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  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSpring 2006Pimentel   
 Organic Food in the Age of Healing Minimize

by Jean English

Copyright ©2006

Dr. David Pimentel. Photo: Cornell University.

Entomologist and ecologist Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University was the keynote speaker at MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor in November 2005. In introducing him, Russell Libby mentioned John Seymour’s essay for Resurgence magazine years ago called "The Age of Healing." Seymour said we’ve been plundering the world’s resources for the last 150 years, and now we can keep doing the same and go into an age of chaos; or we could try an age of healing. "The work that we’ve all been doing here for the last 10, 20, 30 years is one little piece of that age of healing," said Libby, adding that Pimentel would discuss further ways in which farmers can limit their environmental impact and prepare to live in a world of expensive fossil fuels.

Population Problem

The major problem, said Pimentel, is that we have too many people for the resources available. Of the earth’s 6.5 billion people, 3.7 billion are malnourished, according to the World Health Organization—and we’re adding ¼ million people daily. Malnourished people are more susceptible to diseases such as malaria, TB and AIDS, which are increasing worldwide. A malnourished child with malaria is twice as likely to die from disease as one who is well nourished.

Also, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, per capita food production worldwide has been decreasing for 21 years, using the measure of grains (which make up 80% of the world’s food)--despite all of the biotechnology and agricultural technologies available, and without anything happening to energy, yet.

The United States has an abundance of food, Pimentel continued. Interestingly, 99% of crops and livestock are introduced species, in the United States and worldwide. The average American consumes 2,200 pounds of food per person per year and should be eating about one-third less. And U.S. citizens are the largest energy users per capita in the world, using almost 3,000 gallons of oil equivalents per person per year.

Costly Irrigation

Huge amounts of water go into our crop production. An acre of corn during the three-month growing season utilizes 500,000 gallons of water, so 80% of the water consumed in the United States is consumed by agriculture. "Irrigation is terribly energy costly," Pimentel continued. It takes four times more energy to raise irrigated wheat in Nebraska than to raise rain-fed wheat elsewhere getting the same yields; each gallon weighs 8 pounds and often has to be lifted 100 or 200 feet. Also, you need about 1 million gallons of water to irrigate an acre of corn, because only about half of the irrigation water will reach and go through the corn plants. When gasoline costs $10/gallon, less irrigation will occur in the West, said Pimentel, and more agriculture will move to the rainier East and Midwest—assuming global warming doesn’t upset weather in those areas too much.

Pesticides

Worldwide, 6 billion pounds of pesticides are applied per year (1 billion in the United States)--yet insects, diseases and weeds destroy more than 40% of all potential food production, noted Pimentel. After we harvest the remaining 60%, other pests take an additional 20% of our food. So worldwide, despite all the use of pesticides and other controls, we’re losing slightly more than half of all potential food.

According to USDA data, crop losses due to insects in the United States were 7% in 1945, before we started using synthetic pesticides; in 2004, 13% of crops were lost to insects—despite the more than 10-fold increased use of insecticides in the United States.

"How the hell can you do that?" asked Pimentel. Corn provides one example. In 1945, losses of field corn, without the use of insecticides, were 3.5%, because corn was grown in rotations; in 2004, with a 1,000-fold increase in insecticide use in corn production, losses were 12%--because less than half was grown in rotations. Without rotations, corn rootworm populations increase and requiring more insecticides. "So a change in technology caused a thousand-fold increase in use of insecticides and a four-fold increase in crop losses." Pimentel said corn could be grown in the United States using no insecticides and with 8% greater yield.

Conservatively estimated, the environmental impacts of pesticides, used as recommended, cost the United States at least $12 billion annually. Pimentel added that homeowners apply pesticides at three times the dosages per acre that farmers do. The EPA reports 300,000 nonfatal human pesticide poisonings in the United States annually. Worldwide, 26 million humans are poisoned by pesticides each year, with 220,000 deaths--most in developing countries.

Pesticides (especially insecticides) kill some beneficial insects, leading to even more insecticide use and costing the United States an estimated $500 million annually. When cotton is sprayed for boll weevil, for example, natural enemies of the bollworm and budworm are destroyed, and seven or eight sprays have to be added—still giving less control than natural enemies.

Herbicides are not supposed to affect insects. While chairing a study commission, Pimentel asked whether heavy use of herbicides was increasing insect and disease problems in corn. "All of the herbicide people said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ Of course we had no data…" Pimentel’s graduate student later found, using 2,4-D at recommended rates in corn, 1700 more corn aphids per plant than on untreated plants; 28% more corn borers; and 33% larger corn borers, which produced 33% more eggs. Likewise, corn smut and southern corn leaf blight increased when 2,4-D was used as recommended.

Honeybees are very important in agriculture, and about one-third of crops depend on pollinators for production. In many of the more populated areas, such as California, where far more pesticides are used than in Maine, pollination is a real problem. "It’s costing the nation probably around $300 million annually due to the loss of bees from pesticides," said Pimentel.

Five hundred species of insects worldwide, 200 species of weeds and about 200 species of plant pathogens have evolved resistance to pesticides. When resistance occurs, people often spray more, use different pesticides, and still don’t get the control that they got previously. "This is probably one of the most expensive environmental impacts that we have from pesticide use, costing $1.5 billion per year in crop losses and additional sprays…then we still have 10 to 25% crop losses." This spray can drift and be hazardous. When pesticides are applied by aircraft under ideal conditions, only 25 to 50% gets into the target area; 50 to 75% enters the environment and causes major problems.

According to EPA data, the average American has 116 chemicals in his or her body that aren’t supposed to be there; the range goes up to 300 or 400 chemicals. In the United States, 16% of people are susceptible to chemicals, some of them so sensitive that they can’t go outdoors, into town or into other buildings, noted Pimentel.

Birds are significantly affected by pesticides. "We estimate conservatively that 72 million birds are killed annually. This does not include what happens to nestlings when a parent dies, or when the parent brings contaminated insects to the nestlings."

Reducing Pesticide Use

Indonesia reduced pesticide use in rice 65% and increased yields 12 percent—largely by getting rid of a pro-pesticide minister of agriculture, then banning 57 of 64 pesticides. Sweden reduced pesticide use 68% (with no reduction in crop yields or cosmetic standards) and reports 77% fewer human pesticide poisonings since. "Sweden has a more unified perspective about the environment than we have in the United States," Pimentel explained, "and they’re not ruled by big business, so they have been more inclined to try to deal with this issue… The United States could probably reduce pesticide use at least 50% without affecting yields or cosmetic standards." (Cosmetic standards account for 10 to 20% of pesticide use.)

Organic Food Production: It’s All About Quality Soil

The U.S. production of organic foods has been doubling every 10 years, according to the USDA, and is increasing even more in Europe and Australia. People are demanding foods without contamination, said Pimentel.

He, his coworkers and the Rodale Institute recently published a paper in Bioscience on organic food production. They raised corn and soybeans for 22 years using cover crops (vetch and other legumes) to provide all the nitrogen in one treatment; livestock manure (5.6 tons/ha/yr of partially dry manure) in another; and a conventional treatment following Penn State’s recommendations for pesticides and fertilizers. No pesticides or herbicides were used in the organic treatments.

Organic treatments increased soil organic matter (OM)) to 5.3%, but even the conventional treatment had 4% OM and outyielded the surrounding county yields of soy and corn. "Usually conventional farming is fortunate to get 3% organic matter in the soil," said Pimentel. "This is, I think, my personal view of what organic is all about: quality soil. That’s what makes organic productive and the foods in general more nutritious."

That organic matter conserved 820,000 L of water per hectare, compared with the conventional treatment. During drought years, organic treatments produced 30% more corn and 47% more soy per acre than conventional.

"We did not apply any N fertilizer to the organic treatments," he continued. "Corn in the United States uses more insecticides, herbicides and N fertilizers than any other crop in the nation. Some of that N gets into streams and lakes. In fact, corn production in the corn belt is probably a major contributor to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico."

[When asked later how the use of insecticides on cotton crops relates to use on corn, Pimentel explained that cotton uses more insecticide per acre, but corn uses more total insecticide because of the enormous acreage of the crop.]

Economics were the same in organic and conventional systems (based on yields and not considering premiums for organic foods, which can be 65 to 140%). "We had 35% more labor in the organic system than in the conventional, but since we didn’t have to buy fertilizer or pesticides, that helped."

Because pesticides and/or fertilizers weren’t used, and because of the increased organic matter, soil biodiversity was greatly increased in organic treatments. "Earthworms, for example, were running about 5 million earthworms per hectare, weighing 3,000 kg per hectare"—outweighing humans by about 50 times.

"We used 30% less energy in the organic production than the conventional, and we got the same yield in drought years," Pimentel noted. He thinks he could get that figure to 50 percent.

About one-third of the energy in agriculture is for mechanization, most to reduce labor. Raising corn by hand takes about 500 hours of labor per acre. "Today we raise an acre of corn with about three hours of human labor on the farm" (not counting labor to make the machinery, find oil, etc.). "This is where the energy goes in U.S. corn production: about one-third for N fertilizer; one-third for mechanization; and one-third for the other 12 inputs (pesticides, water, etc.). So two-thirds of the energy is mechanization and fertilizers."

Ethanol

Pimentel has been involved in ethanol studies for about 20 years, and "I haven’t been able to change the dumb system of using ethanol, but it does require 30% more energy oil equivalents to produce a gallon of ethanol than you actually get out, and it causes a lot of severe environmental problems. It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. Corn causes more soil erosion than any other crop grown in the nation. It uses more insecticides, herbicides and N fertilizer than any other crop grown in the nation."

More importantly, added Pimentel, "more than 99.7% of our food (based on calories) comes from land in the United States. This number applies worldwide, on average. We get less than 0.3% of our food from the oceans and other aquatic areas. This emphasizes the importance of our land in our food system. And food from the ocean is decreasing because of overfishing, pollution and overpopulation." Still, Congress voted in 2005 to double the production of ethanol in the future. "You and I are paying $3 billion in taxes now to support the ethanol industry. I chaired two studies for the Department of Energy. One report we put out indicated that it was a boondoggle. We were investigated by the Government Accounting Office for being biased. The GAO spent 20 times more money investigating us than we spent making the study. It’s a bit discouraging."

Regarding biodiesel, Pimentel said that vegetable oil from places such as McDonald’s can be cleaned up easily, "but if you’re trying to produce biodiesel from soybeans or sunflowers or so forth, it’s not good… [W]e’re trying to get plants to be oil wells, and they’re not going to be oil wells! On average, plants collect 1/10 of 1% of the solar energy coming to them." (For comparison, corn collects 2/10 of 1%, while photovoltaics can collect 15% easily and 20% optimistically.) "We burn more than 100 quads per year," yet all of earth’s plants collect 50 quads per year at best. [One quad = 1015 BTUs.] "It isn’t a problem with the plants, the problem is us," said Pimentel. Assuming, optimistically, 300 gallons of biodiesel produced per hectare, the total United States would have to be planted to soybeans to fuel all U.S. trucks (not cars). "It’s just not practical."

Also, cropland is disappearing. Last year, Pimentel said, California covered 385,000 acres of agricultural land for development. Data from the USDA show that over 30 years, the United States blacktopped an area of agricultural land the size of Ohio.

Pimentel and his coworkers looked at eight technologies, including biomass, hydropower, solar thermal, photovoltaic, etc., and asked, if we utilized all of those in the appropriate geographic regions in the United States, how much energy could we produce? "I think our numbers are a bit optimistic, but we projected we could produce about 46 quads (and we’re currently burning more than 100) [per year]." That’s based on a U.S. population of 200 million—and it’s currently 300 million. "To get 46 quads would use 17% of our total land area in the United States—which is what our current cropland area is."

We could definitely reduce our energy consumption by 50%, Pimentel believes. Europeans currently use half the amount we do, with a good lifestyle. His home, for example, has triple-pane glass windows; extra insulation over an already-insulated house; no heat in any bedrooms or bathrooms; and no heat at night in any room. He rides his bicycle as much as possible, but it’s become hazardous on his road.

To keep your thermostat lower than it’s set to go (often 55 degrees), he suggested putting a Christmas tree light next to it. MOFGA grower Jason Kafka noted that some newer thermostats can be set as low as 40 degrees.

The measures many people are taking aren’t enough, though. Pimentel said that $10/gallon gasoline is needed to really conserve energy and improve the environment. "What I’m doing is just to make me feel better."

Energy For and From Food

Students sometimes ask Pimentel how to reduce their energy use, so he calculated that producing a can of diet soda takes 600 kcal, producing the can itself takes 1600 kcal, for a total of 2200 kcal (which does not include energy used to ship the soda)—and you get 1 kcal of food energy from the soda. "A glass of water is a lot cheaper," he concluded.

Likewise, a 1-pound head of California iceberg lettuce, which is 95% water, provides 50 kcal of food energy but takes 400 kcal of fossil energy to produce in California (using irrigation) and 1,800 kcal of energy to be shipped by refrigerated truck to New York state, for a total of 2,200 kcal. "I’ve been suggesting we in the East get rid of lettuce and move toward cabbage. It’s got more nutrients and you can store cabbage all winter long."

Pimentel provided the following data for a 1-pound can of sweet corn, which provides 375 kcal of food energy:

Production 450 kcal

Processing 320

Tin can 1006

Transport 160

Distribution 340

Shopping 450 (based on the number of times people shop, weight of

groceries, driving an automobile (not an SUV))

Cooking, etc. 460

Total 3186 kcal

"It takes more energy to get that 1-pound can of corn home from the grocery store than there is energy in the can of corn." In fact, eating 1 pound of corn (375 kcal) takes almost 10 kcal of fossil energy per kcal of energy we get from the corn. The average in the United States for all foods is 13 kcal for every 1 kcal that we consume. And 82% of the foods we consume are processed, which takes large quantities of energy. That’s an advantage of local and organic—there is less energy going into the food processing. The more fresh and local foods that we can consume, the more beneficial." Pimentel estimates that 2 to 3 kcal of energy go into producing each kcal of local, organic food.

Next Pimentel showed data for a quarter-pound cheeseburger at McDonalds, which provides about 400 to 450 kcal of food energy:

Feedlot beef production 18,100 kcal

Cheese and roll 560 kcal

Water 170 gal.

So the total energy required to produce the quarter pounder is close to 19,000 kcal; for perspective, a gallon of gasoline has 31,000 kcal, so the quarter-pounder takes over half a gallon of gasoline equivalents to produce.

Producing an acre of corn (at an average of 140 bushels/A) takes about 110 gallons of oil equivalents and has an energy equivalent of about 250 gallons. So every gallon of energy invested in growing field corn produces slightly more than two in return.

Processing 1 kg of corn flakes takes 16,000 kcal, or about ½ gallon of gasoline equivalents. This is why cereals are so expensive. To process a 1 kg can of vegetables takes 575 kcal; frozen vegetables—1800 kcal; dehydrated vegetables—3,500; ice—150 kg. "This is why I don’t ask for ice in my water when I’m in a restaurant," said Pimentel. "Every little bit helps, and it makes me feel better, even though I’m not saving the world."

For every kcal we invest in corn and other grains, we get roughly 2 kcal back. If raised by hand, that increases to about 40 or 50 kcal in return. For potatoes, the ratio is 1:1; for apples and oranges, 2:1. Interestingly, we get an equal amount of vitamin C from potatoes as from all the citrus we consume in the United States, noted Pimentel.

As an aside, Pimentel noted that the average adult in Ireland in the 1800s was consuming 10 pounds of potatoes and 1 pint of milk per day, or 3,800 kcal—which is what the average American is consuming today, but 40% of our calories are fats and oils. "If we were Eskimos it wouldn’t be so bad."

Of the energy used in the United States, 19% goes into our food system: 7% for production; 7% for processing and packaging (and some distribution); and 5% for cooking, washing dishes, etc. Pimentel noted that microwaving foods that contain water is 70 to 80% more efficient than cooking on a stove. [He does not believe that microwaving harms food. Some Farmer to Farmer participants were skeptical.] So processing and packaging take one-third of the energy used in our food system—and that proportion does not include energy used to dispose of or recycle packaging. In the United States, we invest about 500 gallons of oil equivalents per person annually for our food system, or about 13 kcal per kcal of food we consume. "We could do a lot better," said Pimentel.

Renewables

All sources of renewable energy have some environmental impact. In windy locations, for each kcal invested in a windmill, about 5 kcal are produced in return. "There’s some noise, some interference, and the windmills aren’t as attractive as the old ones in Holland. But they can produce electricity at about 7 cents/kwh, which is about the U.S. average." Wind can supply an estimated 2 to 3% of our total electrical energy—based on his data and on American Wind Energy Association estimates. That doesn’t sound large, but that’s a lot of energy. We’re utilizing a lot of energy in our production of electrical energy."

Thermal energy provides about 3% of total U.S. energy--equal to the amount we get from hydro. These percentages sound small only because we burn so much fossil energy.

Each kcal invested in harvesting wood (using minimal amounts of fertilizer in this case) can provide 22 kcal of biomass. Transporting that biomass and making electrical energy requires 1 kcal to get 7 back in electrical energy. These data come from a plant in Vermont, which is producing energy at 6 cents/kwh. Thus, for a sustainable forest to supply a city of 100,000 with electrical energy, 500,000 acres would be required (at current usage)—about 5 acres per person.

Wind requires about 25,000 or 30,000 acres for a city of 100,000, but only about 5% of that area is taken up (for the base of the windmill); the rest could be farmed. The number of birds affected is small if windmills are not put in a flyway. One audience member said that studies on a particular ridge showed that birds tend to fly around rather than over ridges, so windmills on the ridge aren’t much of a problem; and, in fact, power lines are more problematic than windmills for birds. Windmills do kill a lot of insects, said Pimentel.

Transporting electricity on high tension lines is not cheap. "I think it’s $290,000 per mile, but they last many years," Pimentel noted.

For each calorie invested in photovoltaics, roughly 7 are produced at a cost of about 25 cents/kwh.

Hydropower costs 2 cents/kwh but has significant environmental problems and requires about 15,000 A of land to power a city of 100,000. "You’re covering agricultural land, changing the ecology of streams once dams are built."

Conference participant Richard Rudolph noted that Massachusetts is trying to get 1% of its energy from renewables and is finding that almost impossible. "How do we move to a new paradigm," he asked?

Pimentel said he’d be cautious about numbers released by Amory Lovins. "He’s all for ethanol," he said. Again, Pimentel stressed the need for conservation.

Q & A

During a question and answer period, Pimentel was asked about nutritional benefits of organic foods. "It’s primarily the micronutrients where the benefits come in organic—and fewer pesticides!" he responded. "Thirty-five percent of all foods purchased in grocery stores have detectable levels of pesticides, and 1 to 3% have more than the tolerance set by the FDA."

Concerning transportation, he said the latest data show that food is transported an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to the consumer. "They’re flying lettuce from California to England. Something like 130 kcal of energy per kcal of lettuce is being shipped to England. So we’re not the only ones doing these dumb things. I’m down on iceberg lettuce."

Pimentel introduced Charles McArthur of Maine, who said, "I have an answer to all of our problems here: No sperm!" (McArthur was wearing a "No sperm" Tee-shirt.) Pimentel added that even if all couples in the world were limited to two kids, world population wouldn’t stabilize for more than 70 years, because of the young age distribution worldwide. Even with one child per family, China added 8 million people in 2005.

Discussion

Farmer to Farmer participants discussed their own energy saving techniques and questions after Pimentel’s talk. Mark Fulford talked about using Airlift Technologies’ (airliftech.com) windmills, which use air pressure to lift water out of deep wells. The pump is in the well; the windmill can be up to about 1500 feet from the well, so it can be located where wind speed is best. A column of air bubbles is pressurized by the wind tower to drive a column of water above it and into a holding tank. The cost ranges from $3,000 to about $6,500, not including delivery or plumbing. They start pumping around 6 or 7 mph of wind; maximum is 12 mph.

Regarding heating a greenhouse, Jason Kafka and Mark Guzzi recommended usings IR (Infrared Retaining) plastic to retard reradiation of heat. The payback for the more expensive plastic (about 15% more, or about $100 more per house) is fast. Chris Cavendish puts hoops over his greenhouse benches, covers them with plastic, then puts a small electric heater under a series of tables that are all under one sheet of plastic, thus reducing the volume of air that needs to be heated. Another participant noted that Laughing Stock Farm heats with waste vegetable oil (see laughingstockfarm.com).

Tom Taylor-Lash uses flat-plate solar collectors with a Trum Wall, in which cool air comes in at the bottom, heats rocks or barrels of water, and that heat is radiated at night. Eric Sideman noted that Bob Martin of Belgrade dug down about 10 feet when he built his greenhouse; filled that space with rocks; and air circulates through and heats the rocks during the day, then radiates into the greenhouse at night.

Kafka mentioned that the Nordells, growers in Pennsylvania, have a flue duct under a greenhouse bench, which is made of concrete blocks on the sides and is filled with gravel and rubble. They start a hot fire in a wood stove outside of the greenhouse in the evening to heat the area under the bench through the flue duct. That heat keeps the house warm overnight.

Fulford described a greenhouse using bubble technology in Ontario that has an R30 insulation value. Cheap party bubble makers continuously circulate bubbles from two vats of soapy water to the space between two layers of greenhouse plastic. The liquid runs down the inner plastic, back into the vats. The IR plastic is the outside layer of the greenhouse. (See solaroof.com.)

Other suggestions included following the model of Anna Edey’s Solviva greenhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, housing rabbits and hens as well as plants in greenhouses; or using a straw-bale north wall. One participant got an above-ground pool from Uncle Henry’s, put it in the greenhouse and filled it with pond water. The browner the water, the better it retained solar heat.

Growers suggested thinking about how late you can start a crop in the greenhouse and still have it ready on time. The later you start a plant, the faster it’s going to cycle, because the light in late February or March is a lot better than the light in January. Also, plants finish faster under greenhouse plastics that diffuse light, and these plastics don’t drip so much, so they minimize disease problems. (The water tends to follow the plastic down rather than dripping on the plants.)

A curtain in a 96-foot greenhouse can be moved as plants fill the house, so that just the area used at any one time is heated. Likewise, energy curtains used at night cut the area heated.

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply has a woven, clear fabric called Tufflite that allows more breathing and light transmission and seems to increase the temperature under the beds, said one participant.

Kafka said that he starts a couple of acres worth of onions in February, but "sometimes I’ll wait a week or two if we’re in a cold snap. Once the plants are up, I turn the thermostat down at least 15 degrees. They get the warmth during the day. In warmer climates they’re out in the field all winter. They react to light, so once they’re going, I don’t worry about them even freezing in the greenhouse."

Efficient Wood Stoves

Regarding replacing an old wood stove with a cleaner-burning newer one, participants said that catalytic converters on wood stoves are now out of favor, since secondary burners have eliminated much of the pollutants associated with burning wood; and that stoves that burn pellets made from sawdust are very clean, with no smoke coming out of the chimney. One participant has a wood furnace connected to an oil furnace, so that when the wood furnace is being used, its heat can be distributed throughout the house.

Energy Use in Farming

To reduce energy use in farming, participants suggested using solar powered tractors or horses on the farm; or reducing the cultivated area by using biointensive planting and substituting human labor for a tractor. Permanent beds can reduce energy use but require the right tractor and the right tools. Ripping rather than plowing land can save fuel, as can combining as many operations as possible into one pass over a field. (This reduces soil compaction too.)

Carol Bryant of Scythe Supply (scythesupply.com) noted that her business has sold this "human powered machine" that "runs on breakfast" to someone in every state in the nation except North Dakota.

For irrigation, growers can use gravity rather than a pump to move water (as when flooding a cranberry bog).

Jo Barrett of King Hill Farm questioned the wisdom of extending the growing season. We’ve been told, she said, that consumers want tomatoes in June, "but the energy costs here in Maine are massive… Can’t we educate [customers] that seasonal eating is better?" Another added that CSAs can develop a good core of people who can be educated. Also, people can be encouraged to preserve foods, and the best thing to do is encourage home gardening. Farmers benefit when more people garden: They can sell seedlings and seeds to gardeners, supply them with vegetables when their gardens aren’t producing, or offer space-inefficient vegetables, such as sweet corn.

More Ways to Conserve Energy

Farmer to Farmer participants offered other energy-saving ideas:

Food:

  • Grow your own food in the garden; be a homesteader first and a farmer second.
  • Provide non-canned food to a food pantry.

Home and heat:

  • Build a very small house.
  • Shut down half the house in the winter.
  • Keep the thermostat low.
  • Live in a passive solar, super-insulated house heated with a wood-burning cook stove; insulate an older home.
  • Potato storage surrounding a house is a good insulator (and the heat given off by potatoes can be enough to heat a modern storage facility).
  • Install solar panels and feed excess energy into the grid. The delivery cost for electricity is 17 cents/kwh (on top of the cost of producing the electricity), so the economics of generating power on site with solar panels is attractive. Maine has a rebate program for solar installations.
  • Heat with a wood pellet or masonry stove, or with waste vegetable oil.
  • Harvest firewood from your own woodlot.
  • Burn propane; it’s better for the environment.
  • Put your water heater on a timer, having it on for a few hours in the morning and evening.
  • Replace an inefficient furnace with a newer one.
  • Put plastic on windows.
  • Wear layers of clothing.
  • Use compact fluorescent lights.

Transportation:

  • Work at home.
  • Live in town or in a city.
  • Walk or ride a bicycle; "Make conscious decisions; bike everywhere."
  • Drive a hybrid or a car powered by waste vegetable oil.
  • Insist on carpools.
  • Advocate for public transportation. Take the train, bus or subway whenever possible. Maine needs more public transportation, at least in Portland and Bangor.

General:

  • Discuss in schools the choices we make about consumption.

Sidebars

Midwest Farmers Harvest Wind Energy

The wind industry wants to double the U.S. capacity for generating wind power to 6 percent of the nation's electricity by 2020, and farmers in the Midwest are in a good position to contribute to that supply, reports a Reuters article carried by Environmental News Network. Much of the Midwest is home to strong and frequent winds, and state legislatures in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin have mandated that utilities use renewable energy sources and offer tax incentives for wind farming. Illinois farmer Dennis Cradduck and eight of his neighbors collectively lease 63 turbines on 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans to Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy. The farm generates enough electricity to power up to 15,000 homes for a year, and the local utility pays $1,500 to $2,000 a year for each turbine, depending on the amount of energy generated.

Source: ATTRA Weekly Harvest Newsletter, Nov. 16, 2005; www.attra.org.

Report Details Potential for Biofuels and Wind

A new report says that biofuels and wind power together have strong potential to replace gasoline and revitalize rural communities. "The New Harvest: Biofuels and Wind Power for Rural Revitalization and National Energy Security" was co-authored by Climate Solutions' Research Director Patrick Mazza and Energy Foundation President Eric Heitz. The report contains findings that show advanced biofuels made from plant matter including grasses and crop residues can replace gasoline in the U.S. light duty vehicle fleet by mid-century, and that one-quarter of the nation sustains wind speeds capable of generating competitively priced electricity. The report (at www.climatesolutions.org) offers public policy agendas to support the growth of wind power and advanced biofuels.

Source: ATTRA Weekly Harvest Newsletter, Nov. 30, 2005; www.attra.org.

Biomass Evaluated as Transportation Fuel

An article in the November issue of Environmental Health Perspectives reports on research by Oak Ridge National Laboratory that looked at the potential for biomass to fuel transportation. "Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: the Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply" was released in April 2005. According to the report, with some changes in land use and agricultural and forestry practices, American acreage could produce enough biomass to displace at least 30% of the country's current consumption of petroleum fuels by 2030. Advanced conversion technologies could raise the potential displacement total to 50 percent. The

report concluded that farms could potentially contribute 998 million dry tons of biomass annually, much in the form of crop residues such as corn stover and even perennial crops managed with no-till production techniques. The report noted that for sustainable production, biomass harvest should not diminish soil fertility or increase erosion.

Source: ATTRA Weekly Harvest Newsletter, Nov. 9, 2005; report at http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2005/113-11/spheres.html

The Debate Begins…

A feature article in Science News discusses methods and potential of using crops, municipal waste and other sources of biomass to make biofuels. Advantages include less dependence on foreign oil and lower emissions of pollutants than from gasoline. Problems include the high energy costs and environmental problems of raising corn. Using cellulosic biomass (corn husks, switchgrass, wood chips…) to produce ethanol is an alternative, since carbohydrates are more abundant than oils from plants, but making biomass from cellulose is not commercially viable yet. Technologies being developed may change the economics, but genetic engineering (creating microbes that can both break down cellulose and make ethanol) is one such technology. The article cites Pimentel’s work showing that producing ethanol from corn is uneconomical and environmentally problematic; as well as a University of Florida researcher’s calculation that supplying U.S. fuel needs with corn ethanol would require at least 60% of U.S. cropland. The article also cites critics who say that Pimentel’s analyses use outdated data; and says that the Sierra Club supports using cellulosic biomass rather than corn.

Source: "Growing Expectations," by Naila Moreira, Science News, Oct. 1, 2005.


    

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