29 March 2010

farmers in the windy city

Long silence I know - I have been travelling but more on that later. I'm posting from The Windy City on this fine Sunday afternoon. Today I decided to do an off-beat thing and check out the local Winter Farmer's Market. This is the first farmer's market that I have been to in America and it was a good experience. Being indoors, it wasn't massive and the perfect size so you don't get overwhelmed. Upon entering you are immediately assaulted with delicious smells of cinnamon and herbs. I later followed my nose to the smell of cinnamon and found a farmer selling organic apple cider donuts and promptly gave in.

The string band that was playing provided a lively, country feel to the proceedings. I was surprised at the amount of organic produce on offer - apples, mushrooms, honey, herbs etc. A few of the farmers I spoke to were very upfront with the fact that they did not want to eat chemically treated, processed food and were very concerned about human, animal and environmental well-being. Many of the produce were also converted into home-made pickle, jam, pasta, salsa, bread etc - all laden with organic, natural goodness without of a trace of chemicals in sight.

I also met a free range meat farmer who had grass-fed beef on offer - much healthier than the grain-fed, hormone-pumped options found in regular supermarkets. He also had free range chicken and pork on offer. There was another farmer with free range eggs and yogurt, milk, ice-cream on offer. There were plenty of food samples to go around as well as things like organic tea and bread which you could buy. One of the couples that I spoke to were based outside the city and kept bees. In addition to harvesting their own honey, they also made products from bee-wax like lip balm, soap etc. Another farmer was selling fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, sage etc - I resisted the temptation to buy it all and reined myself enough to only walk away with a heavenly smelling pot of basil.

In a country full of super-processed, chemical laden food with a penchant for over-eating and obesity; a farmer's market in a small testament that America is finally learning to eat right. I have noticed this time around that there are a lot more organic produce on super-markets shelves, better labeling and healthier food choices. The rest I believe, will follow - hopefully soon.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

07 March 2010

pale blue dot

Photo Courtesy: NASA ©

The images of the Indian Ocean and North America were produced by researches at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center using images from the Terra satellite more than 700km above the Earth's surface. This is part of the Blue Marble series which is pieced together from thousands of images taken over many months by the satellite's remote-sending device Modis, of every square kilometer of the Earth's surface. These are the most true-colour images of the Earth released to date.

Looking at these images I can't help but recall Carl Sagan's words from his book 'Pale Blue Dot'. It is also the name of a photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager I in 1990 from a record distance . It features the Earth as a small blue dot in the black vastness of space suspended on a sunbeam. Below is an excerpt on the subject from a public talk he gave at Cornell University on October 13, 1994.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ’superstar,’ every ’supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I'm posting this here today to remind us why we do what we do.

03 March 2010

eating the rainforest

Photo Courtesy: Lush Cosmetics. Wash your hands off palm campaign

I have been thinking about how to talk about palm oil without actually saying, "Save the Orangutans" - I have previously mentioned and believe that conservation efforts should be based on economic facts rather than the sympathy factor.

First of all, it must be said that palm oil is everywhere. Up until 2008 in the lead up to the famous Greenpeace campaign against Dove, palm oil was thought to be found only in cosmetics. Today however, palm oil is being used widely in the food industry as well. There is no requirement for it to be labelled 'palm oil' and manufacturers can get away with labeling it 'vegetable oil'. According to Palmoilaction - it is being used in products by Sara Lee, Cadburys, Pringles, KFC, Maggie Noodles etc. The most recent Greenpeace campaign video (below) highlights use of palm oil in Nestle Kit-Kat Bars. I wonder how these companies justify this in their CSR policies.

A previous post on wide-scale deforestation in Indonesia talks mainly about illegal timber. Palm oil means even more money than timber to some people. Global demand for palm oil is now more than 40 million tons per year making it the mainstay of Indonesian and Malaysian economy. Much of the land used for the cultivation of palm oil was former rain-forest. The destruction of rain-forests not only means habitat destruction but loss of valuable carbon sinks.

China, India and other emerging markets are the biggest buyers of palm oil. Since it is a cheap form of vegetable oil containing no trans-fats, it is used widely in food preparations. It is also a feasible source of bio-diesel - the irony is not lost to me. There have been several reports stating that preservation of rain-forests mean more money than its destruction but palm oil means the money comes quicker. Intact rain-forests contribute in many ways to a nation's economy by means of eco-tourism, carbon finance, etc.

A study in Conservation Letters last month estimated that if REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is included in a cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions, payments for "avoided deforestation" could range between $1,500 and $11,800 per hectare, depending on when the carbon credits are allocated and sold. In comparison, the oil palm market was estimated to generate a net present value between $3,800 and $9,600 per hectare over a 30-year period.

Although a vast proportion of the Indonesian economy is dependent on palm oil, there is a way to make it more sustainable and the key here lies in increasing productivity in the areas already under cultivation without destroying new forests. How is this possible? Consumer awareness. When demand for palm oil reduces, the destruction of forests for oil will taper off. When this kicks in and carbon finance money is paid out, some of this will be invested into sustainable options thereby uplifting people out of poverty.

I honestly do believe that people living in crushing poverty do not destroy the environment out of malice but simply because they have no choice. Unless nations that are better-off demand that exploitation cannot continue, local governments of poorer countries will not seek alternatives. A seemingly micro-issue like palm oil is connected to the much larger macro-issue of food production, global warming and the global economy. The next time you go shopping consider this: you might be eating the rain-forest without even knowing about it.

Oh! and Save the Orangutans...