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Can We Save Nature by Improving Agriculture?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 16, 2014
An example of land sharing in Tanzania.  Photo: Rod Waddlington

An example of land sharing in Tanzania. Photo: Rod Waddlington

There is an ongoing debate about how to produce food for a growing population without losing more of our wild lands. Two options are being promoted; “land sparing” where production on current agricultural lands is intensified to produce more food thereby sparing the conversion of wild lands, and “land sharing” where agriculture and wild lands are integrated and small producing parcels are intermixed with wild lands. The former strategy is championed in a paper by Phalan et al. (2011) where the authors report that more bird and tree species were negatively affected by agriculture than benefitted from it. A contrary view from Tscharntke et al. (2012) argues that the land sparing view ignores the complexity of the real world, and that the land sharing strategy would produce more ecosystem services. From these two views, a range of options expand, all of which are being researched and debated.  Read more »

Filed under Food Systems, Global Environment, Sustainability
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Are we at risk of a megadrought in the PNW?

Posted by Chad Kruger | September 12, 2014
Photo: Andy Simonds

Photo: Andy Simonds

One of the caveats I always state when presenting the results of our research on projected climate change impacts on PNW agricultural production is: we don’t yet know if climate change will disrupt our existing regional climate cycles. To date, the climate forecasts for our region indicate a future where climate change amplifies the current cycles – resulting in a future that is warmer and possibly slightly wetter on average, but still keeping the pattern of relatively short-cycling between wet and dry periods. These wet and dry periods rarely last for more than a couple of years. Read more »

Filed under Climate Change
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The biggest threat to food security?

Posted by Chad Kruger | September 9, 2014

In a recent interview that covered the gamut of oft-cited threats to agricultural sustainability and food security (drought, food safety, energy disruption, economics, terrorism, chemical pollution, genetic pollution, impacts on pollinators, soil erosion, climate change, etc.), I was asked which threat I thought was the biggest. I was completely stumped. For every threat that came to mind as “the big one” I could come up with at least two arguments why a different threat was bigger. Read more »

Washington Organic Week – a time to celebrate the harvest

Posted by David Granatstein | September 5, 2014

Every year the second week in September (7th-13th this year) is designated as Washington Organic Week (WOW!) to celebrate the organic farmers, farms and food and the bounty of the harvest in our state (learn more HERE). Nationally, the organic sector did well in 2013, reaching $32.3 billion in retail food sales, up 11.4% from the previous year (Organic Trade Association, 2014). The steady growth in demand can be seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Retail sales of organic food in the US. (OTA, 2014)

Figure 1. Retail sales of organic food in the US. (OTA, 2014)

 

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Filed under Organic Farming
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Dairy Waste Biorefineries: An Innovative Way to Further Reduce Greenhouse Gases on Dairies in Washington State

Posted by Nicholas Kennedy | September 3, 2014

Washington State, 10th in milk production nationally, is also at the top of the list for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from dairy cattle. According to the latest statistics by the EPA, in 2012 Washington State ranked 8th in methane (CH4) emissions from dairy manure management and 12th in nitrous oxide (NO) emissions (EPA, 2014). Understanding the effect the dairy industry has on climate change has led the state to leverage its many public research institutions and agencies including the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), Washington State Department of Ecology, and Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources  (WSU CSANR) to help dairy farmers better manage and mitigate GHG emissions on large scale dairies also known as concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs). Read more »

Have we drastically underestimated the productive capacity of plants?

Posted by Chad Kruger | August 28, 2014

A new paper published in Environmental Science & Technology (DeLucia et al., 2014) suggests that scientists have drastically underestimated the earth’s theoretical potential to produce biomass – by as much as 2 orders of magnitude! That’s going to take a minute to wrap my mind around.

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Filed under Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability
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Questioning the Value of Soil Quality for the Irrigated Arid West

Posted by Andrew McGuire | August 21, 2014

Grant County potato yield Sign“The Nation’s Leading Potato Producing County” states a sign on I-90 at the Grant County border1. In 2010, Washington potato yields averaged 33 tons per acre, compared to Nebraska at 20.7, Wisconsin at 19.8, and Maine at 14.5 tons per acre (Idaho’s main potato producing counties averages 27.2 tons per acre). And it is not just potatoes; the Columbia Basin produces high yields of corn, dry beans, onions, and many other crops. However, the productive soils in the Columbia Basin often have soil organic matter levels less than 1%, much less than the level considered as adequate for proper functioning, and certainly not high enough to be considered high quality soils. How can such “low quality” soils produce high crop yields, yields higher than other regions with higher soil quality? This paradox highlights a problem with the concept of soil quality; that it does not take into account the soil management practices that farmers employ to overcome problems in so-called “low quality soils” and therefore does not reflect real production capacity of soils, especially in the West. Read more »

The Reactive Nitrogen “Wicked Problem”– critical nutrient, disastrous pollutant

Posted by Craig Frear | August 11, 2014

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Director of the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center, Dr. Otto Doering, recently gave a keynote speech where he highlighted his definition of Wicked Problems facing the globe and the US.

In brief, he used US struggles regarding affordable health care and the debate regarding the Affordable Health Care Act as a prime example of a Wicked Problem. Regardless where one might stand politically on such an issue, it is clear that the issues of affordable health care and potential policy solutions are of great importance to many, with its tentacles reaching into vast and diverse sectors of our society. No clear consensus on how to solve the problem appears to be present, due to the complexities and interrelationships involved. In particular, solutions can be shown to result in a cascade of unknown consequences, either positive or negative, with individual stakeholders holding a diversity of economic, personal and social viewpoints.  Read more »

New Meta-Analysis Identifies Three Significant Benefits Associated With Organically Grown Plant-Based Foods

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | July 11, 2014

There have been four progressively rigorous meta-analyses published since 2009 focusing on differences in the nutritional quality and safety of organic versus conventional food. The latest comes out July 15, 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN). I was the sole American scientist on the mostly European research team that produced the BJN paper:

bjn_logoHigher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Baranski, M., D. Srednicka-Tober, N. Volakakis, C. Seal, R. Sanderson, G. B. Stewart, C. Benbrook, B. Biavati, E. Markellou, C. Giotis, J. Gromadzka-Ostrowska, E. Rembiałkowska, K. Skwarło-Son, R. Tahvonen, D. Janovska, U. Niggli, P. Nicot and C. Leifert.

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Filed under Nutrition, Organic Farming, Toxics
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Closing the Nutrient Loop

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | July 2, 2014

There are a number of sustainability issues getting a fair amount of attention these days: climate change, regional and local food systems, and soil health, to name a few. While this is obviously good, there are also issues that may be getting somewhat less attention than they deserve. And closing the nutrient loop is one of these. Read more »

Filed under Energy, Sustainable Practices and Technology
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