Posts Tagged ‘carbon footprint’

Meatless Monday

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

When I was a kid, we didn’t eat meat on Fridays. I came from a Catholic family, and like most Catholic families, meatless Fridays were a commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Christ, which according to scriptures occurred on a Friday. Not being all that impressed with the rituals of Catholicism, my brother and I held our noses and ate the standard end-of-the-week fare—fish cakes or fried flounder. But like millions of other kids we survived. In fact, we were probably healthier for having avoided still another evening meal of beef stew, hamburgers, or pot roast.

Now a new movement called Meatless Monday is gaining traction. The goal of the campaign, which is being promoted in association with Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, is to reduce meat consumption by 15 percent to improve personal health, reduce our carbon footprint, and conserve resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. Last month Ghent, Belgium became the first city in the western world to go meatless once a week, although they’re doing it on Thursdays instead of Mondays.

On the Meatless Monday website, you can find information on seasonal fruits and vegetables, including recipes, check on who’s going meatless, and take the Meatless Monday pledge yourself.

The Carbon Footprint of Gourmet Dirt

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

An interesting story by Joel Achenbach in today’s Washington Post is, on its face, about how the price of potting soil has soared in the past year due to the high cost of the fossil fuels used to manufacture, package, and ship the stuff. But read between the lines and the story is really about how a once humble material has been transformed into an upmarket mixture of largely unnecessary components from across the continent and around the globe — and about how gardening (or at least the kind practiced by many Americans), an activity by definition assumed to be “green,” is anything but.

Bob LaGasse, who represents soil and mulch manufacturers as executive director of the Mulch and Soil Council, explains that consumers demand these high-priced designer mixtures, which a South Carolina-based producer calls “potting soil on steroids.” (Bob LaGasse also happens to be executive director of the Garden Writers Association, representing the people who recommend potting soils and other horticultural products to consumers.) 

It’s virtually impossible these days to find a bag of potting soil that isn’t loaded with synthetic fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer, as David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, has pointed out, is the typical gardener’s biggest contribution to global warming. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. And the use of nitrogen fertilizers (whether synthetic or organic) releases nitrous oxide gas, which in Wolfe’s words “has 300 times more global warming potential per molecule than carbon dioxide.” Yet American gardeners have been hoodwinked into believing that applying fertilizer to their plants, whether in containers or in the ground, is as fundamental as brushing their teeth.

In addition to organic matter, from composted clam shells to pine bark, which could just as easily come from local sources but is often shipped from far away, the typical bag of potting soil is also likely to contain perlite transported from the Greek island of Milos and coconut coir from Vietnam, if not peat moss “vacuum-harvested” from Canadian bogs. Then the concoction is packaged in plastic bags, which are piled up and shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets for shipping to nurseries and superstores. In short, the amount of embodied energy and greenhouse gases associated with a bag of potting mix is mind boggling.

All for a few petunia plants likely to end up in a dump after the first frost.

Agricultural Skyscrapers

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Fritz Haeg has been deemed a horticultural revolutionary of late for daring to propose scrapping front lawns for “edible estates.” But his proposal pales compared to Columbia professor Dickson Despommier’s vision of entire skyscrapers devoted to growing crops. Such “vertical farms” could reduce the carbon footprint of city dwellers by conserving energy used for long-distance transport of food to urban markets. Even better, they could free up expanses of farmland to return to forest, radically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Among the other benefits of skycropping: a year-round supply of organically grown fruits, vegetables, grains, and fish; no weather-related crop failures; no polluting agricultural runoff; lots of green collar jobs in inner cities; and an intensive form of food production capable of feeding the 3 billion additional people predicted by the year 2050, most of whom will live in urban areas.

Several sky farm designs are featured on Despommier’s website. He says roughly 150 30-story towers could feed the entire population of New York City for a year. This article, published in New York magazine last year, explains in detail how they would work.

Growing Greener: The Carbon Footprint of Food

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 23 No. 2 (2008). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: How does the carbon footprint of homegrown fruits and vegetables compare with that of imported produce?

A: In the past few years the carbon footprint of food has become one of the hottest issues in the western world. A number of luminaries have weighed in on the subject in the U.S. alone, from best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver (in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) to ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan (in Coming Home to Eat). All this discussion has generated its own jargon, including such terms as “food miles” (the distance any item of produce travels from farm to table) and “locavore” (a person who makes a point of eating food grown within 100 miles, give or take).

At first glance comparing, say, a tomato grown 30 feet from your back door with one cultivated half a continent away would seem to be a no-brainer. (more…)