In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

Photo courtesy of WallyG at

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Green news is good news (mostly)

Photo courtesy of Ted Abbott at

A lot of news about the environment lately has been good news – there are huge solar arrays being built, energy efficiency is improving by leaps and bounds, and more people are recycling today than even knew what recycling was 20 years ago. But, there’s some bad news on the environmental desk too.

For starters, the ailing economy is threatening to undermine recycling programs nationwide. Demand for commodities has fallen so quickly that we have a surplus of many raw materials, and those surplus materials are exerting negative price pressure on recycled ingredients. Don’t worry though – runaway inflation in the first quarter of 2009 should “solve” those problems.

A controversy is brewing in the world of organic food. Several large organic suppliers have been caught using unapproved farming techniques in their overseas operations, and the FDA is reviewing their certification. This is a little bit of a good news / bad news situation, because the problem was caught before harm was inflicted and it’s a sign that the internal reviews are working to catch abuse.

A lot of politicians are burning the midnight oil before their terms in office expire, and this means that some poorly crafted laws, rules, and regulations are on the way. One of the most worrisome developments is that the Endangered Species Act is being undermined by rule changes within the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department has assigned only 15 people to review more than 200,000 unique comments… that means a lot of comments are going to be brushed off and ignored, and that the rule changes will likely face a legal challenge.

Okay, now on to the good news.

With automakers begging Congress for a bailout, there’s a lot of attention focused on their business plans. Last year, they were offered a $25 Billion line of credit to develop fuel efficient cars, and these green strings have been cut from the older loan. Just to confuse things, the Big 3 are asking for another $34 Billion dollars to fund their operations, which really makes you wonder if they forgot about the treat they were already given. Now that the funds have been released for GM, Ford, and Chrysler to use at their discretion, there’s still a good chance that some of the money will be used to make fuel efficiency improvements. Consumer preferences have shifted towards improved mileage, but there’s no consensus about how green the cars of the future will be.

There are a lot of competing standards for determining the “greenest car” on the road. Some carmakers stress miles driven per gallon of fuel, while others focus on the grams of CO2 emitted per mile driven, or the amount of smog causing particulates that are released. These competing claims can be very confusing, and the confusion allows some car makers to greenwash their dirtier vehicles with misleading claims. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear mechanism to weigh the eco-credentials of competing cars. Now though, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a new standard that combines air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The new SmartWay Certification Program, is designed to highlight best in class vehicles just as the EnergyStar rating system highlights efficient appliances. Honda was able to secure the first top rating for a vehicle – they earned Smartway Elite certification with their Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda GX (a natural gas powered car). Hopefully, American car manufacturers are following close behind.

Cars are raising environmental awareness in other ways too. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow are driving cross country to gather signatures for the White House Organic Farm petition. The bus was donated by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame) and has a very unusual container garden built into the roof. If you see a strange bus that looks like it had a collision with another bus and kept driving, ask for Daniel or Casey.

To bring this post full circle, here’s some good news about recycling. If you still have any McCain, Obama, or other political signs sitting around from election 2008, don’t throw them out. Waste management experts have found a way to recycle corrugated plastic campaign signs!

Organic farming is at least 90% as efficient as conventional agriculture.

Photo courtesy of millwhistle at

One of the criticisms of organic food is that pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and hormone injections are necessary to produce enough food to feed the world. Naysayers often regard organic food as an indulgence of the wealthy and argue that widespread adoption of organic practices could lead to mass starvation.

This idea has legs, despite being repeatedly discredited. A study in 2002 found that organically grown apple orchards produce comparable outputs to other methods. And just this week, the University of Wisconsin found that organic alfalfa, wheat, corn, and soy beans yield a comparable or even superior harvest to conventionally grown crops.

In this research they found that: organic forage crops yielded as much or more dry matter as their conventional counterparts with quality sufficient to produce as much milk as the conventional systems; and organic grain crops: corn, soybean, and winter wheat produced 90% as well as their conventionally managed counterparts

These results are good news for organic farmers as well as organic consumers. While organic foods and clothes account for just a tiny share of the consumer market today, the organic market is expected to double in size by 2011. If the naysayers are right, this shift in production would reduce supplies at the same time that global demand for high grade food is exploding. Thankfully, organic food has proven that it can meet or exceed dietary needs.

This doesn’t mean that buying organic food is always the best choice. For some foods, the organic label is essentially meaningless (because they aren’t generally grown with fertilizer or pesticides) but foods with the organic label may be priced significantly higher. If you’re on a budget, here’s a list of the 12 foods where buying organic matters the most. These foods are among those most heavily contaminated with pesticides, or where pesticides are often found that pose the greatest risk to humans.

Also, it’s important to consider calorie miles when choosing your food. If the source of organic food is halfway around the world, the food miles spent to bring it to the grocery store can offset the environmental benefits. To raise awareness of food miles, several countries are considering banning organic labels from food that travels by airplane.

Photo courtesy of lillylain at

Start Drinking Organic Millk

For some, going completely organic with all of your food purchases is overwhelming and often expensive. So consider starting out small, buying a few organic products and building from there. Did you know that a lot of people make the leap to organic products with milk?

Organic milk is a familiar sight in most dairy sections around the country, so it’s an easy gateway to other organic products.

Organic milk has several benefits. For starters, to be labeled by the USDA as “organic,” it must come from cows that have not been treated with any Bovine Growth Hormone. Just to be clear, if you are drinking regular milk, the growth hormone doesn’t show up in your milk just because it is given to a cow. But it gives you peace of mind knowing that the milk you are drinking wasn’t conjured up by giving artificial hormones to cows. Another benefit of organic milk is that it only comes from cows that were not treated with any antibiotics. But you don’t have to worry about the cows. If a cow gets sick, it can still be treated with antibiotics to get well, if they are necessary. Those cows just can’t produce milk with the rest of the herd for one year. Finally, cows that make organic milk also have to be given feed grown without organic pesticides, whether it is grass or grains. And the cows must have access to pasture.

Most organic milk is ultra-pasteurized. That means instead of being heated to 162 degrees for 15 seconds like regular pasteurization, ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to 280 degrees for two seconds, then chilled. The sell-date on ultra-pasteurized milk can be several weeks after the date of purchase, so for a small family or business that doesn’t use milk every day, organic milk is a great way to not be wasteful because it lasts longer. If your milk at home sometimes goes bad before you have a chance to drink it all, then you might actually save money by drinking organic.

Organic milk also uses less energy to produce and creates less waste than non-organic milk since there are no pesticides and chemicals and all the stuff that goes along with that involved. Using less energy to create something just as good or better just makes sense.

So next time you head to the grocery store or super market, try out the organic milk if you aren’t drinking it already. Unless you’re vegan. In that case, go with the organic soy.

Cows, cow farts, fertilizer and climate change / global warming

Photo courtesy of rmrayner at

When governments talk about fighting global warming, they put a lot of emphasis on reducing industrial emissions. But, agriculture is responsible for a surprisingly large share of the gases that cause climate change. By some estimates, emissions from fertilizer, animals, and farm equipment account for about 20% of all global warming gases.

Overuse of synthetic fertilizers is a major problem because some of the chemicals in these fertilizers trap heat better than Carbon Dioxide. For instance, Nitrous Oxide can retain 300 times as much heat as CO2. There are many superior organic alternatives, but these account for only a fraction of the fertilizers used today.

Farm animals are another major source of global warming gases. As cows, goats, and sheep digest food, they release a high volume of methane. Cows are responsible for about 75% of all methane made by farm animals. That’s another potent gas behind global warming – Methane is about 25 times better at trapping heat than CO2.

It may be possible to reduce these emissions with big, sweeping government policy. But, if you want to make a difference, change starts in the grocery aisle. The next time you go to the grocery store, consider produce that’s raised with organic fertilizer and leave those slabs of prime rib in the grocer’s freezer. Your body will thank you, and you can breathe easier too!

Photo courtesy of OutdoorAlex at