Google: Much more than an Internet company

google_flat_logoIt’s hard to imagine life without Google–not just the search engine, but Gmail, maps, calendar and cloud storage. I could give up Twitter, Facebook and (reluctantly) Amazon, but Google and Apple are embedded deeply into my life. It’s not just me, of course. Google and Apple are among the world’s most valuable companies.

To its credit, Google has decided to invest some of its vast wealth in bold, world-changing ideas that could take years to pay off. Why? That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

In 2008, Google pranked everyone. It was April Fool’s Day and the tech giant uploaded a fake website claiming to be starting the first human settlement on Mars, with a little help from the airline company, Virgin.

Project Virgle had a 100-year development plan and an application for would-be Mars colonists.

Virgle does not sound quite as far-fetched now as it did then. More than any other company, Google has proven willing to support bold, costly and unorthodox projects far from its core business. But unlike the fictional Virgle, a plan to escape the Earth, many of Google’s biggest bets, including its investments of more than $1.5bn in renewable energy, aim to save it.

These efforts are spread across the company – software to track forests at Google Earth Engine, clean tech investments at Google Ventures, and Nest and its energy-saving thermostat, which Google acquired last year for $3.2bn. The most audacious, though, are found in a unit known as Google[x], where inventors, scientists and engineers seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

Google[x] is developing self-driving cars, which would make automobile travel radically more efficient, as well as energy-generating kites, self-flying vehicles to deliver goods and high-altitude balloons to provide cheap internet to people living in rural or remote areas.

We’ve come to expect this kind of thing from Google, but no other US company that I’m aware of has shown such boldness:

Imagine if General Motors invested in drought-resistant crops, or Disney decided to build small nuclear power plants, or Microsoft got into the algae business. That is the kind of boundary crashing that has become commonplace at Google.

This is about more than “doing good,” I’m sure. If even one of Google’s big, long-shot projects turns into a real business, the company will do very well for itself. Now, it’s being widely reported, Apple is at work on an electric car. This is all very encouraging.

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.

Who lobbies for the outdoors?

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Increasingly, I’m struck by the power of conservative business lobbies in Washington, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. They speak effectively on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and often claim to speak for all of business when it comes to the issue of climate change — even though broad sectors of the US economy, notably agriculture and tourism (not to mention coastal real estate), are threatened by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Last week in the Guardian, I looked at what’s called the outdoor economy — a sector that is big and growing.The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation, which includes hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and motorcycling, supports 6.1m jobs in the US. That’s more than fossil fuels, some say, although the numbers are disputed.

What’s inarguable is that the oil, gas and coal industries carry a lot more clout in DC than does the outdoor industry. Here’s how my story begins:

Two small California ski resorts, Dodge Ridge and Badger Pass, shut down in January as temperatures climbed to near-record highs and weeks passed without snow. With the Sierras suffering a historic drought, it’s hard to say for certain if they’ll reopen.

The ski-industry closings are a small but representative setback for what a new report calls the outdoor economy — that is, “the stream of economic output that results from the protection and sustainable use of America’s lands and waters when they are preserved in a largely undeveloped state”.

Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic force. It accounts for “more direct jobs than oil, natural gas and mining combined”, according to the report published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, in January.

But in the political arena, those businesses that depend upon nature are decided underdogs when they battle adversaries, such as the fossil fuel industry, which would like to see more exploration for oil and gas on federal lands.

If you’ve ever visited one of the big national parks out west, you can see why the outdoor industry is outgunned (pardon the expression) in your nation’s capital. Typically, the hotels, motels, restaurants, fishing outfitters and the like on the perimeter of the  parks are small businesses. They can’t hire lobbyists or make meaningful campaign contributions.

One company that has done a fine job of promoting the outdoors is The North Face. They ran a great Internet and TV ad campaign last year, encouraging more people to spend time in beautiful places. As more Americans spend more time outdoors, it seems likely that they will want to see this nation’s most beautiful places protected. Admittedly, that’s a slow and indirect way to build a constituency for climate action.

Take two minutes and enjoy this North Face commercial, set to the music of Woody Guthrie, performed by My Morning Jacket. And is it just me or did Jeep steal this idea for its Super Bowl ad?

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.

A modest proposal for big green NGOs

da9cdecb-7922-49b2-b8a2-3ff0969881e4-1020x612Here’s an idea for big environmental NGOs that work with corporate partners: Kindly recommend to those partners that they raise their voices in Washington in support of the EPA’s proposed coal plant rules.

The coal plant rules are the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change policy. Yet they are being strongly opposed by mainstream Washington business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

The big corporate partners of the green groups could make a difference. They could support the rules on their own–few have done so–and, just as important, speak up inside the halls of the chamber and NAM, asking them to halt their opposition to the rules.

No climate issue matters more, Mindy Lubber of Ceres told me, for a story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business, which we’ll get to in a moment.

In a report on corporate engagement [PDF], WWF lists more than a dozen “corporate engagements with an annual budget greater than US$250,000.” Partners include Avon Products, Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Co., Domtar, Ecolab, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air, Sodexo and Toyota.

The Nature Conservancy says on its website that “the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission” and publishes a long list of partners, including 3M, Alaska Airlines, AT&T, Avon, Bank of America, BHP Billiton, Boeing, BP, Bunge, Cargill, Caterpillar, CH2MHill, Coca-Cola, CSX Transportation, Delta, Disney, Dow Chemical, EcoLab, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Harley Davidson, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Kimpton Hotels, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Monsanto, Mosaic, Patagonia, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto, SABMiller, Shell, Target, TDBank, Uber and Xerox.

The Environmental Defense Fund, for its part, works with AT&T, Caterpillar, DuPont,  KKR, McDonald’s, Ocean Spray, Starbucks and Walmart, among others.

I could go on but you get the point. Now contrast those lists with the challenges faced by Mindy Lubber and Ceres, as they try to line up companies to back the EPA rules. That’s why my story is about, and here is how it begins:

As the US political fight over climate change moves from Washington DC to 50 state capitals, companies that are serious about sustainability need to support theEPA’s proposed rules to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

So, at least, says Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a nonprofit that brings together companies, investors and public-interest groups to advocate for sustainability.

“Companies have the strength and power – the footprint to make a huge difference,” Lubber told me at a lunch earlier this month. Ceres celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the proposed power plant rules, which are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. Power plants account for nearly 40% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

What Ceres has found, Mindy told me, is that it’s hard to get big companies to support  the EPA and the president, and overcome their habitual, instinctive resistance to government regulation.

Last month, as I wrote in the Guardian, Ceres released a statement supporting the rules that was signed by more than 200 companies but most were small or midsized. Big firms to sign on included Ikea, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nestle, Nike, Novelis, VF and Unilever. They are to be commended.

Ceres’s list would carry a lot more weight if other NGOS like WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense persuaded  most or all their corporate partners to sign on.

Until they do, conservative trade associations like the US Chamber, NAM, the National Mining Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which have joined together to oppose the EPA rules, will speak for business in Washington. I’ve never understood why so many companies that profess to care about the environment — and, in my view, actually do care about the environment — have allowed that to happen.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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.

Brainstorm Green: What’s next?

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.

On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus,  J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.

In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.

About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.

Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet.  It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.

The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.

These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.

Sustainable business, from the bottom up

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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

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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.