J500 Media and the Environment

Food, Service and Industry

Farms are magical places. No matter what season it is, something is happening. In winter, you plan; in spring, you plant; in summer, you grow; in fall, you harvest. Through working with Douglas County Food Policy Council I learned how busy farmers stay keeping up with nature’s cycles. We can’t control the elements, but we can help them out keeping our soil and water clean.

For the most part, Douglas County has great soil. This (and a local market) encourages farmers to start new operations or continue with old ones.  After I interviewed farmers I learned that soil is a resource that can be easily tainted. Chemical runoff from neighbors and erosion from heavy wind and rain constantly irritate farmers. If we want our rich soil to stay valuable we–as a community–need to have a no-nonsense approach to chemical pollution of our soil and streams.

Through my interviews I learned that water is another vital resource. Every farm I visited had a different water source. One had a spring-fed well. Two farmers got county water from Clinton Lake. The last one I talked to had no choice but to collect rainwater for plants (her well water was too salty and her land was not near a water line).

Preserving this water and soil is essential to a local food system. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides decrease our farmers’ ability to succeed. Without water nothing can grow (including ourselves). We have to protect water sources as the wells of our livelihood.

Development is another issue. As the City Commission approves farmland for business parks they must think of consequences. Charlie Novogradac’s chestnut grove, near the Lawrence airport, is at risk of flooding if development continues. It’s because he has low-lying land; his neighbors are at higher elevations. If the areas above him don’t have open ground to soak in rain it will rush downhill and drown his trees. This is hardly the thank you note he deserves for providing the Lawrence area with organic nuts for over 10 years.

Community support is something that all farmers appreciated. It is what they need to sell their product. To grow community support, we should start an education mission for local foods. We need to get into grade schools, high schools and college campuses in the area. Big farms spend millions of dollars in advertising every year; we need our local government to step up and spend to promote our local growers.

The parking lot for the Farmers’ Market is an example of support. But a small one. We need to see gardens in abandoned city lots. Get the commissioners to tend to a garden. We need to get local food visible. If every citizen is a small-scale producer then we will be more apt to buy local when we can’t grow it ourselves. We have to start spoiling ourselves when it comes to local, organic food.

Farmers work hard enough to maintain resources. Through working with the DCFPC I learned most of all that local food needs all of our help. We have to contribute to reap its delicious rewards.

We need to start serving those who serve us.

The Wakarusa River (via Clinton Lake) provides most county farm water. We need to protect our water and soil to ensure a local food system for Douglas County. SOURCE-flickr.com

Sean T.

Organic Pet Food?
  • Wysong offers organic cat food in a bag that preserves freshness. SOURCE- Sean Tokarz
  • Organic product sales are rising. Out of the people I know who buy organic, only a few are willing to spend extra for organic pet food. Why is that, I ask them? Some say they never thought of it. Some people say jokingly that their pets don’t mind the taste. Almost all agree that it’s because they think the costs outweigh the benefits.

    My cat Bootsy was out of food so I decided to get some organic cat food. I tried Wysong‘s Vitality Feline Diet. It costs more per pound than Bootsy’s old Purina but the pieces seemed heartier. I looked at the ingredients and it contained less animal by-product and corn substance. It also contained more chicken and looked grainier. Bootsy was in love with it, but I wasn’t convinced yet.

    I called Wysong’s customer service line to ask if their product was better. Betty, the representative, said that she thought it was better because it had more nutrients and less chemicals than conventional pet food. She said that just as I felt peppier after eating organic food, so do pets notice small changes. A shinier coat and more energy are things she specifically noted.

    Since Wysong’s feed doesn’t have preservatives it means that less foreign chemicals enter the animal’s body. This is important because chemical preservatives can hurt pets–especially when combined with pesticide residue. Betty also mentioned less “filler.” Filler is the term for non-protein matter in pet food, mostly corn-based. She closed with saying that organic food was worth trying to see how a pet responds.

    In fairness, I called Purina‘s customer representative. Bootsy has eaten their kitten chow for most of his life so I was interested to hear their opinion. The service representative assured me that the food had “complete 100% nutrition” because of its balance of protein and carbohydrates. The second-most ingredient is corn meal, which seemed unnatural to me. The representative said that cats needed this for carbohydrate energy.

    I asked about animal by-products. Were they safe? Why don’t humans eat them? The representative said animal by-products were a natural choice for pets because they are hunters. When they catch something, he said, they eat the whole thing–livers and intestines included. So even though eating chemical-treated gizzards regularly is harmful for humans, our pets should be okay.

    To round out the representatives’ biases I talked to a local veterinarian. Dr. Matt Coles at the Animal Hospital of Lawrence said that dietary needs vary from pet to pet.

    He said that better quality food does make animals feel better. But he also said that pets have very adjustable stomachs. If a pet is sensitive and has an “inflammatory condition” a certain diet may agitate cancer. If the pet is not sensitive, the quality of food is not as important.

    According to Dr. Coles, dental disease and obesity are the worst health conditions for cats. Dental disease comes from too much sugar in a diet (whether from wet food or…too much corn!). Obesity stems mostly from overfeeding pets, not the actual pet food.

    Dr. Coles said that once cats are a year old they should be fed a certain amount each day. When they’re allowed to eat freely is when Dr. Coles sees “cats that are 20 pounds and have diabetes.”

    So, if you want your cat to feel rejuvenated spend extra money on organic feed. You don’t have to do it every time but everybody likes a treat. Just don’t treat them too much or you’ll be spending extra for Diabetic Cat Chow in a few years.

    Dr. Matt Coles said sugar content and amount fed are bigger factors with cat food than whether it's organic or not. SOURCE - photopost.com

    Sean T.

    Faucets, Swimming Pools and Stomachaches

    “Don’t drink the water!” The only time I’ve heard those words were near a swimming pool. After an early experiment with trying to drink pool water I learned its truth. Whether it’s the little kids or the chlorine, pool water makes you sick.

    After looking into the Lawrence Public Works’ 2009 Water Quality Report I found that atrazine can cause reproductive cancer.  As I scrolled through the list of other contaminants in Lawrence water I wondered which might be dangerous. Nothing caught my attention until  I noticed our chlorine levels are .2 parts per million (ppm) more than the legal limit.

    This is frightening because according to the U.S. Council of Environmental Quality, “Cancer risk among those drinking chlorinated water is 93% higher than among those whose water does not contain chlorine.”

    The EPA set the legal limit (Maximum Contamination Level) for chlorine at 4 ppm. Any level above that is illegal. At 3.8 ppm, we have more chlorine in our water than almost any other chemical.  Clean pool water can upset the stomach and a swimming pool‘s levels are usually only 2-3 ppm.

    Masks like these were used against chlorine attacks during World War I. SOURCE – M17mask.com

    In World War I chlorine was the first poison gas used in warfare. It attacked soldiers’ respiratory systems and killed thousands within minutes. Such concentrated doses were rarely used since then but chlorine stayed around.

    Governments favored chlorine as a water disinfectant. With its help people stopped the persistence of typhoid and cholera. But they did so with risk.

    When the element enters a water system it breaks down into trihalomethanes, which are Class B carcinogens. Class B carcinogens are labeled such because they are known to cause cancer in animals, but not humans. (However, this doesn’t mean that a study was ever conducted on humans so to me it’s still possible.)

    A 1994 EPA study listed chlorine as “especially harmful” to soil and and marine life. It is intended to kill microorganisms; side-effects are expected. Rumored side-effects include skin irritation, colon cancer and other gastrointestinal complications. Chlorine seems to be most dangerous during its application, when workers are in direct contact with the substance.

    Why does Lawrence need so much chlorine in its water? Aurora Shields, Lawrence Water Quality Manager, said that though 3.8 ppm was the highest level Lawrence contamination averaged closer to 3 ppm. That is 3 milligrams of chlorine in every liter of water.

    Shields said the city used a safer ammonia-based hydrochlorite option instead of pure chlorine. The levels weren’t dangerous, she said, because they could be legally higher. Because of our utility infrastructure, Shields thinks chlorine is the only viable option for current water disinfection. She said that she feels safe drinking Lawrence tap water regularly.

    Chlorine manufacturers seem to be aware of their product’s negative light. Most chlorine mishaps happen en route to the water system so they focus on transportation safety. Compared with a direct leak of the chemical, chlorine contamination in water is negligible. I wonder if it’s this sort of relative situation (“At least it’s not a spill”) that keeps us satisfied with chlorine levels.

    Though chlorine protected us from cholera I don’t think we should use it because of past practice. Just as cholera is a former disease so should chlorination should be an former practice. Now we can clean our water with ozone filters and UV light. This would clean our water better and leave it healthier for future generations.

    Sean T.

    Chlorine is a deadly chemical that we expose ourselves to in small doses. Source- flikr.com

    More Atrazine Please!
    April 2, 2010, 2:39 pm
    Filed under: J500 Week 10 | Tags: , , , , ,

    Scrolling through the Lawrence Public Works Department’s water quality report I found one item frightening. Levels of atrazine in Lawrence are halfway to the legal limit. Some pollutants might not affect our health but I’ve found that atrazine is best avoided.

    Atrazine is the most widely-used pesticide in the world. Source – plantersproducts.com

    The EPA sets the Maximum Contamination Levels (MCLs) for pollutants in our drinking water. Ideally, the MCL is the most a person can daily consume of a pollutant without suffering “adverse health impacts.” The EPA can enforce the MCL legally if it is breached. Atrazine’s MCL is 3 parts per billion; the highest level found in Lawrence is 1.4 ppb.

    Syngenta, the company that makes atrazine, denies any negative health effects. It says the benefits of atrazine are “clear and substantial.” It is the most widely-used pesticide in the world. The EPA’s reports have found no glaring dangers but the agency are in the midst of redoing test work.

    Not all agree. Environmental Health Services reported that atrazine disrupts reproduction abilities in rats. The chemical lets off a stress signal that interrupts ovulation in females. When ovulation stops, reproduction can’t happen.

    Now, think of all of the women that live near farms (or within range of farm run-off). If they are constantly barraged with atrazine  in their soil or drinking water the same stress signals will be activated. The signals are not as intense as the rats’ but enough to complicate reproduction.

    As reproduction complications continue, cancer can develop. Prostate and breast cancer are cited as results of atrazine. Following the atrazine ban in the European Union, some Americans are taking steps to eradicate it from our agricultural diet.

    Charlie Novogradac doesn’t use pesticides on his chestnut trees. As co-owner and operator of Chestnut Charlie’s, Novogradac refuses to use chemicals like atrazine. He says he won’t use them because he knows it would hurt his soil and because he doesn’t want to expose himself. Novogradac mentioned that tree crops like chestnuts require less pesticides. He thinks tree crops serve as an alternative to chemical-laden corn or soybeans.

    Since atrazine has a carbon bond it persists in our environment. A new product could degrade active compounds in the soil. It’s an option for local government to consider if it wants to clean up the local water system. A local ban on atrazine might work but, because of it popularity the chances going statewide are not good.

    In the meantime, getting a clean source of water is important. Buying filtered water or buying a new water filter that works against atrazine are essential steps. Hopefully all farmers will say no to atrazine soon, but until then it’s up to us to  stay out of its path.

    Sean T.

    Suffocated By Plastic

    Continent-size collections of trash rotate in the Pacific. SOURCE-James Vito

    Shoes to sweatshirt to sunglasses, plastics are closer to me than I would prefer. Just as the Great Garbage Patches wreak havoc far in the Pacific Ocean I feel that plastics are trashing my food and clothes. 

     The sad part about plastic is that its built to last but usually only used once. Lunchbox sandwiches are covered in plastic wrap because a hundred feet of it costs a few dollars. Plastic is easy because there’s always more. Nevermind that it ends up in our food through leaching and bioaccumulation. Through emphasis on short-term, the process of making plastics adjusts our culture.

    The concept of one-time use starts with purchases but moves  into other aspects of our lives. It can make us throw away a dying plant; it can make us give up on a relationship sooner. Our culture of fast-paced gratification is shoddily crafted with BPA-laced support beams.

    Flavors abound but why is there no choice for containers? SOURCE-life.com

    Not to say that this culture isn’t firmly secure. Plastics are a fundamental material in most products we consume. At grocery stores, a layer of plastic encases almost every food–even when cardboard is there! Fresh vegetables must be bagged before most grocers will ring them up. Stacks of plastic soda 2 Liters remind us of the thousands of bottles that float through stores each day.

    How did this happen? When did this plastic safety net decide to wrap itself around our lives? Breaking a glass jar can be, well, jarring but do people really despise glass enough to banish it from the pantries of our society?

    The origin of plastic is gasoline. Oil companies cannot refine all of the crude oil it finds. The non-refinable matter (what doesn’t end up in our tanks)is turned into toys, tabletops and whatever else the consumer needs cheap and in mass quantities. In the battle against plastics, it appears the infrastructure is against us.

    The amount of plastic justifies its existence. By itself, an 8 oz. bottle of soda is a ridiculous concept. Higher price, less product, more hassle are all reasons to avoid the option. They find their way to picnics and office refrigerators because of bottle mentality. The 8 oz. bottle is justified by the 20 oz. bottle and the 20 oz. is here because of the 2 liter. Plastic bottles seem alien when compared to glass jars but a recycling bin full of plastic bottles makes sense of my bottle use.

    Putting food in plastic wouldn’t make sense if our drinks weren’t bottled in it; we wouldn’t put drinks in plastic if the rest of our liquids weren’t stored that way.

    This momentum builds rapidly but it can stop abruptly.  We can opt out of personal packaging, reuse glass jars and buy wholesale. When it comes to plastics “reduce” means more. We need to drastically reduce our plastic consumption before “recycle” can make any noticeable difference.

    Sean T.

    Whoever can guess how many bottles win them all! SOURCE-treehugger.com