F&V is green!

Of course, that subject line is no surprise at all. Ladera Frutal proudly grows its fruits only with natural methods, the house has a solar water heater, and our green leanings when it comes to votes are well advertised. But, thanks to the virtual orchard’s host, we are greener still. I received the following from PowWeb:

Dear Matthew,

Looking to bring green practices to the Web? Good news: by hosting with us, you already have.

How We Went Green
Since we’re not able to generate wind power onsite, we offset our energy use by purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).

The energy grid must maintain a full supply of power without overflowing. When wind power is added to the grid through RECs, the amount of energy produced by fossil fuels is reduced.

As a result, our offices and data centers are 100% powered by renewable energy, which means your site is completely green.

Our commitment prevents the release of 2,660 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s equivalent to planting nearly 2,390 acres of trees, or removing 510 cars from the road.

Read more about our efforts »

UCSD solar

Just got this announcement:

Beginning June 23, 2008 and lasting through September 15, 2008, the top levels of the Gilman and Hopkins Parking structures will be closed to all parking due to the installation of photovoltaic (solar) parking canopies. In addition to providing shade for parked cars, these solar energy systems will provide over 400 kilowatts of clean renewable energy to the campus..

Spectacular! Can’t wait to park the hybrid under one of these. ((Though it’s not very near my office, to which I seldom drive anyway. And Jordan drives the hybrid, leaving me with the decidedly ungreen 4WD official Ladera Frutal pickup on those unfortunate days when I do have to drive to campus. But maybe he’ll let me drive it one day after 15 September!))

More on my employer’s good work here.
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Pigovianism

I did not even know it, but apparently I have been a Pigovian since my first year of eligibility to vote in presidential elections. It was 1980, and I backed John Anderson. ((Not only with my vote, but as a petition coordinator in my city for his petition drive to get on the general-election ballot.)) The main plank in his campaign platform that I still remember 28 years later was a 50c/gallon gas tax. This was at a time when the nominal cost of a gallon of gasoline had just passed 50 cents (though the price in 2007 dollars was about $2.00).

Last October, in the WSJ, Greg Mankiw gave the case for a large (but gradual) increase in the gas tax, which he reprinted at his blog under the title, The Pigovian Manifesto.

John Anderson got 7% of the vote in the general election in 1980, and as far as I know no candidate who advocated a large increase in the gas tax has beaten that percentage since. As Mankiw concludes with:

don’t expect those vying for office to come around until the American people recognize that while higher gas taxes are unattractive, the alternatives are even worse.

Indeed. Count me in as a self-declared (and, in spirit, adult-lifelong) member of the Pigou Club, along with Mankiw, Al Gore, Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan, Greg Easterbrook, Joe Stiglitz, Gary Becker, Nouriel Roubini, Arthur Laffer, and an evidently growing list of economists, pundits, and other social commentators. Are political scientists/orchardists welcome to the club?

Planet to Australian voters: Thanks

No, I have not appointed myself spokesperson for the planet. But I agree with John Quiggin (a political social scientist and also an Australian) at Crooked Timber, as well as at his own blog, that the recent government change in Australia was significant to producing a better-than-expected deal in Bali.

Until his [i.e. new Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s] election, Australia, as the only other significant country not to ratify Kyoto, was Bush’s most important supporter. After the switch, Australia was able to pursue a negotiating strategy which sometimes seemed to accommodating to the US, but ultimately produced an excellent outcome.

Of course, there are also some losers, who did all they could to stop this happening, and failed. But they know who they are, and there’s no need to dwell on them today.

Indeed.

The linked posts (especially the one at C.T.) also have very interesting comment threads. Contributions in light of the discussions there are very much welcome here.

More fundamental than the climate

The thing that Greens care about more fundamentally than anything — perhaps for some Greens it matters more than climate — is that we fix the voting system.

So said Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party. She was commenting on a “non-compete” agreement that she recently struck with Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, in which the latter has agreed to explore reforms to Canada’s electoral system.

I can’t argue with the green priority: Addressing the fundamental environmental issues of our time, including climate change, would be advanced significantly by addressing the fundamental democratic deficit of countries still mired in first-past-the-post politics, such as Canada, the U.K., and the USA. Greens have rarely won seats under FPTP in national, state, or provincial-level legislative races.1 However, when they have been in parliament under proportional-representation systems, they have sometimes been able to be in government (as in Germany, 1998-2005, and the Czech Republic currently) or to influence policy even in the absence of executive positions (as in New Zealand currently).

The importance of PR to a party like the Greens is evident from a nationwide Canadian poll from early March. It showed the Green Party polling at 13%, compared to the 4.5% it won in the 2006 election. When asked on CBC whether that support would translate into electing a member of parliament, Greens leader May correctly noted, “We are not a regionally-based party, and as such, the first-past-the-post system does tend to work against us.” Indeed, the Quebec Bloc won only 10.5% of the national vote in 2006, yet won 16.6% of the seats. The FPTP system is biased towards smaller parties with regional support and against those of about the same size with more dispersed support.

As beneficial as stand-down (no-compete) deals and an eventual move to proportional representation would be for the Greens, there is less to this deal than meets the eye. The deal calls for the Liberals to stand down in May’s riding (electoral district), where the Liberal has no chance of winning.2 In exchange, the Greens will not compete in Dion’s riding, which is entirely safe for the Liberal party, anyway. The agreement thus has no promise of actually helping Greens get into parliament, from where they would be able to hold Dion and his party to the promise to begin serious discussion of electoral reform and to action on climate change should the Liberals form a minority government after the next election.

The deal is much more about Liberal-NDP and Green-NDP competition than it is about representation for the Greens or a process of electoral reform. The NDP and the Greens, to a significant extent, share overlapping voter bases, while the NDP and the Liberals are also in competition with one another in many ridings across Canada. For example, the NDP won about 17% of the vote in 2006, but in the poll that put the Greens on 13%, the NDP was also at 13%, while the Liberals were at 27% (compared to just over 30% in the 2006 election). The Conservative vote, on the other hand, appears relatively unaffected by the votes of the Green-NDP-Liberal segments of the electorate.3 In the 2006 election and the referenced poll (as well as many other polls in the past year), the Liberal-NDP-Green combo represents a majority of the votes. And, while the parties disagree on many things amongst themselves, a PR system would translate these parties’ recent levels of support into a majority in parliament.

However, under FPTP, these parties are in competition with one another in a way that could benefit the Conservatives, unless the Liberal party can persuade more potential NDP or Green voters to vote for it than for one of the smaller parties. More votes for the Greens will hurt the NDP the most; moreover, a Liberal party seen as out-greening the NDP may be able to retain some environmentally conscious votes that would otherwise go NDP, if not Green. Finally, in several ridings, drawing votes away from the NDP, whether they go to the Greens or the Liberals, could boost Liberals against Conservative competition.

As Stephen Maer, in The Chronicle Herald notes:

Ms. May’s endorsement should help Mr. Dion, but the advantages to Ms. May are not as clear, except that she seems to think it’s the right thing to do. […]

Ms. May is a bigger threat to the electoral prospects of NDP Leader Jack Layton than to Stephen Harper…

Jack Layton, NDP leader, suggested he sees the threat to his party when he posed the rhetorical question, “If Ms. May thinks Mr. Dion would make the best prime minister, why isn’t she running as a Liberal?” Of course, she is doing this to raise the profile of a party that will always struggle to survive under FPTP. And that takes us full circle, back to the fundamental importance of electoral reform in order to elect blocs of legislators committed to climate-change policy. Thanks to the deal, Canadian papers for several days have given quite a lot of coverage to electoral reform and the Green Party. A short-term success, at least!

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1. I know of two FPTP races won by Green candidates, both in mixed-member proportional electoral systems. The NZ Greens co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, won the single-seat district for Coromandel in 1999. (In that election, it was not clear the party would pass the party-list threshold and if it had not, the party’s presence in parliament would have depended on the district win. The party has not held the seat since, but has remained above the threshold nationally.) Hans Christian Stroebele won the constituency of Kreuzberg in Berlin for the Green Party in the 2005 German federal election. A Green came close to winning a riding in BC’s last provincial election, but there is no value to being “close” under FPTP! (Some Greens have been elected in single-seat districts in France, where a two-round system is used and the party has benefited from cross-district cooperative arrangements with left allies.)

2. The riding is Central Nova, in Nova Scotia. It is currently held by Peter MacKay, a minister in the current Conservative federal cabinet who won 40.7% of the vote in 2006. Then NDP came in second, with 32.9% and the Liberal third, with 24.6%. A different Green candidate in 2006 won 1.6%, or 671 votes. In a wonderful twist, the Liberal candidate who now won’t be running is named Susan Green! (Thanks to Idealistic Pragmatist for that tip.)

3. Other polls around the same time show the Greens with less support. Most of those other polls also show the NDP very marginally higher and the Liberals also somewhat higher. The Conservative vote appears a bit more stable, though it has reached 40% in the occasional poll. The site linked in this note shows a graph of polling trends.

Got sun?

Ladera Frutal’s south-facing slope is blessed with abundant sunshine (at least outside of May Gray/June Gloom season), so why not take advantage?

solar panels of Ladera Frutal.JPG

No, this does not let us go off-grid. It does not generate any electricity. But it does make the water really hot, without using electricity or gas to do so. These panels are connected to a water-circulation system and hot-water tank, so that any time the sun is shining we have hot water without using any electricity or gas. (The rest of the time it is on electric back-up.) Electric water-heating is expensive, and this area has no gas utility. We preferred not to have any gasoline bombs (a.k.a propane tanks) on the finca, so this was the perfect solution for saving on the bills, avoiding a fire hazard–and conserving resources.

Look closely near the bottom of the photo and you can see the patch in the driveway where our contractor put in the pipes between the house and the panels. (It was done in 2002; by now the new concrete has faded and is much less visible than it was at the time.)

Well beyond the white wooden fence is a neighbor’s Hass grove that had almost no freeze damage. At this elevation on the north-facing slope, groves were badly damaged. Here on the south-facing slope, we fared much better. And we get lots of sun for solar panels.

Priorities: Local or organic?

(Note: Updated on 15 March)

If you care about the impact of your food choices on not only yourself, but also on the environment–and please do–should you aim to buy local or organic? John Cloud, writing in Time, has a piece on precisely this question that is well worth a read.

The article is surprisingly good, considering its mega-media publication outlet, and in spite of some annoying passages (e.g. an utterly stupid throwaway line, “I know I’ve been listening to too much npr…,” and some irrelevant and ignorant political asides). It does quite a good job of considering the many dimensions of these decisions, and includes informative interviews with John Mackey (Whole Foods) and Nate Keller (Google’s Café 150).

It notes that:

advocates of local eating are now making another leap, saying what happens after harvest–how food is shipped and handled–is perhaps even more important than how it was grown.

I am not completely ready to endorse that statement, but I come close. If forced to make the choice, on most produce I would prioritize local over organic. Fortunately, I am in California, and I rarely have to make that tradeoff–especially if I do not insist on “fresh” fruit like grapes and plums in the winter (which will have been picked way too early and shipped thousands of miles from the southern hemisphere).

Also:

the packages in which most Whole Foods groceries are sold say nothing about the food’s origin. For instance, in the freezer section you can find Whole Foods’ Whole Kitchen brand Breaded Eggplant Slices with Italian Herbs. The box tells you a wealth of information about the eggplant slices–that they contain wheat, dextrose and annatto (a dye); that they can be fried, baked or microwaved; that they have no trans fat; that they are “flavorful” and “versatile.” But you don’t learn where the eggplant comes from.

Yes, this is a major annoyance to me. I just want to know. Tell me where the produce came from.

UPDATE: Mike Biltonen weighs in on this issue. His blog is called Organic Schmorganic, and subtitled “Debunking the myth of organic in favor of local, ecological agriculture.” To clarify a misconcption some readers apparently (and understandably) have gotten, he says, “What we’re really battling is GLOBAL organic and not LOCAL organic.” I certainly am sympathetic with that.


h/t Nige at The Jew and the Carrot

Lighten up, green up!

The center-right Australian Liberal Party government of John Howard has announced a plan to phase out standard lightbulbs in favor of energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs by 2009. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the expensive bulbs will pay for themselves within a year by reducing household electricity bills by up to 66 per cent and eventually cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by four million tonnes a year. […]

Mr Turnbull said that during the Kyoto Protocol target period between 2008 and 2012, the light bulb phase-out would cut 800,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia each year.

Meanwhile, the government of Ontario is considering making the province the first in Canada to enact a similar measure. From the Toronto Star:

No one in Ontario should underestimate the importance of replacing standard bulbs with more energy-efficient ones, [provincial Environment Minister Laurel] Broten added. By Premier Dalton McGuinty’s estimate, replacing every old-fashioned bulb with an energy-efficient one would allow the province to shut down one coal-fired power plant.

The Ontario government is headed by the Liberal party (which is a good deal more center-left than Australia’s conservative party of the same name), but it is being urged to adopt this measure not only by environmental organizations, but also by its main opposition, the Conservative Party.

Oh, if only we could have “conservatives” in this country like those in Australia and Canada!

Organic farming and the environment

Is organic farming ‘no better for the environment’? The headline in The Independent, regarding “The first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production” suggests not. However, the study, by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is evidently rather more mixed than the headline implies.

[It] found “many” organic products had lower ecological impacts than conventional methods using fertilisers and pesticides. But academics at the Manchester Business School (MBS), who conducted the study, said that was counterbalanced by other organic foods – such as milk, tomatoes and chicken – which are significantly less energy efficient and can be more polluting than intensively-farmed equivalents.

I don’t know much about dairy or chicken farming, but deeper into the story it becomes clear that much of the problem with tomatoes (and other vegetables) is out-of-season hothouse production. Well, no surprise there. Organic standards are one thing, but the organic spirit is one of natural methods. And growing things in heated indoor spaces because one’s climate will not support outdoor growing is a far cry from the spirit of harmony with the natural environment that organic (and, for that matter, non-organic) growers should aspire to.

Some of the organo-skepticism expressed by the study (as reported in the Independent) also has to do with scale inefficiencies. However, I would be somewhat skeptical of these conclusions, as well:

Advocates of organic farming said its environmental benefits had long been established, not least by Mr Miliband [the Environment Secretary] who has written it is “better for biodiversity than intensive farming“. The Soil Association said it recognised that in some areas, such as poultry and growing vegetables out of season, organic was less energy efficient.

But it said that was vastly outweighed by factors which the Defra study had not taken into consideration such as animal welfare, soil condition and water use. [my emphasis]

As for Ladera Frutal (which is certified organic), the heavy use of imported water to grow a subtropical crop like avocados in this naturally dry a climate does concern me. If only I could afford to drill a well or bear the up-front investment costs of converting the avocado grove to a less thirsty crop. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that any broad assessment of the impact of fruit-growing methods would be favorable to organic over conventional.

Furthermore, if the alternative to growing avocados in California is buying them from Chile and Mexico, an assessment of the environmental impact would have to take into account the vastly greater insecticide use in those countries (in part due to past over-use that has killed off beneficial insects and resulted in evolved resistance) and the carbon impact of the longer-distance transportation. These considerations would be separate from the straight comparison of organic vs. conventional methods in either California or Latin America, and yet a further question would be the quality of the oversight on organic (or other) standards in developing countries.

I would take home two conclusions: (1) There are more important assessments of producer practices that the informed and environmentally sensitive consumer should take into account than the simple organic–conventional dichotomy, and (2) As always, the evaluative criteria employed–rather narrow in the UK Defra study–are essential to the conclusions of any study of the impact of the processes of producing our food on the environment.

Cloning of animals vs. cloning of fruit

This is something I have been mulling around a bit since the news item back in December that the US Food and Drug Administration issued a “draft risk assessment” that is a likely step towards letting cloned animals into the nation’s meat and milk supply. (Reports I read said that some cloned animals had already been slaughtered for market, but relatively few.)

My reaction to the whole idea is negative. But why? (I mean other than that I am an organic farmer and my politics lean green, and so in the area of agronomic policy I tend to be pretty conservative.) This is not GMO (which I have a pretty strongly negative view of). This is perpetuating genetically identical copies of a parent. Just like I do every time I graft a known fruit variety into a rootstock (or plant a commercially purchased tree that is grafted or otherwise asexually propagated).

At one of my favorite fruit/food/farm blogs (long linked on my sidebar), life begins at 30, one of the reasons given for why cloning of animals for food is a “bad idea” is that it “encourages monoculture.”

But does it? Back to fruit, it is true that if all fruits were grown from seed, every tree (and its fruit) would be unique. So, if every apple tree, for example, were from seed, we would have a lot more genetic variety. On the other hand, we have an amazing degree of genetic diversity because so many good seedlings have been found over the years and grafted as a way to preserve them and pass them on. Thus, I have numerous apple varieties in my collection, just as I have numerous apricots, and so on.

But I suppose this really gets to the crux of the matter. Although the practice is less widespread for fruits other than apples (the reason I used them as my example), stores sell apples as ‘Jonathan’ or ‘Gala’ or ‘Fuji’ so that we know what we are getting. And so that there is more, not less, genetic variety among what we can buy.

With cattle and pigs and such, I don’t suppose we are going to get labeled varieties like we get with apples. In fact, at least until some certifying organization comes along for consumers who want to know their meat and other animal products aren’t from clones, we are not likely to get any labeling at all.

Maybe the difference comes down to there being greater natural variation in the flavor (and other qualities of interest to humans) among the offspring of any given male and female persimmon blossom than in the offspring of any given bull and cow. (Why would that be?)

I wonder if cloned animals will be allowed under organic labeling? Again, using the fruit analogy, why not? However, I suspect there will be a lot of resistance from the organic producers, retailers, and consumers. And will such animals be considered kosher? The certifiers and those who care about certified products will be very much engaged in this process.

In the meantime, I certainly will be seeking to support producers–especially smaller and local ones–who do not use cloned animals.

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UPDATE: Interesting perspectives from The Evil Fruit Lord (in the comments) and at Organic Shmorganic.