Monday, May 27, 2013

Food miles: A simple way to decrease your ecological footprint

This article of mine was originally published on the Examiner website.  I'm re-posting an updated version of it here as a followup to my previous blog and the challenge of decreasing one's ecological footprint.

Walking through the produce section of the supermarket has become an experience in globalization: apples from  Chile or New Zealand, avocados from Chile, bananas from Central America, strawberries from Mexico… it often seems as though much of our produce comes from far-flung areas. 

Have I been to Peru? Nope, but these bananas have!

Although an apple from Chile may sound exotic and special, it is also absurd—Washington State is known for growing delicious apples, so why must we import them from thousands of miles away? The distance from Yakima to Seattle (locally grown apples) is about 145 miles. The distance from Chile to Seattle (“conventionally sourced” apples) is approximately 6,400 miles. That is a huge difference in carbon footprints! This is the growing issue of “food miles”: the distance food travels from producer to consumer. In our current era of globalization, it is not unusual for food to travel thousands of miles from field to table. I'm not sure about you, dear reader, but I don't like the thought that my food is more well-traveled than myself!

This long-distance transportation of food comes at a steep environmental cost, using significant amounts of fossil fuels and producing greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.  This is the tradeoff for having the ability to purchase fresh strawberries in the dead of winter-- they can't be grown locally, but they can be imported at the expense of our environment.

One simple way to make your diet green is to eat locally. The fewer miles food has to travel, the less fossil fuels used and greenhouse gas emissions produced. As a bonus, buying locally grown produce supports the farmers and economy in our area, and your produce will be fresher due to decreased transit time. There are a few different options for finding local food:
  • Look for local foods in your supermarket. Many supermarkets have a local/organic food section. Read the labels and choose products that are produced here in Washington. As a bonus, organic produce is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, which require heavy amounts of fossil fuels to produce.  Food grown locally and organically will have a much lower fossil fuel footprint than conventionally grown food.
  • Sign up to receive produce from a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. These are programs where individuals sign up to receive boxes of fresh produce from local growers. Boxes of food are pre-paid for the season, and are usually picked up weekly at the farm, or other designated pick-up location. Click here for a list of Seattle-area CSA’s.
  • Check out farmers’ markets. Now that spring has arrived, local farmers’ markets are in full swing. These markets are usually held weekly, although venues such as Pike Place Market in Seattle and the Yakima Fruit Market in Bothell are open for business and supplying local produce daily. Check with your city to see if there is a weekly farmers’ market.

Buying food grown locally is one of the easiest ways to make your diet and lifestyle greener. Not only are you decreasing your ecological footprint, but you are directly supporting our local hardworking farmers and local economy.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

400: A sobering milestone

Humankind reached a significant milestone on May 9th, 2013.  This is one of those milestones where decades from now, people will be asking each other "where were you when you heard..."  Unfortunately, this is not a milestone to be celebrated, so don't pop that bottle of champagne just yet.  This is a milestone to be regarded with genuine concern and a sobering realization of the destruction that humankind has wreaked on our planet, and on earth's ability to remain livable in the future.  On May 9th, 2013, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii measured average atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels at 400 parts per million (ppm).  This is the first time in the history of humankind that CO2 levels have reached 400ppm.  This milestone is a reminder that our current way of living is not sustainable, and that we're facing enormous problems in the future if we continue to let that number rise.  The Pacific Northwest is not exempt from problems arising as a result of climate change-- those of us who continue to live here in the future will notice big changes to our beloved Evergreen State.

A NOAA graph showing recent CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory, through April 2013.  In May, that red line reached the top of the graph, at 400ppm.

Numbers to consider

After doing a little digging, I found some information on historical CO2 levels.  From the beginning of civilization up until 200 years ago, the atmospheric CO2 level held steady around 275ppm.  With the onset of the industrial revolution when we began burning fossil fuels and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere, the CO2 level began its steep upward ascent to reach the current level of 400ppm.  Among climate scientists, a CO2 level of 350ppm is the agreed-upon "safe" upper limit, at which we should be able to avoid the most serious effects of climate change.  Anything higher than that, and we're in danger of serious consequences from a warming planet.  Unfortunately, according to data from Mauna Loa, we blew through the 350ppm limit right around 1990.

What will happen to Washington?

When I heard the news about the 400ppm CO2 level, I wanted to know what would happen to the Pacific Northwest.  What would happen to my beloved Washington State in a future where climate change was a certainty?  To find out, I turned to the Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment, written in 2009 by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.(The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a great summary of the paper here). This paper outlines the likely climate change effects in Washington State resulting from "low" and "moderate" fossil fuel emissions.  Here are the major findings:
  • The average temperature in WA has increased 1.5 degrees F since 1920.  That temperature is expected to increase an additional 2.0 degrees by 2020, and a frightening 5.3 degrees by 2080.
  • Precipitation is expected to increase 1.3% by 2020, and 3.8% by 2080.  Also predicted are increases in extreme precipitation events, along with wetter autumns and winters, and drier summers.
  • Snowpack will decrease approx. 59% by 2080.
  • River levels will drop in summer, with a corresponding 20% decrease in hydropower produced during the summer months by 2080.
  • Forests will initially respond to higher CO2 levels with increased growth, but once temperatures and CO2 levels rise beyond the tree's ability to adapt, forests die-offs are a real possibility.  We could be the Evergreen State no more.
  • Crop yields in Eastern Washington could decrease 25% by the end of the century.
  • Sea levels are anticipated to rise between 2.6 and 6.6 FEET by 2100.
  • Rising stream temperatures and altered stream flows will reduce the quality and extent of salmon habitat, causing 1/3 of current salmon habitat to be uninhabitable by mid to late century.
  • The area of land burned by forest fires will double by 2040 and triple by 2080.
  • Species extinctions and range shifts are likely.
  • There will be increased human deaths due to heat and poor air quality.
As I read the paper, I wondered why the Climate Impacts Group only modeled the effects of "low" and "moderate" emissions levels.  Wouldn't it have been more effective, and scarier for the reader, for them to provide the absolute "worst case/high" emissions scenario? Then I came to the chilling realization that what they actually did was far scarier.  The effects that you read above were not even the WORST CASE scenario.  The researchers left it very open-ended:  they don't even know what the worse case scenario could be-- it could be far worse than we could imagine.  I don't know about you, but the climate change consequences outlined above are scary enough for me. No snow, no forests, no salmon, decreased food and freshwater supplies, poor air quality... that is not a Washington that I want to live in!

What can we do?

So what do we do about it? That's a great question.  I'm feeling a bit lost myself as to what I can personally do about this problem-- so I just write about it.  Spread the word.  Dive into conversations with other people on this topic, especially those who don't agree with me!  I hope to write a more thorough article in the future detailing actions that everyone can take to address the climate change issue.  Here are a few things to get you started, though:
  1. Determine how much your lifestyle is contributing to the problem by figuring out your ecological footprint here.
  2. Reduce, reuse, recycle (an oldie but a goodie!)
  3. Consume less and buy locally
  4. Get involved and speak up! is a great resource to help with ways to accomplish this.
  5. Educate yourself on the issue and science behind it
Thanks for reading and please feel free to pass this blog along to others.  Tackling this issue and setting back the CO2 level to 350ppm is going to take all of us!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reasons to Care

I owe the inspiration for this blog post to a tiny little fledgling robin, whose mere presence outside my window sparked my imagination, bringing up questions and spurring my mind into full blown environmentalist/nature nerd mode. And of course, being also a writer, I immediately felt the need to write it all down...

On a recent quiet morning, I happened to look out the window next to my desk and noticed a small fluffball perched on a branch in the shrubbery outside.  A moment's study revealed that the fluffball also had a head, beak, tiny little stick legs and a mottled red breast-- it was an adorable fledgling robin, and his momma and siblings where nowhere in sight. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to get a little panicky whenever I see a baby bird all by itself-- I start worrying that maybe it fell out of the nest, got lost, or was abandoned by its mom. My (completely unfounded) concern led me to peek outside the window every few minutes to make sure the little bird was okay.  I named him Martin.  I found myself smiling as he fluffed up his feathers, stifled a gasp whenever he wobbled on his little stick legs and looked as though he might tumble to the ground, and finally had to keep myself from breathing too loud a sigh of relief when his mother located him and fed him a mouthful of earthworms.  An hour or so later, the branch was empty and my little Martin was gone.  His downy baby wings had carried him to another branch out of sight of my window.  I found myself a little bit sad that he was gone. 
(An awful photo of my new buddy Martin)

It is amazing how quickly and how passionately we can become involved with something that we probably wouldn't have cared much about had we not seen it with our own eyes, or experienced it for ourselves.  Honestly, if someone were to tell me that a little fledgling robin had fallen from a branch and been fatally injured, I would have felt sad for a moment, then promptly forgotten all about it.  However, if someone later told me that Martin had fallen from his branch and been fatally injured, I would have been very upset.  I probably would have gotten teary-eyed and then felt a little sad for the rest of the day.  What's the difference between these two scenarios?  Experiencing and becoming personally involved with a situation firsthand versus simply hearing about it.

My experience observing Martin the robin brought to mind a question that surfaced several times in my environmental studies and conservation ecology courses in college:  Do people care to conserve what they don't know? If someone hasn't seen something with their own eyes or experienced it firsthand, will they be able to care about it enough to conserve it?  This is a critical question to consider in our current global environmental situation, as we enter a time when we will need more people than ever to stand up in support of conserving the very resources that sustain us. 

This is a particular challenge for serious issues such as ocean acidification and increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, as these problems cannot be readily seen. Unfortunately, the CO2 molecules are not becoming a visible and menacing visual presence in the air around us and atmosphere above us, and the oceans aren't changing color from blue to red like a piece of litmus paper in an acidic solution.  Sure, we're beginning to see the effects of these environmental issues: rising CO2 levels are changing the climate, and we see these results in the decreasing arctic ice, in our increasingly strange weather patterns, and in disasters such as Superstorm Sandy.  Ocean acidification is becoming more noticeable as corals die and sea animal's calcium carbonate shells become thinner as the acidic ocean water dissolves them.  However, everyone does not see these effects and as a result, not everyone will be motivated enough to do something about it.

Just imagine, though, if these problems were visible.  What if the increasing CO2 levels could be seen as a thick layer of bright red clouds, blotting out the stars at night, and trapping the earth's heat during the day as they slowly built up and encroached on the earth below?  With such an ominous and ever-present threat looming above, I would imagine that we would have just a few more people panicking about this situation and trying to do something about it.  The visibility and personal experience of a problem have a huge impact on a person's perception of it, and reaction to it.

So how do we get people to care about things they don't see, or haven't experienced, especially if it is something that is not visible?  Well, unfortunately, it seems as though the number of people who directly experience the results of increasing CO2 levels and climate change are rising exponentially.  Thousands upon thousands of people we affected by hurricane Sandy.  Thousands more people in the midwest and "breadbasket" of the US have been suffering drought conditions, decreasing water supplies, and loss of crops due to extended periods of hot, dry weather.  Dozens of tiny island nations across the word are watching in dismay as the ocean levels around them rise, threatening to put their nations out of existence within the next few decades.  The list goes on and on.  I suppose the challenge is for the growing populations of those individuals who are directly experiencing the effects of, or have knowledge of, these potentially devastating yet "invisible" environmental issues to try and convince the rest of the world that something needs to be done.  To convince the world that even if the problem isn't clearly apparent to them personally as of yet... it will be soon.

This is a huge question to consider as we, as a global society, are confronted with these serious and potentially devastating environmental issues and try to sort out the best way to address them.  Especially with climate change, it is going to take a monstrous, collective effort on the part of nations, governments, businesses, and individual people in order to change the current destructive pattern within which our society operates and try to avoid the worst effects of these environmental issues. 

I certainly don't have the answers, but these thoughts and questions ran through my mind as I watched my new friend Martin perched on his branch outside my window. I couldn't help but draw the connections between the concern I felt for this little bird, and the relative lack of concern that I would have for any other bird that I hadn't "known" firsthand, and the extrapolation of that concept to the environmental issues we're currently facing. 

It's interesting how the smallest things in nature can inspire your mind to ask questions, drawing you to the bigger picture and contemplating your place within it.  That's just one of the things I love about the nature around us.