What iPhone emoticons reveal about the culture of food in America

20 Apr

For those of us using the iPhone, the emoji symbol button is a habitual and fun addition to a casual text. It can be found at the bottom left corner of a text bubble and is categorized into groups characterized by a simple figurehead: people, nature, services, places and symbols. While many criticize emojis for the lack of ethnic diversity in their people symbols, the location of food emojis offers another interesting spot for interrogation that often goes unrecognized. While one might assume to find the emoji for food in the nature bar (FLOWER) along with emoticons of plants and animals, the foods are actually placed in the  service group (BELL). Most of the foods are packaged and cuisine specific but some are merely fruits and veggies in the same state as when they emerge from the Earth. What does this indicate about our society that we so casually and seemingly unconsciously equate foods with a prepackaged service that we begin to distance foods, even at their most raw, from their natural origins? Food for thought…

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-Emma Ulriksen, ’14
Emma is a senior living in Smith’s vegetarian cooperative, Tenney House. She is an American Studies major and Sustainable Food concentrator, particularly interested in the culture of food in the United States.

A New Webpage, A New Emphasis on Local & Sustainable Foods at Smith

18 Apr

Last semester, students in the Environmental Science and Policy Capstone (ENV 312) initiated a dialogue with Smith College Dining Services in an effort to increase transparency between the administration and the student body about our institutional food purchasing. A defining goal of this partnership was to both celebrate and better incorporate local and sustainable food into the dining halls. With the help of Kathy Zieja, director of dining services at Smith, CEEDS, and the students within the ENV capstone, I (as a member of the Sustainable Food Concentration) have been given the privilege of building on this work as a local food intern with Dining Services. Since this is a new position, I assumed my main contributions would be creating and distributing signage to common spaces and/or using social media and ad campaigns to help promote and expand awareness of Smith’s current initiatives toward local food. Yet, I am happy to report that with the assistance of Kathy and Annie Cahill (web development specialist at Smith), I’ve helped redesign the local/sustainable food section dining hall website.

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Prior to this reboot, one would go to the Dining Hall webpage, scroll down to the Local & Sustainable Foods tab, and find an anticlimactic, somewhat conflicting view of Smith’s commitment to local food. While the header confidently stated “Dining Services is committed to supporting area farmers by purchasing as much local produce as possible” the image portrayed directly below this phrase was not that of area farmers or local foods but rather gleeful Smith students dishing up some unknown platter of meats. Furthermore, the two featured “local” foods were avocados (not local to Massachusetts…) and blueberries (local to New England but seasonally limited in availability during the academic year). I was surprised and confused by this misrepresentation because I knew Dining Services already had many initiatives to be proud to promote: a switch to Fair Trade/Organic Coffee from a Northampton based, independent roaster; a shift away from conventional eggs to cage-free, certified humane; and a sustained commitment to buying Berkshire Sidehill Yogurt, among others. After browsing through other university websites, I decided the best remedy would be to clearly state the importance of local and sustainable food and highlight current efforts by Dining Services to promote this access and awareness. Perhaps the most effective and meaningful alteration is the new sidebar which gives users a mini bio about our food distributors (who they are, where they are located, and what we source from them). Each bio contains a hyperlink to the farmer or distributor’s website, which allows those interested to better acquaint themselves with those responsible for the foods we eat everyday here at Smith. So too, we’ve added a sidebar featuring on-campus groups interested in making Smith a more conscious and intentional institution.

Check out the new Local & Sustainable Foods webpage!

-Emma Ulriksen, ’14
Emma is a senior living in Smith’s vegetarian cooperative, Tenney House. She is an American Studies major and Sustainable Food concentrator, particularly interested in the culture of food in the United States.

Conservation, Community Resilience and Cows: Two months at Zimbabwe’s Africa Centre for Holistic Management

15 Apr

The Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM) sits in the middle of 3200 hectares of land outside of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It’s not exactly your typical office. The admin building is perched on a small hill overlooking the railroad tracks; the white brick structure was built as an office for what was then the Rhodesian Rail. The nearest paved road is about a 2 hour walk by foot from the admin building by foot so the staff are bused in every morning from town. But a river – the Dimbangombe – runs through the land on its way to the Zambezi.

AB1When I arrived in Zimbabwe at the height of the rainy season we were both very green.

Being new to Holistic Management, the rangeland environments with which ACHM works, and sub-Saharan Africa in general I spent (and spend) the majority of my time here asking questions. Luckily this is the sort of place that answers them.

The Centre is in fact a learning site and training centerthe Savory Institute, which promotes Holistic Management internationally. There are several programs here at the Centre: direct training and support for local communities managing their land, training for individuals and NGOs that work within agro-pastoral communities and, of course, the work of the ranch itself. The whole propertyis managed under Holistic Land and Livestock Management (HLLM), which uses grazing planning and herd management to improve soil health.

But it’s not just about soil health. It encompasses the health of the land, certainly, but also the watershed, the livestock health, the improved crop yields that come with nutrient-rich soils and the extra income and self-sufficiency so vital for local communities. That’s the beauty of holistic management; when you consider the soil you must consider the micro-bacterial communities within that soil, the insect populations, the varieties of grasses you would like to grow for forage, the amount of forage necessary to quickly fatten a cow to be slaughtered in time for school fees. HLLM works to achieve increased soil health, replenished watersheds, plentiful harvests and resilient communities, and it does this through its grazing practices.

They run 500 head of cattle here, from the Centre and from surrounding communities, along with sheep and goats (and some chickens to keep the tick population in check). The cattle are herded strategically and grazed in certain areas, keeping grass short enough that the sun can reach the base of the plant, trampling grasses for ground cover to help retain moisture, and ingesting certain varieties of seed.At the end of the day, they’re herded (using no-stress herding techniques) back to the corral. The corral is placed on deteriorated land, usually with bare earth and a hard cap. It is here in a moveable canvas paddock that they rest each night, both for protection from predators (there are lions about) and so they’ll break the hard capping with their hooves and nourish the land with their waste. The corral is moved every week or so, to avoid over-trampling and over-fertilizing any one patch. During the daytime the grazing is planned so that animals don’t return to a spot too soon and overgraze plants, but to ensure old and rank grass gets trampled down to create a soil-covering mulch.

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It works. The plots where cattle have been corralled look like muddy rectangles at first, but grow back beautifully in the period of recovery that follows. On weekends I wander along the property, up into the pink-flowered teak forest where the wild elephant move, and back down to the Dim. I begin to notice the grasses. At first they seem to be a bit like prairie grasses, and indeed it’s difficult to categorize this incredibly diverse land. The slippery transition between savannah and grassland and forest and plain occurs so gradually that such a categorization seems a hopeless simplification.  I borrow a well-worn copy of “Common Veld Grasses of Rhodesia” from Andy, our Ranch manager, and start to identify the varieties. I learn what Black Sudan Grass or Red Top Natal tells about the soil health. I see the grasses double in height.

AB3                                                An elephant herd leaves their mark

With the incredible landscapes and proximity to wildlife comes, well, proximity to wildlife. As in more varieties of beetles, spiders and crickets than I have ever encountered. Waking up with ant cadavers hanging from your hair takes a bit of adjustment but when you get up in the middle of the night and see a bushbuck 20 feet from your door you realize how extraordinary and yet how ordinary it feels to be so interconnected with the other species.

Ab4A meal of sadza (thick maize porridge) and Kapenta/Matemba fish from the Dim. Beware of crocs!

I spend my weekdays haunting the office and my nights hanging out in the kitchen with Gezekile, my neighbor and fellow intern.  I learn about fundraising, grant writing and NGO management, but I also about how to cook sadza, eat even the slimiest okra with my fingers and peel sugarcane with my teeth. Everyone shares their jokes, skills, and snacks and laughs in horror at my attempts to speak isiNdebele. I go crazy for Nemo beans, collards with peanut butter, and the two daily teas (at 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon, of course), but mostly for the friendliness and generosity of my coworkers, who share pictures of their families and invite me to their homes. It’s going to be difficult to leave them in a few weeks, but something tells me I’ll be back. The Centre and HLLM methodologies have radically altered my thinking on land management and taught me how to examine my environment at a level I never thought possible.  Most vitally, the regeneration of bare, barren land here has given me hope – hope for these eroded lands and for the all of us who depend upon them.

Amelia Burke, ’16 is in the process of accelerating by an academic year to compensate for time spent working and learning abroad. She studies Middle Eastern Studies, Environmental Science and Policy and concentrates in Sustainable Food and is interested in HLLM implementation in North Africa. She will return to Smith in the fall as HR of Parsons House.

You can watch Allan Savory’s TED talk on Holistic Management HERE.

President McCartney’s Divestment Panel -

14 Apr
The article below was written as an op-ed for the Sophian in response to a February fossil fuel divestment event. That event, hosted by President Kathleen McCartney’s Office, was the third in a series of panels coordinated by CEEDS as a way to raise awareness and educate the Smith community on the topic of fossil fuel divestment. In the interest of full disclosure I want to say up front that though I am a CEEDS intern, I am also a member of the student org Divest Smith College, and one of the co-authors of the article. I hope you find it informative!  -Savannah Holden, ’16
 

On Monday, February 24th, concerned members of the Smith community literally filled the Carroll Room to discuss the relationship between the college’s endowment and the fossil fuel industry. President McCartney’s office sponsored the panel discussion in response to the growing movement on campus to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Attendees hoped to hear about the social responsibility of Smith, but the conversation focused on the financial structure of endowments. The panelists and administrators who spoke failed to place our endowment in the context of Smith’s institutional power and failed to address the political statement we are making by investing in the fossil fuel industry.

After publicly recognizing the threat of climate change, Smith created the Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan, which details how Smith will reach carbon neutrality by 2030, although it does not mention investments. In the past, Smith recognized the political statements made by our assets and divested from companies operating in Apartheid South Africa during the 1980s, and in Sudan in 2007. By refusing to recognize the implications of investment in the fossil fuel industry, Smith is making a statement that our institution supports the harmful practices of fossil fuel companies that result in community and environmental destruction, while simultaneously perpetuating climate change.

Divest Smith College, a network of concerned students, advocates that Smith cease investing our endowment funds in the fossil fuel industry, because Smith has the responsibility to reflect institutional values in its financial decisions. This divestment campaign is backed by strong support from the student body, a third of whom have signed a petition advocating for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

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President McCartney’s panel featured Peggy Eisen, chair of the Investment Committee on Smith’s Board of Trustees, Alice Handy, founder and CEO of Smith’s investment management firm Investure, and Bob Litterman, chairman of the risk committee of Kepos Capital. Smith is Investure’s first and largest client and because of this, enjoys a reduced fee structure, as well as Investure’s impressive returns history. Ms. Handy emphasized that the system Investure and many other management firms use is layered and complex. Funds from Smith College and 11 clients are pooled together before being given to different fund managers. These individual fund managers then invest in a wide variety of companies, but Ms. Handy stated she does not want to restrict their investment practices. Despite the fact that only 6.5% of our $1.71 billion endowment is invested in fossil fuel holdings, Ms. Handy argued that 70% of our endowment would have to be sold in order to ensure complete divestment as she doesn’t know exactly how individual fund managers are choosing to invest.

Bob Litterman rounded out the panel by addressing the issue of coal and oil sands investments within an endowment portfolio from a solely financial perspective. Mr. Litterman discussed a tactic he used a member of the investment committee of the Board of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that lowers risk and gives an institution a vested stake in ensuring that we all begin to pay the true price of burning fossil fuels. WWF’s endowment has instituted a “total return swap” on particular fossil fuel stocks held within their investment portfolio, which is essentially a bet that current holdings will be unprofitable in comparison to a broad market index such as the S&P 500. The total return swap serves two purposes common with divestment. It lowers the risk of existing fossil fuel holdings, and, as Mr. Litterman put it, “aligns the mission of the institution of the portfolio” by ensuring a greater stake in securing a price of carbon in the near future. This is not a strategy that divests an endowment from fossil fuels, and, as he stated, is “a very simple approach; it is certainly not a comprehensive approach,” which still sends a mixed political message. Ultimately, the panel failed to address one of the most important issues that the Smith community came to hear: why does Smith continue to have an investment policy that does not align with its institutional values?

After the presentations concluded, President McCartney opened the floor to questions. Students and professors responded with concerns about the statement Smith is making by continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry. Michael Klare, a Five Colleges professor, stated that “these [fossil fuel industry investments] are toxic assets that you’re holding on to and should be gotten rid of, not only because they will become worthless in time but because, to protect the college itself from environmental destruction, it’s necessary to send the message that everybody should divest of these companies because these companies are a threat to the survival of the planet.” Immediately, the entire room burst into applause.

It is also important to acknowledge that there is no inaction here; continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry sends a message that conflicts with Smith’s political goal to seek solutions to climate change. Smith College has the power to draw attention to the destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry and change the way society views these companies. As a prestigious institution, Smith divesting would send a strong message that the fossil fuel industry is an unacceptable investment. When questioned, the panelists offered no plan for how Smith will pressure policymakers to institute incentives that will force fossil fuel companies to act more responsibly, although Mr. Litterman admitted that “we are wasting a scarce resource…the atmosphere’s ability to safely absorb carbon emissions…that is wrong. The way to correct that is to price emissions appropriately.” Unfortunately, those of us who follow international climate negotiations and domestic environmental politics recognize that the fossil fuel industry has powerful influence on policymakers, which impedes the creation of a price on carbon. Divestment effectively revokes the social licence of fossil fuel companies and pushes our government toward more responsible energy policies.

During the question and answer session, Ms. Eisen said that disinvestment from the fossil fuel industry is “definitely a possibility.” Ruth Constantine, our Vice President for Finance, excused Smith’s inaction because “in a way, we are waiting for the investment community to change.” Because of its advantageous position in Investure, Smith College has the unique ability to push for this change to happen now – and we cannot afford to wait. The fossil fuel industry poses an immediate and extreme threat to communities around the world. This danger only increases over time- even as Smith College’s administrators deny our tacit support of this industry and the potential that divestment has to protect our endowment while promoting a shift away from fossil fuel companies. Divest Smith College will continue to push for a socially responsible investment policy and hopes that you, as members of the Smith community, will join in this important dialogue.

Written and edited by Ellen Monroe (’15), Anna George (’17), Savannah Holden (’16), Eleanor Adachi (’17), Jessie Blum (’15), Fiona Druge (’14), Emma Swartz (’16), and Kim Lu (’17)

 

Native Pollinators- Life Just Wouldn’t be the Same Without Them

1 Apr

Last week I attended a pollinator conservation short course put on by the Xerces Society in collaboration with the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.  I have always been interested in insects and, being a gardener and amateur naturalist, pay a fair amount of attention to what is or isn’t visiting the flowering plants in my yard. Last spring I was dismayed to note that there were almost no pollinators at my long lilac hedgerow or on my strawberries, so this spring I jumped at the chance to learn more about native pollinators and how I might get involved to support them both at home and at work. Here, briefly, are a few key things I learned at the workshop:

1) One of every three bites of food comes from plants pollinated by insect pollinators, and those pollinator populations are facing massive declines.

2) Studies show that 90% of pollination is done by native bees (as opposed to the imported European honey bees that we keep in hives) and other insects like flies, wasps, butterflies, and moths. In fact, it requires 10,000- 25,000 European honey bees (1-2.5 managed hives) to pollinate as much as 250-750 native female orchard bees!  There are also a number of important food crops that require bumble or other native bees for pollination because European honey bees either can’t release the plants pollen or are not attracted to the blossoms because they don’t produce nectar.  These crops include blueberries,  tomatoes, potatoes,  peppers, and eggplant. Put this all together with European honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder, and it only makes sense that we should all be working to support our native pollinators.

3) Most native pollinators are solitary. Since they have no colony to defend they tend not to act defensively (sting) like honey bees might. They nest in the ground (in well drained soil or abandoned rodent burrows), above ground under lodged grasses or brush piles, or  in cavities (in holes in trees, broken hollow branches or stems).

How crucial these insects are to our food system is made really clear by the actions of the Whole Foods Market store in University Heights, RI. To raise pollinator awareness, store employees removed all produce that comes from plants dependent on insect pollinators. The before and after photos (below) are shocking – as are the statistics. The Whole Foods Market’s produce team pulled from shelves 237 of their 453 products – 52 percent of the normal product mix in the department. Among those removed products were some of the most popular produce items: apples, onions, avocados, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, honeydew, cantaloupe, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers, celery, green onions, cauliflower, leeks, bok choy, kale, broccoli, broccoli rabe, and mustard greens.

Big-wholefoods-bees-releasephotoA produce section with and without pollinated food. More at the Whole Foods website.

So what can we all do to help conserve our native pollinators? Again, here are just a few of the ideas that I gleaned from the workshop:

1) Increase and strengthen native pollinator habitat:
- Take some time this Spring to walk your property and check areas with bare, well drained soil for pollinator activity. Are there small (like the eraser end of a pencil) holes in the ground? If so, you probably have natives bees living there! Celebrate for a minute, and then make a commitment to keeping that piece of land as it is for the pollinators.
- Do you have a brush pile or a weedy hedgerow or an unmown area that you have been feeling guilty about? Feel guilty no more! All of those places are potential pollinator habitat!  Put up a sign (visit the Xerces Society) and talk to your neighbors to let them know that it is an intentional messy space and support and encourage others to do the same.

2) Provide pollinators with food:
- Plant a variety of flowering plants (3+) for each season from early Spring to late Fall. Our native Bumble Bees, for example, start being active in April and stay active into October. When possible, plant native plants, shrubs, and trees. (And don’t forget the grass hosts for butterflies…) They are likely to succeed with fewer inputs (water, fertilizer, time) and will benefit your local insects populations more than introduced species.
- When a crop in your garden finishes producing, plant a cover crop in the now empty space, e.g. buckwheat, that will benefit pollinators and, after it has finished flowering, turn it in to benefit your soil.

2) Reduce pesticide use.
- When you can, buy organic produce.
- Reduce or eliminate home pesticide use altogether. All household grade pesticide are lethal, and even organic pesticides can kill bees! If you have to use something, use products like Bt, kaolin clay barrier, pheromone traps, or insect repellents that employ garlic and citrus oil. Read the instructions carefully and follow them.

3) Get to know what our native pollinators (bees, butterflies, wasps, flies, etc.) look like!
- Teach others to recognize the cool diversity of our insects.
-Join one of the citizen science efforts that supports native pollinators in your area. There are many to choose from.

I am planning to share this information with others on campus too, and hope that we can all work together to plan management strategies for our campus and the MacLeish Field Station that will better support our goals and our native pollinators. In the meantime, you can find more information about native pollinators, plant lists, programs to get involved in, and many more resources on the Xerces Society website. Happy reading!

-Joanne Benkley
Assistant Director, CEEDS

Faculty Spotlight: Sharon Seelig

6 Mar

Sharon Seelig is a long time member of the community, having come to the Pioneer Valley in 1967 and to Smith College in 1980. Seelig, the Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities, primarily teaches classes that focus on Renaissance English literature and early modern women writers. Over the past few years, she began integrating environmental themes into her courses and teachings here at Smith, and getting more involved with similar kinds of issues on campus. She currently serves as a member of the College Committee on Sustainability and as a Faculty Fellow for the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability (CEEDS).

When asked about her work as an English literature professor with ties to the environment and nature, Seelig attributes her interest to early childhood, where she spent her first five years on a farm in Southern Minnesota and lived in very small towns thereafter. “I wasn’t an only child, but my brother was 13-years older than I was, so I might as well have been an only child. I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself noticing things like the ferns by the house, the yellow violets under the willow tree, and the abandoned garden with surprising flowers.”

Seelig’s passion for both literature and the environment led to the creation of her First Year Seminar: Reading the Earth, which was first offered in the fall of 2008. “It has been a lot of fun to try to bring together my own training as a reader of texts to reading the world as a text.” The course, inspired by geology faculty member John Brady’s method of education through exploration and discovery, is based on the idea that we employ similar tools in literary criticism as we do in observing our natural world. From Brady’s course, Seelig developed her own focus, which was not to have a prescribed body of knowledge, but instead to allow student observations and insights to direct the class. “I wanted this to be a course about seeing,” Seelig explained.

seelig students                      Students in Seelig’s class explore and observe the world together…
student_writing                                           …and on their own.

Outside of the classroom Seelig has deepened her connection to the natural world by spending her summers as a National Park volunteer, first in Utah and then at Glacier National Park in Montana. Seelig described the latter as one of the most wonderful things she has ever experienced. “I had wanted to do this for a long time, and it turns out it is not as easy to get this gig as you might think.” Seelig described her acceptance into the program at Glacier as a hard-fought win, “I mean, I campaigned seriously for this job… [when I heard I had gotten the position] I was as happy at that moment as when I got tenure at Smith.”  Seelig went on to say that although the job was hard, there were also amazing benefits, like the opportunity to share the splendor of the natural world with others. “Each week we walked through a burn area with beautiful wildflowers, which were different every week. It was just wonderful.” As she reflected back on the experience, Seelig commented that “my interest in the natural world led me to do this, and I see it as in harmony with what I do here.”

SSeelig

Seelig continues to be an active proponent of environmental health and education through her teaching and contributions on campus. Even her daily habits reflect an environmental awareness. “When I leave Seelye I try to turn off all the lights in all the rooms. Again, it is a tiny step, but I believe that if you are aware of these things and you are practicing them personally, the idea might spread.” She also offered some creative ideas to our current landscape aesthetic. “This will not fly, but I wish we could bring goats onto campus! Lawns are a problem. Must they be only blades of grass? I mean, is that really necessary? What is wrong with clover?” Seelig attributes her motivation for taking on environmental issues to her long-standing concern about the planet. “I have seen the effect of climate change in the 40 years that I have been in the Valley. I know what is happening and it distresses me. And it worries me that many students don’t seem as concerned about it as I am. I am very glad for those who are, but it seems to me a real crisis.” And one, that in Seelig’s opinion, is starting to be addressed. “We are moving in the right direction and the sustainability committee is working on this. There are a wonderful group of alums who are the advisory board to CEEDS and they are full steam ahead and engaged, and I feel if that spirit can spread, people will learn!”

As our conversation came to a close, Seelig recited a Thoreau quote about civil disobedience that still lingers in my head: “It is not necessary for a man to do everything, but a man must do something.” Seelig reiterated that something is “…what you can. It doesn’t mean you alone can solve the problem, but you must do what you can do. You absolutely must, it is your obligation as a citizen, as a human being. It takes many people’s gifts and skills to do this, but it is important.” Through her work both in and out of the classroom, Seelig aims to continue to empower and engage those around her. “The challenge is how to spread awareness and provide students with information without insisting on one answer. Because it is important that people work through the process and come to their own conclusion.” Yet, Seelig warned, “there are a lot of things that people won’t know about if we don’t provide avenues for their exploration.” Sharon Seelig is one professor at Smith who is certainly providing some of those avenues.

-Hanna Mogensen, ’14

Lecture Report Back: China’s Environmental Challenges

4 Mar

Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is an incredibly inspiring individual. Extremely well versed in mathematics, environmental science and policy, and the Chinese language (“because the Japanese class was full!”), Darrin brings an extraordinarily realistic, straightforward, yet very inspiring perspective to one of the most important issues of our time.

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As the title of the talk suggests, the most important environmental issues in China have to do with water, waste, and energy. Water contamination is an incredibly important subject because it will not only affect future generations but is impacting current generations. There are widespread, high levels of pollution that affect both surface and groundwater sources. These pollutants stem from sources such as inadequate wastewater treatment, chemical induced weathering, salinization (from over extraction and flood irrigation), and industry. Darrin explained that there are five grades on which water cleanliness is assessed in China: grades 1-3 (one being perfectly clean, pure water) are safe for drinking water, grade 4 is not fit for humans and can only be used industrially, and grade 5 is used for agriculture!!! This causes a wide range of awful and often life-threatening health effects for the consumers of food grown using this highly contaminated water. An example of these effects is cadmium poisoning, which blocks the absorption of calcium into the body, resulting in severe, often life threatening health problems.

Darrin pointed out that China is not actually water poor, the country has the resources to provide for the water needs of their country, but strict pollution regulation is necessary if China hopes to be water-secure in the future. As well as regulation of water pollutants, it is imperative that China adjust its coal usage if major cities are to continue to be habitable: acute respiratory distress is already the principal reason for ER visits in China. One way that China plans to transition away from coal is through hydropower, though these dams can create another set of environmental and geopolitical controversies. There is currently “a race” to build powerful, profitable dams before regulations tighten. As if these issues weren’t enough, energy consumption of the average Chinese citizen is climbing rapidly as standards of living get better. More and more energy will be needed in the coming years to fuel this rapidly modernizing country of 1.3 billion people, and where that energy comes from will affect not only Chinese citizens, but the entire world.

While China’s environmental situation is quite serious and may seem very easy to point fingers at (“If China would lower its emissions and reduce its pollution our world would have a much better chance… it’s not our responsibility here in the U.S., it’s theirs!”), the reality is that in relation to their population, China’s carbon footprint is much smaller than the U.S.’s. The average Chinese citizen has a carbon footprint of 6.2, compared to 17.6 in the United States. China’s population is simply much larger than the U.S., so there will naturally be more fossil fuel emissions as the country develops. Another factor to consider in the international blame game is the origin of the waste in China. Waste and trash is often exported from first world countries to countries like China, because they are willing to accept it in return for payment.  Trash is not the only item we export; much of China’s carbon emissions that contribute directly to climate change are released by factories that 1) export goods to developed countries or 2) are owned by international companies there because of low Chinese production costs. China may be the location in which the highest amount of carbon is being emitted, but at least one reason for those emissions is our consumption.

This is not to say that the China should develop exactly as the United States and Europe did, or that they are not accountable for their country’s environmental impact. On the contrary, China must make the policy decisions necessary to reduce its emissions (particularly coal) for the sake of the planet, and clean up its water and resources for the sake of its people. McGee was quick to point out that unlike the United States, China is in a much better position to enact change because the people and its leaders do not have an issue “believing” in environmental challenges. These are challenges that people live and breathe every single day, and the question is not “what are the challenges?” but “how will they be addressed?” China has ambitious renewable energy goals for 2020, in which renewables will account for 15% of total energy consumption (mostly hydro and nuclear). China also plans to cut their carbon emissions by about 17% in the next year. Given China’s large population and its rapid industrialization, these are substantial goals- but if countries in North America, Western Europe, and Australia do not cut back on their own disproportionate consumption, it will still not be enough.

-Savannah Holden, ’16

Wild and Domesticated: the invisible powerhouses of our food system

23 Feb

During this time of year it’s hard to imagine trees flowering and bees buzzing—but right about now, in the Central Valley of California, over 800,000 acres of almond trees are blooming.

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Almond flowers only bloom for about two weeks in late February. This is a critical period of time because in order for the trees to produce any almonds, the flowers need to be cross-pollinated, which means that bees need to visit each of the thousands of flowers, on each of the thousands of trees, all in the course of two weeks. This is why the almond bloom is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world. Large-scale commercial beekeepers transport over 1.5 million hives of honey bees from all over the country and across the globe to the Central Valley of California. 1

Why do bees need to be imported? Industrial agriculture in the United States initially expanded with the introduction of Nitrogen fertilizer supplements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.2 Rationalized production methods and monoculture systems increased acreage. For pollination this meant that industrial agriculture methods were destroying natural pollinator habitat and the wild pollinators already present in the landscape were not enough to support the booming industry.

The almond industry exemplifies how pollination has adapted to meet the needs of commercial agriculture. Mechanized agricultural processes required a mechanized pollination process, and the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, was an ideal pollinator for the job. Honey bees, as the most widely utilized insect pollinators, are the invisible powerhouses that enable commercial agriculture to thrive. Honey bees are versatile, generalist pollinators that live in large perennial colonies and forage over long distances, so they are well suited to provide pollination services over large areas. Honey bees communicate efficiently within their hives about food sources, and also produce honey which is a marketable product of its own. Over time, industrial agriculture not only employed honey bees as supplemental pollinators, but they also required them.

honeybeeinflight

And it’s more than just almonds. We rely on insects, and primarily honey bees, to pollinate everything from nuts to fruits and vegetables. Livestock and dairy products are also indirectly derived from insect-pollinated legumes or grasses. Insect pollination is also responsible for many fat and oil producing seeds. Both wild and domesticated, insect pollination is responsible for one out of every three bites of food.3

There are grave consequences to transforming insect pollination into an industry. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has become the catchall phrase for describing the phenomenon of continued colony disappearance and hive decline since the early 2000’s. It has been difficult to isolate one specific reason for CCD, since it has roots throughout the entire system of modern industrial agriculture. It has been attributed it to hive exposure to toxic pesticides, viruses, mites, and poor nutrition. The short of it is that bees are dying, and we’re going to have to get involved in order to save them, and ourselves.

The apple and pear orchards of Southwest China exhibit a dramatic example of where the United States might be headed if pollinator health continues to decline. Farmers in Southwest China are hand pollinating their fruit orchards by hand.4 They have no other choice than to resort to these tactics because widespread pesticide use has eradicated all of the wild pollinators in the area. If current agricultural trends in the United States continue, and we do not acknowledge our precarious dependence on these small living creatures and take immediate action, Americans are also destined for hand pollination.

But this crisis also presents an opportunity for positive change. Individuals now have the chance to become more informed about food production, and reintegrate themselves in the  production process. Beekeeping is reemerging as a craft throughout the U.S. The movement towards urban beekeeping complements the movement towards urban farming and gardening. The initiative to localize food production and redistribute the load from industrial farms has heightened public awareness surrounding these issues.

That is to say that there are still small farms that maintain a less mechanized and more integrated structure within their surroundings, and in turn they benefit from wild pollinators. I interviewed Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, MA, who told me that he has never had to use a commercial honey bee hive and he doesn’t plan on it. His fruit orchards are home to many native insects that do a more efficient job pollinating his fruit trees than any honey bee would do.

So, during these cold months, as you snack on some trail mix, or some roasted almonds, or even before you bite into that apple, you can take an extra minute to think about the journey that food took to get to you, and remember that it relied on millions of tiny insects humming and buzzing and spreading pollen.

-Ellena Baum, ’14

CEEDS Field Station Intern

Photographs: Kathy Keatley Garvey

1.Ferris Jabr, “The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping,” Scientific American, September 11, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=migratory-beekeeping-mind-boggling-math.

2. Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” The American Historical Review, (2012) 117 (4): 1028-1060.doi: 10.1093/ahr/117.4.1028

3. Samuel Emmett McGregor. Insect Pollination Of Cultivated Crop Plants. Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, 1976.

4. Dave Goulson, “Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to Pollinate by Hand,” China Dialogue, February 10, 2012. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193

The Land of Chocolate, Fries, and… Environmentalism? Thoughts on Environmental Differences Between Northern Europe & the US

21 Feb
“Donc les Américains s’occupe de l’environnement maintenant?” (So, Americans care about the  environment now?) my Belgian friend’s father dryly asked me when I told him that I was very involved in environmental issues at my college in the U.S. The embarrassment and inexplicable desire to protest criticisms of the United States when asked a question such as this one is a sentiment that I, and many Americans abroad, are all too familiar with. I tried to explain to him while it’s true that we unfortunately have an infrastructure and lifestyle that does not favor green living, and there are a myriad of issues with our consumption and policy, there is also a magnificently growing environmental movement that more and more people are being inspired by every day. We soon moved on to other topics of conversation that engaged the entire room, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the manner in which he so condescendingly responded to my description of the efforts that Smith and other American institutions have been making. Indeed, there are stark differences in the manner in which Europeans and Americans regard the environment and issues surrounding it, differences that portray the United States in a pretty unfortunate light. But are these portrayals correct? Is Europe really “better” than the U.S.?

The simple answer is yes. A person’s carbon footprint is on average lower in Europe simply by living there. First off, their towns and cities are much closer together than those in the United States, so people do not have to travel the same kinds of distances that we do in the U.S. Gasoline is also much more expensive there, costing the equivalent of about $8 per gallon, and in some places as much as around $10 (4). This cost, in itself, makes people more likely to use public transport. In addition, public transportation -particularly trains- are commonly used because they are relatively inexpensive and widely accessible. In Belgium, for example, a city, town, or even village without a train station is basically unheard of. In many places in Europe, particularly Northern Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, biking is the most common mode of  travel for short distances. In these countries, cities and towns are built to accommodate biking. Houses also tend to be much more efficient, many built “up” rather than “out”. The average carbon footprint in the EU is less than half the size of that of a North American. (U.S.: 19.74, Belgium: 10.88, France: 6.5*, The Netherlands: 10.5, Denmark: 9.8, Germany: 10.2) (1) This is not to say that Europe is without faults on the environmental front, however. These countries, often glorified for their environmental stewardship, still have a lot of work to do.

The EU can often “hide” its carbon emissions because they are not being emitted in Europe. The large population and demand for high-energy food (imported goods, animal products), particularly in Northern Europe, makes the carbon footprint of these countries skyrocket. For example, when the amount of international cropland necessary to feed the Belgian population is counted, Belgium becomes one of the ten countries with the largest environmental footprint. (2) Convincing anyone who is a heavy meat eater to switch to a less carbon intensive, plant based diet is difficult. Asking Northern Europeans to give up their charcuterie, cheese, and imported delicacies? It would be easier to get a wild tiger to be vegetarian. As with the U.S., most of the goods used in Europe are produced overseas. The pollution that goes into making goods sent to Europe are not generally calculated into their carbon footprints. Europeans buy just as many clothes, tools, office supplies, electronics, and beauty products as we do.

1623755_10151938730901270_1400589827_n                             An entire store dedicated to (energy intensive) cheese.

Europe is, however, in a better position to adapt to an environmentally friendly infrastructure than the United States. While one reason is that the infrastructure they have in place is already much greener, an even larger one is the mentality of most Northern European countries. My friend, who has family in Denmark and frequently travels there, told me an interesting story about the first time she saw a theater piece in Copenhagen. When the piece ended, everyone began to clap. She clapped along with them, as she normally would, but after a few seconds of clapping she began to notice something. Everyone in the theater had started to clap in unison. Everyone’s hands were coming together at the same time, increasing in speed and intensity together, and eventually fading out in unison as well. She said it was one of the strangest things she had ever experienced. It was not just the theater- it is how people clap in Denmark. Though I never experienced it in Belgium, it is apparently common in other European countries as well. I don’t know if there is any true correlation between this cultural trait and a general group mentality, but it is true that in Europe both individuals and governments are much more focused on the collective than here in the United States. This norm of communal thinking bodes extremely well for tackling challenging environmental issues, where group cooperation is key. Americans are generally much more focused on personal freedoms and the right to give as little as possible to others, all while driving a gigantic truck. Our overarching, culturally perpetuated notion that the solution to any problem is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and strive for individual success is a backwards and harmful approach to this global crisis. Not everyone is stuck in this mindset, however. As I previously said, the U.S. has been making great strides in many cities: small-scale farming is taking off, there are huge green initiatives gaining strength every day, and people are generally becoming more environmentally conscious. It does, however, make large-scale environmental policy more complicated and arduous. It is simply much easier to make significant policy changes in smaller, more socialist countries.

Another difference that I have noticed in the past few years is that it seems as though Americans like to make a big deal of things: instead of quietly changing infrastructure and policy because we know that it is the best decision for our future, we feel the inexplicable desire to broadcast the “incredible changes” we are making (no matter how small). This is especially apparent in the manner in which universities, organizations, businesses, and even individuals treat the process of “going green”. While many European institutions will simply make changes because they know it’s the right choice, and will only share those changes with the public by minimal advertising or via an information page about environmental efforts, a similar institution in the U.S. will do all of that plus an educational campaign and a party. The United States does not do anything quietly, a quality that makes us appear rather juvenile to our European counterparts. As I attempt to explain to my Belgian friends that there is an incredible fossil fuel divestment campaign that is sweeping the country, that everyday there are grassroots organizations gaining strength, and that the government and universities often financially support efforts for people to study environmental issues, I know that momentarily I will hear the retort that will silence all of these nice efforts: “yet you still can’t seem to sign the Kyoto Protocol”. Sorry, America, no amount of student organizations and creative advertising can get you out of that one.

Of course, both continents have an incredible amount of work to do, as we are responsible for having disproportionately destroyed and consumed the resources of this planet for the past few centuries. I truly believe that what we need is a combination of American spunk and European ethic. Many American citizens have a youthful, excited appetite for change that does not exist in the same way in Europe. In Europe, however, the government has the dedication and realistic outlook to make actual change. For example, Germany, which currently gets 23% of their electricity from renewable sources is moving toward the goal of 80% renewable energy by 2050. The original plan had been fairly reliant on nuclear energy, but after the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately made changes in the country’s energy plan. As Peter Almaier, the federal minister for the environment, nature conservation, and nuclear safety said, “We are changing profoundly and completely a structure that has developed over  150 years”. (5) I would say that the United States needs a bit more of this diligent attitude. As is the case with many issues, there are problems to be solved everywhere and there is no single right answer. I personally hope that in the coming years the United States will take a few hints from European environmental policy and make necessary changes. For this to be possible, we will have to move beyond environmental responsibility for show and towards environmental responsibility for survival; we have no choice.

*France has much lower emissions because the majority of their electricity comes from nuclear energy

- Savannah Holden, ’16

Sources:

1: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/air_co2_emissions.htm

2: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/sustainable-earth/pictures-ten-countries-with-the-biggest-footprints/#/rio-20-united-nations-country-footprints-
belgium_53575_600x450.jpg

3: http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/11/2012s-carbon-emissions-in-five-graphs/

4: http://www.ibtimes.com/gas-prices-pump-europeans-pay-almost-twice-much-us-residents-1322727

5: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-11-14/2014-outlook-germanys-green-energy-switch

New Blogger: Emily Dixon

17 Feb

This past fall I took a semester off and moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga is home to world-class white water, 1-gigabit per second internet, and major industry such as Amazon.com and Volkswagen, which started manufacturing there in 2011.

I worked as an engineering intern at Volkswagen within the Plant Infrastructure department. The Chattanooga plant is the first LEED Platinum certified automotive manufacturing facility in the world. To meet this certification, Volkswagen rehabilitated nearby wetlands, created a 9.5 million watt capacity solar park, and included rainwater reuse in the facility design.*

VW                                 The Volkwagen plant.

During my internship I worked on waste stream optimization projects with the environmental team. The vast and constant generation of waste in manufacturing environments makes organizing and recycling very cumbersome and costly. To help my team get a handle on where possible optimization opportunities would have the least impact on production,  I designed  and developed a waste stream map for the assembly floor that outlined waste generation locations, the type of waste, and the removal method. This map also allowed the waste contractor to design the most efficient pick-up routes for collection.

TDI                                 Trying out the assembly line.

Now that I am back at Smith I am excited to bring this experience back to my peers in the Picker Engineering Program. I am also excited about my new position as a CEEDS intern! This semester I will be helping to coordinate the MacLeish Field Station maple sugaring project. If you are interested in getting involved we would love to have you! Feel free to email me: edixon at smith.edu.

Emily Dixon ’15

Emily Dixon is majoring in engineering with a minor in landscape studies. She is excited to be a new CEEDS intern. During her first semester at Smith she was introduced to the field station through Paul Wetzel’s lab for BIO 155 Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation.

*For more information:
http://www.volkswagengroupamerica.com/facts.html

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