Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Skinny on Sustainability

This blog was inspired--if I can use that word in this case--by an observation I made yesterday as I was driving to work: the first five people I saw in downtown Syracuse (walking, it has to be said) were obese. A coincidence, surely, although one that has greater odds of occurring now that obesity has become an epidemic in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 32 states have an obesity prevalence of more than 25% of the population. Obesity is defined by the CDC as a Body Mass Index of 30 or greater.

Obesity is a real and present health crisis. But is it, I wondered, a sustainability issue? Actually, the CDC seems to think so, judging by the introduction to its website section devoted to the issue: "American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity. Policy and environmental change initiatives that make healthy choices in nutrition and physical activity available, affordable, and easy will likely prove most effective in combating obesity."

The key sustainability phrases of this statement in order:
  • Increased food intake—Eating too much is by no means the only cause of obesity, although the culture of super-sizing certainly contributes to the epidemic. Super-sizing meets sustainability head-on when it's not just food portions, but vehicles (SUVs), houses (McMansions), and other necessities that have grown out of proportion to our true needs. Behavior, policy, and culture must change if we are to "reduce" and well as "reuse and recycle."
  • Nonhealthful foods—"Food cues" are everywhere in our culture, and what's advertised is usually some delicious combination of sugar, fat, and salt. Processed food, in other words. The sustainable trends of localism and slow food directly confront the processed food industry, as does the re-emergence of vegetable gardening, or should I say "domestic terraforming!"
  • Physical inactivity—We drive too much, we are too sedentary at work, we live in neighborhoods without sidewalks or bike lanes: at the heart of smart growth and LEED-Neighborhood Development initiatives is the premise that a walkable/bikeable neighborhood is also a healthy neighborhood.
  • Policy and environmental change initiatives—The keys to wholesale sustainability, although the fate of one example policy initiative in New York State shows how difficult they can be to implement. Remember the Expanded Bottle Bill? This win (health)/win (litter)/win (money for state coffers) bill took seven years of acrimonious effort to implement—so good luck with the soda tax, Gov. Paterson!
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Earth Is in the Balance—Someone Tell Jeep!

With the Gulf of Mexico disaster as an oily backdrop, Chrysler have re-launched themselves by offering the public an exciting new model.

No, it's not an electric car or a super-fuel-efficient compact—it's the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the granddaddy of SUVs. Well done Chrysler for meeting our energy and transportation crisis in a head-on collision with a vehicle that gets 20 mpg on the highway!

Still, Chrysler could design all the electric cars in the world and it would mean nothing without robust government policy intervention. After all, the rise and rise of the gasoline powered internal combustion engine was made possibly by the government standardization of gasoline, as well as other policies that made possible our vast network of cookie-cutter gas stations.

Just think of the situation if, after a Sunday drive in your brand new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, you had to search for a Chrysler-only gas station (or a Ford-only diesel station or Subaru-only ethanol station). But until we have a standard for batteries and a network of battery stations (that frankly could become a new line of business for existing gas stations), electric cars will remain a novelty. (This is not to mention the need to have a power and grid network that could handle millions of batteries needing a re-charge.)

The point is that the driver of an electric car, when his or her standard Lithium Ion or whatever battery is dying, should be able to swing into a "gas" station and switch out a battery as easily as filling up a gas tank, knowing that the battery is made to a standard that will work in any car.

The extent of the government regulation needed--in the service of competition, mind (nobody argues about the stifling hand of government when it comes to gasoline standards and regulations)--might seem overwhelming. However, there are signs that sweeping sustainable regulations are taking hold in Europe: check out this link to read about Copenhagen's new green roof policy.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Local food is good food

I’m currently reading a book titled The Town that Food Saved. The jacket liner describes the it as: “Lively, funny and candid, The Town that Food Saved tells the fascinating story of an unassuming community and its extraordinary determination to build a vibrant local food system unlike anything in America.”

In the early pages the author explores the transition of Hardwick, Vermont from a manufacturing economy to a new food economy based upon several different boutique enterprises: artisanal cheese, tofu production, yogurt, a seed company, composting, and apiaries. What caught my attention, on page 70 was his exposition on how much of the products from the above companies leave the local economy for sale in the more upscale economies of Boston, New York City and San Francisco. The author, Ben Hewitt, poses a question that had lurked in the background of his consciousness, which is: If local boutique food producers are actually concerned with local production, shouldn’t they be creating a product that local buyers can and will (can afford to) buy?

On a local scale in and around Oswego County I’m wondering the same thing. As we imagine the transition that may occur with the decline of peak petroleum to a more local food economy, I’m wondering are there similar ventures? The answer is “yes.”

Over the last several months I’ve researched local producers as a means of informing discussion in the SUNY Oswego Citizens Academy. I’ve visited two local farms—Grindstone Farm, and Happy Hooves Organic Farm. Both of these farms sell their own product to consumers locally, which increasingly local consumers choose and are able to afford. I’m hoping that over time we will see more businesses, not only producing products locally, but that are of course serving local consumers.

Let me introduce you to the two I mention above:
Grindstone Farm, with“…over 25 years of rich experience in growing a wide range of high quality, certified organic fruits, vegetables, and other organic items, … has become a well-known leader in Central New York. Providing a full line of produce, sometimes more than 120 varieties, you'll find everything from A (asparagus and arugula) to Z (zucchini and zinnia).”

Happy Hooves Organic Farm focuses on meat production including beef, pork, venison and chickens. Their website states: “We… have pastured pork, free range turkeys, free range chicken eggs, farm-raised venison, and home grown horseradish and rhubarb for tasty condiment sauces for those delicious meats and sides. Everything we do here is organic and as much space and free range is allowed our animals as permitted for their own safety. This gives you the maximum health benefits from your food that you can find.”

Next time you are considering buying organic, consider buying local if possible. More information about these two producers can be found on their websites at: and .

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego