I’m sorry to inform you that your pet is bad for the planet

PetProtectionAside from, perhaps, GMOs, few topics in the sustainable business arena are as emotional as pets. When my friend Erik Assadourian wrote a well-researched story for the Guardian last year asking whether pets are bad for the environment, he was assailed in the comments as a a “dumbass,” an “animal hater” and “an overpaid media commentator.” (The last allegation, I can assure you, is false.) It goes without saying that people love their pets. “My dogs are my family,” one commenter said. And we certainly can’t blame pets for the world’s pollution problems. As Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a pet owner and a defender of all four-legged creatures, once said, dogs and cats “aren’t driving to work.”

True enough. But dogs and cats have environmental impacts. They make waste. They’re eat, and many are overfed. They consume resources, including plastic toys and costly health care. And while, yes, they provide companionship, improve health and get us to spend more time outdoors meeting people, as Erik noted, couldn’t all those things be provided just as well by, er, people? Do we really need dogs to get us to talk a walk around the neighborhood.

When I recently revisited the topic for the Guardian, focusing this time on the impact of pet food, an editor told me that my story wasn’t good enough to run. I learned long ago not to argue with editors–they’re powerful and, occasionally, right–so I took the story to the Worldwatch Institute, where Erik works, and it then made its way to GreenBiz.

The story is anything but an assault on pets. Instead, it’s an effort to show how the giant food company Mars, which makes more pet food than candy bars, is trying to reduce its environmental impact, focusing on cat food, seafood and the oceans. Here’s how the story begins:

The United States is home to 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs. They all have to eat. And that’s a problem — particularly when owners decide to feed their pets as if they were people.

The environmental impact of pet food is big, although no one knows just how big. Like the rest of us, dogs and cats consume meat, fish, corn and wheat, thus creating pressures on the global food system, along with carbon emissions as the food is manufactured and transported.

What we do know is that pet food is big business, generating about $22 billion in sales a year, industry groups estimate.

Much could be done to “green” pet foods — dogs and cats are getting more meat and fish than they need, for starters — but the industry is just starting to grapple with its sustainability issues.

Privately held Mars is leading the way, at least when compared to its big rivals. Better known for chocolate bars and M&Ms, Mars is the world’s biggest pet food company: Mars Pet Care has revenues estimated at $17 billion, employs 39,000 people, operates about 70 factories and owns the Pedigree, Whiskas, Nutro, Sheba, Cesar, Royal Canin and Iams brands.

The story goes on to say that Mars has

promised to buy fish only from fisheries or fish farms that are certified as sustainable by third parties. Importantly, Mars also said it would replace all wild catch whole fish and fish fillet with either by-products or farmed fish — so that demand for pet food does not compete directly with food that could be served to people.

That’s a step in the right direction. Other pet food companies, including Nestle and J.M. Smucker, have yet to follow. You can read the rest of my story here.

There was more bad news this week for pet owners. Did you happen to see the massive New York Times series about slavery at sea? The headline reads Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock. In four long stories, The Times reports on harsh, inhumane, just plain awful way that people are treated in the Thai fishing industry, which is being driven by “an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.”

Here’s where pets come in:

The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.

Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.

“How fast do their pets eat what’s put in front of them, and are there whole meat chunks in that meal?” asked Giovanni M. Turchini, an environmental professor at Deakin University in Australia who studies the global fish markets. “These are the factors that pet owners most focus on.”

So should you give up your cats and dogs? Not necessarily. But small pets are better than big ones. And if you feed them fish and meat, you might want to go vegetarian more often, to offset their impact.

Hershey’s, and the limits of certified chocolate

ft-hersheySilly me. I thought the world’s cocoa farmers, most of whom are poor, would surely benefit when global chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle, made major commitments to buy certified cocoa. Hershey’s and Mars pledged to certify 100 percent of their cocoa as sustainably produced by 2020, while Nestle has made a variety of commitments to certification.

It’s more complicated than that, as I should have known. It always is, isn’t it? I learned a little more about cocoa farmers and certification while reporting a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about Hershey’s.

The top of the story, unfortunately, was inadvertently mangled a bit in the editing process (it happens, but rarely) and so while you are free to read it as published in the Guardian, I’m going to post an earlier version here, and I’ll add a comment at the end. Here’s the story:

*     *     *

Three years ago, following a campaign by activist groups, the Hershey Company announced that it would use 100% certified cocoa in its chocolate products by 2020. The activists, including the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America and Global Exchange, declared victory, albeit with reservations.

Since then, things have grown complicated. Hershey’s is making progress in its sustainable sourcing: the company says that, in 2014, 30% of its cocoa came from certified, sustainable sources. It expects to hit 50% in 2016, a full year ahead of schedule. “This has become a way of doing business in the future,” J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey’s chief executive, told Guardian Sustainable Business.

When Hershey’s made its commitment, some in the industry feared that there would not be enough certified cocoa to satisfy Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero and other sustainability-minded companies. But, as Bilbrey says, “Capitalism is a wonderful thing. If you demand something, those that supply it to you will provide that particular product.”

What’s less clear is how much of a difference this sustainable sourcing is making in the lives of cocoa farmers. Hershey’s, which had revenues of $7.4bn last year, won’t say how much of its profits have trickled down to suppliers, nor will it say how much business it does with each of its three nonprofit certifiers – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. However, the chocolate maker – as well as its certifiers and the activists who pushed it to source certified cocoa – all agree that certification alone isn’t enough to lift the incomes of cocoa farmers.

And that hits at the heart of long-term sustainability. If those incomes don’t rise, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of farmers will give up on the business. “Even with the highest premium paid (for certified cocoa), farmers are way deep in poverty,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Han De Groot, executivee director of UTZ Certified, a nonprofit based in Amsterdam, agrees. After visiting certified cocoa farmers in Cote D’Ivoire, he wrote: “There is still too much poverty to have a decent and sustainable life.”

Hershey’s efforts go beyond certification  [click to continue…]

Ramez Naam, ecomodernist

ramez
Ramez Naam

I was introduced to a set of ideas known as “ecomodernism” back in 2009, when I read Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued that cities are “greener” than the countryside, that low-carbon nuclear power will be need to curb climate change and that genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow more crops on less land, thus preserving nature.

Ecomodernist ideas have gathered steam since then, driven in large part by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the founders of The Breakthrough Institute. Recently, Michael and Ted herded together a group of scientists and economists — including Stewart, David Keith, Mark Lynas and Roger Pielke Jr. — to publish An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They write:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

In mid-June, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogues, a conference in Sausalito where many of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto spoke. I’m increasingly persuaded that their arguments make more sense than the low-tech, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, all “natural,” small-is-beautiful, local-beats-global approach to environmental issues pushed by the most traditional environmentalists. And even those green groups that are market-friendly, technology-friendly and science-friendly hesitate to stand up in favor of nuclear energy or GMOs.

All this is by way of introduction to Ramez Naam, the author of a book called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. He, too, is an ecomodernist, and a believer that regulated capitalism and technology will help us solve our environmental problems. I wrote about Ramez and his book today in The Guardian, in a story headlined: Ramez Naam: Capitalism is not the enemy of climate.

Here’s how the story begins:

Futurist and author Ramez Naam is an optimist, even when it comes to the problem of climate change, and for good reason.

As a student of world history, Naam has seen how humanity has flourished in the last century. People live longer and suffer less than before. Doom-and-gloom predictions have not just been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Take food: some forecast that the world would starve by the 1970s. While population has doubled since then, the food supply has grown by two-and-half times, and today there are more obese people than malnourished people in the world.

“This is the best of times,” Naam writes in his 2013 nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “We live in a period of health, wealth and freedom never seen before.”

Natural resources – notably the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases – may be limited, Naam argues, but ideas and innovation are not.

The story goes on to talk about why, when it comes to climate change, the most important idea is a carbon tax, coupled with investment in energy R&D. You can read the rest of the story here. I’d also encourage you to read the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Sparking sustainable aquaculture

photoOn a recent visit to Cambodia, I visited a poor fishing village not far from Siem Reap where thousands of tiny forage fish, pulled from a large freshwater lake called Tonle Sap, were left to dry in the sun by the side of a road. They were, as best as I could determine, bound for Thailand where they would ground up and made into feed for fish or chicken, which wind up in supermarkets, mostly in Asia. There’s nothing sustainable about this kind of fish farming, or poultry raising.

Yet aquaculture, done right, can be an important source of produce healthy protein. Aquaculture today provides almost half of all fish that humans eat. Its share is projected to rise to 62 percent by 2030 as catches from wild capture fisheries level off and an emerging global middle class demands more fish, according to the FAO.  “If responsibly developed and practised, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” the UN organization says in a recent report.

A small investment firm called Aqua-Spark is trying to promote best practices in aquaculture. I reported on their efforts in a story posted today to Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

For better or worse – often for worse – aquaculture is the fastest-growing animal-based food industry. Half the seafood eaten in the US is farmed, and most of that is imported. Yet it’s not unusual for fish farms to pollute local waters, damage coastal habitatand deplete the oceans of feeder fish. Or, as the Guardian reported last year, exploit slave labour.

Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund based in the Netherlands, aims to do better. The fund, which focuses exclusively on aquaculture, recently made its first two investments, putting $2m into a biotech company called Calysta, whose technology makes fish feed out of methane gas, and another $2m into Chicoa Fish Farm, a tilapia-farming startup in Mozambique that intends to build up aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

These small steps won’t have much impact on the global aquaculture industry, which was valued at US $135bn in 2012 by IBIS World. But Aqua-Spark isn’t alone. Brands and retailers, including Unilever and Walmart, as well as NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, are all working to limit the environmental impacts of fish farming.

“There aren’t a lot of perfect models out there,” says Amy Novogratz, who founded Aqua-Spark with her husband, Mike Velings. “If we make investment available to the ‘best in class’ companies, they will help set a bar for sustainability. And if we can help them succeed, others will follow.”

And if you’re wondering, yes, Amy Novogratz is the younger sister of well-known social entrepreneur, activist and author Jacqueline Novogratz.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Bug bites

criquet_1_l_In a comprehensive 2013 report, the UN’s FAO declared that the time has come to unlock “the huge potential that insects offer for enhancing food security.” The reaction was predictable.

“Of course the problem with eating insects is that it’s kind of gross and they don’t taste very good,” wrote one commentator.  Another said: “You are probably cringing reading this post.”  A third asked: “Care for a serving of grasshopper goulash?”

Well, why not? Two billion people around the world consume insects. Bugs are nutritious, high in protein,  low in fat and good for the planet: Insects efficiently convert feed into food, require less land and water than cattle or pigs, and they are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases by the UN. As for the cringe factor, chef Jose Andres, a James Beard Foundation award winner, serves a chapulín taco, made with Mexican grasshoppers, at his Washington, D.C., restaurant Oyamel. The menu at Typhoon, a chic Pan Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, includes Singapore-style scorpions, Taiwanese crickets and Manchurian Chambai ants. And Exo protein bars, made with cricket flour, will soon be part of snack boxes on Jet Blue.

But, even if we come to love munching on mites, there’s a big problem with growing insects for food. No one knows how to do it efficiently, and at scale. Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and CEO of  Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, CA, aims to change that by bringing modern agricultural technology to insect farming.

I wrote about Daniel and his work for the Future of Food 2050 websiteHere’s how my story begins:

Two billion people worldwide think nothing of munching on a tasty insect snack or entree, but until recently very few of them were Americans.

That’s changing as edible insects inch their way into mainstream fare in the United States, with crickets rapidly emerging as the “gateway bug.” Hip startups in Brooklyn, Boston and San Francisco are already baking cookies and snack chips with cricket flour, and cricket flour protein bars will soon be part of snack boxes on JetBlue airline flights.

The trouble is, demand for edible crickets exceeds the supply. Only a handful of companies are raising the chirpy insects, and they aren’t nearly as efficient as they could be, says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, Calif.

“The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity.”

This could be the start of something big–or not. Remember, though, that if you think eating insects is weird, well, that’s what Americans thought about raw fish when sushi restaurants, which served Japanese immigrants, came to the west coast in the 1960s. Today you can buy sushi at Walmart.

You can read the rest of my story here.

A rank ’em and spank ’em study on packaging

A Dunkin Donuts--with throwaway cups--opens in Beijing
A Dunkin Donuts–with throwaway cups–opens in Beijing

Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.

With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.

Here’s how my story begins:

Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.

The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”

The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.

Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.

As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.

The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.

An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.

Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.

I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.

Healthy junk food? Hey, why not?

brian-wansink-hero2Let them eat kale is not a recipe for solving America’s obesity crisis. Trust me. I’ve tried kale. I like Indian food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, Mexican food. I like spinach. But kale? It ain’t happening. Not for me, not for most people.

Instead, re-engineering the foods that most of us already enjoy – pizza, burgers and the like – might help all of us to become healthier. That, at least, is what Hank Cardello, a former food-industry executive and author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Really Making America Fat, would like us to believe.

I interviewed Hank for a story for Future Food 2050, a website about “how ingenuity will feed the world” sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here’s how my story begins:

Future consumers should be able to have their cake and eat it too—without getting fat.

So says Hank Cardello, who directs the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute and wrote the best-selling book “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat and How the Food Industry Can Fix It” (Harper Collins, 2009). Products like soft drinks, burgers, fries, pizza and cupcakes should all be reconfigured as lower in calories and “better for you” to help alleviate the ongoing obesity crisis in America and other developed nations, argues this noted consultant to food industry powerhouses. Cardello contends this will enable the industry to grow even as the waistlines of consumers shrink.

Healthy junk food, Cardello maintains, need not be an oxymoron. “If we are going to make progress, we are going to have to focus on taking the most popular foods and modifying them,” he says. “That should be a rallying call for food scientists, kind of like putting a man on the moon. We’ve got to take french fries and burgers and everything else and … find ways to make them better for you without compromising them. This way, you don’t ask the consumers to change their eating habits.”

In fact, companies are already moving in this direction, Cardello explains. McDonald’s hamburgers are, as it happens, leaner than those of competing chains, and Chick-Fil-A has reduced the amount of chicken in its sandwiches—saving the company money and reducing calories for the consumer.

Cardello goes on to say that he’d like to get past polarization that has characterized much of the obesity debate, with activists blaming Big Food, and putting business executives on the defensive. I think he’s right about that. The causes of obesity are complex. The solutions are likely to come, at least in part, from the food industry.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Sustainable business, from the bottom up

fishermen-were-supported-by-fao-in-fishing-equipemnt-and-capacity-building

For the most part, corporate sustainability programs drive change from the top down. If Apple wants to improve safety at the factories where its products are made, or Walmart wants to reduce fertilizer runoff in agriculture, or McDonald’s pledges to buy beef raised in environmentally friendly ways, those companies set targets and goals, they deploy a mix of carrots and sticks to bring their suppliers along, those suppliers push further down the chain and, if all goes well, workers, farmers and maybe the planet are all a little better off.

Whatever one thinks of this theory of change–my view is that it works quite well–it does little for the billions of people who are untouched by global supply chains. In my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, I write about a project called Fish Forever that is designed to help fishermen and women who work beyond the reach of global supply chains.

I heard about Fish Forever from Brett Jenks, the chief executive of a conservation group called Rare, which is based in Arlington, VA.

Interestingly, Fish Forever is a collaboration of Rare with the Environmental Defense Fund and the sustainable fisheries group at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It’s uncommon but welcome to see NGOs working together this way.

Here’s a bit more about the program, from my story:

Fish Forever is launching this year in five countries – Belize, Brazil, Indonesia, Mozambique and the Philippines. It targets fishers with a single boat or two, as well as those who fish from shore. In developing countries, these mostly poor, small-scale fishers account for half of all fish caught, the vast majority of which is consumed domestically….

Each Fish Forever partner brings expertise to the partnership. Environmental Defense has been a pioneer in rebuilding fisheries through what is often called rights-based management. Rare specializes in mobilizing communities in poor countries on behalf of conservation. And the scientists at UCSB are experts in monitoring and measuring the health of fisheries.

Here’s how the program works: with the backing of state or national governments, local fishers get exclusive fishing rights to a community fishing areas – a bay or stretch of coast. The community then has good reason to adopt conservation practices because it will reap the benefits if they work.

Typically, those practices include the establishment of a marine preserve, also known as no-take zone, located inside the community fishing area, or nearby. These no-take zones give fish in the area the opportunity to recover and regenerate themselves. Local fishers enforce the no-take zones themselves.

The idea is to create incentives for the community to think long-term about the value of their natural asset, and take steps to protect it.A sense of ownership leads to stewardship. As a wise man once said, no one washes a rental car.

Rare isn’t a high-profile NGO but it has attracted support from some big names. Michael Bloomberg, Hank and Wendy Paulson and Jeremy Grantham are all donors. Which leads me to conclude that Brett Jenks and his group must be doing something right.

You can read the rest of my story here.

The trouble with local food

nicollet-mall-farmers-marketI enjoy shopping at the farmers market in Bethesda, Md., where I live. It’s a pleasant way to pass time on a Sunday morning, and a chance to run into friends and neighbors.  I feel good about supporting farmers who work nearby. Sure, it’s pricey–I was shocked to pay $8 for a sliver of cheese a while back and if I remember correctly, fresh tuna sells for $30 per pound–but the food at the farmers’ market is pricey the way a Venti Starbucks yada-yada-yada is pricey. You’re not buying cheese, tuna or coffee. You’re partaking of an experience.

What you are not doing is saving the planet.

The best thing for the environment is to not to grow food locally but to grow crops in the places where they grow best–places where the soil, rainfall and climate suit whatever is being grown.

So, at least, says Greg Page, the former CEO and current executive chairman of Cargill, the giant food company that grows, processes and ships agricultural and food products around the world. Of course you would expect Page, who is 62 and has worked his entire career at Cargill, to favor a globalized food system. But, as he notes, there’s no particularly good reason to treat food differently from other consumer goods that are produced efficiently and then shipped to where they are needed. We don’t worry about local big-screen TVs or local running shoes or local auto parts.

I interviewed Page last month in Washington, and wrote about him this week at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Long before Greg Page became the executive chairman of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, the company dispatched him to Thailand to build a chicken plant in a rural province north of Bangkok. “It was a chance”, he said, “to start a business from scratch in an overseas location, while having access to the resources of Cargill”. Plus, he noted with a smile, he was “12 hours from headquarters … I loved it”.

Today, Cargill Meats Thailand imports soymeal from Brazil and Argentina to feed chickens, which are raised, slaughtered, processed, cooked and frozen into a wide range of products, most destined for restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, Europe, Canada and Hong Kong. Chicken parts that don’t appeal to western appetites — feet, heads and the like — are consumed locally or exported to nearby Asian markets.

To locavores who want to look their farmer in the eye, to the advocates of food sovereignty, and to those who argue that ‘cooking solves everything’, this is a nightmarish way to produce food. But to Greg Page, who has spent 41 years at Cargill and is now its executive chairman, global trade in food and agriculture is not only good for producers and consumers — it’s also a key element of a sustainable food system.

“Trade facilitates sustainability,” Page said when we met recently at Cargill’s Washington, D.C., office. “The world was not endowed with good soil and good rainfall equally. You want to move production to the right soil and the right climate, where it belongs.”

Of course, as Page knows, it’s not quite that simple. All other things being equal (and they rarely are), buying locally makes environmental sense, keeps food fresher and reduces waste. We may want to restrict agricultural imports from certain places because of food-safety concerns. And, as some of the commenters on my Guardian story say, the globalization of agriculture raises issues about land and water use and trade’s impact on poor farmers who can’t compete with large-scale agriculture.

But I’m trying to make a simpler point here–that local does not equal sustainable. Trade can be a glorious thing, Fair Trade is even better, and agriculture is no exception.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Fish story: The potential of aquaponics

UrbanOrganics_RackWithPools_LowRes

During my trip to Minneapolis for last month’s Net Impact conference, I found time to visit a fascinating little startup called Urban Organics (above) in nearby St. Paul. Located in an abandoned brewery (where Hamm’s used to brew beer), Urban Organics now raises tilapia and basil, practicing aquaponics.

Last week, I wrote about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Backyard hobbyists, university researchers, nonprofits, restaurants and even inmates at a federal prison in Indiana are growing food using aquaponics, a technology for raising fish and plants together in a recirculating system. So far, though, no one has been able to build a large-scale, commercial aquaponics business.

In an abandoned brewery in St Paul, Minnesota, a startup company called Urban Organics is trying to change that. Since last spring, Urban Organics has been raising tilapia, basil and lettuce, with the help of a much-bigger neighbor – a $7bn industrial company called Pentair that believes that aquaponics is on the verge of becoming a viable form of farming.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). Fish – in this case, about 3,200 tilapia – are raised in big tanks made of high-density polyethylene. Their wastewater flows out of the tanks, gets cleaned up a bit and is pumped to the growing beds, where it becomes food for the plants. After the plants extract nutrients from the water, it’s filtered again and returned to the fish tanks. While the process is energy-intensive – the plants need artificial light to grow indoors – food can be grown year-round in urban areas, near to markets.

Aquaponics is a cool idea. There’s something appealing about using the waste from the fish to feed the plants. Producing food near to where it is consumed sounds logical; the food will be fresh, and you save money on transport.

But it’s by no means clear that aquaponics will be able grow from a hobby into a scalable business. All those plants need lights, so the electricity costs are significant. The environmental benefits, if any, of aquaponics remain to be seen.

Still, the science and technology are relatively new and the fact that a big company like Pentair has high hopes for aquaponics got my attention. Chicago has its own fast-growing aquaponics startup, called Farmed Here, which sells its greens at Whole Foods.

You can read the rest of my story here.