On a recent drive through rural Iowa, Joe and I stopped to talk with an elderly farmer. The first thing he said to us was how concerned he is about Iowa’s topsoil. It’s blowing off the fields and into the waterways. He plants row crops and uses some terracing to hold the soil, but still, it blows away. And he’s concerned.
As we drove a little farther, we stopped at a bridge. We walked out and looked at the river. Most of it was silt in the middle, with a little bit of water flowing around the edges. This was a dramatic representation of the farmer’s concerns. The soil in Iowa — and other states — is leaving the fields at an alarming rate.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian who serves as a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis, to speak to the issue of soil quality in farmland. Tagtow previously served 10 years at the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
TAGTOW: Having a registered dietitian talk about environmental resources and natural resources conservation is a little bit of an anomaly — I am often drawn to the work of Sir Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann. But the justification is there, because if you don’t have a healthy environment, you’re not going to be able to produce healthy food.
For me, the connection to soil started on our property more than 15 years ago. We live north of Elkhart, Iowa, and when we bought the property, we didn’t have the means of taking care of it. So we continued to cash-rent it to the farmer who sold it to us. Over the years, we noticed that we had a tremendous amount of erosion. We had flooding. We were witnessing a lot of destruction that we were not prepared to observe.
There was another thing that was quite disturbing — and this was anecdotal, not evidence based, but it supports a lot of the evidence out there. We have dogs that we take for a walk every evening around the perimeter of our land. We were cash-renting our land in 1999, and I happened to be on vacation one day in July or August when the Co-op came by and sprayed the soybeans. I didn’t think about it at the time, because it was part of our landscape; we see these folks almost every day on the road or in the field.
We took our ritual walk that evening, and within 24 hours, both dogs were sick. We noticed it was a perennial problem; both dogs would throw up at certain times of the year. But it didn’t really connect with me until after I was home that day and watched them spray the field. We decided, that because we did not know what chemicals were being put on the land, with the massive erosion, and the fact that our vegetable gardens near the house wouldn’t grow well, that we really needed to make a change. So in 2001, we planted our field in native tall-grass prairie.
Since then, we have seen a tremendous growth in the biodiversity of not only plant life, but insects and small animals. We even have worms. We didn’t have worms before, but we didn’t know that at the time, because everything was sanitized. So we’ve really been able to nourish the land again and restore it to the way it was. And we’re devoted to assuring that the biodiversity and the soil and water health continue. You see, biodiversity is the quintessential measure of overall health.
Folks don’t realize that we continue to lose a whole lot of soil every year. The Iowa Daily Erosion Project actually measures the amount of soil lost in Iowa. Just in 2008 alone — now, mind you, we had the floods in June of 2008 — about two-thirds of the counties had pockets that lost between 24 and 56 tons of soil per acre. And that’s just in 12 months.
What we often don’t think about is that once the soil is gone, it’s gone. It’s a finite resource. The question that I ask people is, What is your landscape going to look like in 50 or 100 years? Because when the soil is gone, we’re not going to have farms. Right now, 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape is in row crop production. 86 percent.
BPGL: We’ll be a dust bowl.
TAGTOW: If we have two to three years of drought, we’re going to be in dire straits. The connection between soil and biodiversity and healthy food has been near and dear to my heart, because I’ve experienced first hand the destruction of what conventional, industrial agricultural production in Iowa is all about.
Changing Policy to Conserve the Soil
BPGL: I can imagine someone reading this and saying, “Fine. You can afford to put your land into prairie grass, but I need to produce with my land.” What recommendation do you make to farmers who need to have their land in production but want to do better than they’re doing now?
TAGTOW: It comes back to incentives to farmers out of federal agriculture policy. Even though US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan have only been in office for a little over half a year, we’re already seeing significant changes in farm policies. Some new conservation stewardship programs are being launched this year — and they’re finally being funded. Farmers can look to these policies as an opportunity for increasing their land conservation and stewardship.
There needs to be greater incentive to farmers to do some things that conserve the soil, that clean the water and clean the air on their land, that decrease reliance on fossil fuels. Right now, our policies do not provide incentives to farmers to do that — in fact the current farm policies support large-scale, mono-cropping systems. The incentives for growing as much corn and soybeans as possible are greater than incentives for conserving the land, at this point.
BPGL: What kind of policy would you like to see regarding protection of the waterways from the chemicals that farmers apply — if they insist on applying chemicals?
TAGTOW: One thing we may see in the near future is that it’s almost becoming cost-prohibitive to apply farm chemicals unless you’re a very, very large corporate farm. So the cost of inputs may be the incentive for not applying them, which could possibly improve our water resources here in Iowa. But once again, we’re looking at conservation measures within policies that need to be changed. Can farmers be paid to increase their buffer strips around low-lying areas, around prairie pot holes, and around streams and rivers and lakes, or to grow cover crops?
Another part of this discussion is the application of manure from large-scale livestock facilities and the concentration of antibiotics, hormones or other toxins in that manure. However, I also want to note that the issues surrounding Iowa’s water quality is not solely linked to industrial farms. We need to closely examine waste-water discharge policies pertaining to homes, communities and businesses. There are opportunities for strengthening requirements and enforcements of waste-water discharge.
BPGL: We pretty much have a monoculture here in Iowa, with either corn or soybeans being grown year after year after year. What are your thoughts on the lack of biodiversity in this state (and perhaps in other states, with other crops)?
TAGTOW: We need to establish incentives for diversifying crops. It goes back to the conservation measure again. Right now we have such a fragile system in the fact that we’ve got 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape enrolled in agriculture — which is about 30 million acres. And knowing that the majority of that land is in two crops multiplies Iowa’s vulnerability and fragility. If one of those crops fails, for whatever reason, it puts the whole state in an economic bind.
From a biodiversity standpoint, this is where I connect it back to the health, not only environmental health, but being able to produce a food supply that promotes the health of Iowans as well. Back in the 1920s to 1930s, Iowa actually produced about 34 different crops — most of which actually stayed in Iowa and fed Iowans. Half of those crops at the time were fruits and vegetables. And we know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the foods that promote good health.
Since then, because of farm policy, because we have treated growing food as an economic driver versus growing food to support the food and health needs of Iowans, we have decreased the number of food crops that are actually grown in Iowa to about 11. And that is determined based on [crops produced by] at least one percent of the farms. If you look at that list of 11, based on the last US farm census, none of those are fruits and vegetables. We lost our fruits and vegetables on a significant scale back in the 1940s and 50s. We really haven’t grown a significant amount of fruits and vegetables in 50 or 60 years.
We need to put policies in place that offer incentives and supports to new or transitioning farmers to grow what the USDA likes to call “specialty crops” — fruits and vegetables. This is another way of both increasing the biodiversity of the foods that are grown here in Iowa, which is going to create better balance within the ecosystem, and providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables to Iowans that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve got a lot of farmers’ markets out there, which is great, but it’s pretty small in comparison to the amount of land that’s already dedicated to feeding livestock or producing ethanol.
BPGL: It seems an almost impossible challenge when farmers have so much money invested in their CAFOs or their equipment for farming corn and soybeans. How do you get farmers to change? Obviously, there need to be economic incentives, as you described, but is it doable?
TAGTOW: I think it is, but it’s going to take a long time. What is exciting is the creativity and ingenuity farmers do have in making conservation practices work. Unfortunately, I think something pretty significant needs to happen in order to create a 45-degree turn in the direction that we’re going. However, there are some great programs that are being launched, not only through USDA but also through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. They’re small, but they do represent change in a very positive direction to improve the health of Iowa.
There are also programs being offered by nonprofit organizations, such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Land Stewardship Project out of Minneapolis. There are many, many other nonprofit farming organizations offering these services and supports to farmers on being able to transition to more biodiverse crops, or to increase the amount of land dedicated to conservation, or to transition to organic farm practices. So that is a very positive sign, though it is small in comparison to the conglomerates we see out on our fields.
Who Will Own the Land?
BPGL: I keep hearing that it’s almost impossible for the family farm to stay alive. Once the older farmers retire or die, and their kids have the opportunity to take over, so often they either don’t want to or they can’t afford to; they have to sell off the property. Do you see any changes in policy that would help preserve the small family farm?
TAGTOW: Again, there is some advocacy work being done by certain groups on these issues, but the scary reality is, because of the average age of the farmer owners here in Iowa, we are going to see some of the largest land transfers in the next 20 to 25 years. And because of land prices, it’s not going to be family members who can afford to keep that land. There is a concern that land in Iowa will no longer be owned by individuals and families, but more land will be owned by corporations or even by other countries, because other countries are land-grabbing as well. For example, China and India are going to have some of the largest anticipated growth in population in the next 40 years, and they need to secure land to grow their own food.
BPGL: Is it likely then, if China and India grab up a lot of land in Iowa, that the food produced here will be shipped there and won’t support the people here in Iowa?
TAGTOW: Yes, but it is not much different than what’s happening now. With a lot of the farming that happens here, the products get exported out of Iowa. We don’t really garner the true economic benefit of what we grow here. Other companies that are outside of the state get the economic gain from our land.
We know that we’re going to have some of the largest land transfers here in Iowa. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the land owned in Iowa is owned by women. It’s starting to happen in Wisconsin — and a little bit in Iowa through Women, Food, and Agriculture Network — women are getting together. They’re collaborating on some of their decisions. They’re getting educated as to what their options are for transferring that land in the near future. Again, it’s happening on such a small scale. There isn’t any large, concerted effort into assuring that the land in Iowa is still here to benefit Iowans.
BPGL: And if there’s no soil left, it will be a moot question, anyway.
Eaters Don’t Know What’s in Our Food
BPGL: Another issue that many people are concerned about is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. What is your opinion about the use of GMO seeds and the health effects of the foods grown from them?
TAGTOW: The fact that here in Iowa we have so much of our land dedicated to two crops, of which a very large percentage are genetically modified, does deeply concern me. Agribusiness has moved these crops so swiftly onto land and into the backyards of farmers that we haven’t had a chance to ask those critical questions about what it means — now or for the future. The mono-cropping culture that exists here has led to environmental degradation — with all crops, whether they’re GMO or not.
From a health side, there is emerging evidence linking the potential ill health effects of genetically modified food both in animals and in humans. I am definitely an advocate of labeling GMO food. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near future, but again it comes back to the transparency issue. Eaters don’t know what’s in their food — and frankly, biotechnology is a complex issue.
I also take the position that humans weren’t biologically designed to consume a great amount of genetically modified foods. And now we’ve flooded the food supply with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, two main ingredients derived from GMO crops that are in a lot of processed, packaged foods — and do not contribute to a healthy diet. As a result of having very cheap raw materials, there are more and more ingredients that are derived from GMO corn and soybeans. I am one to question the appropriateness of flooding a human (and animal) food supply with crops that were not designed to promote health, but instead are designed to resist herbicides and pesticides.
It all comes back to what I said earlier: Healthy soil grows healthy foods, and healthy food nourishes healthy people, and we know that healthy people form healthy communities. That’s my way of connecting the health of our environment to the health of our food supply to the health of our communities.
Two Minutes with the President
BPGL: What would you say if you had two minutes with President Obama?
TAGTOW: The first thing that I would say is that the future health of this country is greatly dependent upon the health of children of today, and if we don’t change the way we feed children, the society within the United States is going to decline dramatically. I’d share the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” My first recommendation to the President is that we need to assure that all kids are fed fresh foods that promote health, and the best way of doing that is to connect schools with farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
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Perhaps you’ve dreamed of vacationing at a resort on a tropical island, surrounded by a luxury hotel with every convenience you could desire: Food and drink served in abundance in any number of dining locations. Beach chairs and umbrellas on the pristine sands of an exclusive beach. A swim bar in the middle of a sparkling pool for guests only. Nightclubs with live entertainment right on the property. Sophisticated staff from countries around the world. And a direct shuttle to carry you safely between the airport and the hotel.
Why would you care to venture out and see the island, with everything you need right here? And why would you want to meet the local people, when their extreme poverty would put a damper on your luxury vacation?
Then again, perhaps your idea of a vacation is a bit more about getting in touch with the earth and the local people. If so, the more authentic experience of ecotourism may appeal to you. The real point of ecotourism, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), is to help “protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet” — and, of course, to give you an adventure you’ll never forget.
Ecotour destinations are, by definition, places with exceptional beauty, unusual flora and fauna, rare ecosystems, unique traditional cultures, or some combination of these interesting and attractive drawing points. Theoretically, a quality ecotour provides an opportunity to experience and learn about our natural world, while appreciating and protecting these wild treasures. At the same time, the ecotourist’s travel budget provides local communities with a reliable source of economic support without disrupting or harming their traditional culture. That is a tall order.
In practice, some ecotour companies are careless or even exploitative on both counts. If you’re considering an ecotour adventure, do the research necessary to find a destination through a tour company that lives up to its pledge to protect the local culture and the environment.
Even well-intentioned ecotourism can be severely damaging, if the providers don’t take into account the area’s ability to support additional people. As environmental scientist Jagdish Poudel warned earlier this year in a post about his home country, Nepal, “Before starting to increase the number of tourists, we must do research on the balance of supply and demand of natural resources in the area. In order to improve the economic status of rural people, we should not degrade the [natural resources] and wildlife habitat, as that is not sustainable development.”
Examine Your Options
Ecotourism opportunities exist all over the world. In Europe, ecotourism tends to center on a farm or a house that functions as a kind of ecology-focused bed and breakfast. In Italy, ecotourism is likely to be called agriturismo, an acknowledgment of the agricultural focus of many destinations. In France, ecotourism is also called tourisme vert (green tourism). Ecotourism in the Americas is generally more concerned with outdoor adventuring, such as mountain climbing, hiking, or kayaking.
Extreme nature ecotours take adventurers to places like Antarctica, Galapagos Islands, or Patagonia. At some destinations, visitors are free to experience nature up close without much concern for minimizing their environmental impact. If you are looking into a tour of this sort, be sure that it truly is eco-friendly, and isn’t simply being greenwashed for marketing purposes.
Yet on other tours, such as those visiting Galapagos, tourists must follow strict guidelines about where they are allowed to walk and what they can touch, in order to protect the very fragile ecology. Carefully regulated excursions to Galapagos provide a model for ecologically conscious tourism in sensitive areas.
Ideally, ecotour companies should focus on both protecting the environment and providing a memorable experience. Each destination will be different, and the wise ecotourist will thoroughly examine the options before signing on for the journey.
Consider Your Impact
We believe that true ecotourism protects local cultures and empowers local and Indigenous peoples — while providing visitors with unique opportunities to learn about the community they visit and contribute to its success.
— Kores Ole Musuni, Maasai Cross Cultural and Ecotourism Programs, quoted on the TIES home page
In addition to the “leave nothing but footprints” (and, hopefully, good will) philosophy associated with ecotourism, comes a host of politically charged issues. Responsible travelers avoid giving their tourist dollars to countries that abuse human rights and disregard conservation. Ecotourism organizations ask travelers to consider the impact on the local economy when purchasing products, tours or other services. The goal is to choose the options of most benefit to the local people — not to huge corporations.
Organizations such as TIES and the Eco Club can be helpful in identifying which destinations and ecotour companies provide truly sustainable travel. You also can find a wealth of resources from the Nature Conservancy. So, start dreaming. Then do your homework, and take an eco-vacation that will give you memories you can cherish and a travel experience you can be proud of.
Have you taken an eco-vacation? We’d love to hear about it.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
There is perhaps no better way to enjoy the warm weather than taking to the woods. Whether you enjoy day hiking, camping, or more extended and remote backpacking trips, the following guidelines will help you protect the outdoors you love so much. Most of these tips apply to parks, forests, and wilderness areas, both locally and nationwide. This list just scratches the surface, though; additional resources are provided at the end of this article. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Trekking into the great unknown may seem exciting and adventurous, but it is always best to learn a few things about the area in which you will be traveling. Those who don’t prepare often end up compensating for poor planning by making decisions that compromise the environment.
How long is the trail? What is the difficulty level? What rules and regulations govern the area? Are dogs allowed? Are reservations or trail passes required? What dangers should you be aware of? What types of animals frequent the area? Check the weather forecast, and plan for emergencies. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return, and don’t leave home without The Ten Essentials:
The Ten Essentials (Okay, Actually 14)
This list was compiled in the 1930s by a Seattle-based organization called the Mountaineers.
- First-aid kit
- Matches and fire starter
- Pocket knife
- Extra food
- Water and water purification
- Sun protection (sunscreen and sunglasses)
- Rain gear and extra clothing
Many hikers and backpackers today add the following: whistle, mirror, insect repellent, and emergency blanket.
Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints — and Other Tips
When you hike or camp, always leave the area at least as good as — or better than — you found it. Though you might want to take home a flower, rock, or arrowhead as a reminder of your trip, think about the results if everyone followed that impulse. Also, removing natural objects or artifacts from public lands is forbidden by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act.
Small Is Better
Keep group sizes small, ideally six people or less. This will minimize the impact on the area and also help keep noise levels low so that you don’t disturb others seeking the solace of the wilderness.
Stay on durable surfaces
Examples include rocks, gravel, sand, firmly packed dirt, dry grasses, pine needles, and snow. Stick to established trails, even when muddy, and walk single file. Park managers design trails to restrict traffic and control erosion. By walking side-by-side, going around puddles, or cutting across switchbacks, you break down the soil at the edges of the trail and possibly also redirect rainwater flows.
If you decide to venture off-trail, spread out rather than walk in line, to disperse your footsteps and decrease your impact on a single area. Avoid creating new trails. If you see footsteps or other early signs of impact, avoid those areas to allow them to “heal.”
At your campsite, try not to create “social paths,” those early signs of trails-in-the-making. Disperse your footsteps between your campsite, the water source, and your cooking and food-storage areas.
Campsites Are Found, Not Made
Opt for an obviously high-use campsite. If you are in the back country and need to camp in a pristine area, do not set up your tent in a spot displaying signs of recent use. Instead, go for a low-use area, and if you stay there more than one night, move your tent to lessen the impact on the grass underneath. Keep your site small, and don’t create structures, “furniture,” or trenches. Camp at least 200 feet from the trail, to avoid distracting other hikers by your presence.
Protect Water Sources
Set up camp at least 200 feet from water sources. Do not wash dishes or yourself in a lake or creek; take care of these duties at least 200 feet away. Even biodegradable soap can harm the creatures that live in and drink from water sources.
Pack It In, Pack It Out
If you brought it into the wilderness, you are responsible for taking it out. This includes toilet paper and hygiene products. Many parks no longer provide trashcans, forcing visitors to take responsibility for their own garbage. A large resealable plastic bag makes a good, odor-minimizing trash bag. Consider repackaging foods to decrease the amount of waste you’ll need to deal with. Strain dishwater, and put crumbs in your trash bag. Discard the water by scattering it broadly.
Don’t Feed the Animals
Be careful not to leave food residue behind on the trail or at your campsite. When animals become dependent on human visitors for food, they rely less on their natural hunting and foraging behaviors. A loss of self-sufficiency puts them in danger once the recreation season is over. Also, food residue draws animals to high-use areas, possibly endangering future campers. If dangerous animals, such as bears, become a nuisance, returning again and again to campsites and trails, wildlife managers may have to put them down. A fed bear is often a dead bear.
Store food in airtight containers, and never eat or store food in your tent. At night, hang your food bag in a tree well away from your tent and well out of reach of any curious creatures (10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk).
Keep Your Distance
If you encounter an animal on the trail, give it a wide berth. Don’t approach or follow it, and never come between a mother and her offspring. If you bring along a dog, keep it well under control so it does not stress other animals. Avoid water sources at dawn and dusk, when animals often go for water.
Be Responsible with Fire
Many public land use areas no longer allow campfires in the back country; check park regulations. A lightweight, portable stove (they get tinier every year) will cook your dinner faster and cleaner than a campfire and will reduce the impact of firewood foraging, as well as your odds of starting a forest fire. If you must have a campfire, use an established fire ring or pit, and remember the Three D’s when collecting firewood: choose only wood that is dead, downed, and detached. Keep your fire small, and make sure it is thoroughly extinguished before leaving it unattended.
Leave Your Site Better than You Found It
Go over the area, looking for any trash, food, or other signs of human habitation. Pack out any trash, even if it isn’t yours.
Think of Others
Help others have a positive wilderness experience. When newcomers are able to experience the outdoors in as pristine a state as possible, they are more likely to become wilderness lovers and environmental advocates. Consider traveling during low-traffic periods, and keep a low profile by not making too much noise. Avoid creating “visual pollution” by opting for subtle colors in clothing and equipment. Yield to others on the trail; hikers traveling uphill have the right-of-way, as do livestock.
Leave No Trace
These tips are just a few of the ways you can be a better steward of our natural areas. To learn more, including detailed guidelines for specific types of environments, such as deserts and coastal areas, read Soft Paths by The National Outdoor Leadership School, or check out the Leave No Trace website.
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
By following these guidelines, you’ll not only lessen your impact on the environment, you’ll also encourage others to do likewise. It is much more tempting to be irresponsible in the wilderness when it is obvious that others have been as well.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
It’s no secret — and, sadly, no surprise — that those of us living in industrialized nations are using up more than our share of the planet’s resources and releasing alarming amounts of greenhouse gases. In 2006, for example, the Sierra Club reported, “industrial countries with less than 20 percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than 60 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.”
Yet, when we talk about making small sacrifices to save our species from extinction — or from future water wars, as the planet heats up and snowfalls all but disappear — most people resist making changes. We all have our limits, certainly. But without making sacrifices now, what quality of life will we leave our children or our grandchildren? What gives us the right to run lights, TVs, and air conditioners with no one in the room? To drive huge, gas-guzzling vehicles with no passengers or cargo? To plant and water lush lawns in the desert? To waste space, resources, water, energy — all of which are in limited supply? …
An environmentalist friend vows never to fly. “I won’t ever see Hawaii,” he says, “but that’s okay.” He doesn’t want his carbon footprint to be that big. And I applaud him for it. But I don’t know that I’ll join him in his aeronautic boycott. My elder son lives in California. If we’re ever to see each other, one of us will have to travel.
A retiree we know refuses to give up flying, but she makes other choices that reduce her impact. She and her husband live in a compact condominium. Though they have the resources to live more grandly, they deliberately choose to live small — and have throughout their careers. She also bikes or walks or takes public transportation, rather than driving where she needs to go. Her goal is to live an eco-friendly life, and other than the luxury of travel, she’s well on her way to achieving it.
Other friends keep their thermostat so low in the winter that I want to wrap myself in a blanket when I visit. They’re used to it, and consider it environmentally responsible as well as economically beneficial. When I visit, I find it hard to keep from shivering. As a young woman, I lived for several years in an old farm house with a single oil burner; the dog’s water froze in the kitchen over night, and I had to wear gloves to do household chores. I won’t do that again, if I have a choice at all. Yet my friends’ conscientiousness inspires me.
Trimming Our Footprint
Joe and I are alone now, with our two sets of kids grown and gone except for visits. So it’s easy to get consensus on what we two can do. Here’s how we are cutting back, trimming our collective footprint, at least for now. And like the increasingly tight fuel standards and tougher Energy Star ratings, we will work to make improvements every year.
No more meat and dairy. Perhaps this is the most significant contribution we are making, and one of the toughest. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the auto industry. The antibiotics injected into and fed to swine, poultry, and cattle are reducing our own immunity. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in milk cows has been shown to be harming our children. And none of this even begins to address the cruelty of mass animal confinement operations. We’re well on our way to becoming vegans. But we’re finding it challenging. (Suggestions will be appreciated.)
Become a locavore. We’re not truly locavores; we don’t exclusively eat local foods. But we’re working on it. We’re opting more for locally grown fruits and vegetables, and less for imports from thousands of miles away. We want to help sustain our local farmers and growers, but our choices are limited during the off season — and the off season covers two-thirds of the calendar here.
Buy organic and natural foods. This takes some work. And it isn’t always easy on the budget. But if we want farmers to invest in growing organic and natural foods, and if we want the cost of those organics to come down, then we must support organic farmers and producers with our dollars.
Use only natural cleaners. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in many of the cleaners on the market are unhealthy to breathe. And the harsh chemicals used to scrub our toilets and our tubs are unsafe to touch, let alone drink. If we want the air to be safe for our children and ourselves, we must not use dangerous, gaseous products. If we want clean water for future generations, we must not send toxic chemicals down our drains. We’ll save money, too, as the natural cleaners (vinegar, baking soda, water) are far more economical than other cleaners.
Grow food. We are transitioning part of our lawn into a vegetable garden. We’ve planted peas, beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash — all vining plants that we hope will climb the trellis Joe built. If I could, I’d plant fruit trees, but our yard is tiny and doesn’t get much sun.
Compost. All of our food waste now goes into the compost. Our gardens will soon be reaping the benefits of the additional fertilizers. We even recycle tissues, coffee filters, and Q-Tips. Will it all break down? We’ll find out in a few months.
Use less water. This means turning the water off between each dish we rinse, not letting it run as a constant stream in the sink. It means wearing our jeans a day or two longer than we used to and washing full loads, not partial ones. It means shorter showers, or showering together. It means not flushing every time — and purchasing dual-flush toilets when we next replace the ones we have. And it means we are filling up watering buckets rather than carrying a hose to water individual plants. (Yes, a nozzle on the end of the hose would work well, too, but we’re waiting till we have additional hardware needs instead of driving across town to the store for just one item.)
Heat/cool small spaces. We have a large house, which was designed for a lot of people. Our own numbers have dwindled, but the house hasn’t shrunk. So, we find ourselves heating or cooling just one room at a time. The rest of the house isn’t unbearable, but we don’t keep the thermostat set at our preferred temperature. We save a lot of money and resources by using a small space heater in the winter and a window air conditioner in the summer. (Did you know: “Only 2 to 3 percent of the energy produced by burning coal in a power station is eventually used to light a bulb or boil a kettle, because of inefficiencies at every stage of its conversion to electricity, its transmission and ultimate use.” That’s according to the AAAS Atlas.)
Shop with care. Americans in general have a lot of stuff. And we’re no exception. We’re used to finding bargains and getting excited by how much we saved on any given item. But we’re learning to shop more selectively, purchasing only what we really need and seeking the best quality we can afford. We want every dollar to count, and we don’t want junk that will fall apart and head to the landfill before it has time to gather dust. It’s not economical or good for the planet.
Buy quality used items. We know lots of people who’ve gotten great bargains on used clothes, used cars, used homes, used wood, and used furniture. We’re not big shoppers, but when we need something, we’ll consider the option of quality second-hand goods.
Don’t buy over-packaged goods. We look critically at the containers holding the products that we buy. Can the packaging be recycled? Is it made from post-consumer waste? How many layers of protection are there?
No new gold or gems. We don’t purchase a lot of jewelry, so this particular action doesn’t affect us much. After learning about the pollution associated with mining gold, silver, and precious gems, we won’t be buying jewelry unless it’s used or recycled. (Did you know that six tons of rock must be mined to yield two average gold rings?)
Print less. I used to think I had to have paper copies of just about everything. Those reams of paper took a huge toll on my time and consumed many square feet of space in my office, only to end up in the recycling bin after months and years of neglect. Crazy, eh? And I shudder to think of all the chemicals I used to print those papers, the trees that died unnecessarily, and the money that I wasted.
Here are a few sobering facts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Atlas of Population and the Environment:
The average European uses 130 kilos of paper a year — the equivalent of two trees. The average American uses more than twice as much — a staggering 330 kilos a year. The paper and board industry is the United States’ third largest source of pollution, while its products make up 38 percent of municipal waste.
Replace old appliances. With rebates and incentives, in some states it makes a lot of sense to replace old appliances before they wear out. We’re not quite ready to do that — most of ours are less than 10 years old — but when we do, we’ll buy appliances with solid Energy Star ratings.
Pass stuff on. For 33 years, Joe ran the local university’s surplus system. He’s fond of reminding people that having stuff requires energy. If you rent space, you have to waste good money storing stuff you’ll never use. It requires space that has to be heated or cooled, and whatever you store has to be handled, dusted, moved, repaired… We are selling — or giving away on Freecycle — the things we do not need, passing them on for others to use and enjoy.
NOTE: For a good read filled with helpful suggestions about how to trim the stuff in your life, I highly recommend our friend Greg Johnson’s book, Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons from Living in 140 Square Feet.
Recycle more, trash less. Because we have increased our recycling dramatically, we have reduced what we send to the landfill by about 60-70 percent. Our city requires us to sort recyclables for pick up. It takes time to evaluate every item in our trash, but it makes us more conscious consumers.
Collect rain water. This isn’t legal everywhere, but in our city, we can collect our rain water for watering our garden and flowers. A friend gave us clean, used 55-gallon drums to make into rain barrels. Now, all we have to do is camouflage them so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs at the front of our house where all the gutters run. We are still working on that one.
Refuse lawn chemicals. It’s not worth having a pretty lawn when it comes at the cost of clean water. If you should see a dandelion in our turf, great! I hear they make great salads. In fact, we’d prefer to get rid of our lawn entirely and use our small plot in a more productive way. But that’s for another day.
Use alternative energy. If we get this done, it will be at a significant cost. We’re looking into adding solar thermal panels for heating our water, and setting up a geothermal system. But this is an older home, and retrofitting is expensive. It might not yet be feasible with today’s technology.
Use less gasoline. When we were faced with a long-distance move last year, we had no choice but to replace our old cars with a newer one. We bought a hybrid that gets 46 miles per gallon. It’s not a perfect solution. But we now work out of our home, and we limit our travels. We try to walk if the distance isn’t too great or time is not pressing. We’re toning up on a stationary bike, with plans to hit the actual pavement in the near future (if our knees don’t rebel too much).
No more newspapers. We save a lot of trees by getting our news on line. The down side is that newspapers are going out of business at record rates as consumers turn to electronic media. The world still needs investigative reporters, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of printed publications (with the exception of National Public Radio).
Toss the television. We haven’t owned a TV for about two years, and we rarely miss it. Besides the huge electricity drain, it’s a brain suck. (Ask us how we know. We used to have our brains sucked regularly.)
Our (Current) Non-negotiables. We all draw our own lines somewhere. Joe and I won’t give up our computers. We won’t give up our cars entirely. We won’t say “never” to air travel. And we will take daily showers. Will we always feel so tightly bound to these conveniences? Perhaps not. In the meantime, we’ll do our part by cutting back on the things we can live without.
I started the article by calling the things we do to limit our footprint “small sacrifices.” But as I look over the list, none of these things Joe and I do are sacrifices at all. Some take a bit more time, some take more energy, and they all take discipline. But the payoff — the small reductions in our carbon footprint and the lessened amount of pollution for which we must take responsibility — is well worth any extra effort.
So, I challenge you. Reimagine your own life with a smaller impact on the environment. Cut back on those things you can do without. Trim your household’s waistline. Reinvent your way of interacting with the world. Do what you can — whatever it is, whatever you’re willing to do now, today. Then tell us about it. Let’s learn from each other.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
In 2005, drawing extensively on community involvement and large-scale volunteer participation, Project GreenHands planted more than 25,000 trees in tsunami-devastated coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. In 2006, PGH volunteers planted 856,000 trees in just three days, securing the project a place in the Guinness World Book of Records. By the end of the 2008 planting season, PGH had planted a total of 7.1 million trees and introduced a newly designed model of agro-forestry among the farmer community. The Project’s current aim is to inspire and support the citizens of Tamil Nadu to plant an astonishing total of 114 million trees statewide, adding 30% more to the existing level of green cover in Tamil Nadu.
Isha Foundation, founded in 1992, is an entirely volunteer-run, international, nonprofit organisation dedicated to cultivating human potential. The Foundation is a human service organisation that recognizes the possibility of each person to empower another — restoring global community through inspiration and individual transformation.
Makur Jain is a BPGL contributing writer living in India. She interviewed Sadhguru, the founder of Isha Foundation, which supports Project GreenHands (PGH).
BPGL: Sadhguru ji, what are the benefits of humans connecting to the natural world that surrounds us?
SADHGURU: Human well-being and environmental care are not two different things. There is nobody who isn’t concerned about human well-being or the well-being of a life. It is just the scale and scope that varies from person to person. Anybody can understand that he needs to take care of the very environment in which he lives. Taking care of well-being, human well-being, does not just mean eating well. One has to take care of everything that concerns our lives. Is there anything on this planet that doesn’t concern your life? Whatever happens to this planet happens to you.
So when we talk of well-being, it is not just about taking care of your physical body. You take care of the very body of the earth because your body is just a part of that. Without taking care of the atmosphere and the ecological situation around us, how can we live well? This whole idea of “something is human, and ecology is something different,” is a very distorted and polarized idea of life.
We need to understand that everything that you produce, buy, and use in your life is something that you are digging up from the planet. Every little bit, whether it’s a safety pin or a car or a machine, you are only digging it up from this planet. It’s not an endless planet. It is a limited planet. We can use it to a certain extent, and right now we are gobbling it up at a tremendous pace. If there is no compensatory activity on the same scale as we exploit whatever we use on this planet, then we have a recipe for disaster.
When this is so, as we go into this economic possibility, if we have any sense, we need to somehow regulate it ourselves. If human sense doesn’t prevail, then nature will take its own course of action to correct the imbalances. But that’s going to be very painful for human beings when nature takes this action.
So, one of the simplest ways to prevent or to reverse this process is that we bring back sufficient green cover. The aim of Isha’s Project Green Hands is to bring back 30 percent green cover, at least, in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, to start with.
Right now, there is a phenomenal response to the project. Unfortunately, this is happening not because of our love for nature or life around us; it is only because of survival instincts. We realize that if we have to survive, we have to take care of a few things. But now, at least, with the fear of disaster and the instinct of survival, people are beginning to do something.
If you really want to bring about well-being, an important thing is that you don’t think of trees and plants and life around you as just another means to enhance your life. You should see and respect them as life; it’s very important. Biologically, it is said that trees don’t bleed like you, so they are not related to you. See, relationships with family and friends are arbitrary and often inconstant. But every moment of your life, what trees exhale we inhale, what we exhale they inhale. This is a constant transaction. There is a very intimate bond between a human being and plant life. This is a constant relationship that nobody can afford to break or live without. So our closest relative is plant life. If one experiences that, there would be a deep sense of love and involvement with plant life.
Whatever you may be doing, you must plant trees, because you can’t live without oxygen or food or water. In the Indian culture there are temples for trees, people worship trees; it’s a very common practice. It is not a question of a custom. It came from a certain experience and understanding. It is a certain depth of experience and understanding — you understand that whatever nurtures your life is worth worshipping. So, because people understood that trees are very much a part of nurturing their lives, they worshipped them. Every village had a tree that was worshiped at one time. Now, we have become so insensitive that we have removed all that.
It is not about nurturing nature. You don’t have to nurture nature; it is nature that nurtures you. We think we nurture nature, but we’re only destroying and misusing nature, so we must take compensatory action.
What needs to happen — what is happening — is too little. Much more needs to happen, because the rate at which we are exploiting the resources of this planet is too high. Unless we really do the necessary compensatory acts, we aren’t going to find a solution. So this is the choice that all of us have to make, every generation of people has this choice that you are either a part of the problem or part of a solution. I think as a generation, if we have any sense, if we can pitch in for the solution, it will be a sensible way to live, a more intelligent way to exist on this planet.
BPGL: Have you noticed that the act of planting trees creates community among people to coordinate the effort? If so, are those connections and relationships maintained?
SADHGURU: The process of creating community spirit has to be initiated before the tree planting happens, otherwise the project will quickly find its limitation, as it so often does in many tree-planting projects. Over the past 25 years, at Isha, we have developed a unique way of approaching a rural community through Isha Yoga Programs and Community Games. It revives the spirit of the community and creates the necessary momentum among stakeholders to undertake a community project on a large scale and for the long term. A tree-planting project helps to gather the community around a project that makes sense for each participating group, organisation, or individual. In the long run, activities of post-planting maintenance, livelihood opportunities, other natural resources management, etc., will reinforce and increase the relationships among stakeholders.
BPGL: What have been the latest initiatives since 2007?
SADHGURU: By the end of the 2008 planting season, we planted a total of 7.1 million trees and introduced a newly designed model of agro-forestry among the farmer community. Project GreenHands has gained significant support from national and international corporations such as Suzlon Energy Ltd, Yves Rocher Group, EADS, TTK Ltd etc.
BPGL: How do you maintain and care for those millions of trees?
SADHGURU: To create a sustainable green cover, the trees become the responsibility of the tree planters, with the support and supervision of PGH field teams and volunteers. In each location where we initiate planting, PGH ensures that a sufficient number of Isha volunteers are on the ground to support the project implementation and ensure the follow up of post-planting activities.
BPGL: What are the greatest problems and challenges you face in the coming year?
SADHGURU: On the social level, the greatest challenge is to transform awareness campaigns into an urge for action. That is why at Project GreenHands, our work starts by exposing the villagers to tools that will help individuals to reach a higher level of consciousness. Only then can major implementation happen.
At the project level, the challenge is to raise the necessary resources to implement the project in a short time span, in order to create an environmental impact and reverse the process of degradation of natural resources. Tree planting projects need to raise labour, land, and funds simultaneously. Thanks to 25 years of work among the rural community of the state of Tamil Nadu, Isha can raise millions of volunteers and access their land. Labour and land represent about 70 percent of the resources needed for the project. The need for cash (the remaining 30 percent of rescources needed) to fund the production of the saplings, the logistics of the project, and its management is the limiting factor of expansion today.
BPGL: How do you measure the results of your success and impact?
SADHGURU: The result is measured in terms of increase in the state green cover, participation of the community and of strategic partners. Year after year, PGH conducts research studies and pilot programs to improve the monitoring of the project and assessment of its social impact. For example, in 2008, a partnership with Planet Action — the not-for-profit initiative of Spot Image — was initiated to look at the use of satellite imagery and GIS to monitor the development of the green cover over years.
BPGL: Are there models of similar projects being done in other countries?
SADHGURU: There are hundreds of tree planting projects around the world; but so far we have not identified any other initiatives like this that are carrying out any tree planting projects at such a scale through the mobilization of the entire community.
BPGL: Are there plans for planting other types of plants, shrubs, flowers, or food-bearing plants, such as fruit trees or vegetables?
SADHGURU: Apart from timber, trees can provide flowers, fruits and vegetables, spices, medicine, fodder for livestock. We adjust our tree selection according to the planting context; for example, medicinal, fodder, and spice are promoted through our agro-forestry model on farmland; whereas fruit and vegetable trees are promoted in residential areas. In 2009, we will expand the planting of fruit trees on a larger scale by combining the nutrition campaign run by Isha Outreach’s health division with the distribution of free fruit trees for households.
BPGL: How do you determine which trees to plant in a certain area? Is there research that goes into determining this?
SADHGURU: Botany, cultivation of trees, and management of forest are areas where knowledge has been accumulated for a very long time. PGH has an advisory board including botanists, forestry and organic farming experts, and forestry colleges. We also get support from international experts and organisations that have experience in tree planting in many different ecosystems all over the world.
BPGL: What advice would you have for communities to duplicate your efforts in their area?
SADHGURU: The capacity of mobilisation of the community and a strong large scale involvement at a grass roots level are key factors for the success of organisations wanting to duplicate such projects. This can be achieved over years or through the establishment of a strong committed network of existing organisations.
We have found success comes through this holistic approach to environmental restoration. We promote strategies for the sustainable use and management of the land, which are rooted in the rural culture. The result is environmental and socioeconomic sustainability. Through its activities, Project GreenHands aims to inspire people around the world to appreciate the true value of trees and the vital role that they play within human environments.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or +91 9443057562.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
March 6, 2009 by Blake Cothron
Filed under Blog, Composting, Ecology, Ecosystem, Food & Drink, Front Page, Green Living, Landfill, Natural Resources, Recycling, Slideshow, Sustainability, Sustainable Living, Tips, U.S.
If you’re just beginning your green journey, it may seem like there’s so much to catch up on: organic food, holistic medicine, natural fibers, hybrid vehicles, and so much more. In general, green living is about making changes to reduce the amounts of natural resources we humans use (and, more importantly, waste), and to becoming a caretaker of our remaining natural resources. It’s about working toward sustainability for our society and our planet.
Historically, industrialized societies have acted as if resources and land were infinite — and burned through them with that mindset. We Americans use a relatively large amount of resources — much more than our fair share. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “The average African family uses about 5 gallons of water each day, while the average American individual uses 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day.”
- The average American family produces 100 pounds of trash per week, that’s 3 pounds of waste per person per day.
- More than 1 billion trees are used each year to make disposable diapers.
- Americans throw away about 10% of the food we buy at the supermarket. This results in dumping the equivalent of more than 21 million shopping bags full of food into landfills every year.
- In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times their adult weight in garbage. This means that a 150-pound adult will leave a legacy of 90,000 pounds of trash for their children.
- The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimates that more than 200 million trees are saved each year due to current recycling efforts.
1 ton of paper made from 100% recycled stock saves:
- 7,000 gallons of water (recycled paper uses 35% less water)
- 60 lbs. of air pollution effluent (recycled paper creates 74% less pollution)
- 4,000 kWh of energy
- 17 trees
- 3 cubic yards of landfill space
- $35 per ton of waste disposal fees
Avoid the Hype
As businesses realize there’s money to be saved by “going green,” they also realize there’s much money to be made by selling the green movement in a consumerist fashion. For example, I witnessed earlier this year many businesses giving away or selling so-called reusable shopping bags to customers. These polypropylene bags were hardly thicker than a plastic shopping bag and lasted about as long. That’s not helping anything but a company image. We have to get real — and that means distinguishing what’s really helping from what’s hype, and then making real changes.
Let’s keep this process focused on what it’s about: love for the Earth, respect for Earth’s resources, and keeping ecosystems functioning and abundant for Earth’s creatures and the generations to come.
Plant a Tree
Planting trees is one of the most impactful actions we can take to help restore balance to the Earth. Trees are incredible — sucking up carbon gases like gigantic sponges, creating habitats for innumerable creatures, purifying the air and water, building soil by the ton, feeding us with fruits and nuts, sheltering us from wind and sun, creating rainfall through transpiration, giving us timber and fiber to build our homes, heat them and make other products. They hold the soil together with mazes of roots, preventing it from washing away in rains. Our very lives and the life of the planet depend on trees.
Here are some tips to get you started with tree planting:
- Go Native. Native trees have evolved for millennia to be perfectly adapted to your area — withstanding bugs, drought, storms, and snow with ease. Trees also fit into the ecosystem with other native creatures, giving them shelter and food. I’ve noticed after large storms that nonnative trees are damaged much more severely than native varieties. Depending on your location, the native trees vary widely. In much of the US, oak trees, maples, birch, elm, hemlock, redwoods, red bud, poplars, walnuts, and chestnuts are all fine choices. A bit of quick research will tell you which trees are native to your area.
- Consider Fruit Trees. You can grow the best fruit you’ve ever tasted in your own backyard. Get trees from a local, reputable nursery that specializes in fruit trees. In temperate regions, such as the Midwest, you can grow native varieties of apples, plums, cherry, peaches, paw paw, pears, grapes, persimmon, walnuts, or mulberry. In warmer climates, go for avocado, citrus, carob, olive, pomegranate, almonds, pecans and dates. In tropical regions, choose coconut, cherimoya, guava, mango, soursop, bananas, rambutan, lychee, breadfruit and macadamia. Dwarf trees are genetically very small and can fit in nearly any back yard to produce bountiful fruit. Get healthy, medium-sized trees and follow growing directions found online or at the nursery. Nut trees are an excellent choice too, grow very big, and produce prodigious crops.
Buy Local Food
With peak oil looming around the corner, and the multinational corporation-based food system in serious question, supporting local farmers and food systems is critically important. Most supermarket fare is trucked in from across the US or around the globe, traveling thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks, to the great expense of petroleum and food quality. Without new technologies, it is an unsustainable system. And because food shipped long distances must be picked before it’s fully ripe, it often lacks the full flavor of its locally harvested counterparts. Fresh food tastes wonderful, and local food is thousands of miles fresher than food that travels long distances.
So what counts as local? Some definitions of “local” recommend staying within a hundred mile radius, and this is sensible.
You can support hardworking local farmers in many ways. Farmers’ markets are a great option. They’re now popular throughout the US, and some are open throughout the year. Many health food stores sell delicious local produce. Online, you can find sources for local u-pick farms, specialty foods, meat and dairy products, honey, and other items. Every time I go food shopping, I buy local food. It’s the first step to reweaving the local food web. If the farmers stay farming, we stay fed. Try it — you’ll love the fresher, tastier, more distinct, and much more nutritious food.
Reducing waste isn’t just about recycling more and throwing away less. It’s also about the amount of disposable things you buy and use. This includes items such as shopping bags, plastic bottles, disposable razors, diapers, and cheap goods that will likely break soon.
Buy or make a sturdy, long-lasting shopping bag, or use a backpack when you go shopping. Obtain a quality metal or glass water bottle, and fill it with filtered tap water, instead of using imported, bottled water. Choose organic-cotton, cloth diapers to use at least part of the time, to help reduce waste from disposables. Always buy the best-quality goods that you can afford, and avoid flimsy, plastic goods that will soon be in the trash. In the long run, you’ll save money, while providing a better quality of life for yourself and your family.
Recycling is an absolute necessity. We all produce trash, and most of it is recyclable and valuable when reincarnated into a myriad of other items. If you don’t already recycle, it’s a very important step toward green living. If your local trash company does not provide recycling services, request them. Recycling is easy and fun, and brings about a sense of responsibility and accountability for what we use and where it ends up.
Hundreds of tons of biodegradable kitchen waste get lost in landfills every year. Consider starting a compost pile in your yard. Then you’ll have plenty of excellent fertilizer for the fruit tree you just planted. There are many resources online and in your local library on how to start a healthy, productive compost pile.
Make a Commitment
Going green is a process and a commitment. It’s a commitment to living healthier and more in harmony with our Mother Earth. But don’t expect to achieve a green lifestyle overnight. As philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote in the sixth century B.C.E., “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So take one step at a time, if that’s all you can do. But begin your journey to green living today. It’s not that hard to do, and every bit you do makes a difference. So what are you waiting for?
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