How Do Organic Farmers Use Technology?

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By Hunter Richards

Demand is on the rise for organic produce. A survey by the Organic Trade Association found that sales revenue from organic food in the U.S. had exploded to $25 billion by 2009 - twenty-five times that of 1990.

Organic farmers can’t use the same technology as conventional farmers - like pesticides and genetic engineering - to increase yields. There’s a misconception that they stubbornly shun technology, preferring age-old tradition over modern methods. But it’s not true. These farmers can use their understanding of natural processes - the mating habits of pests, for example - to optimize yields and care for their crops. The surprising results can make you wonder where to draw the line between technology and nature.

Organic Solutions: Software and Beyond

Jeff Birkby, Outreach Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, recognizes technology’s broad potential: “To me, technology is neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s applied that makes the difference.”

There must be a way for technology to help organic farmers. I began researching this article with software in mind because, unlike pest removal chemicals and other conventional farming technologies, data management tools don’t directly affect crops - organic farmers are free to use them. And the systems are certainly there - Farmigo for business data management is one example. The Georgia Institute of Technology is even developing a new user interface for soil moisture data software.

But I became fascinated at how organic farmers can apply specialized technology in their fields rather than just in the office. Unlike their conventional counterparts, organic farming technologies cooperate with ecosystems. It made me question the definition of technology.

Can Technology and Nature Cooperate?

Ted Quaday, Communications Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, clarified the issue when I spoke to him. “We’re taking new knowledge, new information, and transferring that into real practical solutions in the farm field . . . is that new, innovative technology? I would argue that it is.”

According to the definition that I found on Merriam-Webster’s website, Ted’s right:

tech·nol·o·gy (noun, \tek-ˈnä-lə-jē\) - the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area.

Who said technology had to involve spinning blades and steel? Organic farmers use new research in the field - it’s an alternative type of technology.

The Trade-offs of Technology

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers save time and labor in conventional farming practices. But the resulting efficiency comes at a cost. The production, transport, and use of these substances threatens water quality and leaves a sinister carbon footprint. The runoff causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, draining oxygen from the surrounding area and killing nearby fish.

With more natural farming methods, organic farms avoid damaging the environment. These examples reveal how technology can help, even while adapting to natural processes:

Fertilization and Yield

To increase yields, conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers. But mechanical tools can be suitable alternatives. The roller crimper, a device dragged by a tractor through alfalfa and hay fields during harvest, breaks down the cell walls of plant stems to accelerate decomposition. This man-made tool increases soil fertility by speeding up the natural decomposition process - without artificial chemicals.

Another simple innovation that can increase yield quantity in organic farms is the hoop house, which is very much like a greenhouse - only easier, faster, and cheaper to build. Consisting of raised beds in a walled-off piece of land, it extends the growing season by protecting crops from bad weather and keeping them warm. More crops can then be produced for the local market, avoiding the need to import them from another location (which cuts down on potential carbon emissions). This research-oriented improvement helps farmers increase yields and benefit financially in a clean way.

Pest and Weed Control

Conventional farmers use potent substances in apple orchards to get rid of codling moths, tent caterpillars and other destructive pests. Organic farmers can’t use these chemicals because of their destructive side effects, but there are alternatives. Surround, a type of biodegradable clay, can be sprayed on apples to confuse insects. Once affected, pests no longer recognize the apples as food. The clay washes off and dissolves in rain, with none of the harmful effects of the more conventional methods.

Thanks to a better understanding of insect mating habits and chemistry, farmers can target and destroy pest populations without even touching the crops and soil. They can set up sticky traps, coated with female pheromones, that attract male flies and maggots. When they come in to mate, they become trapped and eventually die. Understanding the chemistry and deploying these traps required new research and designs, so it’s clearly a form of technology. It’s just not the giant robot with chainsaw hands that we all tend to imagine.

A Delicate Balance

Pure technology or not, organic farmers can merge nature and human creation to improve efficiency and protect produce. Adhering to strict standards has forced organic farming into creative action. Nature and technology, two apparently polar opposites, have seldom shared such a symbiotic relationship.

This was post was written by Hunter Richards, who blogs for Software Advice. The original article can be found here - Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy?

Image credit: Unsplash

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Cracking the Code: The Essence of Sustainable Development

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It’s hardly news that after more than two decades of talk about the need for sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership.

For the first time, a condensed & balanced triple-bottom-line set of defining articles, collectively entitled The Fractal Frontier - Sustainable Development Trilogy, is now available for your review. The trilogy examines the reasons for our past failures, a new scientific basis for the essence of achieving sustainable development in the future, the nine universal principles that must be built into any sustainable project, ways to educate, plan and lead teams to achieve sustainable results, and much more.

SLDI News & Commentary Update: Developing a Sustainable Oregon Coast 

The southern coast of Oregon is a rare place on earth, where beautiful wild & scenic rivers tumble down through steep canyons, and the tallest and largest carbon-sequestering forests in the world on their way to a rocky coastline with wide stretches of sandy beach, before pouring out into the mighty Pacific ocean. Along the rugged coast are picturesque working ports, made of hillside homes, small waterfront cafe’s, vibrant art communities, and more parks per mile than anywhere in the USA.

The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT) has a mission to engage Port Orford fishers and other community members in developing and implementing a Port Orford Community Stewardship Area Plan that ensures the long-term sustainability of the Port Orford reef ecosystem and social system dependent on it. The Redfish Rocks area south of Port Orford has been designated a pilot marine reserve and a broader area of some 30 miles in length along the southern Oregon coast forming a unique 935-square-mile land and sea stewardship area is to protect terrestrial, freshwater, intertidal and ocean reserves. This model sustainability initiative is a prime example of a trend described in the current Oregon Planners Journal entitled Ecosystem Services: A new approach to planning that can help the profession to plan sustainably.

On February 11th, POORT will hold its 3rd annual Land-Sea Connection workshop to share healthy best practices with proactive agencies, NGO's and local stakeholders to improve collaboration within the stewardship area and encourage implementation of the Port Orford Marine Economic Recovery Plan. Located in the stewardship area headwaters along a 1000’ ridgetop overlooking old growth forest and the marine reserve, Ocean Mountain Ranch is a SLDI carbon-negative project that will provide for long-term yield of high-quality hardwood, softwood, and wildlife habitat while serving as a model organic forestry/grazing operation incorporating residential, agricultural, educational, recreational, and industrial activities to promote sustainable land development best practices on the southern Oregon coast by mixing nature, tradition, and economics for a sustainable future. You can watch a documentary preview of this ground-breaking eco-forestry project here.

Financing for ecosystem services is beginning to emerge from some compassionate climate capitalists who have been seeking out carbon offset projects that not only reduce carbon emissions but also have significant social, economic and/or environmental benefits in the communities where the projects are developed. These projects are often referred to as having co-benefits or some call them charismatic projects.  Charismatic carbon projects are poised to experience significant growth because there is increasing demand from offset buyers because companies that buy charismatic offsets gain more brand value for buying them than if they had just bought garden variety offsets.

Feature Publication

The Fractal Frontier - Sustainable Development Trilogy 

This trilogy of articles examines the essence of sustainability and presents some new perspectives on achieving sustainable results. Part I – Designing a Big Wheel for Civilization explores our checkered history regarding sustainability and provides a foundation of understanding for the future. Part II – Like Life Itself, Sustainable Development is Fractal presents new scientific understandings of economics, nature and social psychology and their impacts on sustainable development. Part III – The Universal Principles of Sustainable Development begins the process of defining the requisite outcomes in order to achieve sustainable results on any project.

Pass It Forward 
In the Pass-It-Forward spirit, SLDI is gifting the information in the document, along with the SLDI Code sustainable development matrix, on behalf of the sustainable land development industry, to anyone interested in collaborating to achieve sustainable results. 

It is important to note that the information contained in the document is universal in its application and need not be confined to land development projects.

Your participation and comments are welcome.

Image credit: Jesse Gardner via Unsplash

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Walmart's Geo Girl: Eco-Friendly Cosmetics for 8- to 12-Year-Olds

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Walmart is rolling out Geo Girl, a new line of cosmetics in recyclable packaging for tweens (8- to 12-year-old girls) in March 2011. Walmart has hit all the cosmetic buttons: natural ingredients, sensitivity to young skin, low price point and recyclable packaging. It sounds good, except the target audience age range. Should 8- to 12-year-olds wear cosmetics?
 
If you are talking about the occasional silly dress-up day with friends where they paint each other’s faces at home and wash it off before going outside, then I can see using it sparingly for that purpose (didn’t we all love to do that?) However, Joel Carden, executive vice president, marketing and sales for Pacific World says, “These are real cosmetics with natural ingredients that will create return purchases and create a true beauty consumer.” Translated that means that Walmart wants to cash in on the reported $2 billion tween market, so most likely they will not be promoting the occasional dress-up day, but daily use – otherwise there wouldn’t be those frequent repeat sales.
 
Among the 69 Geo Girl product offerings are blush, mascara, face shimmer, and lipstick as well as anti-aging products (no details on what those are). Why would an 8-year-old (or 10- or 12-year-old) need blush or mascara, not to mention an anti-aging product? The most common reasons women wear makeup are: to look attractive; to feel more confident; to look younger (mature women); to look older (teens); to hide blemishes, wrinkles, bags under the eyes, etc.; and to be sexually appealing. Of course there is nothing wrong with adult women wearing makeup, but for which of these reasons should tweens wear cosmetics?

Encouraging repeat sales of an essentially unnecessary product for this age range, eco-friendly packaging or not, is still environmentally unfriendly. All those used up tubes and jars have to go somewhere. During this past holiday season much ado was made about not buying in excess and not buying unneeded products. Although Geo Girl will sell in the $3.99 to $5.99 range, cosmetics for tweens could be seen as an extraneous line item in the household budget.

Studies show that girls are susceptible to body image issues and developing low self-esteem, as well as being confronted with issues about dating and sex at younger and younger ages. The NYU Child Study Center (NYUCSC) reports that girls’ self esteem peaks when they are about 9 years old and then declines steeply. 20 to 40 percent of girls begin dieting at age 10. As early as age 10, girls are faced with “teen” issues such as dating and sex, and 73 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds dress like teens and talk like teens. 
  Why does self-esteem drop? The NYUCSC says that starting in these pre-teen years girls become hyper-aware of their bodies and equate them to their perceived worth to others. Their self-esteem is tied to physical attributes and appearance, and girls feel like they can’t measure up to society’s standards.

While Geo Girl isn’t the first cosmetic line to be marketed to tweens, there is a disturbing trend in product marketing to treat this age group as older and more sexualized than they should be. If you walk down the girls' aisle at any major department store, you’ll see narrowly-cut, tight-fitting clothing, belly-baring fashion trends, shirts that emphasize developing breasts and high-heeled shoes - all in sizes for girls as young as 5 or 6.

Promoting “beauty care” to tweens says that 8- to 12-year-old girls are not attractive without looking sexy. Tampa dermatologist Dr. Seth Forman has spoken out against the line claiming that it not only focuses on superficial looks at a crucial age, but the skin care products themselves could harm young skin. Psychiatrist Dr. Henry Paul cautions that the use of makeup can sometimes be addictive, resulting in girls who are addicted to being "beautiful" and don't see themselves as anything else which can lead to an erosion of self-esteem in the long run. 

Of course, parents play a huge role in building girls’ self-esteem and combating the relentless sexualization and unattainable body images girls are bombarded by in the media every day. It is also, ultimately, a parent’s decision whether their tween daughter buys and wears Geo Girl. Cosmetics, themselves, aren’t evil. It’s all in the message they can send to young girls who are already struggling to maintain their self-esteem, compounded by a society that seems determined to cut their childhood short.

Image credit: Unsplash

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Uh-O Organics: The Double-Edged Sword of Sustainable Food Gone Mainstream

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While much of the conversation at the Sustainable Food Summit focused on tools, resources, information-sharing and partnerships to help companies bolster their sustainability efforts, the old David vs. Goliath scenario inevitably reared its ugly – but organic! – head.

Safeway, the national grocery chain, continues to develop its own brands to compete in the organic and health and wellness categories. The recognizable O Organics line contains over 300 products and Eating Right (“nutritional”) and Bright Green (home care products) are also part of the healthier mix. In the last 90 days, the retailer has introduced two new green-minded product lines: In-Kind (+90% natural personal care products) and Open Nature (100% natural meats and poultry). Although the term “100% natural” is not a true certification (and, frankly, doesn’t carry any weight with the converted), many consumers don’t know any better. It is these less savvy shoppers to whom the store caters, as Safeway learned through research that 90% of consumers acknowledge a link between diet and health. And so it continues to pursue market share.


The company’s strategy “to make high quality organics affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere” is having an impact on more than just the consumer. Safeway claims that consumers find the organic market cluttered and confusing, with a multitude of niche brands. Moreover, they think it’s too expensive. So the grocer is addressing these concerns by limiting choice and lowering price. How does it limit choice? Well, if the O Organics line is next to a comparable organic product that costs more, consumers primarily concerned with price will likely by the O Organics line. As this continues to happen, the retailer will determine that people don’t want to buy the other organic product and drop it from its inventory, thereby effectively forcing out smaller organic brands; while Safeway is increasing access to organics, it’s also decreasing access to the larger organic market. And let’s not forget that the more products they introduce into limited shelf real estate, the more products they have to remove.

While it’s easy to hate on the big guys in favor of the small guys, this situation does present a conundrum. Yes, it is good for the planet if more people have access to organic, healthier products. In-Kind products don’t contain parabens, pthalates or petroleum based products, to name a few. It’s incredible to see how many high-end brands can’t say as much. The problem is that by making it about price, Safeway is undercutting small brands much like subsidies undercut small farmers and, according to the presenter from Organic Valley, only less than 5% of US farmers (or under 100,000) are not subsidized. (Moreover, it's these very subsidies that make organic products seem "expensive" to consumers when really their prices reflect the true cost of production.) This sad fate of the American farmer does not bode well for the small organic players who have paved this path from niche to mainstream with innovative approaches; they created the demand that Safeway is now intent on meeting.

We’re finally at the tipping point, but now what do we do? How can we increase access to organic and sustainable products without repeating a tragic history that already plagues our food system?

Image credit: Artur Rutkowski and Monstruo Estudio via Unsplash

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Green Lifestyle Expert Recommends Paper Plates to Save Water, We Say Nonsense

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Disposable dinnerware and utensils have progressed since the limited selection of plastic, paper and polystyrene options of a generation ago.  Walk into any Whole Foods and their options include food containers, napkins, dinnerware, and forks made out of recycled or plant-based materials.  Then there are the sturdier and thicker options made out of plastic that supposedly can be used more than once, but often end up in the trash after one use.

Plastic utensils and paper plates will always be around, and are sometimes unavoidable.  The use of potato starch based forks and spoons are a great step; whether many actually get composted is up to debate.

So what is better for the pocketbook or the planet:  paper plates or ceramic plates?  The downside to the use of ceramic plates is that they have got to be washed, and no water-free cleaning system has come around yet--and probably never will.  Paper plates of course do not need to be washed, but then there is the waste issue.  Well, one green “celebrity” site has decided that paper plates are the way to go.

According to a noted personality who has a segment on blog talk radio, the use of paper plates “can help curve” the problem of water conservation.  After all, washing dishes is a huge waste of water, while paper plates nix that issue.  Furthermore, paper plates can be tossed into the recycling bin.  Finally, the use of paper plates would make restaurants more “sterile” . . . no word yet whether Spago or the French Laundry were ready to switch to Dixie plates and cups.  Another problem with the use of ceramic plates or stainless utensils is that unless they are washed completely, germs can spread not washed at a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit; therein lies another problem, the use of hot water and the energy used to heat it.

So in a society where “celebrity-itis” leads C-listers to give purportedly sound advice on losing weight, exercise, losing weight, adopting children from developing countries, losing weight, and go green while flying in private jets, we at Triple Pundit want to call this tidbit of green advice out.

So to address the question of ceramic vs. paper:  ceramic all the way.  True, any ceramic or metal item has a “carbon footprint,” though the manufacture and delivery of the item are one-off events.  After they are purchased, it is true that the plates have to be washed--but hand washing and dishwashers, which have become more energy and water efficient, mitigate those effects.  Common sense like not running the dishwasher with only a cup and plate inside should have set into our routines a long time ago.  As for the threat of bacteria spreading, most likely you will not have an issue unless we are talking about some horrible threat like cholera.  Chances are the way your parents and grandparents taught you about cleanliness and hygiene still apply today.

As for the paper plates and similar disposable items, you are talking about transporting those goods again and again over long distances.  Recycling may appear to be the easy way out for the disposal of those plastic forks and paper plates.  Depending on where you live, however, such recycling may never occur.  Paper plates, if soiled, often cannot be recycled.  Many paper plates have coatings that make it impossible to reprocess.  Not all grades of plastic can be recycled.  And even if your community could recycle each and every disposable fork or cup, they still require energy--and water--to create new batches of paper or plastic goods.  Then we have the issue of landfills and the methane gases the result from millions of tons of garbage simmering over hundreds of years.

Marketing and branding professionals have done a good job convincing us that bottled water, disposable goods, hand sanitizers, and yes, even paper plates are necessary because of their convenience and cleanliness.  But even if you do not want to buy all the ecological, environmental, sustainable--whatever words you choose as your poison--the fact is that there is a huge financial benefit to reducing the amount of disposable goods in your home or office.

So let us give you some advice:  with all the messages out there, if you want to save money and reduce your impact on the planet, think single purchase, not single use.

Image credit: Marco Verch/Flickr

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