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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Public Policy

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Pedestrians and trams are given priority treatment in Zurich. Tram operators can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt. More Photos »

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times

ZURICH — While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.


A blog about energy and the environment.

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

A view of Zurich's Limmatquai, a riverside pedestrian zone that used to be two lanes of gridlock. More Photos »

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Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into “walkers’ paradises,” said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation.

“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”

To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.

As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

Friday, June 24, 2011

When Food Kills

From Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times

The deaths of 31 people in Europe from a little-known strain of E. coli have raised alarms worldwide, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Our food often betrays us.

Just a few days ago, a 2-year-old girl in Dryden, Va., died in a hospital after suffering bloody diarrhea linked to another strain of E. coli. Her brother was also hospitalized but survived.

Every year in the United States, 325,000 people are hospitalized because of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s right: food kills one person every two hours.

Yet while the terrorist attacks of 2001 led us to transform the way we approach national security, the deaths of almost twice as many people annually have still not generated basic food-safety initiatives. We have an industrial farming system that is a marvel for producing cheap food, but its lobbyists block initiatives to make food safer.

Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our agricultural system — I say this as an Oregon farmboy who once raised sheep, cattle and hogs — is the way antibiotics are recklessly stuffed into healthy animals to make them grow faster.

The Food and Drug Administration reported recently that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, not humans. And 90 percent of the livestock antibiotics are administered in their food or water, typically to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions.

The single state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock than the entire United States uses for humans.

This cavalier use of low-level antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The upshot is that ailments can become pretty much untreatable.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, a professional organization of doctors, cites the case of Josh Nahum, a 27-year-old skydiving instructor in Colorado. He developed a fever from bacteria that would not respond to medication. The infection spread and caused tremendous pressure in his skull.

Some of his brain was pushed into his spinal column, paralyzing him. He became a quadriplegic depending on a ventilator to breathe. Then, a couple of weeks later, he died.

There’s no reason to link Nahum’s case specifically to agricultural overuse, for antibiotic resistance has multiple causes that are difficult to unravel. Doctors overprescribe them. Patients misuse them. But looking at numbers, by far the biggest element of overuse is agriculture.

We would never think of trying to keep our children healthy by adding antibiotics to school water fountains, because we know this would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unconscionable that Big Ag does something similar for livestock.

Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in the United States House of Representatives, has been fighting a lonely battle to curb this practice — but industrial agricultural interests have always blocked her legislation.

“These statistics tell the tale of an industry that is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals,” Slaughter said. “As they feed antibiotics to animals to keep them healthy, they are making our families sicker by spreading these deadly strains of bacteria.”

Vegetarians may think that they’re immune, but they’re not. E. coli originates in animals but can spill into water used to irrigate vegetables, contaminating them. The European E. coli outbreak apparently arose from bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Germany.

One of the most common antibiotic-resistant pathogens is MRSA, which now kills more Americans annually than AIDS and adds hugely to America’s medical costs. MRSA has many variants, and one of the more benign forms now is widespread in hog barns and among people who deal with hogs. An article this year in a journal called Applied and Environmental Microbiology reported that MRSA was found in 70 percent of hogs on one farm.

Another scholarly journal reported that MRSA was found in 45 percent of employees working at hog farms. And the Centers for Disease Control reported this April that this strain of bacteria has now been found in a worker at a day care center in Iowa.

Other countries are moving to ban the feeding of antibiotics to livestock. But in the United States, the agribusiness lobby still has a hold on Congress.

The European outbreak should shake people up. “It points to the whole broken system,” notes Robert Martin of the Pew Environment Group.

We need more comprehensive inspections in the food system, more testing for additional strains of E. coli, and more public education (always wash your hands after touching raw meat, and don’t use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables). A great place to start reforms would be by banning the feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Earth Is Full

From Thomas Friedman at the New York Times

You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rates. G.F.N. measures how much land and water area we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste, using prevailing technology. On the whole, says G.F.N., we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.

This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once. While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker truck delivering water in the capital, Sana. Why? Because Sana could be the first big city in the world to run out of water, within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity.

“If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. “If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”

It is also current affairs. “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said recently. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.” What China’s minister is telling us, says Gilding, is that “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”

We will not change systems, though, without a crisis. But don’t worry, we’re getting there.

We’re currently caught in two loops: One is that more population growth and more global warming together are pushing up food prices; rising food prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, which leads to more instability. At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed in every factory to produce more stuff. So if we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet.

But Gilding is actually an eco-optimist. As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”

Sounds utopian? Gilding insists he is a realist.

“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Warming Planet Struggles To Feed Itself

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Victor Valenzuela selects wheat plants for breeding at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. More Photos »

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico — The dun wheat field spreading out at Ravi P. Singh’s feet offered a possible clue to human destinLinky. Baked by a desert sun and deliberately starved of water, the plants were parched and nearly dead.


Temperature Rising

A Vulnerable Harvest

Articles in this series are focusing on the central arguments in the climate debate and examining the evidence for global warming and its consequences.


A blog about energy and the environment.

Dr. Singh, a wheat breeder, grabbed seed heads that should have been plump with the staff of life. His practiced fingers found empty husks.

“You’re not going to feed the people with that,” he said.

But then, over in Plot 88, his eyes settled on a healthier plant, one that had managed to thrive in spite of the drought, producing plump kernels of wheat. “This is beautiful!” he shouted as wheat beards rustled in the wind.

Hope in a stalk of grain: It is a hope the world needs these days, for the great agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble.

The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.

Those price jumps, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen. The Haitian government was ousted in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the recent Arab uprisings.

Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.

Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.

Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to the price gyrations.

For nearly two decades, scientists had predicted that climate change would be relatively manageable for agriculture, suggesting that even under worst-case assumptions, it would probably take until 2080 for food prices to double.

In part, they were counting on a counterintuitive ace in the hole: that rising carbon dioxide levels, the primary contributor to global warming, would act as a powerful plant fertilizer and offset many of the ill effects of climate change.

Until a few years ago, these assumptions went largely unchallenged. But lately, the destabilization of the food system and the soaring prices have rattled many leading scientists.

“The success of agriculture has been astounding,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a researcher at NASA who helped pioneer the study of climate change and agriculture. “But I think there’s starting to be premonitions that it may not continue forever.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Could The Net Be Killing The Planet One Search At A Time?

From the Vancouver Sun

It's Saturday night, and you want to catch the latest summer blockbuster. You do a quick Google search to find the venue and right time, and off you go to enjoy some mindless fun.

Meanwhile, your Internet search has just helped kill the planet. Depending on how long you took and what sites you visited, your search caused the emission of one to 10 grams of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Sure, it's not a lot on its own — but add up all of the more than one billion daily Google searches, throw in 60 million Facebook status updates each day, 50 million daily tweets and 250 billion emails per day, and you're making a serious dent in some Greenland glaciers.

The Internet has long promised a more efficient and greener world. We save on paper and mailing by sending an email. We can telecommute instead of driving to work. We can have a meeting by teleconference instead of flying to another city.

Ironically, despite the web's green promise, this explosion of data has turned the Internet into one of the planet's fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions. The Internet now consumes two to three per cent of the world's electricity.

If the Internet was a country, it would be the planet's fifth-biggest consumer of power, ahead of India and Germany. The Internet's power needs now rival those of the aviation industry and are expected to nearly double by 2020.

"The Internet pollutes, but people don't understand why it pollutes. It's very, very power-hungry, and we have to reduce its carbon footprint," said Mohamed Cheriet, a green IT expert and professor in the engineering and automation department at Montreal's Ecole de Technologie Superieure (ETS).

The bulk of all this energy is gobbled up by a fast-growing network of huge "server farms" or data centres that form the backbone of the Internet. They are hush-hush facilities, some the size of five Wal-Marts, packed from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of computers.

These are the computers that make the Internet run — routing traffic and storing much of those ever-expanding heaps of data.

Say you do a Google search. Your query kicks into action about 1,000 servers at various Google data centres. Those computers scan billions of web pages already in Google's archives and spit out an answer.

Total time elapsed: 0.2 seconds on average. Meanwhile, Google's data centres are also constantly combing the Internet to update their archives of web pages.

All those computers have a voracious appetite for energy, especially for cooling equipment to prevent overheating.

Apple's 46,000-square-metre iDataCenter is set to open in North Carolina this spring with a price tag of $1 billion U.S.. It will use an estimated 100 megawatts of power — as much as about 100,000 Canadian homes.

Apple's mega-facility is part of a cluster of gigantic new data centres coming on line in North Carolina that are powered largely by cheap and highly polluting coal power. Google has a 44,000-square-metre data centre in the state that eventually will consume an estimated 60 to 100 MW. Facebook has a 28,000-square-metre facility under construction there that will eat up 40 MW.

Greenpeace calls the three facilities "North Carolina's dirty data triangle." Coal, it says, is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and the world's single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

"The technologies of the 21st century are still largely powered by the dirty coal power of the past," the environmental group said in a report card on the IT sector in April, titled How Dirty is Your Power?

"People are pretty concerned about it," David Kessler, a Greenpeace spokesman in San Francisco.

In Lenoir, North Carolina, Google's $600-million, super-sized data centre offers employees the kind of unusual perks that were the hallmark of the high-flying dot-com era.

But Google chose Lenoir for more than just some nice handouts. It also wanted cheap electricity for those power-hungry servers.

North Carolina offers industrial customers one of the lowest electricity rates in the U.S. — 5.8 cents per kilowatt hour, versus the U.S. average of 6.7 cents.

It just so happens that the state's electricity is also some of the dirtiest in the country. Nearly two-thirds of the state's electricity comes from coal.

The IT industry is now responding by starting to improve the energy efficiency of its data centres.

But that's not enough, said Bill St. Arnaud, an engineer and green IT consultant in Ottawa. The Internet is growing so fast, he said, it's overtaking such efficiency gains. Besides, efficiency improvements alone won't wean the IT industry from using inexpensive and polluting coal, he said.

The real solution, he said, is for governments to impose measures like carbon taxes and emissions caps that make dirty energy less attractive financially.

"The planet is warming up, and it's going to get very bad. We need a price on carbon. It's the only way to get people to move off coal because coal is currently so cheap," he said.

"We have to move from this fossil fuel fiesta to a smarter economy."

Some seeking to reduce the Internet's carbon footprint point to a homegrown solution: the GreenStar Network.

GreenStar, which is based at Montreal's ETS, is an alternative Internet that runs on small data centres powered solely by cleaner renewable energy, like wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

GreenStar is growing quickly because of the huge worldwide demand for green IT, St. Arnaud said. Since being launched last fall with a core of five green data centres in Canada, the network has expanded to include 15 other data centres in Europe and the U.S., mostly at universities and a few small industrial partners. Others are planned for China and Africa.

"Our biggest problem is meeting demand. We've demonstrated that we can build an Internet that's as reliable as the normal Internet, but without using dirty energy," St. Arnaud said.

The province says the market for green IT will be worth $600 billion annually worldwide by 2013.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

ISKCON Farmers Leave European Conference With New Ideas


Thirty devotees from ISKCON farms all over Europe attended the fourth annual ISKCON European Farm Conference from May 10th through 12th this year, hoping to gain inspiration as well as practical advice for their various rural projects.

Devotees hailed from farms in England, Sweden, Czech, Slovakia, New Mayapur in France, and Hungary. Some wanted to establish ox programs, some were developing businesses based on selling vegetables and other natural products, and some simply wanted to learn more about the principles of agriculture and sustainable living.

While previous farm conferences were held in Prabhupadadesa, Northeast Italy, and New Vraja Dhama, Hungary, this year’s was hosted by Bhaktivedanta Manor, England.

“The Manor has probably the second most active farm in ISKCON, after New Vraja Dhama,” says conference organizer Shyamasundara Dasa, who also serves as ISKCON’s European Minister for Cow Protection and Agriculture, and has overseen cow protection at the Manor since 1992.

“We have fifty-six cows, milk thirteen of them a day by hand, and produce about 42,000 litres of milk a year,” he continues. “We also have a very active ox-working program, with ten working oxen that logged in about 3,000 ‘ox hours’ last year—as a comparison, New Vraja Dhama, which has a similar-sized herd, logged in 4,200 ox hours, while the next largest farm in ISKCON Europe, New Mayapur, logged in about 480 ox hours.”

Eight of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s 100 acres of farming land—mainly grazing pastures—are ploughed by oxen, and yield enough vegetables for the Deity’s kitchen. While the farm has a long way to go to provide all the vegetables needed by the temple—which feeds 2,000 people each week—it’s still an impressive effort. And there are future plans to harness the strength of the ox in another way, with an ox-powered mill expected to start providing energy to the community within the next few months.

It was in the setting of this inspired agricultural community that devotees from all over Europe attempted to learn new skills and get encouragement to boost their own efforts.

“On each of the three days of the conference, we’d start at 10am, and have four or five different presentations before lunch,” says Shyamasundara. “Some related to different projects going on around Europe, but many were concerned with the Manor, since there’s a lot going on here.”

Japa Yajna Dasa gave a presentation about the Manor’s care farm program, established with the Lotus Trust, a parallel charity to ISKCON. Created in connection with government care organizations, it arranges for people with special needs to get exercise, fresh air, good company and fulfilling work by coming to the Manor and working on its farm.

Japa Yajna also spoke about a recently established program wherein people serving a non-custodial sentence can do the community service required of them at the Manor’s farm and Goshala. He also explained how other farms around Europe could set up similar programs if they wished.

“Another program that can be set up to draw volunteer workers to our farms is WWOOF—or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” says Shyamasundara. “Prabhupada-Prana, the temple president of Karuna Bhavan in Scotland, which has had quite a lot of success with the program, gave a presentation on it.”

WWOOF doesn’t provide financial compensation for work, but instead gives volunteers—often traveling students—food and accommodation in return for learning and an experience of the organic, sustainable lifestyle. As well as explaining how devotees could set this program up at their own farms, Prabhupada-
Prana gave another presentation on natural energy technologies being used at Karuna Bhavan, such as wind turbines and biomass burners.

Meanwhile on the subject of cow protection, Sita Rama Dasa, one of the senior managers at Bhaktivedanta Manor, described the Ahimsa Milk Initiative, another project executed along with the Lotus Trust charity.

“It’s a very bold initiative, considered controversial by some,” Shayamasundara says. “He has created a partnership with a conventional farmer who has agreed to enter a certain number of his cows into a protected system, so that they’ll be taken care of by the Ahimsa project once they’re finished milking. In the meantime, their milk will be sold as Ahimsa milk. Sita-Rama has also created partnerships with a production company and a delivery company, so that the cruelty-free milk can be delivered weekly by subscription to devotees and cow-lovers around North London. It’s a program that takes some compromises, but saves a lot of cows.”

Presentations were also given on a community-centered lifestyle and the use of oxen by devotees from New Mayapur and Hungary. Dhanesvara Dasa, a popular speaker on the Varnashrama lifestyle and author of Spritiual Economics, gave a thought-provoking talk about Vedic culture and the importance of living on the land.

Afternoons during the conference were devoted to practical learning on the Manor’s farm, an extremely important element.

“On the first day, I gave a tour of the Goshala, explaining in great detail how we run the farm and take care of the cows and calves,” says Shyamasundara. “I explained how the cows are milked, and how the milk is tested and properly sterilized according to local health regulations. I also described how the calves are cared for duing the different cycles of their lives. For the first two weeks, the calf stays with its mother and drinks her milk, and we take the surplus. After that, the cow and calf are put in separate pens, but the calf still has access to its mother at milking times until it’s about six months old.”

Shyamasundara also showed the conference attendees the cow ‘sick bay,’ equipped with a crane for lifting old cows or oxen that needed medical attention. He demonstrated an Amish-invented contraption that enabled five oxen to pull one load by harnessing them all to one unit. And he explained how the roof of the Goshala building collected rain water which was then used to wash the cows down and to provide them with drinking water.

The next afternoon, workshops were given on how to run a dairy, how to make a yoke, and how to drive oxen.

“A lot of the participants had never driven oxen before, so they were given an apportunity to actually drive the ox carts and use the plows, and to see how simple it is,” Shyamasundara says. “We also showed them the Manor’s technique of harnessing the bulls by the nose, and explained the benefits of it.”

The day concluded with a tour of the polytunnels where vegetables were grown, wherein Krishna Chaitanya Dasa showed attendees the various crops, the tools, and the facilities used for special needs groups in the “care farm” project.

“On the final afternoon, Uddhava and Janakula gave us a tour of both the formal flower gardens and those in which we grow flowers for the Deities, and explained how we grow them,” says Shyamasundara. “We then concluded the conference, with everyone expressing their appreciation for it, and the enthusiasm it gave them. They were all chomping at the bit to get back on their farms!”

Shyamasundara explains that the annual Farm Conference is very practical—it gives devotees a chance to see what people on other farms are doing, and the knowledge to implement new initiatives on their own farms. But it’s also a very important event for rejuvenating devotee farmers, for leaving them feeling that their project is important and an essential part of the ISKCON mission. For, unfortunately, it seems that they don’t get that inspiration much elsewhere.

“Recently, when I did a tour of all the European farms, it became clear that temples are not supporting agriculture or cow protection—and ISKCON leaders are not talking about their importance anymore,” Shyamasundara says.

He explains that this is because of an unrealistic expectation of farms, which also stunts the growth of farm projects in ISKCON.

“Leaders are not getting behind farms because they’re trapped in the idea of farmers living in mud huts and not earning anything from their work,” he says.

“Even though you can’t have farming in today’s times unless people can make a living from it. And temples are not buying the food that ISKCON farms produce, because it’s double or triple the price they’d pay in supermarkets, and comes with some dirt and insects on it, some natural elements. The same goes for milk from protected cows—it has a naturally higher cost.

“So farms can be very successful, and do wonderful preaching as they are in Hungary—but only if ISKCON leaders accept the naturally higher prices of protected-cow milk and homegrown food, and tell the temples to buy it. It would also help if they spoke more about farms during their regular preaching tours, which would support and energize the farmers.”

Until then, the ISKCON European Farm Conference will continue in its job of inspiring and providing practical advice for farmers.

Next year, the Conference will be held in New Vraja Mandala, Spain. Shyamasundara hopes that gradually it will catch on beyond Europe as well.

“North America and India should have their own, too,” he says. “This principle of farmers coming together and getting practical experience and enthusiasm for their service is very important.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The High Cost of Cheap Meat

From the editorial board of the New York Times

The point of factory farming is cheap meat, made possible by confining large numbers of animals in small spaces. Perhaps the greatest hidden cost is its potential effect on human health.

Small doses of antibiotics — too small to kill bacteria — are fed to factory farm animals as part of their regular diet to promote growth and offset the risks of overcrowding. What factory farms are really raising is antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which means that several classes of antibiotics no longer work the way they should in humans. We pay for cheap meat by sacrificing some of the most important drugs ever developed.

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council, joined by other advocacy groups, sued the Food and Drug Administration to compel it to end the nontherapeutic use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals. Veterinarians would still be able to treat sick animals with these drugs but could not routinely add the drugs to their diets.

For years, the F.D.A. has had the scientific studies and the authority to ban these drugs. But it has always bowed to pressure from the pharmaceutical and farm lobbies, despite the well-founded objections of groups like the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, which support an antibiotic ban.

It is time for the F.D.A. to stop corporate factory farms from squandering valuable drugs just to promote growth among animals confined in conditions that inherently create the risk of disease. According to recent estimates, 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country end up in farm animals. The F.D.A. can change that by honoring its own scientific conclusions and its statutory obligation to end its approval of unsafe drug uses.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When The Nile Runs Dry

From Lester R. Brown at the New York Times

A NEW scramble for Africa is under way. As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported grain are panicking. Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home.

Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow wheat — an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding. India has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and other crops. And in countries like Congo and Zambia, China is acquiring land for biofuel production.

These land grabs shrink the food supply in famine-prone African nations and anger local farmers, who see their governments selling their ancestral lands to foreigners. They also pose a grave threat to Africa’s newest democracy: Egypt.

Egypt is a nation of bread eaters. Its citizens consume 18 million tons of wheat annually, more than half of which comes from abroad. Egypt is now the world’s leading wheat importer, and subsidized bread — for which the government doles out approximately $2 billion per year — is seen as an entitlement by the 60 percent or so of Egyptian families who depend on it.

As Egypt tries to fashion a functioning democracy after President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, land grabs to the south are threatening its ability to put bread on the table because all of Egypt’s grain is either imported or produced with water from the Nile River, which flows north through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. (Since rainfall in Egypt is negligible to nonexistent, its agriculture is totally dependent on the Nile.)

Unfortunately for Egypt, two of the favorite targets for land acquisitions are Ethiopia and Sudan, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin. Today’s demands for water are such that there is little left of the river when it eventually empties into the Mediterranean.

The Nile Waters Agreement, which Egypt and Sudan signed in 1959, gave Egypt 75 percent of the river’s flow, 25 percent to Sudan and none to Ethiopia. This situation is changing abruptly as wealthy foreign governments and international agribusinesses snatch up large swaths of arable land along the Upper Nile. While these deals are typically described as land acquisitions, they are also, in effect, water acquisitions.

Now, when competing for Nile water, Cairo must deal with several governments and commercial interests that were not party to the 1959 agreement. Moreover, Ethiopia — never enamored of the agreement — has announced plans to build a huge hydroelectric dam on its branch of the Nile that would reduce the water flow to Egypt even more.

Because Egypt’s wheat yields are already among the world’s highest, it has little potential to raise its agricultural productivity. With its population of 81 million projected to reach 101 million by 2025, finding enough food and water is a daunting challenge.

Egypt’s plight could become part of a larger, more troubling scenario. Its upstream Nile neighbors — Sudan, with 44 million people, and Ethiopia, with 83 million — are growing even faster, increasing the need for water to produce food. Projections by the United Nations show the combined population of these three countries increasing to 272 million by 2025 — and 360 million by 2050 — from 208 million now.

Growing water demand, driven by population growth and foreign land and water acquisitions, are straining the Nile’s natural limits. Avoiding dangerous conflicts over water will require three transnational initiatives. First, governments must address the population threat head-on by ensuring that all women have access to family planning services and by providing education for girls in the region. Second, countries must adopt more water-efficient irrigation technologies and plant less water-intensive crops.

Finally, for the sake of peace and future development cooperation, the nations of the Nile River Basin should come together to ban land grabs by foreign governments and agribusiness firms. Since there is no precedent for this, international help in negotiating such a ban, similar to the World Bank’s role in facilitating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, would likely be necessary to make it a reality.

None of these initiatives will be easy to implement, but all are essential. Without them, rising bread prices could undermine Egypt’s revolution of hope and competition for the Nile’s water could turn deadly.

Lester R. Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.”

Monday, June 6, 2011

Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern

Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

The project will divert six trillion gallons of water a year from the Yangtze, seen from Wuhan, Hubei Province. More Photos »

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times

DANJIANGKOU, China — North China is dying.

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A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities — 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone — has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill.

Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people.

The engineering feat, called the South-North Water Diversion Project, is China’s most ambitious attempt to subjugate nature. It would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. Its $62 billion price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric project. And not unlike that project, which Chinese officials last month admitted had “urgent problems,” the water diversion scheme is increasingly mired in concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces are told to make for those in richer cities.

Three artificial channels from the Yangtze would transport precious water from the south, which itself is increasingly afflicted by droughts; the region is suffering its worst one in 50 years. The project’s human cost is staggering — along the middle route, which starts here in Hubei Province at a gigantic reservoir and snakes 800 miles to Beijing, about 350,000 villagers are being relocated to make way for the canal. Many are being resettled far from their homes and given low-grade farmland; in Hubei, thousands of people have been moved to the grounds of a former prison.

“Look at this dead yellow earth,” said Li Jiaying, 67, a hunched woman hobbling to her new concrete home clutching a sickle and a bundle of dry sticks for firewood. “Our old home wasn’t even being flooded for the project and we were asked to leave. No one wanted to leave.”

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Yoga Of Cooking And Eating

From our good friend and fellow monk Gadadhar Pandit Dasa at The Huffington Post

Click here to check out Pandit's website

For the first 27 years of my life, I didn't step into the kitchen until the food was on the dining table. Mom took care of all the cooking. The kitchen was a complete and total mystery for me. The only thing I felt comfortable doing in the kitchen was making toast, putting my cereal together and boiling water. My first cooking experiences took place when, at the age of 27, I moved into a monastery and was put on a weekly cooking rotation. It was on-the-job training ... learn as you go. It's quite ironic then, that for the last 10 years one of my main activities has been teaching vegetarian cooking classes.

I had always thought that cooking was something you did to feed yourself and your family. However, monastic life has continued to teach me that cooking, if done with the right consciousness, can be a kind of yoga practice. I'm not referring to the yoga practice where you try to turn yourself into a pretzel. I am sticking to the original meaning of the term, which arises from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to harness or bind back. Yoga means you are trying to reconnect with the divine.

Whether or not that reconnect actually takes place depends on one's consciousness. During my vegetarian cooking demonstrations at Columbia University, I tell my students that our consciousness during our cooking should be that we are "cooking for the pleasure of God and that we want to share our food with others."

Knowing that we're cooking for someone else can help remove some of the selfishness we harbor in our hearts and can increase the quality of selflessness. Since the process of yoga is meant to purify the heart and mind of negative tendencies, cooking with the right consciousness can be transformed into a yoga practice.

This entails that the cook isn't allowed to taste the food while the cooking is taking place. As soon as one hears this, the immediate response is that of complete surprise. How is it possible to cook without tasting what we are doing? It takes practice and a recipe should be followed. Since the food is being cooked for the pleasure of God, God should be the first individual to taste it. It gets even more difficult, as the cook isn't even supposed to be thinking of eating or enjoying the food while cooking.

As bizarre as all this might be sounding, this is the method of cooking adopted by those who adhere to the Bhakti or devotional path within Hinduism. One way to express our love for people we care for is to cook for them. So a similar way to cultivate our love for God is to cook delicious preparations with a mood of love and devotion for God.

I think most people will agree that the best meals are often prepared by a loving mother. Every time I visit my folks in Jersey City, my mom cooks for me. Perhaps because I'm so thick-headed, it took me a really long time to figure out why my mom enjoys cooking for me. She gets pleasure from watching me eat what she's cooked.

The food she's prepared is imbued with her feelings of motherly love and care. Her consciousness has entered the food and is being transferred to me. That transference of consciousness creates a powerful bond. So, even though she may or may not use the perfect amount of turmeric, hing or cumin, the most important ingredient is bhakti, or love.

Consciousness affecting material things may seem a bit farfetched, but we witness this effect taking place with works of art and music, and how they're embedded with the consciousness of the particular artists. When we listen to or examine a work of art or music, the artist's mood also becomes apparent and many times we can be emotionally impacted by that mood. Similarly, cooked food is no less a work of art than traditional art or music and is invested with the emotions and consciousness of the cook.

When we eat, we're not only eating the food and it's ingredients, but we're also eating the consciousness of the cook. A very important question we can ask ourselves before our next meal is, "Whose consciousness am I eating?"

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main spiritual texts of India, Krishna, or God, offers a very salient point: "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it." The point being made here is that God isn't looking for elaborate and complicated offerings from the devotees. Instead, Krishna is looking for the love and devotion, or the bhakti, behind the offering.

The other very important facet of the offering is that it can't be a product of cruelty. It is a well known fact that animals undergo tremendous emotional and physical suffering when killed. In the classic Hindu text Manusmriti, it is stated, "Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh." Such food items are not only unhealthy for the our bodies, but also unhealthy for our consciousness.

When food is offered to the Divine or God, it becomes sanctified. In the bhakti tradition, food is offered through devotional mantras that focus our intention. It is understood that God then accepts the offering of food and partakes of it. Because the food came in contact with the divine, it also adopts divine qualities. In this way, matter is transformed into spirit.

When an individual consumes this offered or "karma-free" food, one's mind, senses and consciousness get purified of such tendencies as greed, anger, envy and selfishness. One comes simultaneously closer to the divine. This is known as the yoga of eating.

Advancing spiritually and elevating one's consciousness can often involve rigorous practices. However, it's nice to know that just by engaging in simple and creative endeavors, such as cooking and eating, one can move closer to that ultimate spiritual goal.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Imagining Detroit

From Mark Bittman's blog at the New York Times

Detroit was once called the Paris of the West, but at this point it’s more reminiscent of Venice. Like Venice, its demise has been imminent for some time, as crucial businesses and huge chunks of the population flee.

And, like Venice, it has a singular look. Not everyone will find Detroit beautiful, but with its wide, often empty boulevards, its abandoned, ghost-like train station and high-rises, its semi-deserted neighborhoods and its once-celebrated downtown now jumbled by shuttered storefronts — and the hideous Renaissance Center — it creates a sense of disbelief bordering on fantasy. It’s either a vision of the future or, like Venice, an impossibly strange anomaly, its best days over.

But after spending some time here, I saw an alternative view of Detroit: a model for self-reliance and growth. Because while the lifeblood of Venice comes from outsiders, Detroit residents are looking within. They’d welcome help, but they’re not counting on it. Rather, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, they’re turning from seeing things as they are and asking, “Why?” to dreaming how they might be and wondering, “Why not?”

Food is central. Justice, security, a sense of community, and more intelligent land use have become integral to the food system. Here, local food isn’t just hip, it’s a unifying factor not only among African-Americans and whites but between them. Food is an issue on which it seems everyone can agree, and this is a lesson for all of us.

“The idea,” says Malik Yakini, a school principal who runs the two-acre D-Town Farm, “is to help black people stand up, to demonstrate that creating reality is not the exclusive domain of white people — without pointing fingers at white people.” The farm, located in Rouge Park — the city’s biggest — will soon double in size.

Yakini, the chairman of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which is holding its first conference this week, gave me a tour on the eve of spring planting while a dozen African-American volunteers steadily raked a sizable plot. “The farm can empower, drive the economy, reduce our carbon footprint and give us better food,” he said. “And we’re influencing young white people too, because they can see that.”

And how. During the 48 hours I spent in Detroit, I met enthusiastic black, white and Asian people, from age 10 to over 60, almost all of whom agreed that food is the key to the new Detroit.

I was driven around the city by Dan Carmody, director of the 120-year-old Eastern Market, whose huge sheds are crammed with vendors on Saturdays, when as many as 50,000 shoppers buy everything from Grown in Detroit vegetables to Michigan asparagus to flats of flowers to hydroponic tomatoes. In other words, a typical big-city covered market mash-up.

But if the market is familiar, the rest of Detroit is anything but. Read the paper, and you see a wasted landscape; go there, and you see the sprouts emerging from the soil.

Imagine blocks that once boasted 30 houses, now with three; imagine hundreds of such blocks. Imagine the green space created by the city’s heartbreaking but intelligent policy of removing burnt-out or fallen-down houses. Now look at the corner of one such street, where a young man who has used the city’s “adopt-a-lot” program (it costs nothing) to establish an orchard, a garden and a would-be community center on three lots, one with a standing house. (The land, like many of the gardens, belongs to the city and is “leased” for a year at a time. But no one seems especially concerned about the city repossessing.) A young man who adopts eight lots and has bought another three has an operation that grows every year and trains eager young people. A Capuchin monastery operates gardens spanning 24 lots, five of which they own; at one of them, I meet Patrick Crouch, who’s supervising 10 gardeners-in-training and reminds me that “community gardens are not just about ‘gardens’ but ‘community.’”

The gardens are everywhere, and you almost can’t drive anywhere without seeing one — a corporation named Compuware is establishing one downtown — but it goes beyond that. Carmody has plans to expand, modernize and re-unify the Public Market, which was split in half by a freeway in the heyday of urban renewal. Gary Wozniak, whom I meet over breakfast at the Russell Street Deli and who runs a program for recovering addicts, has plans to start an indoor tilapia and shrimp farm near the market, using a combination of investment money, loans and grants.

Back in the neighborhoods, I talk with Lisa Johanson, who, with the aid of a church group, started Peaches and Greens, a small fruit and vegetable store in a neighborhood that boasts 23 liquor stores and one grocery. Daily, Peaches and Greens sends out a truck that sells to residents in a two-mile radius, providing produce to a neighborhood in which only half the households own cars. The truck also sells wholesale to five of the liquor stores.

And so on. Over good, old-fashioned lasagne at Giovanni’s, Betti Wiggins, who runs the food services department for the public school system, talks about using more and more local food; Phil Jones, a chef who’s on the Food Policy Council, talks about training kids to cook; Mike Score talks about plans for greening 300 acres, including forests, tree farms, a demonstration center and gardens.

As Jackie Victor, co-owner of the Avalon Bakery, an unofficial meeting place for the Detroit food movement, says to me, “Imagine a city, rebuilt block by block, with a gorgeous riverfront, world class museums and fantastic local food. Everyone who wants one has a quarter-acre garden, and every kid lives within bike distance of a farm.”

Imagine. If the journey is as important as the destination, Detroit is already succeeding. And we can all learn from what seems to be the city’s unofficial slogan: “We can do better than this.”

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