Thursday, May 31, 2007

Alternative fuel vehicles will be tough sell

Imagine a vehicle that runs on hydrogen or biofuels
and offers the same features, performance and price as today's
gasoline vehicle.

Will it capture half the market? Not likely,
concludes a new MIT analysis of the challenges behind introducing
alternative-fuel vehicles to the marketplace. Not even if it's three
times more fuel-efficient.

Among the barriers: Until many alternative fuel (AF) vehicles are on
the road, people won't consider buying one-so there won't be many on
the road. Catch-22.

The researchers' conclusions are not all gloomy, though. If policy
incentives are kept in place long enough, adoption will reach a level
at which the market will begin to grow on its own. But "long enough"
may be a surprisingly long time.

Given today's environmental pressures and energy security concerns,
we need to move away from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. But repeated
attempts to introduce other technologies during the past century have
nearly all failed. Dethroning the gasoline-consuming internal
combustion engine (ICE) has proved difficult.

"The challenge is not just introducing an AF vehicle," said
postdoctoral associate Jeroen Struben of the Sloan School of
Management, who has been examining the mechanisms behind such market
transitions. "Consumer acceptance, the fueling infrastructure and
manufacturing capability all have to evolve at the same time."

Thus, consumer exposure to AF vehicles is just one feedback loop that
can slow adoption. Similarly, fuel suppliers won't build AF stations
until they're certain of future demand; but until the fuel is widely
available, consumers won't buy the vehicles. And manufacturers won't
be able to make AF vehicles cheaper and better until their production
volume is high; but high-volume production won't happen until such
improvements are in place to attract buyers.

And then of course there's the status quo to be overcome-the
well-established and highly attractive gasoline-ICE vehicle and the
fueling infrastructure, energy supply chain and other industries that
support it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cats are Invasive Species

I too find kittens charming.

But the bald truth is that housecats in the U.S. are an invasive species, in the same sense that kudzu, Gypsy moths, and the Chestnut blight fungus are invasive species.

What is an invasive species? According to the U.S. government, an invasive species is "an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." Ecologists would add that an invasive species is a non-native introduced species that spreads rapidly on its own and displaces native species.

Housecats easily meet all of these criteria. The domestic housecat is not native to the US. These cats originated from the European and African Wild Cat, Felis sylvestris. The European colonists brought them to the U.S. and their numbers have been increasing ever since - from 30 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1990, to an estimated 90 million now. That rate of increase is far greater than any native animal on the continent. Unaided populations of native wild animals just don't multiply like that.

So they're introduced from elsewhere, their numbers are increasing at a rapid rate, and they are most definitely doing environmental harm. Housecats are a major source of wildlife mortality in the US, according the the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Bird Conservancy, and numerous university studies. Nationwide, cats kill more than a billion small mammals and hundreds of millions of birds each year. Many of these are native songbirds and mammals whose populations are already stressed by other threats, such as habitat destruction, development, and pollution.

Domestic cats worldwide have been involved in the extinction of more bird species than any other cause except habitat destruction, according to research from the University of Maine.

Some of the best-documented examples: housecats are endangering populations of least terns, piping plovers and loggerhead shrikes. In Florida, marsh rabbits in Key West have been threatened by predation from domestic cats. Cats introduced by people living on the barrier islands of Florida’s coast have depleted several unique and native species of mice and woodrats to near extinction.

But I hardly need to look at research journals to find documentation. I need only to look out my front door, my back door, my side door. Every day I find my neighbors' cats stalking animals in my yard. Nearly every day I find at least one of them trotting home with an animal in its mouth. We've taken down all of our bird feeders, because they were only luring prey in for the neighbors' cats.

Occasionally I see a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Cooper's Hawk or a Barred Owl in my yard with a small mammal or a bird. These are native predators. Their numbers are modest; they do no harm to prey populations. In fact, these native predators are essential to the healthy functioning of the ecosystem and the prey populations.

If it weren't for the cats, I think we'd have more of the hawks and owls, which we would enjoy. But the well-fed cats take the best of the prey.

If you have a cat, please keep it indoors at all times. The Humane Society asks you to, and they like cats. They point out that free-roaming cats have a life expectancy of less than 3 years, while indoor cats live an average of 15-18 years. Two-thirds of vets recommend keeping housecats indoors at all times, for the cats' protection from cars and disease, as well as for the sake of wildlife populations.

A 2006 paper by ecologists in Wisconsin lists a number of resources and other papers that will be useful to anyone researching this topic.

Eastern Chipmunk photo by Alan Kneidel

Keyboards:: house cats housecats domestic cats feral cates predation birds small mammals invasive species declining species habitat loss population declines threatened endangered

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Trampled State Fights Back

I've lived in NC almost my whole life. My dad used to tell me that North Carolina was the "best place in the world" and he meant it. He loved the trees, he loved the forested mountains, he loved the wild coast. I grew up savoring these things too. In college at UNC, I studied mountain salamanders, because our state has more species than anywhere else on the continent. But as the years have passed and I've raised my own kids here, I've watched our state undergo accelerating development. I've watched NC offer every enticement to corporations willing to plunder our assets and toss us a few crumbs. We offer low taxes, cheap labor, cheap land, few environmental restrictions, and lax enforcement of pollution laws to any corporation willing to farm or build a factory - regardless of what fraction of the profits are fed into faraway stockholder pockets instead of into local communities.

I don't know what my dad would think now.

Our mountain hardwood forests are being clear-cut, replaced by loblolly pine plantations - thanks to International Paper and other multi-national corporations that send the profits to shareholders outside the state. As the forests fall, they take with them our unrivaled mountain biodiversity. The coast has been ravaged too: our coastal plain is currently home to 10 million hogs on factory farms - more than any other state except Iowa. Most of these hogs are courtesy of Smithfield, a company growing more notorious every day for labor abuses and the environmental degradation associated with 10-acre hog-waste lagoons. Then there's Duke Energy: the air for our forests and for our children's lungs is among the nation's foulest, thanks in large part to Duke's affinity for coal-fired power plants.

It's hard to love a land that has somehow gone belly-up in submission, offering its life blood and its most precious assets to any exploitive industry that wanders in. The timber industry, the textile industry, the meat industry, the coal utilities have all had their way with our land and resources. All of these industries have exploited and degraded our environment, have exploited laborers (we are the least unionized state in the country), and exploited our animals too - both wild and farmed ones.

But something new is happening here - resistance is swelling. The ground is beginning to tremble. Just a few years ago I had the feeling that interest in conservation was almost nonexistent in Charlotte. Has there been an influx of new people? Is the growing worldwide concern about global warming, toxic food, depleted fisheries starting to frighten people into action? What is is? People here are getting active.

I drove to the coast last weekend to Sierra Fest, the state Sierra Club convention. On the way we passed hundreds of homes with "No OLF" signs in the yard. A few weeks ago there were public hearings all around the state about the Navy's efforts to get in on the gang bang of NC and build an Outlying Landing Field next to our Poccosin Wildlife Refuge - a plan that would have threatened habitat for millions of migrating waterfowl and other wildlife. People all over the state said hell no, and now the U.S. Senate has passed legislation to repeal authorization for the landing field. Amazing!

A similar outpouring of irate folks shouted "No" to Duke Energy, at public hearings for their proposed 2 new coal plants. The NC utility commission, on the basis of strong community resistance, denied permission for one of them.

Last night I went to a fund-raising event for the Carolinas Clean Air Coalition with a speaker from Environmental Defense - and there was a great turnout. CCAC has an energetic and very effective leader in June Blotnik. Likewise, our local Sierra Club has inspiring new leadership in Chatham Olive. Charlotte has a new interest in sustainably raised food too...not tremendous, but growing. Opposition to Smithfield is spreading across the state, and supermarkets are listening.

I see more and more challenges to our state's natural resources and biodiversity, things that would make my dad weep. But....I feel a powerful rumble in our new and growing activist community. It feels good.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Camping and veggies, a perfect match

If you are looking for a way to encourage your children eat their fruits and vegetables, search no further than your backyard. A new study by researchers at Saint Louis University recently revealed that involving children in the planting and harvesting of backyard gardens encourages interest in both nature and nutrition.

Preschool children in rural areas eat more fruits and vegetables when the produce is homegrown. “When children are involved with growing and cooking food, it improves their diet,” says Debra Haire-Joshu, Ph.D., director of Saint Louis University’s Obesity Prevention Center and a study author.

So, along with your "Great American Backyard Campout" on June 23rd, perhaps make a stop in your own garden or a local farmer's market - if you don't already have a garden - and do a little "Local" foraging for your campfire fair.

A few campfire recipes to get you started::

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Backyard campout June 23rd

High gas prices putting a crimp in your summer vacation plans? Head out the back door to experience a night with Mother Nature. You don't need to go to Yosemite to experience the great outdoors and the National Wildlife Federation can help. So put down the remote and mouse, grab the family, friends and neighbors and enjoy a noctural backyard adventure.

Sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation to encourage parents and kids alike to turn in their tv remotes, ipods, Playstations, computers, MP3 players, cell phones and all things high tech, and experience a night with Mother Nature including listening for nocturnal wildlife (maybe even see a few), star-gazing, cooking over an open fire, telling stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and exploring a whole other world right in their own backyard.

Last year over 60,000 families from around the country participated in the Backyard Campout. You don’t need to go to Yosemite to experience the great outdoors and the wonders it has to offer. Just open up your backdoor.

Where: Backyards across America
When: Saturday night, June 23, 2007
Who: Families, friends, neighbors

Why: This initiative is part of a National Wildlife Federation campaign to rescue our nation’s kids from what famed author Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Research now shows that kids spend an average of 44 hours per week staring at electronic screens, tv, video games and computers -- for the first time in our country’s history, we have an entire generation that is growing up disconnected from nature.

This can lead to a weaker immune system, greater dependency on ADHD drugs, lost creativity, less self-sufficiency, lack of interest in maintaining the wildlife legacy they have inherited. To say nothing of the good old-fashioned fun they are missing.

Get Started::

The National Wildlife Federation is provding everything you need to head out into the great outdoors called your backyard. The web site has packing lists, recipes, nocturnal wildlife guides, exploration activities, nature guides. Check it out at People can even sign up on the site to share their campout plans and experiences.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Will speak at Sierra Fest this weekend

Sara Kate and I will be the key-note speakers at this weekend's Sierra Fest, the convention of the NC Sierra Club. Our topic will be "Food Activism: Eating for Environmental Change." We'll talk about the environmental impact of the United States food industry, and steps that consumers can take to reduce that impact. Our talk will be at 11:00 a.m. Saturday May 12.

For more about the 2007 Sierra Fest, click on the link, or just google "Sierra Fest 2007."

Or go to this website

Sally Kneidel

Sunday, May 06, 2007

More on visit with Wendell Berry

I mentioned in my post of April 28 that a couple of friends of mine visited Wendell Berry back in February. Wendell told them you have to find ways to experience delight, even "glee." As my friends were leaving he pointed to an oriole nest and told them that his main way of finding glee is through birds, butterflies, flowers, and the like. You can tell that from his poetry.

For example, "The Peace of Wild Things" is one of my friend's favorites:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

Keywords:: Wendell Berry poem The Peace of Wild Things

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The contaminated pet food scandal: 5 things you can do

You've probably read about the "contaminated pet food" debacle that's been in the news for a couple of weeks. It began with the death of some family pets who had eaten pet food accidentally laced with an industrial chemical, melamine.

Then the plot began to thicken. Late last week it was discovered that 6,000 hogs across the country ate the chemically-contaminated pet food too. And some consumers in California consumed the toxified hogs. Although, the FDA rushed to say, the hogs' flesh probably did not contain enough melamine to be harmful to the humans who ate the hogs. Of course.

Yesterday, there were more developments in the widening scandal. Now, says the FDA, we know that at least 2.5 million broiler chickens ate the melamine-laden pet food as well and were subsequently sold at fresh meat counters across the country. The FDA's chief medical officer, David Acheson, maintained yesterday that there is no "significant threat of human illness from this." Well.

I am very sorry for any families who have recently lost pets due to melamine in the pet's food. I am sorry too for any families who may be fearful for their own health after eating contaminated chicken and pork.

I might say that I'm sorry for the tainted livestock that will be killed and not eaten, rather than killed and eaten. But from the livestock's perspective, what's the difference?

I could say that I'm sorry for the farmers who have raised the contaminated hogs or chickens that will now be destroyed and not sold for meat. But.... farmers do not own the hogs or chickens they raise. In the U.S. 99% of poultry and 80% of hogs are raised in warehouses on factory farms. The company that packages the meat owns the animals throughout their life cycle, e.g. Tyson owns all the 24,000 chickens in a single broiler shed. Tyson also provides all the feed. The farmer owns the land and the warehouse-like buildings on his property. So I presume that Tyson (or Perdue or whatever corporation owned the tainted broiler farms) will take the hit for the loss of the animals. I'm glad for that much of the story. Tyson deserves it. Likewise, Smithfield or some other giant meat corporation owns all the hogs on any factory farm. Smithfield will take the hit if their hogs must be destroyed. I'm glad for that too. For that reason, I hope the scandal grows and grows. I hope every factory-farmed animal in the country turns out to be laden with melamine, and Tyson and Smithfield and their cronies go belly-up.

That's unlikely.

But what might really happen is this: we might start a national dialogue about what's in the feed that our livestock eat. As environmentalist- rancher Nicolette Niman said so aptly in her essay for our book "We are what they eat."

We researched the topic of livestock diets thoroughly for Veggie Revolution, and even more thoroughly for our next book (Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet, 2008). We interviewed feedlot specialists at midwestern universities, scientists with the National Chicken Council, food scientists at NCSU, a Tyson plant manager, dairymen, etc.

Here's what we discovered. There is almost no regulation on what can be fed to livestock. That's because the meat industry is extremely rich and powerful, and their lobbyists get what they want in Washington. And what they want is license to feed their animals the cheapest possible substance that will enhance their growth in the short term. It's all about shaving pennies off production costs.

Because transport adds to the cost, livestock are fed whatever is cheapest locally. For example, cattle in Texas are fed chicken feathers, chicken feces, and chicken-slaughterhouse scraps - because Texas has a lot of cattle feedlots and a lot of factory farms that raise chickens. Feedlot cattle used to be fed cattle-slaughterhouse scraps too, but that has been stopped due to the threat of mad-cow disease which is transmitted when cows eat other cows. But...oddly....cattle feedlots are still allowed to feed bovine-blood products to other cattle.

And (this was told to me by a PhD who advises feedlots on their feeding regimen) , the chicken feces that is fed to cattle in feedlots almost certainly contains cattle tissue. That's because the chickens have been eating cattle slaughterhouse waste! And some of the beef scraps pass through the chickens unaltered, in addition to the spillage from the chicken-feeding tray which mixes in with the chicken feces on the floor. It's all scooped up together and added to the chow at cattle feedlots.

See? It's ugly. I believe the public would be appalled if livestock diets were posted in grocery stores. Or if pictures of the conditions the animals are raised in were posted. I've been there, and I was stunned. The photos we took are in Veggie Revolution.

What can you do?

1. Write your legislators and supermarket managers and ask for labeling on all animal products stating what the animals were fed. Demand transparency and accountability in farming, especially livestock farming. Ask your legislators and supermarket managers to stop the deceptive marketing that pervades our meat industry. (Take a look at the bucolic meadow of happy animals over the meat counter at Harris Teeter.)

2. If you consume animal products, look at farmers markets or natural food stores for products from grass-fed animals, or look for certified organic products.

3. Eat fewer animal products. Even one or two meatless meals a week helps. Americans consume on the average 248 lbs of meat per year per person, way more than citizens of any other country, including Western Europe and Australia and other industrialized nations. The average amount of meat in developing nations is 66 lbs per person per year. If we as Americans didn't eat so much meat, we could come closer to meeting the demand with grass-fed and pastured animals .

4. Ask around at a local farmers market and locate a small farm near you that uses sustainable, healthful, and humane methods to raise livestock and produce animal products. In NC, you can find dozens of such farms in the annual "Food Guide" available for free from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (google for contact info). Visit one of these sustainable farms, and talk to the farmer about how his or her methods differ from the standard corporate methods on factory farms. You'll be moved - I guarantee it.

5. Support and get involved with activist groups such as the Grace Factory Farming Project or the Waterkeeper Alliance that are working hard to hold meat corporations accountable for their abuses to our environment, non-unionized laborers, and captive animals. Or better yet, find a group that's active in your own community.

Keywords:: melamine contaminated pet food tainted pet food feedlots mad cow slaugherhouse waste scraps livestock feed sustainable farming