J500 Media and the Environment

Eating better, thinking better by Lauren Cunningham

When I first started this class in January, I couldn’t really define “organic”. Like many others, I’ve always been told by my mother to eat always eat my veggies and try to eat healthy in general. But until I took this class, I never really stopped to look at the food I was putting in my body.

— from flickr.com

I certainly had no idea what “local food” meant either, but the idea never really seemed that foreign of a concept. Growing up I’ve eaten vegetables grown in my grandpa’s garden or meat from family’s friend’s farms. I think, in general, Kansans don’t see local food so much as a food movement as they see it as common sense because of the agricultural setting in which we live. Yet despite where we live and the food-growing opportunities surrounding us, we still don’t know where most of the food we eat comes from. This idea is what I liked learning about and exploring most in class.

Because both of my parents are teachers, I can appreciate when what I learn in the classroom is applied to the “real world.” And especially in a service learning class, I was able to apply information to what we’ve been working on in our group projects.

I think it comes naturally as a journalism student to enjoy meeting and interviewing people in the community in which I live. But it was particularly rewarding to listen to people like Rick Martin, the executive chef at Free State Brewing Co., or Patty Metzler, a medical dietitian at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, talk about and confirm the importance of local food in Lawrence. I’m most inspired by others who are passionate and love what they do, and by being able to talk to people who get what it means to grow food and to know where food comes from, it really has influenced me to ask more questions about my food. It also felt really good to help the Douglas County Food Policy Council learn more ways in which they can evolve within Lawrence and hopefully develop a local food system.

This class more than anything has really helped me to mature both as a consumer and as a writer. Writing a blog post each week has shown me how to truly invite others to conversations rather than shutting them out of talking about important issues. With all of the information that has been thrown at us, I also tend to question things more and look at where certain information comes from. I’m definitely not completely eco-friendly or “green” all of the time, but I’m constantly thinking about these things each time I buy something.

Most importantly, I’m not as afraid to really examine why I do what I do or why I spend my money on certain things and not others. I now take a harsher look at what I do, which at first, was hard to do. But I’ve grown to like being more critical of my decision-making. By continually looking at what I choose to spend my time, money and energy on, I can keep myself in check with how I want others to see me.

— Lauren Cunningham


More Atrazine Please! by Sean T.
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.

A new kind of green beer by Lauren Cunningham

I’ve always wanted to have a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, and with this being my first Patty’s Day as a 21-year-old, I’ve been getting excited to enjoy one.

I guess I get a small thrill from drinking an unnatural-colored beverage for the wow factor. But the concept of green-colored beer got me wondering about the other type of green beer — beer brewed in a sustainable way. Green, or sustainable, beer can include anything from organic beer to beer brewed in breweries that use solar energy or use waste to help fuel the process.

When I went to Brooklyn Brewery this summer, I didn't even know it was a top green brewery in the U.S. (Huffington Post). I had a local beer with New York honey and orange peel.

I’ve heard my parents or my friends say they like local beers more than generic beers, and I agree. Until recently, I had been under the impression that it was a matter of taste. I’ve tried both beers from local breweries (Ad Astra Ale from Free State Brewery being my favorite) and beer, such as Budweiser, Miller, etc., and I definitely notice a difference in quality.

But drinking local means so much more than just quality or taste. Because beer is made from ingredients that are grown outside of where it’s brewed, local breweries are likely to get most of beer’s necessary ingredients from local areas. Of course, this means less emissions because less travel goes into getting those ingredients to a brewery.

I spoke with executive chef at Free State Brewery Rick Martin about the beer at Free State Brewery. He said although the beer at Free State isn’t organic it’s still a natural product because of its ingredients.

Martin also said their beer is almost a zero-waste product because leftover grain from the brewing process at Free State Brewery is sent to local farms to serve as feed for animals.

Until now, I just thought there were local beers and generic beers. Maybe it’s because I’m relatively new to the drinking scene, but I didn’t even consider that there would be such a thing as organic beer. I’m always quick to assume that the word “organic” always applies to food when it really can be applied to items from clothing to beauty products.

Like any other organic item, organic beer’s ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides. Brewing organic beer even produces a clearer beer and a faster fermentation, which I know people like my uncle (who brews his own beer) are always looking for.

There are even green breweries around the U.S. that brew in a sustainable way, using wind energy or recycling waste products.

Thinking about drinking green-colored beer now kind of freaks me out. Most green beer is made by adding food coloring, which is made of food and color additives, to beer.

Not that I’ll now only be drinking organic beer, but I have found ways in which to make smarter beer choices.

— Lauren Cunningham

Family Farming to Industrial Agriculture by bpirotte

My grandfather, or “Granddad,” as we call him, grew up on a farm in western Kansas.

My Granddad outside his one-room school house, near the farm he grew up on in western Kansas. Photo by Ben Pirotte

Like most of his generation, he grew up healthy, happy, and with strict values. One of those values: frugality. But why is frugality such an important value of a person who grew up in the Depression? Because they had little to nothing. So, surviving on just a few dollars a week, and only buying the materials necessary to clothe, feed and house your family became what was important.

Just a few years ago, my family and I were able to go visit the land my great-grandfather used to till. Strangely enough, there’s a plaque installed on the property marking the geodetic center of the lower 48 states! Today, it is an “active cornfield,” which goes to show just how important farming is in the makeup of the United States, being right at its heart.

However, much has changed from the days of Granddad’s childhood. What used to be a country of many small farmers that made up 21% of the US workforce, all insistent on making a new life for themselves and their family, has now turned into just a few “desperate” farmers trying to make ends meet, and a few giant business conglomerates.

So, has the nostalgic, pastoral idea of farming died? With the mechanization of farming as an industry, and with yields from farming being more productive than ever, large, mono-crop facilities produce the vast majority of our food at a cheaper price to the consumer. But what about the cost to the environment? Industrial agriculture requires more use of pesticides, and with mono-cropping, soils are depleted through time and eventually need more and more fertilizers to create the same output. There seem to be alternatives to this model–such as buying organic and local. But are these ideas realistic?

While it is clear that we most likely won’t be returning to the days of small farmers in places like western Kansas, there is a need to reform our food system. Industrial agriculture is imposing a problem not only to the quality of our food, but is also a major problem to the health of our environment. Small steps can be made to reforming the system, but until our world as a whole is able to factor in all the costs associated with industrial farming, and not just the cost to grow, produce, harvest and ship a product, we won’t be able to see the necessary change.

–Ben P.

Revert to Basics by micolea

Everyday, just before the sun rises, my grandmother walks three miles from her home to the open-air food market in her province in Pampanga, Philippines. Once she reaches the market she is greeted warmly by the familiar faces of the farmers and vendors she purchases her food from each day. As she saunters through the market, the vibrant colors and delectable aromas of fresh papaya, guava, mango, avocado and eggplant delight her senses.

Picking and choosing assorted fruits, vegetables and fish has become a daily routine for my grandmother. After a quick conversation with one of the local vendors, she walks the three miles back to her home, with a bag of food in each hand. Once home, she starts cooking, or what she refers to as “nourishment for the soul.” 

My grandmother is ninety-six years old.

Photo by tmcpics/Courtesy Flickr

Living in an era where fast food is the norm, and eating out and take out are an integral part of our society’s culture, it seems awfully difficult to remember a simpler time. For my grandmother’s generation, it was standard for meals to be prepared at home. The moments spent chopping vegetables and simmering stew were savored. 

Surprisingly, or maybe I should say, impressively, my grandmother has never set foot in a Wal-Mart, Target or Kroger. Those stores resemble words of a foreign language to her because she had never heard of them. That, in itself is quite an extraordinary feat. 

Nowadays, food terminology can be like trying to solve the Pythagorean Theorem. Words like sustainable, organic and natural seem to all blend together. So why does it appear that it is about to become more complicated? As multiple cooks enter the kitchen, it is seemly becoming more problematic to agree on coherent definitions of sustainable agriculture.

The debacle about labeling food as “sustainable agriculture” is currently ongoing. While on the surface this looks like an encouraging way to entice food producers to stop using pesticides and genetically modified crops, it may actually do just the opposite. Some parties are advocating for this standard to encompass organic practices from farm to plate, while others want this to only affect one part of its operation and not have to adhere to all environmental regulations. I know exactly what my grandmother would say to all of this. She would declare  “there needs to be a return to nature. We need to feel a connection to food.” My grandmother cherishes her relationship with food and in return, she has been blessed with a life of longevity. 

 The outcome of these discussions is to decide on whether or not to implement a “National Sustainable Agriculture Standard.”  On either side of the issue are General Mills, American Farmland Trust, National Corn Growers Association and the National Resources Defense Council. The Leonardo Academy is mediating the conversation.

Why do I feel as if I am being deceived? Though I realize it is unrealistic to think that we can all buy our food from open air markets and have conversations about the origin of that food with the people who grew it, as a nation of consumers, we deserve to know where our food comes from and the techniques used to grow it. Hopefully, that will be a unifying point for the committee.

Micole Aronowitz

Words Matter by bpirotte

Green. Healthy. Organic. Biophilia. Sustainable. “Global warming” or “climate change?” It all seems so overwhelming!

Word choice is important to help understanding of debated issues. http://phsgirard.org/images/calvin-on-scientific-law__word_choice_1_.gif

With the recent trend of the “green movement” and the idea of wanting to have a positive impact on our environment come a lot of words. And they can often be really confusing.

So, how do we begin to define words like these? How do we know these definitions can be trusted? The truth is, one definition almost never suffices, and making sure you’re educated and well-rounded in the sources you use can help.

For example, this week in my Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas, our class had a guest lecturer from Kansas State University named Ben Champion who heads a sustainability group at the university. We looked past our school’s sports rivalries and had an informative discussion about the definition specifically of sustainability. We wondered if sustainability is even truly definable? However, we came up with a few definitions.

Ben Champion used his own definition: “[a] healthy system composed of relationships that do not damage the integrity of those economic social and environmental relationships.”

Ok, so we are kind of starting to get an understanding of what sustainability means. What about words like “organic?”  Dictionary.com has multiple definitions for organic. But here’s two I picked that seemed to pertain to what is talked about in regard to environmental issues (especially involving food). 1.”pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.” and 2. “developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural out growth.” See? Now you know at some basic level what that label on your milk is boasting. Whether or not the company is truly upholding its values is another story. But if you understand the basics, you might be able to do some of your own research to come to your own conclusions on the reliability of companies.

It’s hard when we have so much to already worry about to try and wrap our minds around issues like these. So, it’s important for not only journalists, but people in all fields to use their words wisely. If you’re trying to talk to someone about the problems we face as a planet with the change in the Earth’s overall temperature, do you use “global warming” or “climate change?” What if it’s the coldest winter you ever remember. Would global warming really have an impact then?

With such heated topics as climate change or the green movement, it’s important to choose your words wisely. You never know the impact it can have on someone.

Sustainable is Obtainable by Kelly
February 10, 2010, 10:35 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , , ,

Every time I hear talk of sustainability, I think, “ah, wouldn’t that be utopia?”  The picture in my head is all green and sunshine, warm and busy. There we are, wasting not, wanting not, and all of our food is bright and delicious.

Unfortunately, I think most people believe that the idea of sustainability is more akin to a perpetual motion machine than an actual possibility. A community-wide agricultural system that supports the local ecology, biosphere, and human population? Please. I can barely sustain my Wednesdays.

There is no doubt that the idea of developing such a system is daunting. But even though I may I say utopia, I don’t mean to flippantly disregard the idea as fictional.  Quite the opposite, in fact.


Defining a sustainable food system helps us see  just how possible, and desirable, a sustainable food system really is. Of all the definitions of I’ve seen, I like the American Public Health Association’s definition the best.  Let’s consider my favorite elements of that definition.

A sustainable food system:

Provides healthy food today: Let’s admit it, we need better food. We’re a nation plagued with obesity and diabetes. There may even be a connection between our food and our moods. And we don’t need that food tomorrow, we need it today.

Ensures  food for generations to come: A sustainable food system helps us take care of people tomorrow by what we do today. Isn’t it a comfort to realize that with some care and effort, we can keep ourselves from leaving the next generation hungry and struggling?

Makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all: The socio-economic disparity in food choices today is upsetting. A sustainable food system can help balance our food resources and give people access to their human right to healthy food.

Is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities: This is my favorite part. A sustainable food system is humane and helps us help ourselves. It strengthens our communities, provides jobs, and protects farmers‘ livelihoods.

Has a minimal negative impact to the environment: We need to start taking better care of the earth if we expect it to take care of us.  We need to start avoiding pollution and soil erosion before there is an irreversible impact on our environment.

I see no reason why a sustainable food system cannot succeed. I believe it can and, with inspiration and motivation, will. A system of efficient balance takes time, planning, and dedication. An agricultural system that provides the environmental and human health that we need is too invaluable to dismiss as a dreamland.