August 20, 2008

The Amazon is Still Burning - Are you buying tropical wood?

As I flew over the Peruvian rainforest, I kept a lookout for flames. I'd heard that, despite international outrage over the loss of millions of acres of trees, the Amazon basin was still going up in smoke. Now I'd come to see for myself, and it didn't take long. Out the window of the small LAN-Peru jet I was taking from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado, a bustling frontier town perched on a tributary of the Amazon, I saw a tall grey column billowing up from the ground 19,000 feet below. 

Deforestation_3 Not everything was on fire  - because much of it had already been burned and cleared. A patchwork of thin, pale green rectangles intermingled with darker, bubbly patches that indicated intact forest. But I couldn't help but worry that the amount of forest left serves more like an invitation to clearcutters than a deterrent.

Oscar, my guide for the next four days, confirmed that that was the case. As we boarded a long, narrow motor boat for our five-hour trip into the wilds that host the Heath River Wildlife Center, the rainforest specialist noted that fires and clearcuts remain the biggest threat facing the region known for serving as the "globe's lungs."

Aerial_1026_3234_2 "Why is the forest being cleared?" I asked, thinking the answer was linked to consumer demand for mahogany, teak and other exotic woods.

Oscar acknowledged that logging is a major problem. But, he said, agriculture also figures substantially into the destruction equation. "Raising cattle and growing soybeans leave a big scar on the land," he said. "You want prestige in the Amazon, you clear the forest, grow crops, and make money. It's as simple as that."

Independent research from various scientists as well as groups like Mongo Bay , the Nature Conservancy, and Greenpeace verify that raising cattle, growing soybeans and logging are the most damaging forces behind rainforest destruction. Though most studies have focused on Brazil, Peru isn't immune to the same marketplace forces. While many fastfood restaurants in the U.S. have pledged not to use beef or soy products grown on recently deforested tracts of land, the Asian and European markets haven't been so responsible. And consumers everywhere continue to buy tropical woods because they are beautiful, unusual, and resistant to rot.

The impact of consumer demand is making itself felt in Peru. As points out, about half of this medium-sized country is forested. Of this, more than 80 percent is classified as primary forest. In other words, it's never been cut. Nevertheless, the international Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the country loses somewhere between 224,000 and 300,000 hectares of forest per year.

Notes Mongo Bay: "Currently most logging in Peru is illegal. One scientist at the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon estimates that 95 percent of the mahogany logged in the country is harvested illegally. Because the wood is so valuable, traffickers are known to cut trees inside national parks and reserves. They also have little to fear: as of early 2006, not a single commercial logger had been imprisoned in Peru for illegal logging."

A further source of deforestation and environmental degradation in the Peruvian Amazon, says, is gold mining. "Peru's forests are home to alluvial gold deposits that are pursued by large-scale operators and informal, small-scale miners. Both kinds of operators rely heavily on hydraulic mining techniques, blasting away at river banks, clearing floodplain forests, and using heavy machinery to expose potential gold-yielding gravel deposits.

"Mercury contamination and increased river sedimentation can be a problem downstream from operations, while mining roads can open remote forest areas to transient settlers and land speculators. Further, shantytowns that spring up in areas believed to hold gold deposits increase pressure on forests for building material, bushmeat, fuelwood, and agricultural land."

Indeed, during the first two hours of our boat trip, we saw at least a dozen prospectors industrially sifting gravel in their search for gold. Eventually, they would use mercury to bind small gold chunks into bigger nuggets, and think nothing of washing all the residue into the same river water that serves as their kids' swimming hole -- as well as the water source for Peru's 2,937 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 16.0 percent are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 7.6 percent are threatened. In addition, Peru is home to at least 17,144 species of vascular plants, of which 31.2 percent are endemic.

Scott Paul, the Director of Forest Campaigns for Greenpeace USA, says the marketplace can play a critical role in helping to curb rainforest destruction. Already, McDonald's in the U.S. and Europe has pledged not to use products - including beef and soy-based feed for chickens - produced in newly cleared rainforests as a way to discourage further forest destruction. Home Depot minimizes the amount of wood it buys from rainforests and sources as much wood as possible from producers that meet the sustainable forestry criteria established by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Paul credits consumer pressure as well as high-profile publicity campaigns like those Greenpeace wages for these successes.

"I've seen individual consumer actions change government and corporate policies," he says. The way people spend their money can be "insanely effective" in persuading companies to safe the rainforest rather than destroy it.

Paul says here in the U.S., consumers can take two key steps to protect the Amazonian basin.

Buy locally produced food. Read labels and look for products made in America. Choose locally-raised beef and chickens, an increasing feature at farmer's markets, food co-ops and natural-food grocery stores. Avoid canned meat. Apart from the fact that a "food" like this sounds unappealing to begin with, it is also one way that Latin American producers are sneaking their goods into the marketplace. Most tofu and other soy-based foods are made from soybeans grown in the U.S., so for the moment, anyway, Paul says that purchasing those goods won't impact the rainforest either way.

Fsc_logo * Buy FSC-certified wood. When choosing flooring, indoor or outdoor furniture, patio decking or other wood products, make sure the wood has been produced from a certified sustainable forest. Pier 1 and Crate and Barrel earned four stars from National Wildlife Federation for the sustainable garden furniture they offer.

Oscar, my Peruvian guide, would add:

* Support sustainable tourism. "Owning and running an eco-lodge is fast approaching cattle ranching and farming as a prestige occupation in Peru," he says. "And it's far better for the forest because protecting the forest ecosystem is key if lodge owners and their employees are going to make any money."

July 25, 2008

Sustainable Seafood is Coming to a Supermarket Near You

Fishing_boat  Consumer demand for seafood has been depleting fish and shrimp populations for decades. The Marine Stewardship Council has helped protect marine animal populations by creating standards retailers and consumers can follow to choose wild-caught fish from better-managed fisheries. Wal-Mart and Whole Foods are among the retailers that sell MSC-Certified seafood.

"Farming" fish and shrimp has helped meet consumer demand, but at a cost. The fishmeal salmon eat, for example, is often loaded with dangerous PCBs. Farmed salmon can contract sealice, which can spread to wild salmon. Shrimp aquaculture can destroy the mangrove swamps that protect barrier islands and coastlines from hurricanes.

Now some retailers - including Whole Foods Market, Wal-Mart, and Wegman's -  are using their marketplace clout to demand seafood that's farmed more sustainably. Their goal: protect sensitive marine habitats, reduce or ban antibiotics, treat waste water, and mimize or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. Whole Foods will also require its suppliers to pass independent, third-party audits to ensure they are meeting sustainable seafood standards.

Here's a good overview from the Washington Post.

Seafood_alliance_2Meanwhile, the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions is working with fishermen, retailers, environmental organizations and consumer groups to increase understanding of the nation's fisheries and make more sustainable seafood available in the marketplace. As a result of its work with the Alliance, the Giant supermarket chain said it has recently started selling Pacific long-line cod, which is relatively abundant, and that it will stop selling shark, orange roughy and Chilean sea bass until their populations rebound.

Greenpeace_2  Greenpeace recently issued a state-by-state scorecard to let consumers know whether their grocery store has instituted a sustainable seafood policy. Check out your favorite grocer here.

V1_3   USE YOUR PURSE:  Most grocers are falling far short in offering shoppers sustainably raised or caught fish and shellfish. Don't hesitate to let the manager at your favorite fish counter know you expect retailers to support sustainable seafood standards. And do your part by buying seafood that's sustainably certified.

June 13, 2008

How to Find Safe Tomatoes

Salmonella, the deadly bacterium that has a sneaky way of infiltrating our fruits and vegetables, has struck again. Since April 10, at least 228 people in 23 states have been sickened by the contaminant (the states include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, though it is not known if the tomatoes were grown in those states or imported.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Salmonella outbreak might have also contributed to the death of a Texas cancer patient.

Here’s a quick run-down on how to stay safe from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, as well as a list of reasonable options if you still want to eat tomatoes this summer.

What You Can Eat, What to Avoid:

Plumtomatoes_2 Avoid raw red plum, raw red Roma, and raw red round tomatoes that have NOT been grown in the following states:

Florida (counties of: Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Suwannee, Hamilton, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee, DeSoto, Sarasota, Highlands, Pasco, Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, Charlotte)*
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
South Carolina
West Virginia
Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico
* Shipments of tomatoes harvested in these counties are acceptable with a certificate issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.


Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes still on the vine appear to be safe to eat. Canned (that is, processed) or bottled foods like grocery-store tomato juice and spaghetti sauce are also safe if they were processed by a commercial food-processing facility.

Be wary of fresh salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo, and other prepared foods that contain tomatoes. Ask the proprietor of the store or restaurant to verify the source of the tomatoes they use. If you’re unsure that the tomatoes are safe, says the FDA’s food safety chief, Dr. David Acheson, “don’t eat them.”

Get Treatment Immediately

People who have eaten food contaminated with Salmonella often have fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Infection with Salmonella also may be more serious or fatal in young children, frail or elderly people, and people with weakened immune systems. If you suspect Salmonella poisoning, seek medical help immediately.

Know How Salmonella Spreads

Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of some animals, and can survive in soil and water for months. Once Salmonella has contaminated something, it can be spread from surface to surface. A tomato contaminated with Salmonella can spread the bacterium to the hands of a person who cuts the tomato and to the cutting board on which the tomato is sliced, for example. Because Salmonella is very hard to wash off, the FDA says consumers should not try to wash tomatoes that are implicated in the outbreak. Instead, throw these tomatoes out.

Redtomato_2Consumers should not attempt to cook potentially contaminated tomatoes, either. Handling tomatoes contaminated with Salmonella can spread the bacterium to anything the handler touches, including hands, kitchen utensils, cutting boards, sinks, and other foods. Plus, cooking tomatoes in the home will not necessarily kill Salmonella.

What About Tomatoes from Farmers’ Markets and Other Locally Grown Sources?

Before you buy tomatoes from the local farmers’ market, make sure the tomatoes were indeed grown locally. Farmers' markets get their tomatoes from a variety of sources that are not necessarily limited to local farms. These other sources may include the same ones that provided the tomatoes implicated in the Salmonella outbreak. Ask retailers at farmers' markets where their tomatoes come from to be sure they haven’t been grown in a state where salmonella is present.

That being said, chances may be higher that tomatoes grown at your local farmers' market are safe. Find the nearest farmers’ market at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s website.

To find farmers that sell direct to consumers look here.

To find food grown in your community, check with Local Harvest here.

Want to grow your own? There’s still time to plant and harvest tomatoes. You can put them in big pots on your porch or patio, or in a backyard garden. Get organic gardening tips here.

And if you want to plant a garden but have no room at your own home or apartment, try a community garden. If it’s too late for this year, get on the waiting list for this fall or next spring.

May 05, 2007

First, deadly dog food. Now, contaminated chickens. Locally grown, organic fruits and veggies never looked so good!

If you ever needed a reason to eat fruits and vegetables that were grown by people you know and trust, read this week's news reports about dead pets and contaminated chickens.

At least 4,000 dogs and cats have died and thousands more have gotten sick from pet food manufactured in China that contains melamine.  Melamine is an industrial chemical that's supposed to be made into plastic plates, among other things. Instead, it appears to have been intentionally added to animal feed to trick Chinese farmers into thinking they're buying protein. It's ended up in pet food, where it hasn't turned dogs and cats into durable dinnerware. it's killed them.

Chicken Here's where the story goes from bad to worse. It turns out that the melamine is showing up in chicken feed, too. On Friday, reported the Associated Press, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency placed a hold on 20 million chickens raised for market in several states because their feed was mixed with pet food containing melamine.

We don't know yet if the chickens could harm us. And the 20 million chickens represent a tiny proportion of the 9 billion chickens raised every year in the U.S.

Still, it's bone chilling to think that we could be eating poultry that was intentionally fed industrial chemicals rather than actual nutrients.

It's at grim times like these that I'm reminded of the value of locally grown, organic food. When I shop at my farmers market, I have a chance to look the person who grew my tomatoes or raised my eggs directly in the eye. I suppose it's possible they'd try to cheat me, harm me even, by spiking their feed or their soil with toxic chemicals that might somehow temporarily enrich them while devastating me. But I doubt it. They have too much to lose -- not just money or business, but the actual human relationship with their customers that is as valuable to them as it is to us.

Yes, I relish the delicious quality of the locally grown, organic food I buy. But just as much, I savor the accountability and trust I have in the grower.

Buy local. And look the grower in the eye when you do.

April 05, 2007

Beat the Peeps

If there's one thing I hate to see on store shelves around this time of year, it's "Peeps."

These sugar-coated, marshmallow-molded, chick-imitating disasters masquerade as Easter candy. But truth be told, they've got to be the most disgusting option available for a child's Easter basket -- or his tummy, for that matter.

I've always wondered how long Peeps have been sitting on a store's shelf, protected as they are in their overpackaged cardboard box and plastic wrapping. But it turns out, that's not even the real issue.

Of greater concern is what these things are actually made of.

Peeps' parents (i.e., the Peeps manufacturing company) claim they consist primarily of sugar and marshmallow.

Peeptorture But scientists at Emory University recently tried to melt Peeps...and they failed.

They couldn't boil Peeps, either.

Even dipping a purple Peeps chick in liquid nitrogen didn't phase the "candy."

So...if fire, or liquid nitrogen, or boiling water can't kill a Peep, how can our stomachs really dissolve it? Makes you wonder where a Peep goes once it gets inside you, doesn't it?

What if you throw a Peep away?  CAN you throw it away? Or, as the Emory experiment implied, is a Peep indestructible? If Peeps do get loose in the environment, how long will they last? No one really knows.

If you don't want to find out, this Easter, beat the Peeps. Buy some nice organic chocolate instead.

March 11, 2007

Fresh Food Wins Again

You know fresh food tastes better. Turns out, it's safer for you, too.

A new study by Environmental Working Group has found a toxic ingredient associated with birth defects of the male and female reproductive systems in the lining of over half of 97 cans of name-brand fruit, vegetables, soda and other commonly eaten canned goods.

The chemical is bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic and resin ingredient used to line metal food and drink cans. BPA is also found in plastic bottles, even baby bottles, and plastic food containers.

EWG's lab tested nearly 28 different types of food. Chicken soup, infant formula and ravioli had BPA levels of highest concern. For 1 in 10 cans of all food tested, and 1 in 3 cans of infant formula, a single serving contained enough BPA to expose a woman or infant to BPA levels more than 200 times the government's traditional safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals. Pregnant women and formula-fed infants may be at particular risk if they're eating or drinking canned foods or beverages.

BPA is associated with several health problems and diseases that are increasing among Americans, including breast and prostate cancer and infertility. Given that almost 20% of our diet comes from canned food, the issue is not one we can afford to ignore.

What to do?

* Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

* Buy pre-packaged food in glass jars, not cans.

* Eat a varied diet, reducing the amount of canned food overall.

* Breast-feed children as long as possible; use powdered formula rather than pre-mixed formula from a can.

* BPA is often found in #7 polycarbonate plastic.  Choose #1,2 or 4 plastic instead. Never microwave in plastic, especially food for kids. Use ceramic, glass or microwavable dishware.

* Use baby bottles made from glass, polyethylene or polypropylene plastic.

* Throw out old, scratched plastic bottles or food containers.

* If you use plastic wrap, try a brand like Saran, which claims to be BPA-free.

For more recommendations, read the full Environmental Working Group study.