Drug Administration concluded the meat and milk from cloned animals is as safe as meat and milk from conventionally bred animals.  I've read some blog entries and listened to some news reports on the subject and have spent some time thinking about it. While I am not a geneticist, I personally have concluded that this is not a positive development. I am likely to agree based on my knowledge that it is no more dangerous in the short term than conventionally bred animals, but do believe that it has significant long term risks to the worlds food supply. The reliance of any significant portion of our food supply means that particular portion is at greater risk to disease due to its lack of genetic diversity. In some cases this disease risk can result in a decrease in food supply, if that population should be wiped out, but more obscure would be the evolution of a new non-fatal hidden disease such as BSE (Mad Cow disease). As seems to be the case with government policy as of late, everything is focused on the short term.

What I think is far, far worse than cloned animals in our food supply is genetically modified foods, specifically those including pesticides. For some time now genetically modified potatoes have been available. Some of these potatoes include genes from an extremely toxic pesticide. The result is that the pesticide is inside the potato so that if the bugs eat the potato, they will die. The potato is so toxic that it is regulated by the environmental protection agency instead of the food and drug administration. The potato was being used in the french fries of a major global fast food chain until public outcry caused them to stop.  The potatoes are still sold in supermarkets where you as a consumer have no way of knowing that you are buying toxic potatoes. Oh, did I tell you that they can be sold as organic since pesticides are not applied to them? I hear the small government champions saying to let the market decide, but the market can only decide if information is available.

The two best books I've read on our current food chain are both by Michael Pollan - The Omnivore's Dilemma and the Botany of Desire. The Botany of Desire discusses the GM potato in great depth.  They are both great reads.

In conclusion I am frightened by the acceptance of cloned animals in the food supply, but am completely freaked out about GM fruits and vegetables.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Backyard Siskin Invasion

We have had bird feeders in our backyard for about a year now. These have attracted a variety of birds including the usual House Finches and House Sparrows, but also Black-capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, and at least one Steller's Jay.  As the number of birds visiting our yard has increased, I have added feeder capacity to ensure food supply when we are not around.

Last week a group of about 40 Pine Siskins discovered our yard. They have visited our yard multiple times a day ever since. The largest number of Siskins before that was 6-8. They flock around the 4 feeders, bumping each other out of the way to get access to the food. Since our feeders only have places for about 20 birds, the other 20 usually feed on the spilled food lying on the ground.  When the Siskins show up they are usually accompanied by 1 or 2 Goldfinches, 10-12 House Sparrows, 6-8 House Finches, and a handful of Dark-eyed Juncos. The result is a blurred cloud of birds flying in all directions. All of this action does not go unnoticed. After about 15 minutes of feeding a predator shows up. Swooping through the yard is a raptor of some sort.  On one occasion, Karyn saw a Merlin.  Today I believe it was a American Kestrel that swooped through trying to catch a bird. Sharp-shinned Hawks are also common at feeders in our area, so that is also a possibility.  When the predator arrives the Siskins and other birds dive for cover in our trees and then fly off in a tight flock a few moments later.

Its fun to watch the various feeding behaviors of the birds.  The Dark-eyed Juncos rarely eat at the feeders. They usually eat the spilled food on the ground and eat the seeds of our native sunflowers. The American Goldfinches eat at the feeders in the spring, but stick to the sunflowers the rest of the year.  The Pine Siskins like the sunflowers as well, but are seen at all of the feeders, eating all types of food. The House Sparrows stick to the platform feeder.  The House Finches eat at all of the feeders, but stay away from the sunflowers.  I am not sure their beak allows them to eat our small sunflower seeds. The newest addition to the feeders was a thistle feeder where the birds have to hang upside down to eat (pictured above on the right). I wasn't sure how fast they would figure it out. Within 15 minutes of hanging the feeder is was filled to capacity with 6 Siskins.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Aldo Leopold

For Christmas Karyn bought me a book by Aldo Leopold - A Sand County Almanac. I have been interested in Aldo Leopold as a very early conservationist. This book was published in 1949. Leopold was one of the first people to write about the importance of healthy eco-systems and specifically the role of a top predator in that eco-system. Its for this reason that the first naturally created wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park after reintroduction was named in his honor.

From the foreward:

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot."

He writes regarding the howl of the wolf:

"Every living thing pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.  Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."

One of the more dramatic portions of the book, he describes the killing of a wolf:

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

The book moves from the analysis of healthy eco-systems, to the preservation of wilderness, to hunting ethics, to the flaws in modern wildlife management, to the over use of the land.   As a property owner, farmer, and hunter, he has a great and reputable perspective on what sustainability means to him. Its a great read.

Its clear that we as a society have learned little since the book was written.  Nearly every threat to bio-diversity that he discusses in the book has escalated with catastrophic results.  It amazes me that in the overwhelming face of science for 60+ years (actually hundreds of years) we have sat back and watched species go extinct on our watch. We've watched the cascading effects of this. And yet, we still have public debates on whether we should have wilderness, whether predators have a right to live, whether there is value in native plants, etc.

As you could probably tell, I highly recommend the book.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

First Ski Race of the Year

Yesterday was the Tamarack Loppet, my first cross country ski race of the year.  This has been one of my favorite races of recent years, but the race organization and course changed this year. The Idaho Nordic ski club had promoted the race, but this year they focused and applied their series points to a Classic Ski race near Sun Valley scheduled on the same weekend. This left the Tamarack Nordic center to organize the event themselves. While they did a great job with the event, the promotion was weak and the turn out very poor.  There were only 12 skiers racing in the 30km event.  Another 8 people entered the 15k event. This compared to about 100+ last year.  The weather likely played a factor in the low turnout as I will describe later.

I viewed this race as a training event for the much larger Boulder Mountain Tour next month.  I wanted to get in some good hard distance to test my fitness and get my body used to the challenge. In the past a long event 3-4 weeks prior to my big event (Boulder Mountain tour) has worked out very well.

The race was held on Saturday January 5th.  This was the weekend of the largest storm of the year to hit the west coast. High winds and 20+ inches of snow in the few days leading up to the event.  In fact, the power was out at the resort when we arrived at the race. It was snowing heavily and the winds were in the 20-30 mph range out of the South. The race organization was doing everything they could to keep the course groomed and race ready.  They had two snow cats grooming the course.  Right before the start they even took out a snowmobile with a roller right in front of the race. The new snow and the high winds drifting snow across the course made all of this effort near futile.

The course was 7.5km in length, thus we would complete 4 laps for the 30km event. The outward portion of the loop provided some protection with trees and building decreasing the force of the headwind and drifting snow. It was still quite deep and soft making it very difficult to use good skate form. It felt like skiing in mashed potatoes. Near the outward end of the course there was a stretch straight into the wind completely exposed. Groppel was blasting us in the face. This was very difficult until the course slowly turned into a tailwind. The tailwind wasn't all its cracked up to be as the drifting snow made large soft lumps in the trail. Thus one moment I was skiing on hardpacked windblown fast snow, the next I was buried in a foot of soft powder with my skis completely stopped. I spent the whole stretch just fighting the transitions. After this the course entered a beautiful stretch through a nice forest.  Here I only had to fight the 1-2 inches of new powder since the last grooming. Exiting the forest was a 1km stretch perpendicular to the wind. The drifts were up to a foot deep.  The blowing wind made it nearly impossible to see and I had difficulty staying on the trail. Another tailwind stretch, then the worst part of the course, an uphill stretch perpendicular to the wind. The drifts were so deep, this part was unskiable. I basically herring boned up the hill. This brought me back to the start/finish and the completion of the first lap. Ouch.  I finished the first lap in 6th place out of the field of 12 skiers. My first split time was right at 30 minutes.

The misery continued as I was not smart enough to call it and head for the car. Back into the wind.  It was snowing harder now. I started to get a side ache and still couldn't bring my form around.  Skate skiing is a sport that requires very precise form. When your form deteriorates, you work harder to maintain the same speed. This causes fatigue which further degrades your form. It is a downward spiral. I was passed by one skier, but he skied off the course into the deep powder and lost time getting back on course.  I once again finished the lap in 6th place with a split time of 31 minutes. Still not smart enough to quit I started lap 3. A group of three of us were skiing together now.  The man who skied off course caught back up and I was caught by a woman from McCall Idaho. We skied most the next lap together until I crashed on the final climb completing the loop.  I lost about 30 seconds to the two of them and finished the lap in 8th place with my lap time dropping to 34 minutes.

The final lap was more difficult still as I was using many muscles to get through the deep snow that I don't usually use or train. These muscles were screaming under the strain. I was working hard to catch back up with the two in front of me, but I just couldn't reel them in. The visibility had improved so it was easier to see the snow drifts, but they were much deeper than on previous laps. My form was gone and I struggling even more. I finished the race in 8th place with a dismal 37 minute final lap. So much for the reverse splits I prefer to achieve.

My objective to ski a good hard race was clearly successful. I was completely wiped out after the event. The conditions prevented me from truly testing my form over that distance. I was never able to put it all together. I have some work to do before the Boulder Mountain Tour.  I can also say that it was my second worst misery in 10+ years of racing. The story of the worst will have to wait for another day.

The most positive result of the weekend is that the storm brought the critical Idaho snowpack up above normal levels. Hopefully this trend will continue. With warmer Springs it is critical that we exit the winter well above normal snowfall.

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