Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New book about how overfishing is changing the world

Red grouper photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Mercury is not the only reason to select fish in your diet very carefully.

Charles Clover, environment editor of London's Daily Telegraph, presents convincing evidence that 75% of the world's fish populations are overfished. His new book, The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, predicts that fish stocks will collapse, irreversibly, within 50 years.

Our current rate of depletion of fish populations is due in part to more efficient fish-locating technologies such as global positioning systems, sonar, and 3-dimensional underwater mapping. In addition, modern fish harvesting methods such as blast fishing, gill nets and long-lines bring in bigger and bigger catches including nontargeted species. According to one study Clover cites, 90% of large oceanic fish have disappeared since 1950.

Clover writes that the responsibility lies, in part, with countries that continue to permit illegal fishing, such as Japan and Spain. Also to blame are the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and the European Union. The responsibility is shared by chefs and restaurants that continue to feature endangered species on their menus, "the marine equivalent of the panda, the rhino, and the Great Apes." This includes high-end restaurants in the United States.

Also, of course, we as consumers are to blame. If we stopped eating fish whose populations are in danger, then trawlers, chefs, groceries, and restaurants would have no incentive to provide them. This includes canned tuna and wild salmon.

What can we do? Read Charles Clover's book and pass it on. Or, before buying fish, check for recent updates on the Oceans Alive website or on Environmental Defense's online guide to fish consumption. The online guides offer species-specific info on fish contamination with heavy metals such as mercury (44 or 45 states in the U.S. have issued mercury warnings for fish consumers) and current info on which fish populations are overfished.

We can also support the creation of fish preserves - huge areas of ocean that are off-limits to fishing so that fish populations can recover. Not only are fish populations at stake, but also the countless marine birds and mammals, such as whales, sea lions, sea otters etc, whose food webs depend upon oceanic fish.


Friday, December 22, 2006

It's getting hot in here

How about an avocado tree for Christmas?

Your gardening loved ones are in luck this holiday season. New data from the National Climactic Data Center indicates that hardiness zones – climate regions determined by lowest annual temperature – have shifted significantly in all fifty states since 1990.

While the USDA has yet to comment on the new data or offer updated zone maps, just this week the National Arbor Foundation has released maps delineating the redefined hardiness zones. The Foundation’s news release affirms that the new data “is consistent with the consensus of climate scientists that global warming is underway.”

The new data reflect the lowest annual temperatures as recorded at 5000 research stations for the past fifteen years. Nationwide, the changes are dramatic. Entire states have changed zones since 1990. Iowa, for instance, was once more than half Zone 4, with an average annual low of -30 to -20 degrees. Now, the entire state is reclassified Zone 5, with a low of just -10 to -20. Much of the Northeast is now Zone 6 (-10 to 0 degrees), while Zone 7 spreads across the South.

Agricultural extension agents affirm that adventurous gardeners now stand a chance at growing palms and other tropical plants. Warm-weather plants previously restricted to the South, such as the lovely winter-blooming camellia, are now creeping across the Mason-Dixon line.

Meanwhile, however, cold-weather plants are struggling to keep their cool. North Carolina cooperative extension agent Karen Neill notes that white pines in her area have struggled recent years; not surprising when the ten hottest days on record have all occurred since 1990, as Arbor Day spokesman Woody Nelson notes.

Changes in plant distribution may have serious affects across the food chain. As plant species change in abundance, the animals that depend on them for food and shelter will also be forced to adapt. Humans, too, may feel unexpected impacts. Scientists expect that continued climate change may seriously impact farming and crop distribution.

To see the maps for yourself, check out the Arbor Day Foundation’s website. The Foundation recommends planting trees as a means of combating this change. Trees remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, from the atmosphere, and provide shade that keeps the ground cool and reduces energy use.

By Sara Kate Kneidel

Keywords: hardiness zones, climate change, global warming

Research shows older females preferred as mates

photo of Flo the chimp courtesy of

Male Chimps Prefer Older Females

"Wrinkled skin, ragged ears, irregular bald patches, broken teeth, and elongated nipples. For these guys, nothing beats the sex appeal of an old female," writes Bruce Bower in Science News*.

That is, if the guys and the gals are chimpanzees.

Anthropologist Martin Muller of Boston University and his team of researchers in Uganda's Kibale National Park have found that male chimpanzees prefer female chimps over the age of 30, perhaps because of their demonstrated success at surviving and at raising offspring.

Chimps are promiscuous - both sexes mate with many partners. The scientists measured male interest in females of different ages by tracking the chimps' copulation and other sexual behavior. Male chimps mated significantly more often with females age 30 or older than with younger females. Even the oldest female, at 55, attracted much more interest than did young females of 15 to 20 years of age.

In addition, females over 30 attracted more attention from groups of males during their fertile periods and were more often the objects of fights between males than were younger females.

Why? The mating game has evolved differently in humans and chimps, says Dr. Muller. Because humans form long-term sexual relationships, "men tend to look for women's physical signs of youth, which signal childbearing potential for years to come."

Since chimps don't form long-term sexual partnerships, male chimps may father more offspring if they seek females most likely to have immediate reproductive success.

Although humans may not be conscious of these underlying motivations when choosing a mate, the preferences have become imbedded in our culture, and may be innate to some degree, some anthropologists speculate.

Anne E. Pusey of the University of Minnesota directs ongoing research into chimpanzee behavior at Tanzania's Gombe National Park. She corroborates Dr. Muller's observations. "Once Gombe females give birth to infants, they become more attractive to males," Pusey says.

Interesting to think that the human obsession with young females and youthful sex characteristics has its evolutionary basis in our long-term relationships. What if our mating patterns were more similar to those of chimps?

Perhaps our fixation on smooth taut skin is much more artibrary than it seems.

Bruce Bower. "Age becomes her." Science News 170: 341. November 25, 2006.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Commodity promotion programs: What’s the beef?

Government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs, aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork but, according to one food economist, the messages are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Checkoff programs; even if you don’t know what they are, you’ve probably felt their impact in recent years. Does “Got Milk?” sound familiar? How about “Pork. The other white meat?” These advertising campaigns are the result of government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs. The campaigns aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork. But, according to an opinion piece, (Wilde, PE. Obesity. June 2006; 14 (6): 967-973. “Federal Communication about Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs.”) authored by Parke Wilde, PhD, a food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the messages sent out by these advertising campaigns are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“The [checkoff] programs are established by Congress, approved by a majority of the commodity’s producers, managed jointly by a producer board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and funded through a tax on the producers,” Wilde writes. “The largest food commodity checkoff programs are for meat and dairy products,” he continues.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that most people consume more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products and, overall, moderately reduce the total number of calories consumed. Checkoff programs, on the other hand, promote consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products. Particular checkoff programs, Wilde points out, have promoted such calorie-heavy foods as bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue pork ribs and butter.

“The most striking feature of the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005, is the publication’s increased emphasis on obesity prevention,” Wilde writes. “At the same time,” he says, “federal support for promoting fruits and vegetables is small compared to federal support for pork and dairy.”

“One must ask whether it is possible to eat more beef, more pork, more cheese, and more eggs, in answer to checkoff advertising, while simultaneously consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, in answer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and still reduce caloric intake to reach or maintain a healthy body weight,” observes Wilde.

“The government’s stand in this matter is important,” says Wilde, “because federal communication about nutrition is supposed to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

“The federal government enforces the collection of more than $600 million annually in mandatory assessments, approves the advertising and marketing programs, and defends checkoff communication in court as the federal government’s own message—in legal jargon, as its own ‘government speech,’” writes Wilde.

The ‘government speech’ issue arose when some farmers objected to the checkoff programs on First Amendment grounds, claiming that the programs forced the farmers to support a particular commercial message. However, in May 2005, the United States Supreme Court declared checkoff advertising “government speech,” thereby absolving it of constitutional objection. In the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that the checkoff messages are “from beginning to end” the message of the federal government.

“Now that checkoff programs are clearly identified as federal government programs, calls for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans may get louder,” says Wilde. “One solution would be for Congress to pass a resolution simply declaring that the federal government’s ‘speech’ about good guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” proposes Wilde. “After the Supreme Court’s recent endorsement of this government speech doctrine, the current inconsistencies between the government’s message in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and in the checkoff promotions deserve renewed attention.”


Thursday, December 14, 2006

High IQ children more likely to become vegetarian

Intelligent children may be more likely to be vegetarian as adults, suggests a study published online by the BMJ Friday 12/15.

Recent evidence suggests that vegetarianism may be linked to lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of obesity and heart disease. This might help to explain why children who score higher on intelligence tests tend to have a lower risk of coronary heart disease in later life.

The study involved 8179 men and women aged 30 years whose IQ was tested at age 10 years.

Twenty years later, 366 (4.5%) of participants said they were vegetarian. Of these, 9 (2.5%) were vegan and 123 (33.6%) stated they were vegetarian but reported eating fish or chicken.

Vegetarians were more likely to be female, to be of higher occupational social class and to have higher academic or vocational qualifications than non-vegetarians, although these differences were not reflected in their annual income, which was similar to that of non-vegetarians.

Higher IQ at the age of 10 years was associated with an increased likelihood of being vegetarian at the age of 30. This relation was partly accounted for by better education and higher occupational social class, but it remained statistically significant after adjusting for these factors.

There was no difference in IQ score between strict vegetarians and those who said they were vegetarian but who reported eating fish or chicken.

The finding that children with greater intelligence are more likely to report being vegetarian as adults, together with the evidence on the potential benefits of a vegetarian diet on heart health, may help to explain why higher IQ in childhood or adolescence is linked with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease in adult life, write the authors.

Alternatively, the link may be merely an example of many other lifestyle preferences that might be expected to vary with intelligence, but which may or may not have implications for health, they conclude.

Click here to view paper:

Click here to view full contents for this week's print journal:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rice harvests threatened by pollution, global warming

A new report appearing in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNS) suggests that air pollution may be responsible for the decline of rice crops in some of the world’s most impoverished regions.

Rice harvests increased dramatically in India and parts of Asia during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 70s. However, harvest growth has slowed since the mid-1980s, raising concerns that food shortages might once again return to plague these densely populated regions.

Maximilian Auffhammer at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources along with V. “Ram” Ramanathan and Jeffery Vincent, researchers at UC San Diego compared historical data on rice harvests in India to the presence of atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs), which form soot and other fine particles in the air (collectively termed aerosols), and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Ramanathan, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography had previously led a team of international scientists in a study of the effect of increased “brown cloud” pollution on the Indian subcontinent. The conclusion from that study was that, while aerosols made the climate drier and cooler, conditions, which threaten rice production, greenhouse gases were warming the climate, potentially good for rice growing.

“Greenhouse gases and aerosols in brown clouds are known to be competing factors in global warming,” said Ramanathan. “The major finding of this interdisciplinary study is that their effects on rice production are additive, which is clearly an unwelcome surprise.”

Auffhammer, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics, added, “While this study focuses on India's rain-fed states, ABCs exist throughout Asia’s main rice-producing countries, many of which, have experienced decreasing growth rates in harvests, too. Furthering our understanding of how air pollution affects agricultural output is very important to ensure food security in the world’s most populous region.”

by Harlan Weikle


The research paper is the result of a three-year collaboration between Auffhammer, Ramanathan and Vincent. Their work was supported in part by the Giannini Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and IGCC.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Boycott of Smithfield meats

God, things are looking up!

This past Thursday, workers from the world's largest hog slaughterhouse picketed a major supermarket in Charlotte, pressuring the food store (Harris Teeter) to stop carrying Smithfield meats.

Yay! What a wonderful piece of news!

Workers at the Smithfield processing plant in Tar Heel, NC, slaughter 32,000 hogs every single day. The plant is notorious for labor abuses. Just a couple of weeks ago the plant fired about 40 immigrant laborers. The alleged reason was that the workers had bogus social security numbers. But it has been well-documented that Smithfield fires immigrant workers for complaining about safety issues, such as when the production line speeds up. Smithfield also has a well-documented history of firing laborers seen talking to union representatives. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has been trying to unionize the Smithfield workers for decades. In 1997, the workers voted not to unionize, but the results were thrown out by the US Circuit Court of Appeals, noting "intense and widespread coercion prevalent" at the slaughterhouse. The company, and the Tar Heel plant in particular, have been criticized by the National Labor Relations Board for intimidation, firing and spying on workers.

One worker, quoted in the Charlotte Observer, said that laborers at the plant work in freezing temperatures with knives, frequently cutting each other. Workers who stay out too long with injuries are fired.

See the Human Rights Watch document, Blood Sweat and Fear, for more info about Smithfield's labor abuses.

Smithfield is also notorious for environmental and animal abuses associated with the factory farms where their hogs are raised. Massive spills from hog waste lagoons have been tracked by NC State scientists for dozens of miles, as the waste oozes into rivers. The brown plume from a spill can be followed for days as it's carried downriver to coastal estuaries. For more details about the environmental offenses of North Carolina's hog industry, see Veggie Revolution. NC is a good place to make a stand. Our state is second in the nation (after Iowa) in the number of hogs; we have more hogs than people. In fact, just the coastal plain of NC has twice as many hogs as there are people in NYC. And even though each hog makes 4 times the waste of an adult human, the hog waste receives no treatment at all. It's stored in lagoons until it can be sprayed onto crop fields. That is the only legal recourse for getting rid of it.

Smithfield is now building factory hog farms in Poland, because the country lacks environmental and labor protection to stifle the industry. In fact, Smithfield's president referred to Poland as "the Iowa of Europe." The next vulnerable frontier for the meatpacker's market expansion.

If you want to help, go to and attend one of the upcoming protests in 11 N.C. cities.

If you want to help more, eat less meat, eat less ham and pork and bacon. If you do buy these products, seek pastured or organic meat products instead of Smithfield's.

Some of the info in this post came from the following article:
Kerry Hall. "Labor shops for an ally." The Charlotte Observer. December 1, 2006.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

International changemakers - honoring elder women activists

Women are gaining influence as leaders throughout the world fighting for peace, justice, the environment and civil society. In this program we profile three courageous women elders honoring their lives of dedication to far reaching social movements. We¹ll hear their personal stories and hear about their current work.

Australia's Dr. Helen Caldicott is the premier spokesperson for the worldwide anti-nuclear movement. The Smithsonian Institute named her one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers of America and is a tireless advocate for social justice; Mairead Corrigan Maguire won the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing a grassroots non-violence movement in Northern Ireland.


Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder, Nuclear Policy Research Institute; Dolores Huerta, co-founder, United Farm Workers of America; Mairead Corrigan Maguire, co-founder, Community of the Peace People.

Senior Producer/Host: Tena Rubio
Contributing Freelance Producer: Lynn Feinerman
Guest Host: Sandina Robbins

For more information:

The Peace People
224 Lisburn Road
Belfast, BT9 6GE, Northern Ireland

Dolores Huerta Foundation
Post Office Box 9189
Bakersfield, California 93309

Nuclear Policy Research Institute
4423 Lehigh Rd #337
College Park, MD 20740

United Farm Workers
National Headquarters
PO Box 62
29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road
Keene, CA 93531

Other helpful links:

Radio Campesina Network

Nobel Laureates Decade for Culture of Peace and Nonviolence

United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization

United Nations

Amnesty International

Peace Council, USA.

Greener News Room


Friday, November 24, 2006

Eco-Friendly Feminine Hygiene Products

Reusing and recycling just don’t work when it comes to feminine hygiene products. Have you ever thought about how much waste pads and tampons create? The average American woman throws away 15,000 sanitary pads and tampons in her lifetime, adding up to 250-300 pounds of waste.1 Multiplied by the 85 million menstruating women in North America, that’s about 12 billion pads and 7 million tampons, plus their packaging, added to US landfills per year!2 And some don’t even make it that far. The Center for Marine Conservations conservation collected over 170,000 tampon applicators alone in just one year from U.S. coastal areas.3

Women who are concerned about this waste, not to mention the health risks of lodging wads of non-organic, dioxin-laden cotton close to their reproductive organs, have turned to one of the best kept secrets in women’s health care: the menstrual cup.

Under brand names such as The Keeper or The Moon Cup, the rubber or silicone cup looks something like a tiny plunger. Upside down, it is tucked inside the vagina just like a tampon, where it collects blood until the user removes it to empty it. A cup, which costs $35, lasts about ten years. In that time, a woman spends more than $400 on pads and tampons!

I’ve used the Keeper for four years, and would never, ever go back. It’s so simple that I often forget I’m using it after I put it in. It never leaks; it only needs changing twice a day; it’s simple and hygienic. It’s been a life-saver when I don’t want to deal with my period in a Porta-John at work, when traveling in countries where tampons weren’t available, when backpacking in places with nowhere to dispose of trash. And best of all, I’m not generating heaps of nasty garbage.

If you’re intrigued, check out Reviews posted by other users are so enthusiastic you’d find them ridiculous – if you haven’t tried it for yourself. Personally, I agree with my friend Rachel who puts it simply: “Quite possibly the most useful device ever invented.”

1 “Interesting Facts.” The Keeper, Inc. 2006. (Accessed 24 November 2006.)

2 Ibid.

3 “Inner Sanctum: The Hidden Price of Feminine Hygiene Products.” E Magazine, Vol. XII No 2. March-April 2001.

by Sara Kate Kneidel

keywords: keeper, environmentally friendly menstrual products, feminine hygiene alternatives

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Top 3 Myths about Peanut Butter

Myth #1: Conventional peanut butter is a healthy choice for kids.

"Choosy moms choose JIF"? Not if they're paying attention. Commercial peanut butters are loaded with added saturated fat, which is known to clog arteries and contribute to heart disease. JIF and Peter Pan and other familiar brands also have a significant amount of added sugar and salt.

Myth #2: The cultivation of peanuts is environmentally friendly.

Peanuts for commercial brands of peanut butter are grown with the use of a large variety of chemical applications, including granular insecticides, liquid insecticides, systemic insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and nematocides. You can read a list of the chemicals commonly recommended by state agricultural agents for the cultivation of peanuts, on this web site of the NC Cooperative Extension Service. Says the web site: "Approximately 90 percent of peanut acreage is treated with... systemic insecticides. Some of these are highly toxic and have caused wildlife die-offs; these include phorate (Thimet), disulfoton (Di- Syston), and aldicarb (Temik)." The Cooperative Extension Service lists 14 common peanut pesticides; it rates 9 of them as "highly toxic" to birds, mammals and fish.

Myth #3: Peanut butter has to have fat, sugar and salt added for kids to eat it.

Definitely not true. The first time I ate organic peanut butter with no additives, years ago, I admit I had reservations. The peanut oil was pooled on top and it was a bit goopy. But organic peanut butter these days doesn't seem to separate as much, if at all. I can buy organic peanut butter grown without pesticides and prepared without additives at the conventional supermarket near my home now (Harris Teeter). It tastes so much better than the pomade that JIF sells, and my kids agree. Many natural food stores now have a grinder in the store that allows you to grind your own organic peanuts on the spot. This is the best - it has a lovely smooth texture, with no oil separation. It tastes like freshly roasted peanuts. Now that we really like organic peanut butter, the commercial brands taste like doctored putty. Well, they taste like sugar, saturated fat, and salt, which is what a good portion of what they are.

Organic is not just about health. Buying organic protects wildlife, habitats, and the farm laborers who harvest our crops, as well as consumer health. Support farmers who care enough to farm organically.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Top 5 Myths about Food and Diet

Here are five big myths about our food choices, our health, and the environment.

Which are true and which are false?

Myth #1
Cows' milk is the best source of calcium.
It's true that cows' milk is rich in calcium. But animal protein actually impedes the absorption of calcium, and cows' milk is high in protein. Calcium is more readily absorbed from vegetable sources, such as soy milk, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach and other leafy greens, navy beans, calcium-fortified orange juice. These sources not only provide more accessible calcium, they have no saturated fat or cholesterol. See the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine web site for more vegetable calcium sources. Vegetable sources are more likely to be environmentally friendly too, since one dairy cow drops 120 pounds of waste every single day. The waste winds up in waste "lagoons" that leak and spill into our surface waters and ground water.

Myth #2
Fish is essential for optimum health.
Studies that are cited to promote fish consumption compare fish eaters to people who are eating other kinds of meat instead. Sure someone who substitutes fish for burgers will have better health. The average American eats 185 lbs of meat per year, much of it loaded with saturated fat. But fish is not an improvement over a vegetable diet. Skipping the fish also protects the environment, as most commercial fisheries now use indiscriminate fishing methods that destroy unwanted marine wildlife as well as the targeted food fish.

Myth #3
Skipping breakfast helps shed pounds.
Eating breakfast actually kick starts your metabolism into high gear after slumber, so that your body begins burning calories at a faster rate. Skipping breakfast is counter-productive, if your goal is to lose weight. A breakfast of complex carbohydrates and vegetable protein, such as a bowl of oatmeal or other whole-grain cereal, topped with walnuts and banana slices, and a glass of soy milk or calcium fortified orange juice, is a great way to start the day. The complex carbohydrates are metabolized slowly, giving you a steady source of energy all the way until lunch time.

Myth #4
Fish is the only good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may promote heart health.
Omega-3s may be good for your heart; some studies suggest it is. But fish is not the only source, and almost all fish has at least some mercury in it. Flax seeds and walnuts are two plant sources that are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and are also mercury free. Two tablespoons of ground flax seeds per day are a good source of omega-3s; ground flax seeds are also an excellent source of fiber and support digestive system health. The ground flax seeds can be stirred into a bowl of soup, into hot cereal before adding the boiling water, sprinkled over salads and vegetables. They are easily ground in a coffee grinder. See previous post for more info and links about omega-3s and flax.

Myth #5
We should worry about how much protein we're getting, and seek animal protein at every meal.
This is probably the biggest myth we hear when doing presentations about our book Veggie Revolution. Most Americans get much more protein than they need, and a vegan diet can easily provide plenty of protein. For breakfast, a cup of cooked oatmeal alone provides 5 grams of protein. Add walnuts, ground flax and fruit for more protein and lots of fiber. One cup of soy milk provides 7-10 grams, depending on the brand. For lunch and dinner: one veggie burger is 10-12 grams, 2 tbsps peanut butter has 8 grams, 2 ounces dry whole wheat pasta are 9 grams. One cup of cooked lentils, beans, or peas is 15 to 17 grams. Just one slice of whole wheat or multigrain bread has about 3 grams of protein. Protein is in a lot of different vegetable foods. For more protein ideas from an authoritative source, consult the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. As I've said before in many posts, one of the most important things we can do to leave our planet in functional condition for future generations is to give up the heavy reliance on animal products. Factory farming is trashing our water, converting wild lands to livestock support areas, and greatly adding to our use of fossil fuels - to grow and harvest and transport livestock food, to move their carcasses to market, etc.

Eat Green and Save the Planet - even if you do it just one day a week. Start small, start occasional, but consider health and environmental impact when you make some of your diet choices.

Keywords: food, diet, milk, medicine, health, fish, saturated, fat

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tuna Is the Biggest Source of Mercury from Fish: Is It Safe to Eat Fish?

A new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association advises Americans to continue eating fish in spite of the fact that at least 44 of our 50 states now post mercury advisories. The author's rationale is that people who eat fish have 35% fewer heart attacks.

Fewer heart attacks than whom? Fewer than the average American who eats 176 pounds of meat per year? Or fewer than vegetarians? Or vegans? So misleading....

Any deviation from the Standard American Diet, which is very high in animal fat, is likely to improve the risk of heart attacks.

But, that said, what is the scoop on mercury? Is it safe or not? That depends on whom you ask, and what the alternative is. Mercury has been demonstrated in several studies to cause neurological deficits in fetuses and young children. Even the above-mentioned article in the Journal of the AMA acknowledges that. But the amount of mercury consumed seems to be a crucial factor.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the most common source of mercury exposure for Americans is tuna fish. Tuna does not contain the highest concentration of mercury of any fish, but since Americans eat much more tuna than they do other mercury-laden fish, such as swordfish or shark, it poses a greater health threat. For more from the NRDC, see their guides to mercury levels in fish and to eating tuna safely.

The NRDC also reports that subsistence and sports fishermen who eat their catch can be at a particularly high risk of mercury poisoning if they fish regularly in contaminated waters. Across the United States, mercury pollution is known to have contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (30 percent of the total), and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers, and coasts. And many waterways have not even been tested. In 2003, 44 states issued fish consumption advisories, warning citizens to limit how often they eat certain types of fish caught in the state's waters because they are contaminated with mercury.

Environmental Defense and Oceans Alive have published guides to choosing fish for those who wish to minimize health risks and minimize the environmental impacts on marine ecosystems. The ED site evaluates contaminants, such as mercury, individually.

Is it necessary to eat fish? No. The omega-3 fatty acids seem to be the fish ingredient that motivates people to choose fish. But you can get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from vegetable sources that have zero mercury. The most generous recommendations for fish still say to eat no more than 12 ounces per week, which is two average servings. One easy and safe way to get an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids every day is to grind up two level tablespoons of organic golden flax seeds (available at any natural foods store) and mix them with dry oatmeal before adding hot water. The seeds should be ground just before eating, or they loose some nutrients. I use a coffee grinder. Add a small handful of walnuts on top of the oatmeal for even more omega-3s. Scrumptious.

Flaxseed Provides Comparable Cholesterol-Lowering Benefits to Statin Drugs

In a study involving 40 patients with high cholesterol (greater than 240 mg/dL), daily consumption of 20 grams of ground flaxseed was compared to taking a statin drug. After 60 days, significant reductions were seen in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol-in both groups. Those receiving flaxseed did just as well as those given statin drugs. For more info, see this well-documented article about the health benefits of flax.

Environmental Concerns
I won't be eating any fish, but for reasons of sustainability as well as mercury exposure. The "long-lines," gill nets, and blastfishing techniques used by today's modern fishing fleets are destroying our marine ecosystems the world over.

How does mercury get in our waters to being with? From coal-fired power plants, which provide 57% of the electricity in our country. For a thorough indictment of coal as an energy source, and an exciting review of solutions to coal, see Jeff Barrie's important documentary, Kilowatt Ours.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Top 10 Eco-friendly Yard and Garden Choices

Here are ten ways to craft a yard that will use fewer resources, preserve habitat, contribute less to landfills, pollute less, cool your home, and bring you the satisfaction of making responsible choices for the future of the planet.

1) Leave mature trees standing, unless they are invasive species such as Mimosa, Tree-of-Heaven, and Chinaberry. For more info on identifying invasive trees, google "invasive species" or go to the U.S. Forest Service's Invasive Species Program and click on Plants in the right column. Or the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center, which lists invasive plants. Mature trees add to your property value, also keep your home and yard cooler in summer. In addition, they provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and help your yard retain rainwater without eroding and adding sediment to streams.

2) If you plant shrubs and ground cover, choose native species. See the interactive map from the Nature Conservancy and U.C. Davis about invasive species, "The Global Invasive Species Initiative." When you click on your state, it tells you about invasives shrubs and weeds in your area that you should avoid planting, because they spread aggressively and displace native species.

3) If you are shopping for a new home, look for a neighborhood that was designed using "conservation development" principles. The book Practical Ecology, and this web page about it, explain the principles. The conservation supervisor in my county recommended the book to me. Typical and more destructive development involves extensive grading of road beds and road sides to eliminate or reduce slopes, and creating wide straight roads with "long sight distances." This usual kind of development destroys large amounts of native habitat. A conservation development can, in contrast, preserve as much as 86% of the existing natural habitat by making narrow roads, preserving topography and natural vegetation, and clustering homes that will share green space.

4) Create a "raingarden" or bioretention area in your yard, that allows rainwater to percolate through the soil rather than running off into a storm drain that feeds a stream. Allowing rainwater to filter through soil recharges ground water, which in turn feeds streams with water that has been filtered and cooled. The streams ultimately flow into the lakes that provide our drinking water. For the same reasons, don't use a commercial lawn service. The chemical and fertilizer applications pollute streams, lakes, and groundwater.

5) Consider replacing your lawn with a native meadow or native woodland. For more info on that, see our previous post. Native meadows and woodlands require no watering, fertilizing, or trimming. In contrast, maintaining a yard with lots of manicured ornamental plants uses fossil fuels, creates noise pollution, and generates waste for landfills. Yard waste is one of the major components of landfills. The EPA has a good web page about "Beneficial Landscaping" that helps the environment.

6) If you have a vegetable garden, mulch your plants to reduce watering needs. Don't use mulch that has been dyed red to simulate redwood - the dyes will wash out quickly and into streams, etc. Grass clippings or dead leaves or newspaper provide good mulch.

7) If you do water your yard or garden plants, use a dribble hose perforated with holes to deliver water straight to the soil, without shooting it into the air first. This uses far less water, reducing your water bill and helping our water resources. If you must use a sprinkler, avoid midday when the sun will maximize evaporation.

8) Create wildlife habitat in your yard. See the National Wildlife Federation for guidelines, which include choosing native plants that provide food for wildlife, and providing water and shelter.

9) Keep your cat indoors to protect wildlife. See our previous post for data and several links to studies about dangers to the cats themselves, as well as the astonishing volume of songbirds and small mammals killed annually by prowling housecats. The links suggest solutions too.

10) Consider leaving dead trees standing. Dead trees provide excellent habitat for woodpeckers, many of which are declining because of the scarcity of suitable habitat. Consider leaving the rodents in your yard alone (mice, chipmunks, cotton rats, etc.), rather than trapping or poisoning them. They are food for birds of prey such as owls and hawks.

If you do even one of the things on this list, you're making a difference. Every little choice helps.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Top 10 Ways to Help Wildlife

Here are 10 things we can all do to help wildlife, both locally and globally.

1. Reduce greenhouse gases by driving fuel-efficient cars. Global warming is destroying wildlife habitats at an accelerating rate, from polar bears on melting ice caps to marine life in overheated ocean currents, to breeding songbirds whose seasonal insect prey emerge at the wrong time, to mountain ecosystems restricted to higher and higher altitudes as temperatures rise.

2. Live close to where you work and shop. Walk, bike, use mass transit. These habits not only reduce greenhouse gases from vehicles, they also reduce your reliance on roads. Roads chop up animal habitats, breaking up animal populations into isolated groups too small to sustain themselves. Car collisions are also a leading cause of wildlife deaths.

3. When you choose plantings for your yard, choose native plants that feed wildlife. To find out what plants are native to your area, see the section on the National Wildlife Federation web site about creating a wildlife habitat in your yard. Or google "native plants" plus your state. Many states have a "Native Plant Society"; also, most areas have nurseries that offer some native plants. Examples of native plants that feed birds are dogwoods, persimmon trees, mulberry trees.

4. Keep cats indoors. Housecats kill about one billion small mammals every year, and at least 400 million songbirds every year, just in the United States. Many of our songbirds are migrants who are already in trouble from deforestation of the tropics. Cats kept indoors have a much longer life expectancy and are much less likely to have accidents leading to expensive vet bills.

5. If you are serious about helping wildlife, don't eat fish. Modern fishing practices, such as blastfishing, "long lines", and gill nets, kill much more than the targeted fish species, including marine mammals and seabirds such as albatrosses and puffins. The "bycatch," thrown back dead, often exceeds the targeted catch.

6. That includes farmed fish. Many fish farms are enclosures at sea. Antibiotics, antifungal agents, and dyes to color the fish's flesh are dumped into the fish enclosures, but only a fraction of these substances stay in the enclosure. The remainder drifts out and pollutes ecosystems in the vicinity. If you must eat fish, check the "Oceans Alive" website for guidance.

7. Don't buy anything made of wildlife body parts, including traditional medicines, belts, shoes, carvings, gifts, novelties, dried sea creatures in surf shops. If you're not sure what it's made of, ask, and ask again.

8. Don't buy wild-caught pets of any kind. If you must buy pets that we usually think of as wild animals, make sure the animal was bred in captivity. This includes lizards, snakes, turtles, birds, primates, and just about anything else. The blackmarket trade in wildlife and wildlife parts is second only to the trade in illegal drugs as the most lucrative blackmarket enterprise on the planet. It's depleting many wild populations. The nation that imports the most primates each year? The United States. We import 20,000 primates per year, many of them wild-caught, because wild ones are cheaper.

9. Eat fewer animal products. And choose pastured animal products. Factory farming is extremely damaging to the environment, which means wildlife habitats. Livestock gobble our grains, thus requiring a lot of land to raise grains for them. Controlling the waste of 50,000 animals on a factory farm is impossible. Even the best-managed waste lagoons leak, quite legally, into rivers and streams and well water.

10. When you make choices in favor of wildlife, be vocal and visible about it. If your community holds public hearings about land-use decisions, go and speak out in favor of saving county properties as nature preserves. Support your local land conservancy. On a day-to-day basis, tell store managers how wildlife concerns affect your buying decisions. Ask your Home Depot and other nurseries to carry native plants and tell them why. Ask your neighbors to keep their cats indoors. Write a letter to your newspaper. Grassroots efforts like these can make the difference!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Top 10 Eco-friendly Diet Choices

Here is my list of the top 10 eco-friendly diet choices.

1. Buy local food. The average food purchase at a grocery store travels 1500 miles from its source to the grocery. A survey of the stickers on "fresh" produce at my nearby Harris Teeter supermarket in North Carolina turned up yellow bell peppers from Holland and red bell peppers from Israel. When I asked the produce manager if any of the produce was local, he said most of it was from South America. The transport of food from other countries, or across the US, uses fossil fuels and generates greenhouse gases.

2. Buy produce from farmers who don't use pesticides. Pesticides are not only dangerous to our health, they poison animals and ecosystems around the agricultural fields, as well as downwind and downstream of sprayed fields.

3. Buy produce from farmers who don't use chemical fertilizers. Runoff from chemical fertilizers is the biggest single source of nutrient pollution in streams, rivers, and groundwater.

4. Choose foods with minimal packaging. Paper packaging creates demand for wood pulp from pine plantations, which are displacing Southeastern native forests. Leftover dyes from the manufacture of packages find their way into our streams and rivers. And most packaging winds up in our landfills.

5. If you consume dairy products, buy from a farmer who uses sustainable farming practices. If this isn't possible, buy certified organic dairy products. This means the cows' feed was grown without pesticides.

6. If you eat meat and eggs, buy products that came from pastured or grass-fed animals. Animals at pasture don't generate the waste-management problems that animals in confinement do. Pastured waste is assimilated back into the soil naturally. In contrast, waste from factory-farmed animals is liquified and stored in vast "lagoons," then sprayed over cropfields, much of it washing into streams and rivers.

7. If you can't buy pastured meat, buy organic meat. The animals' feed was grown without pesticides, and their waste is not laden with antibiotics and hormones. When animal waste washes into streams and rivers, the feed-additives in their waste also enter the aquatic ecosystem.

8. Eat seasonal produce, even in winter. When you buy produce that a local farmer grows in winter, such as greens, you are helping the farmer stay in business year-round, selling locally grown foods in his own community. You are supporting small-scale local farmers who are much more likely to use sustainable farming methods than are farmers on huge farms with corporate contracts.

9. Eat less meat. The average American eats 246 lbs of meat per year, far more than any other country. In the U.S., 66% of our grain goes to livestock, a very inefficient use of our agricultural lands. Feeding the grain to people directly could feed up to 10 times more people than feeding the meat to people. Or, another way of looking at it - we could stop converting natural lands to agricultural lands if we made more efficient use of the farms we have now. The U.S. population will reach 300 million in October, and will increase another 19% by the year 2025.

10. When you choose foods for environmental reasons, be vocal and visible about it. If you're eating out with friends, tell them why you're not eating a fast food burger (fast food burgers are often made of poor-quality Latin American beef grown where rainforests used to be). Ask your local supermarkets and favorite restaurants to carry local, seasonal, and organic foods. And when they do, thank them. Tell them how tasty it was!

Making just small changes, even a couple of days a week, can have a big impact. It doesn't have to be all or nothing to be effective!

Caption: A typical factory hog farm: the farm's 40,000 hogs are raised in the six long buildings on the left. Each building is longer than a football field. The pool is the waste lagoon for their liquified manure. The round buildings are for feed and feed additives. Photo courtesy of USDA.

Sally Kneidel, co-author of Veggie Revolution.

Friday, September 15, 2006

My Top 10 Eco-Peeves

These are the top 10 environmental offenses that bugged me this week.

The list includes things in my own immediate world: home, work, shopping, and moving around town. And, btw, I don't claim to be innocent or above reproach. The ones I contribute to are the ones that bug me the most! Change is not easy.... I have to start small and chip away at it.

1. My neighbors' Siamese cats on the prowl for prey.

2. Too many gas-guzzling cars on the road, most with one driver.

3. Weak mass-transit options in my city (Charlotte).

4. Smog problems in my city because 61% of the city's electricity is from coal-fired power plants, and because we have no real mass-transit options, and few of us live close to where we work.

5. Streets that are wider than necessary, and sidewalks and driveways not made of paver stones (with openings for water to pass through). All this impervious pavement destroys streams and stream wildlife, by preventing rainwater from percolating through soil. Pavement-runoff into storm drains feeds streams with too much water, too warm and too fast.

6. Lawns lawns everywhere. Lawns are our 5th biggest "crop" and they serve no real purpose at all.

7. Manicured ornamental non-native yard plants. Shrubs and lawns that require trimming use up fossil fuels, generate landfill waste, and generate air and noise pollution. Yards planted only with native plants need no care, no trimming, no watering. With careful selection, native plants can nurture wildlife.

8. Green peppers in the grocery store from Israel or Holland. Apples in the grocery from Washington state. What?? What's wrong with North Carolina apples? Why don't grocery chains buy local food?

9. Carts at the grocery store loaded up with Tyson chicken and Food Lion eggs and Jimmy Dean sausage. These animals produce way more waste than all the people in the United States and not an ounce of it is treated. It's liquified and sprayed on crop fields, where it washes into rivers and streams. Veggie Revolution spells it all out.

10. Citizens who trust that everything President Bush tells them is on the level.

Okay readers. Argue with me. Or tell me what I should add.

Yard Drama: A Story of Housecats, Chipmunks, Rats, Ivy and Native Plants

I didn't mean to have a yard full of rats. Not that I object to rats on principle - but the novelty has worn off.

Just two short months ago my beloved Notch was the queen of the realm, with her empire of underground passages and 22 holes in my front yard. Notch is a ferocious chipmunk who rolled and beat up any other chipmunks and any rats that ventured into the yard. She was fearless. She spent every afternoon in the middle of the yard, sitting straight up on her haunches like a meerkat, surveying her turf. When she pounced on intruders, fur would fly in a wild tussle....then the victim would scuttle off, utterly defeated. Notch would once again assume her surveying posture, until at dusk she retreated below.

I loved her. She was everything I wish I was. The fearless part, I mean. I couldn't help but root for her. She's so tiny! But she knew what she wanted and she wasn't afraid to just lay it on the line. "Bring it on" seemed to be her motto.

I took to leaving a raw unsalted peanut or a piece of walnut at the opening to her main hole, just once in a while, as a token of my esteem. Occasionally she would come up and take it while I was still within a few feet of her hole. I know I shouldn't have done that. I never should have. It's bad bad bad to feed wildlife under any circumstances. I don't know why I succumbed to temptation.

But it probably wasn't the peanuts. It was probably the birdfeeders that drew the rats. We had a sunflower feeder and a suet feeder over the ivy. Yes, English ivy covers about a third of our front yard - the part that's too shady for grass to grow. I know that English ivy is bad too. It's an introduced plant and worse, it's a very aggressive invasive species. I mean, it was here when we moved in - I didn't plant it. And while we're at it, listing my crimes - I know that even having a lawn is not an eco-friendly choice. If and when I get real about putting my wildlife-promotion ideas into action, I will get rid of the grass and put in a native meadow, or a native woodland. I mean to. We've gotten advice about how to do it, which I've posted about. It's just a lot of work, and....are we gonna move or not? I don't know.

Anyway, we've been seeing an occasional single rat for a couple of years....just one. Way in the back of the back yard. Under the backyard bird feeder and maybe near the compost. Although theoretically the compost is in a rat-proof container. Just one rat for years.

Until I started working at the front window on the book that's due this fall. I like looking at the front yard while I work. So I got to keeping the suet feeder and the front yard seed feeder full all the time, for the birds. But birds are messy. Suet and seeds were constantly dropping into the ivy. That's probably why Notch defended her territory so fiercely. It was only a few feet from the ivy patch.

And then Ken (husband) a few times threw handfuls of birdseed into the back yard, trying to get rid of some milo seed he'd bought on sale that the birds don't like. We started noticing more than one rat in the back yard. Then before long the rats discovered the gold mine of bird-feeder detritus in the front ivy patch, and then, then....there were a lot of rats in the front yard. They live in the ivy, mostly, so we only see them occasionally. But we can see the ivy rustling....if you look close where the ivy is moving, you can spot a rat.

Now these aren't Norway rats, the kind that infest houses and carried the plague and all that. I'm talking about cotton rats, Sigmodon hispidus. Or hispidis, I forget. They're rounder, have blunter snouts, furry tails - not naked tails like icky Norway rats. Cotton rats are actually quite charming native woodland mammals. They have no more desire to live in a house than a gray squirrel or a raccoon does.

But here's why I'm irked about the rats. We went on vacation in late July-early Aug, and when we came back, Notch was gone. I was sure the Siamese cats across the street had eaten her, and I grieved. But then I saw her one day. She came through the yard, and it was her, torn notch in her ear and all. No mistaking that damaged ear. But she was obviously a visitor. She looked around and then left, for the neighbor's unmanicured shrubby area. What the heck?

I noticed a few days later that some knucklehead creature had tried to drag a huge bundle of pine needles into one of the holes that had been Notch's. A couple of days later we met the knucklehead - a dadgum cotton rat. In Notch's hole!! Acckkk!

The yard seems totally out of control now. I stopped all the feeders. (The next door neighbor has several, no one's gonna starve.) I'm moving the the little waterbowl into the backyard, a few feet every day, so any critter using it will still be able to find it. During the dry part of the summer, everyone used that water bowl. Notch used it, and all the rabbits that ate our garden like it was a cafeteria, they used it too. The rats and squirrels used it. And the songbirds used to literally stand around the bowl waiting their turn, in July. The bowl is only big enough for one bird at a time, and they often liked to bathe in it. But my wildlife viewing days, while at work in the front window, are over.

I don't know where Notch is now, I hope she's still alive. I'm convinced the ivy has to go. To get rid of the rats. I mean, yes they're native, but my mammal field guide says they reproduce every 6 weeks, with an average litter size of 6! (Chipmunks reproduce only twice a year.) I don't want a yard teeming with rats, even cotton rats. I've gotten advice on how to pull up the ivy without spraying herbicides. Just dig. A little bit at a time.

Meanwhile we have a new chipmunk. He stands on top of the brush pile in the back of the back yard and chirps all day long. Sometimes he goes up into the gutter downspout and chirps for hours. A barred owl and a Coopers hawk have been hanging out in the backyard, drawn by Chuck's chirping. (The chirp sounds like "chuck.") They want to eat him. They want him badly.

I love Chuck already, because....he's wild, he's fearless, he looks like Notch. But if the owl or the hawk eat him, that's okay. They were here before we were, before people took over the world. They're native predators and rodents are their native prey. Unlike house cats, who are not native, and who threaten wildlife survival because of their unnaturally high numbers. The cats are not entitled to my chipmunks.

Meanwhile, I'm left with rat-viewing as my only wildlife option, at least from the front window. Maybe I can move my worktable around to the back somehow, and watch the drama with Chuck and the owl and the hawk. I'll root for him, but if the owl eats him....I won't mind...too much.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Orcas, Habitat Loss, and American Meat Consumption

In yesterday's post, I said that 70% of biologists believe we're in the middle of a mass extinction of wildlife species. I also said that 75% of the extinctions are due to habitat destruction by human activities. A lot of those activities are related to the way we eat.

Here's an example
I thought about that when I read in the NY Times yesterday (9/8/06) about the clash between fishermen, farmers and developers on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other, over the 90 resident Orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington state. The article featured the community of whale-watchers and researchers on San Juan Island, a place we visited a month ago. I had a post about the island's whale supporters, and the whales themselves, on August 17.

The conflict over these Orcas is a prime example of how our fixation on animal protein (248 lbs of meat per person per year in the U.S.) leads to habitat destruction for wildlife. Habitat includes animals' food sources, as well as their breeding territory, etc. One of the main threats to the Orcas is competition with the fishing industry over salmon. Another major threat is livestock farmers, and farmers raising grain for livestock, whose agricultural runoff pollutes the Puget Sound and the coastal rivers where salmon spawn.

Simply stated, our appetite for salmon is a threat to the whales. And to other marine and coastal wildlife that depend on salmon, such as bears and eagles.

Our appetite for meat is a threat to wildlife throughout the country - to every animal species whose survival depends on water quality, or on the continued existence of woodlands and prairies and wetlands that we instead convert to agricultural lands to feed our meat habit and our growing human population.

A Whale Lawsuit
Farmers and developers have filed a lawsuit to strip the Orcas of their endangered status. The protection of water quality in Puget Sound, as critical habitat for the Orcas, will interfere with farmers' and developers' efforts to provide us with the meats we clamor for, and with coastal real-estate development.

We can exercise control over so much with the simple act of eating. Every meal selection gives us an opportunity for grassroots activism. We don't have to be eating that salmon, or any salmon. We don't need to eat 248 pounds of meat per year. The average meat consumption per person in the world's developing nations is only 66 pounds per year. We're way ahead of even the European countries in our demand for meat. See Danielle Nierenberg's paper "Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry," available from, for more details about global meat consumption. The article isn't free, but if you're really interested in understanding how global patterns of meat consumption impact the environment, it's worth the $7.

I'm not asking everyone to give up meat altogether - I don't believe that's a realistic goal. We'll never be a meatless nation. I'm asking that we eat less meat. We don't need meat every day. Our book Veggie Revolution is about cooking without meat (including recipes) and about the benefits of eating less meat - benefits to our health, to the welfare of farmed animals, to the environment, and to wildlife. Wildlife is, to me, the most precious gift our planet has to offer.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Mass Extinctions of Wildlife Related to Our Diet Choices

Mass Extinction Underway...
A mass extinction is a catastrophic, widespread, or global event that wipes out 25 to 75 percent of existing species. Most of the mass extinctions that occurred prehistorically — before humans evolved — resulted from global climate changes that killed thousands of species and left behind those able to adapt to the new conditions.

According to a recent survey, 70 percent of biologists believe we are in the midst of a new mass extinction. Although the Earth has experienced other mass extinctions before humans evolved, biologists point out two important differences between the current mass extinction, and those of the past:

1) This mass extinction is taking place in a very short period of time, during a few decades, rather than over thousands or millions of years.

2) We are eliminating or fouling many environments, such as tropical forests, coral reefs, and wetlands, that in the past fostered the evolution of new species during the 5 to 10 million years after a mass extinction.

What’s Going On?
The destruction of habitats by humans is responsible for about 75 percent of the current extinctions. Another major cause is unregulated hunting and fishing. The introduction of nonnative species such as wild boars, Gypsy moths, and European starlings is another leading cause of extinctions.

How Are Extinctions Related to Meat Consumption?
The production of meat requires much more land than producing an equally nutritious amount of plant protein. Because most Americans eat animal products two or three times a day, we devote a hefty portion of our land to either grazing livestock or raising grain or hay to feed livestock. About 40 percent of all land area in the United States is used for grazing livestock for our dinner tables.

Consider this. In the United States, we feed 66 percent of our grain to livestock. But the rest of the world feeds only 3 percent of their grain to livestock. If we weren’t eating so much meat and dairy and eggs, think of all the agricultural land that could be restored to its natural state as forests, prairies, and wetlands. We could also slow the conversion of natural lands to agricultural lands. Our population here in the U.S. is still growing rapidly and our food production will have to increase. This year we reached 300,000. By the year 2025, just 18 years away, we'll add another 50,000 people to the United States population! See, or International Data Base, for more information about that.

The adoption of a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan diet would vastly improve the outlook on the future for both humankind and wildlife.

Is Our Diet Making Us Healthy and Happy?
About 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. We also have high rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and other ailments related to a diet high in meat, eggs, and milk fat. We’re not healthier.

But are we happier? No. Although our consumption of resources has doubled since 1957, the proportion of Americans who report they are “very happy” has remained the same.

But Wait…
Raising livestock doesn’t have to take so much land and cause so much pollution, if done on a smaller scale. Only a few decades ago, manure naturally fertilized crops and enriched the soil, rather than winding up in “waste lagoons” that leak and spill into rivers. Livestock consumed crop waste and kitchen waste. Animals and people maintained a balance. It’s only since the production of meat, milk, and eggs has become industrial in scale that it has begun to damage the Earth so severely. The damage includes ocean habitats and fish populations as well as land ecosystems.

The average American eats 248 pounds of meat a year, far more per person than any other country. It’s not possible for everyone on the planet to have that much meat. We would need four more Earths to raise enough livestock and fish, if everyone on our planet ate as much meat as Americans do.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says that our American diet is second only to our transportation as our most environmentally damaging consumer activity. We can make better diet choices for a sustainable future.

The loss of countless plant and animal species is at stake.

See our post of September 9 for an example of a wildlife population that's threatened by our consumer demand for animal protein.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Puffins and Whales Endangered by Fishing Industry; Online Guides to Choosing Healthiest Fish

Did you read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in high school? The albatross in the poem is an omen of bad luck for the writer and his ship, but in reality the albatross is the butt-end of some god-awful bad luck dished out by the fishing industry. The albatross, a magnificent bird with a wingspan of up to 7 feet, is one of many oceanic birds in serious trouble from the massive-haul fishing techniques of today. Among other seabirds whose luck is running out are the colorful and beloved puffins.

We were lucky to spot a couple of Tufted Puffins and many other seabirds on a recent trip to Washington state and Vancouver Island, B.C. I posted an account of the birds and their habitats, written by Alan Kneidel, on September 1.

Many of the seabirds we saw were in the family Alcidae. Alcids spend their lives floating on the ocean and swimming underwater for fish - birds such Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murres, and Marbled Murrelets. These birds can and do fly, but most of them come ashore only to breed. You can see these seabirds from the ferries of Washington and the B.C. coast, or from coastal cliffs. They look a bit like black and white ducks floating on the water, except that most have narrow pointed bills rather than duck bills. That is, except for the puffins. Puffins have huge, showy, red and gold bills that make them popular subjects for photos. A puffin can catch a dozen or more little fish at once in its bill. The Tufted Puffins are a rare sight, though. We were very fortunate to spot the two that we did from remote Cape Flattery - a naturalist we talked to on a ferry said that he had seen only one Tufted Puffin in the last 12 years! They are listed by Washington state as a "species of concern." A government website says "more data" is needed on the status of Tufted Puffins before adding them to the list of endangered species.

Tufted Puffin from cliffs of Cape Flattery, Washington, Sally Kneidel

So the alcids - the puffins, murrelets, etc. - are seabirds that you can sometimes see from shore and from ferries.

But other seabirds, called "pelagic" species, seldom come close enough to shore to see them from a ferry or a cliff. These include birds like albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels - and some of the alcids as well. To spot these birds of the open ocean, you have to hire a boat to take you on a "pelagic" birding trip far offshore. Ken and Alan (husband and son) have been on a few pelagic trips.

All seabirds of the Pacific Northwest, both coastal and pelagic species, are feeling the impact of the fishing industry. But some more than others. As we learned while visiting the salmon-fishing village of Sequi, on the northwest corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Marbled Murrelet is endangered because of "gill nets." Gill nets are intended to snag fish by the gill covers when they swim into the net and try to back out. Groups of nets can be tied together to stretch for 3000 meters! In the coastal straits off the n.w. Olympic Peninsula near Sequi and Neah Bay, gill nets are submerged to catch salmon, as the fish head for one of the 20+ rivers in the area where they spawn. One Sequi fisherman told me that gill nets trap much more than the local target species, salmon. The "bycatch" or unusable catch includes other fish species, seals, sea otters, and diving seabirds such as the Marbled Murrelet. All of the air-breathing species are killed by drowning; many of the fish bycatch are killed too by the hauling-in process, and are thrown back, dead. Gill nets are also commonly set in open waters, where they catch and drown porpoises and whales. For more about gill nets, see the Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center

Marbled Murrelet, endangered by gill nets

"Longlines" are another fishing technique that is endangering offshore pelagic seabirds such as albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels, as well as whales, dolphins and porpoises. A longline is a fishing line up to 60 miles long, with up to 30,000 shorter lines with baited hooks trailing from it. Seabirds often take the bait, and are then dragged underwater and drowned. For more about the dangers of longline fishing and what you can do, see the Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center and the American Bird Conservancy. The ABC has published an online document about the impact of longline fishing on seabirds. The document, entitled "Sudden Death, Longline Fishing: A Global Catastrophe for Seabirds," reports that 64 species of seabirds have been killed in longlines worldwide, and that 23 of these species are in danger of extinction from mortality due to longline fishing. This report concludes, on page 13, with a list of measures you can take, as a citizen, to protect wildlife from longline fishing.

Researcher placing a small bird band for identification on an albatross's leg

One thing we can all do, which I don't think the document mentions, is to eat less fish. After what we've learned about global overfishing while researching our new book (from Fulcrum in 2007), I don't eat fish anymore, period. If you must eat fish, check out one of the frequently updated online guides to environmentally-friendly fish selection, and fish that have lower levels of mercury and other heavy metals in their flesh. You can find these guides at Oceans Alive, Audubon's Living Ocean, and Environmental Defense.

Friday, September 01, 2006

In Search of Northwest Birds

In August I posted some info about the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest that we spotted on a recent trip to Washington state and Vancouver Island, B.C. I wrote about humpback whales, mountain goats, harbor seals, and the best place to spot Orcas. We saw a lot of birds too - oceanic and shore birds and mountain birds. I'm not a real bird expert though. So I asked my son Alan, who's 20 and has been an avid birder for some time, to write something about the birds we saw. Well, birds he saw. He was much more determined than I was in tracking down birds he wanted to see, venturing far out onto rocky coastlines, walking long distances, etc. Anyway, for you bird fans, here is Alan's account of the birds on the trip.

Alan Kneidel at Cape Flattery, Washington

Alan's words:

"From July 25th to August 5th, 2006, we spent time in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada. In this land of diverse habitats, I spent most of the time birding. We traveled briefly to the Olympic Peninsula, jutting into the gray and crashing Pacific. We went to Cape Flattery, the most western point in Washington, where the moist forests contained flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Hermit Thrushes, and the cryptic Pacific-Slope Flycatcher. Emerging onto the Cape, the trail halted at a stunning overlook of vertical cliffs, sea caves, and foggy waters. Peregrine Falcons perched on stunted spruce, while Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres and Glaucous-winged Gulls traversed the narrows. Bald Eagles let out their raucous calls, as they soared above us, unseen through the fog. Staying in the town of Sekiu, we woke to scattered Marbled Murrelets in the bay, a threatened species of seabird.

"The next days, traveling into British Columbia, we headed to Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island. I was in search of the famous 'rockpipers' of the Pacific coast. These are a group of four shorebirds that are only found on remote rocky outcroppings revealed during low tide. Black Oystercatchers ruled the rocks, while slender Wandering Tattlers bobbed at the water’s surface. Black Turnstones sat invisibly against the rocks, until they burst into flight, showing their stunning pied wing pattern. We couldn’t find the Surfbird, despite extensive searching. Perhaps it was a bit too early in the migration season for them. In the rainforest that grows right up to the beach, flocks of Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers were abundant. Inquisitive Stellar’s Jays investigated, while Red-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers stayed hidden in the canopy.

"Our third stop was on the San Juan Islands. Here, against the backdrop of Killer Whales and stunning scenery, Harlequin Ducks swam through the kelp beds. Flocks of Surf Scoters passed by. A sign of the increasing fall shorebird migration, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, and Spotted Sandpipers showed up.

"Our final stop was to Mount Baker, back in Washington State. Here, we were immersed in the Cascades, where towering evergreen forests give way to the alpine tundra. Vidler’s Alpine and Mormon Fritillary butterflies poured over the stunning array of alpine wildflowers. American Pipits perched on skree slopes, holding guard over their territories. Common Ravens announced their presence overhead, as Gray Jays posed within a couple of feet. After traveling in the tundra, we walked back down through the forests. Here, the secretive Red-breasted Sapsucker was found, along with the shadowy Varied Thrush. Spruce Grouse walked boldly along the roadsides, as American Dippers fed through the torrents of the Nooksack River."

Thanks, Alan.

Alan mentioned that we were on the lookout for several days for Surfbirds, one of the group of birds known as rockpipers that he mentioned above - birds of rocky coastlines. We never did see the Surfbirds, although Alan and his dad sure gave it a go. We were also on the lookout for Varied Thrushes, which are supposedly quite common in Washington. Every park ranger or birder we asked said oh sure, you'll see them. So we kept looking. Finally, on our last day, the day we left the state, we were driving down a 12 mile gravel road, down from the trailhead of the Skyline Divide Trail at Mount Baker, looking at robin after robin who kept flying up from the road (robins look a lot like Varied Thrushes) when finally, finally, a Varied Thrush showed itself in the middle of the gravel road. At first we thought - another robin. But it started its odd bobbing, with its tail up in the air like a wren, and then we saw the band across the chest. A Varied Thrush! Thank you little bird. A nice goodbye to our trip.

Greater Yellowlegs, Pacific Rim National Park, Vancouver Island by Alan Kneidel

See our post of September 4 for information and links about seabirds threatened with extinction by the fishing industry's gill nets and longlines. That post also includes links to online guides to help you choose fish for your dinner table in a way that minimizes your health risk and protects the most threatened fish species.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Just What Is Foie Gras?? Too Fat to Waddle

What is it about foie gras that made the city council of Chicago banish the "gourmet" meat from area restaurants this past week? Many angry restaurant owners chose the very day the ban took effect - Aug 22 - to serve foie gras in their establishments for the first time. Slabs of the oily, buttery-tasting goose liver showed up in unconventional dishes such as foie gras pizza - in defiance of the new city ordinance against it. Some restaurant owners said they were just resisting any effort by city government to regulate what they can and can't serve in their restaurants.

In banning the meat considered a delicacy, the city council acted out of concern for animal cruelty. No one seems to dispute that force-feeding geese and ducks up to 4 lbs of grain and fat per day through a tube pushed down their throats is cruel. The birds are force-fed to produce a huge and fat-laced liver, which grows so large that the animals are eventually unable to move or to breathe normally. The livers are prized as a delicacy for their fatty, "buttery" taste.

Animal-rights and vegetarian groups have documented the details of animal misery in the abusive foie-gras industry, such as this article from GoVeg. The geese and ducks are force-fed three times a day. But between the feedings, they're not swimming around a pond or frolicking through the grass on peaceful spacious farms. Like other fowl raised for food, or for eggs, most are confined indoors in cramped quarters between feedings. Many are housed in rows of battery cages that open from the top, similar to the cages that egg-laying hens customarily spend their lives in. We visited and inspected a factory egg farm for a major supermarket chain, and a massive Tyson broiler farm where chickens for meat are raised, as well as a Tyson breeder farm - all of which are described in detail in our book Veggie Revolution. We also interviewed all the farmers, and heard their stories - none of them were entirely thrilled with operating under contract to meatpacking companies whose guiding ethic is shaving pennies from production costs. Environmental issues, animal welfare, consumer health, and workers' rights all take a back seat to shareholder profits for major meatpacking corporations.

Day laborers on factory farms and meatpacking plants, including foie gras farms, are paid very low wages and are often illegal immigrants too vulnerable to object to exploitive and often dangerous working conditions. Usually working under a quota of animals or carcasses processed per minute, they are forced to rush through procedures such as inseminating turkeys, or force-feeding of geese or ducks for foie gras. Consequently, the throats of the geese and ducks are often perforated and scraped as the tube is pushed into place for each feeding. Birds that survive the rough treatment eventually become grossly bloated from their huge and fatty livers, the consequence of overfeeding.

What can you do? If you see foie gras for sale, tell the proprietor of the shop or restaurant that you find the sale distressing, and tell them why. They may not know much about how the liver is produced. Tell them that you won't shop or dine there as long as they carry the product. We interviewed the manager of a Harris Teeter, a large supermarket chain, about the veal they sell in the store, for Veggie Revolution. He said supermarkets are purely customer-driven. They carry what customers buy. Sales of veal have dropped dramatically in recent years due to publicity from animal rights groups, who have educated the public about what veal is exactly - it's beef from calves that are kept isolated in narrow stalls from the age of 1 day to slaughter at 4 months, often chained at the neck to keep their muscles weak and tender. Although Americans are still eating veal, demand in the U.S. has dropped 62% since 1987. I think the same thing will happen with foie gras. It's starting in Chicago; the state of California will follow suit in 2012. As consumers learn more about foie gras, I believe sales will drop.

It's not just food - the sale of SUVs and light trucks has fallen precipitously in recent months due to rising gas prices. Americans are seeking small, fuel-efficient cars that Detroit is unable to deliver. Hence the sales of Asian cars that get good gas mileage - Toyota, Honda, Nissan - have increased. Now Ford and General Motors are scrambling to meet the changing demands of American consumers. Ford is shifting production to flex-fuel cars that can burn a fuel blend that's up to 85% ethanol. They're too late to get in on the hybrid market; Toyota has that one nailed. See our posts of mid June to mid July, especially 7/15/06, for more about that.

Which all just goes to say that power is in consumers' hands. The city council of Chicago started the ball rolling by banning foie gras - now it may be up to consumers to keep that ball rolling. As consumers, we get what we ask for. We vote with our dollars. Most people care about animals, polls show that the vast majority of Americans object to animal abuse. So let's pay attention to what we're eating, and if we're eating animal products, let's get informed and choose products from humanely raised animals. This usually means animals raised on small and local family-owned farms and animals raised at pasture, rather than in confinement. Ask at your local farmers market or natural food store for providers near you. Or check out or Foie gras is just the beginning.

For more about the ban in Chicago, see our August 23 post, Fois Gras from Force-fed Geese is Banned in Chicago.