Close This Organic Certification Loophole

A shortcut to organic farming. Source: Bloomberg

Since Sunday I have been thinking about what to plant, and how, with regard to our Escazu coffee regeneration project. Questions related to genetics are fundamental to agriculture, even if genetic engineering is controversial. I am only considering hybrids, not genetically engineered coffee varietals. We will use no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers,  nor have any been used on this land in nearly three decades, so our coffee will be grown according to organic standards. Whether we seek USDA certification is a topic for a later date.

But I am a proponent of organic certification. Not every farmer can afford it but if they could I would hope they consider it. That said, like any certification, there can be bugs in the system. Thanks to Amanda Little (whose work we first linked to five years ago, and again when her book was published) for investigating and bringing this to our attention, with the help of Bloomberg. It would seem to go without saying, but perhaps we all need to shout it out:

Organic Farming Should Protect Nature, Not Destroy It

A USDA loophole that allows farmers to cut down forests and clear grasslands to win faster certification should have been closed years ago.

Sustainable agriculture is having its political moment.

The Biden administration deserves credit for being the first to recognize that food system reforms can go a long way toward solving the climate crisis. Yet for all its big-picture vision, some critical details are getting overlooked. A big one is a loophole within the USDA’s National Organic Program that undermines its mission and impedes the nation’s path toward climate-smart agriculture. Continue reading

The Alberta Tar Sands Prize

In a world that will need less oil, the attraction of going to a landlocked continental interior, such as Alberta, Canada, and trying to separate petroleum from sand is waning. Photograph by Ben Nelms / Bloomberg / Getty

Oil from the tar sands of Alberta will sink us faster than we are already sinking. How important is it to keep it where it is? Akin to some sort of holy grail. Thanks to Bill McKibben, as always, for weekly reminders to keep our eyes on the prize:

We Love You, Alberta—Just Not Your Tar Sands

If the province’s oil is dug up and burned, it will be calculably harder to limit the damage from climate change.

Some weeks ago, the government of Alberta wrote to me—and apparently to a number of other environmentalists and environmental groups. We are all subjects of an “anti-Alberta energy inquiry,” and have the right to respond to charges that are being levelled by a government commission. Alberta, it turns out, has spent three and a half million dollars in an effort to find out whether foreigners are unfairly targeting its oil-and-gas industry. I’m mentioned dozens of times in the draft report, due to be finished this week, and it contains links to lots of articles of mine explaining why the province’s vast tar-sands project should be curtailed. Continue reading

Clever & Adaptable Down Under

A cockatoo did the work while others observed. Barbara Klump/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Watch the half-minute video accompanying this story and you will understand the words “clever” and “adaptable” in a new way:

Trash Parrots Invent New Skill in Australian Suburbs

Sydney’s clever and adaptable sulfur-crested cockatoos learn how to pry open garbage bins by watching one another.

You’ve heard of trash pandas: Raccoons raiding the garbage. How about trash parrots?

Sulfur-crested cockatoos, which may sound exotic to Americans and Europeans, are everywhere in suburban areas of Sydney. They have adapted to the human environment, and since they are known to be clever at manipulating objects it’s not entirely surprising that they went after a rich food source. But you might say that the spread of their latest trick, to open trash cans, blows the lid off social learning and cultural evolution in animals. Continue reading

Making Dams Deliver More

The O’Shaughnessy Dam in Ohio is being repaired and will be providing power to the city of Columbus by mid-2023. CAMERA MEETS BEARD / SHUTTERSTOCK

Thanks to Yale e360 for this story by James Dinneen:

Can Retrofitting Dams for Hydro Provide a Green Energy Boost?

With the era of building big dams over in the U.S., a growing number of existing dams are being modified to produce hydropower. These projects, advocates say, avoid the damaging impacts of new dams and could generate enough renewable electricity for several million homes. Continue reading

Plotting Varietals

Day 187, with 319 coffee seedlings

When posting yesterday I had in mind my coffee germination project. In addition to recycling bags to use for this stage of prepping for the bigger goal, I have been considering the question of varietals, including hybrids, to plant alongside these seedlings that are from coffee collected on this land 187 days ago, from coffee trees originally planted five decades ago.

Hacienda La Amistad coffee, roasted at the farm

On Saturday I was speaking with the man who farms and roasts one of our single estate coffees, the only one that is USDA-certified organic. He exhibited the new roaster at the farm, while telling me about an experimental varietal he has growing at 1,800 meters elevation, which he has nicknamed Purple Haze.

This fueled my imagination further down the road of how complex to get with our own re-planting options. Our seedlings will be mature enough to plant next May, and by that time I will need to have sourced the thousand or so other seedlings we have space for. We will have micro-lots within our micro-lot. If we plant varietals in clusters of 100, that would give us the option of ten varietals other than the varietal that was originally planted here. Or clusters of 50, allowing twenty other varietals? More likely clusters of 200, because over the next ten months surely we can do enough homework to figure out the five very best varietal options for this soil, climate and elevation. It’s time to start pondering and plotting those on the map…

Genetic Modification, In Moderation, Appeals

Levon Biss for The New York Times

Our work with coffee farmers in Costa Rica in recent years has convinced me that without hybridization there will not be much of a specialty coffee supply in the near future without it. Climate change and various pests essentially require it. On the other hand, I understand why genetic engineering causes fear. I have suffered mildly from that fear, but still read widely on the subject looking to allay those fears. The main appeal of the technology is obvious, and the reasons to be concerned are plenty, but here are some overlooked observations thanks very much to Jennifer Kahn:

Learning to Love G.M.O.s

Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.

Bobby Doherty for The New York Times

On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.

At 66, Martin has silver-white hair, a strong chin and sharp eyes that give her a slightly elfin look. Continue reading

Practical Advice From Erik Vance

My first link to the work of Erik Vance came when I was re-writing the welcome to Chan Chich Lodge section of the property’s website. On another occasion his work took me to Madagascar, offering me a much-appreciated journey seven months into the isolation of pandemic. Today, I thank him again for a graphic feature with practical advice on the kinds of steps any of us can take to get some relief from the cataclysm that overshadows even the pandemic. Local variations to the steps he recommends, depending on where you live, might apply; the point is to find them and act on them.

If You Happen To Be In Berlin

The phased opening of Humboldt Forum, a museum in Berlin, includes this exhibit, and of course a beautiful book to boot.

An interesting feature, in the form of an editorial on the museum’s website can help put this exhibit in context. The goal of this museum is anti-colonial, among other things, according to the museum’s editorial:

According to the people behind the project, the partial reconstruction of Berlin’s historic palace was an expression of the power to mend, to repair the urban fabric and the historical associations enshrined in the space it occupies.

Which is unusual for a well-funded museum in a wealthy country to say. So, this book looks interesting from multiple angles, and the text describing the book is a hint at that:

The elephant is an admired but also endangered animal. In all times and cultures, the ivory of its tusks has been sought after. What kind of material is it, how is it used in history and the present, and what can be done today to protect the largest land mammals from poaching? This richly illustrated volume undertakes a cultural-historical journey and a current positioning. Ivory fascinates  and polarises. Continue reading

Recycling 2.0, Maine Gets It Done

A collection facility in Bend, Ore. The state is expected to adopt a recycling law similar to Maine’s within weeks. Leon Werdinger/Alamy

When we were making decisions about coffee and chocolates that we would offer in the Authentica shops, which we knew to be best-selling categories for travelers wanting to take something home from Costa Rica, product quality was the top consideration. Packaging was a close second. Relative to what was sold in other shops, we radically reduced the carbon footprint of the packaging, and more recently took another step further down that road. We know that every little effort counts, but we also know that the big game is elsewhere, and we are happy to see a relatively small state making big strides in the USA:

Maine Will Make Companies Pay for Recycling. Here’s How It Works.

The law aims to take the cost burden of recycling away from taxpayers. One environmental advocate said the change could be “transformative.”

Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, a Democrat, signed the new recycling policies into law this month. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Recycling, that feel-good moment when people put their paper and plastic in special bins, was a headache for municipal governments even in good times. And, only a small amount was actually getting recycled.

Then, five years ago, China stopped buying most of America’s recycling, and dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs.

Now, Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Nearly a dozen states have been considering similar regulations and Oregon is about to sign its own version in coming weeks. Continue reading

Looming Line 3 Battle

Only a small percentage of Americans visit the Grand Canyon, but its existence, as an ancient place of inestimable value, has a global psychological importance.Photograph by Jim Kidd / Alamy

The Line 3 story started for us last month, and continues today, with another essay by Bill McKibben, this time using the Grand Canyon for context:

Lessons from the Fight for the Grand Canyon

We once saved natural landmarks for their beauty—now it’s for survival, too.

To float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is to meander through geologic time. As you descend, the formations you pass include the Coconino Sandstone, the Redwall Limestone, the Bright Angel Shale—by the time you reach the tortured-looking Vishnu Schist, you’re a couple billion years back in time. Continue reading