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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How are farms and farmers dealing with climate change?
  -- Michael Harris, Lorton, VA

Agriculture may well be one of the industries hardest hit by the effects of global warming. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental advocacy group, reports that warming-related drought and flooding is already behind tens of billions of dollars in American agricultural losses annually. Given this growing threat, more and more farmers are looking to incorporate tools and techniques—let alone switch up what crops they grow—to be prepared for the big environmental changes already underway.

According to Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), some of the most promising warming-friendly farming technologies and practices include conservation tillage (stirring up the soil less), precision agriculture (which employs information technology to monitor crop development, refine soil inputs and optimize growing conditions), improved cropping systems (refining the sequence of which crops follow each other on a given piece of land), and anaerobic digestion of organic wastes (via capturing methane waste and turning it into useable energy).

NRDC has been working on sustainable agriculture for decades, and recently launched its Climate Resistant Farms campaign to focus on helping farmers roll with the punches of global warming through implementation of some of these new techniques. The group works directly with farmers to develop and share some of these best practices regarding soil health and water use.

“Climate change and extreme weather will likely have detrimental impacts on crop production, but farmers can use cover crops and other soil stewardship practices to make their farms more resilient to the climate change impacts already being felt and those likely to come in the years ahead,” reports NRDC. “Such practices can also help to reduce and capture the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.”

NRDC analyzed the carbon capture and water-holding benefits of soil stewardship methods to increase soil organic matter in the 10 highest-value-producing agricultural states in the U.S. They found that “using cover crops on just half of the acres devoted to the nation's two most ubiquitous crops—corn and soybeans—in those top 10 states could help capture more than 19 million metric tons of carbon each year and help soils retain an additional trillion gallons of water.”

But despite the benefits, fewer than seven percent of U.S. farms plant cover crops, while only one percent of total cropland nationally has them. NRDC would like to see the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP)—which is backed by U.S. taxpayers—offer discounts to farmers who implement cover crops “just as safe drivers can get discounts on their car insurance.”

“While the program was created to help farmers manage risk, premiums are set using a formula that fails to equip them for the challenges of climate change,” states NRDC. “Instead, the program spurs farmers to make risky production decisions.” NRDC points out that besides saving taxpayer dollars in insurance payouts, expanding climate-friendly agricultural practices helps “ensure a reliable food supply for the nation even in the face of more extreme weather and climate risks.”

CONTACTS: CSANR, csanr.wsu.edu; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What can we do to solve the e-waste problem caused by so many of us tossing our cell phones out and getting new ones every two years? -- Sandy Bartram, Beverly Hills, CA

As more and more of the world develops—and smartphones become ubiquitous—electronic waste (AKA “e-waste”) is a bigger problem than ever. Around the world, people generate some 50 million tons of e-waste every year, much of which ends up improperly disposed of in landfills where toxins common in electronics like lead, mercury and cadmium can leach out and contaminate surrounding soils and groundwater. Much of the remaining e-waste gets shipped off to developing countries happy to profit from taking others’ trash despite the environmental consequences, or even worse, just dumped illegally into the ocean.

But thanks to consumer pressure to do the right thing, most major electronics manufacturers have started to pay attention to the problem and take action to reduce the flow of e-waste. Apple, for instance, long targeted by Greenpeace and others for lack of concern about the environmental and health impacts of its sourcing and production processes, has made great strides in the last five years in recovering customers’ old products and reusing the constituent parts in new products. 

In 2015 alone, the company collected some 90 million pounds of Apple-branded e-waste, recovering upwards of 61 million pounds of material, including steel, plastics, glass, aluminum, copper, cobalt, zinc, lead, nickel, silver, tin and gold, to re-incorporate into new products. Environmental advocates who love their iPhones can sleep easier knowing that lead, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, PVC, phthalates and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are no longer welcome in or will soon be phased out of Apple’s supply chain.

But most of us upgrade our smartphones every two years, so that means that even today’s greener iPhones still contribute to the e-waste problem. That’s where Europe’s Fairphone comes to the rescue. By incorporating long-lasting design and fair-traded materials, ensuring good working conditions and making products that are fully recyclable, easy-to-fix and reusable, Fairphone hopes to revolutionize the smartphone market with its eco-conscious products.

As the electronics industry matures and moves toward more sustainable components, that combined with better design can also help reduce the steady stream of e-waste. For instance, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have come up with a way to extend the life and boost the productivity of lithium ion batteries—the standard power source in today’s electronics—by treating their electrodes with hydrogen. Such a development could be huge for preventing e-waste, given that most of us toss our old phones within two years when the battery inside starts to deteriorate and underperform.

Choosing carefully when it comes to selecting your next smartphone and recycling your old one for free at BestBuy or through its manufacturer are important first steps in becoming part of the solution to the growing problem of e-waste. Becoming an advocate by encouraging others to do the same is another way to greatly expand your positive impact. The non-profit e-Stewards program is dedicated to teaching people how to deal with used electronics—and individuals can pledge to become one of the program’s Envoys to help spread the word about the importance of reducing e-waste.

CONTACTS: Apple. www.apple.com; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Fairphone, www.fairphone.com; e-Stewards, www.e-stewards.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways people are using games to help reduce their carbon footprints? -- Leah McNeil, Colchester, CT

Environmental advocates and organizations are increasingly employing gamification—defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something...so as to encourage participation”—to get people to learn about environmental problems and take action to reduce their carbon footprints and overall impact.

To wit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ecoresearch.net and the DecareboNet research project have partnered on a “game” called Climate Challenge that gets everyday people to pit their predictions about climate change and its effects against the opinions of experts around the world in an effort to see if the “wisdom of the crowd” can come up with answers faster than the experts alone.

Players are encouraged to research answers to questions about things like annual Arctic Sea Ice minimum coverage or the monthly average global surface temperature before submitting their answers. According to Climate Challenge creators, it’s not cheating to research to find the best answers; indeed, it’s the goal.

Players can come back every month for new questions, and see how they are doing compared to experts, friends, and even the collective “crowd”—and can win prizes by guessing closest to the actual value for a given question each month.

Another game focused on educating people about climate change is EduCycle, from Finnish game designer Neste. The free augmented reality (AR) app encourages players to design a city’s transportation, buildings and farms while cutting greenhouse gas emissions to levels specified under the 2015 Paris climate accord. “By simulating the carbon cycle in real life,” Neste maintains, “the game teaches kids and adults about the effects of global warming.”

Save Ohno is a creative take on gamification for the sake of the climate, courtesy of concerned college student Dylan Husted. The main character in the free online game is Ohno, who represents the player’s great granddaughter and is impacted by climate change in the future thanks to our actions and behaviors today. On the game’s SaveOhno.org website, players can see Ohno’s town get destroyed by extreme weather. But when players take positive action in the real world, the conditions in Ohno’s online (future) town improve accordingly.

Players can improve Ohno’s world by following tasks suggested within the game, and can also plug in real world campaigns and activism they are involved with to improve Ohno’s town. “An example 'campaign' could be a petition to get your local school to invest in renewables,” says Husted.

Meanwhile, World Climate Simulation is a role-playing exercise whereby groups can take part in mock United Nations climate negotiations and learn what it’s like to work with others to craft global environmental policy. The game uses an interactive computer model that allows participants to find out how their proposed policies impact global climate in real-time. All the tools and materials for the World Climate Simulation are available for free and multiple languages are supported.

CONTACTS: Climate Challenge, www.ecoresearch.net/climate-challenge; EduCycle, www.neste.com/preorderthefuture; Save Ohno, www.saveohno.org; World Climate Simulation, www.climateinteractive.org/programs/world-climate.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in greener booze? Are there any good organic beers, wines or liquors out there? -- Mike Richardson, Norwalk, OH

Perhaps no other industry has responded to the greening of consumer preferences quite like beverage producers. From wine to beer to spirits, greener choices made from local and organic ingredients and packaged in lighter-weight containers abound. Indeed, getting a buzz on has never felt so good.
Brewers’ great contribution to the greening of the industry has been a renewed focus on localization. Back in the 1980s, there were less than 100 breweries across the U.S., most of them part of big multi-national corporations. But today Americans have upwards of 5,000 breweries at their beck and call, many which source ingredients from nearby farms and save money and greenhouse gas pollution by not shipping their products out of their local region.

Besides local sourcing and distribution, hundreds of brewers across the country are also going green by choosing organic barley and hops. Some labels to look for in sustainable beer include Peak Organic and Brooklyn Brewery, both based out of New York, and Colorado-based New Belgium.

For its part, the wine industry has made great strides in recent years by upping its production of organic wines, too. Frey Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate, Porter Creek, Cain, Ernest Vineyards and Pacific Rim are just a few of the U.S. based winemakers embracing organically grown grapes.

Winemakers are also showing green leadership through product packaging, with many eschewing glass bottles in favor of cardboard boxes or plastic-reinforced Tetra Paks. Not only does the process of creating traditional wine bottles emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, the weight of the glass also adds markedly to transportation emissions—nearly half of the products’ weight is in the bottles themselves.

Wine blogger Tyler Colman of DrVino.com estimates that boxed wine generates about half the greenhouse gas emissions per 750 mL as wine in glass bottles. That said, Tetra Paks aren’t so easy to recycle and thus are more likely to be tossed into landfill-bound trash than their glass counterparts. But aficionados skeptical of wine in a box might want to taste test French Rabbit’s Pinot Noir, created from organic ingredients and looking svelte in its Tetra Pak.

When it comes to sustainability, hard liquor may be the last to the party but is rallying hard to catch up. Mexico’s Tequila Ocho, for instance, lets some of the agave plants on its Puerta del Aire
ranch reach full flower—a process that can take up to eight years and makes the plants no longer able to produce tequila—for the sake of local endangered bat populations that depend on healthy, flowering agave plants to thrive.

Meanwhile, California’s Square One not only uses organic grains in its vodka but sources a significant amount of the electricity needed in its production facilities from a local wind farm. Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark uses locally sourced grains in its famous bourbon and converts production waste into energy to power its distillery. And Puerto Rico’s DonQ rum composts its waste and uses run-off to irrigate its fields while powering its still with excess steam from its treatment plant.

CONTACTS: Tetra Pak, www.tetrapak.com; French Rabbit, www.frenchrabbit.com; Frey Vineyards, www.freywine.com; Dr. Vino, www.drvino.com; Tequila Ocho, www.ochotequila.com; Square One, www.squareoneorganicspirits.com; DonQ Rum, www.donq.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit .www.earthtalk.org Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .


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