Earth Day 2018 – Mr. Secretary, Go Green

The time of fossil fuels is over.

This Earth Day I propose enjoying some outdoor fun and writing a letter to a government official about an environmental issue that is important to you.

My Earth Day plans include participating in a field trip with the California Native Plant Society and writing a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, which I already did (see below).

Earth Day 1970

In 1969, Gaylord Nelson was a U.S. Senator representing his home state of Wisconsin. He had long been concerned about the environmental deterioration occurring in the United States because private companies were being allowed to exploit public resources polluting and degrading air, water, and land with impunity. He had been trying to get the American public to make a national issue out of the environment with little success.

Reading an article about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins taking place at colleges across the country gave him an idea. Nelson decided to try the same method to start a grassroots environmental movement. He formed a nonprofit organization and asked a Harvard graduate student named Denis Hayes to organize the first Environmental Teach-In.

Protesters Carrying Earth Day Posters April 22, 1970 - Photo Credit: Doug Draper
Protesters Carrying Earth Day Posters April 22, 1970 – Photo Credit: Doug Draper

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets demanding that the government take action to clean up the environment and stop industries from using the air, water, and land as free places to dump toxic waste.

Pressured by the public, Congress passed far-reaching clean air and clean water legislation that has been protecting Americans for almost 50 years.

Earth Day 2018

Now, in 2018, Americans are facing a new assault on the environment and the laws that Congress put in place to protect us from being taken advantage of and poisoned by private industries and public agencies.

I believe that I have a responsibility to speak up. You can choose to do so, too. We can tell our supposedly democratic government founded to serve “We the People,” that we strongly oppose the dismantling of environmental protections and regulations and the destruction of our public lands. We can stand up and say it is not acceptable that our own government is endangering and harming the people we love.

Writing a letter is one way you can exercise your right to Freedom of Speech.

Below is my letter to Secretary Zinke regarding the unprecedented and dangerous expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration and development he is overseeing as the Secretary of the Interior. I will add any response I receive to the end of this post.

BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling Platform on Fire in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010
BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling Platform on Fire in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 – Photographer Unknown

If you are interested in learning more about the 2019-2024 Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program that I discuss in my letter, you will find links in the resources section below.

I hope you will join me in writing a letter yourself.

April 12, 2018

The Honorable Ryan Zinke
Secretary
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240

Re: Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Natural Gas Exploration and Development

Dear Mr. Secretary,

Overseeing a department with 70,000 employees who manage one-fifth of the land in the United States, 35,000 miles of coastline, and 1.7 billion acres of the outer continental shelf is a heavy responsibility. You have the power to affect the wellbeing of over 327,000,000 Americans now and in the future.

I am writing to you as a mother, an American citizen, and a resident of the California Central Coast to express my strong opposition to the 2019-2024 Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (DPP).

The United States needs to get off fossil fuels not embark upon an unprecedented expansion of oil and natural gas exploration and production along almost the entire coastline of the country.

As the DPP states, outer continental shelf oil and gas development is a long-term endeavor fraught with technical issues and environmental risks. It mentions but does not address global warming or catastrophic oil spills. “Production from exploration and development in newly available OCS areas will likely not occur for a decade or more, and then will continue for another 30 to 40 years or longer” (p. 1).

Offshore oil and gas operations require substantial infrastructure both offshore and onshore including drilling platforms, pipelines, transfer stations, storage tanks, and processing facilities. Once fossil fuel companies invest billions of dollars into building this infrastructure they will likely continue producing oil and gas for decades.

Locking the United States into 50 years of expanded oil and gas production will not generate energy security or economic vitality for the American people. Global warming is not some distant amorphous threat it is already happening. The continued burning of fossil fuels is endangering all Americans and people all over the world.

To make America great again, we need to stop looking back and move forward. The time of fossil fuels is over. Clean renewable energy is the future that we need to invest in, right now. I urge you to use your authority to curtail fossil fuel development and encourage deployment of clean renewable energy on public lands (submerged or not).

In 20 years, what do you want to say to your children and grandchildren? “I am proud I was instrumental in opening up the entire United States coastline to oil and gas exploration.” or “I am proud that I did everything in my power to move the country towards clean renewable energy to keep Earth habitable for you and your children.”

Sincerely,

Linda Anne Poppenheimer

Featured Image at Top: Three Wind Turbines at Sunset off the Irish Coast – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Peter Cripps

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Organic Food – Healthy Soil is Good for the Environment

Buying organic food is good for the soil and good for the soul.

Why should you shell out extra money to buy organic food? One reason is that healthy soil is important to your wellbeing, possibly in more ways than you think.

The soil is like different neighborhoods connected to each other by invisible underground roadways. Neighborhoods have their own vibe that depends on their location, climate, and building materials. Community residents vary widely, are mostly microscopic, and live in high-density housing. All inhabitants have jobs they perform on a regular basis for no financial gain or personal glory.

These communities form the surface of the Earth and support the plants that provide our food. The soil is essential for life. Yet, humans have paved over, poisoned, and even disappeared countless soil communities, endangering ourselves in the process.

Imagine watching your way of making a living, your way of life, literally blowing away in a cloud of dust. That is what happened during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s when severe drought, poor soil conditions, and high winds blew away the topsoil of over 100,000,000 acres of farmland. Tens of thousands of farmers lost their homes and their farms and millions of poverty-stricken people migrated away from the Great Plains in search of work. United States agriculture was decimated and the Great Depression worsened.

1930s Dust Bowl - Baca County, CO - Photo Credit D.L. Kernodle, U.S. Library of Congress
1930s Dust Bowl – Baca County, CO – Photo Credit D.L. Kernodle, U.S. Library of Congress

Belatedly, the federal government took action by forming the Soil Conservation Service to help farmers and land managers learn about the soil and how to keep it healthy and in place. They also oversaw projects across the country aimed at reforesting the land and preventing erosion.

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

It seemed as if soil communities were finally earning some attention and respect.

But then in the aftermath of World War II, chemical manufacturers needing new lines of business began producing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and leaning on the government to convince farmers to apply these products to their farmland. Crop yields increased and so did air and water pollution. Pesticides killed crop pests and everything else from soil organisms to birds. This was the beginning of industrialized agriculture and a new assault on the soil.

Fortunately, there were other people and farmers taking a different path. Over several decades, they learned about the soil and experimented with holistic practices for keeping soil healthy without heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This led to the modern organic food movement that gained support during the 1970s when Americans were fed up with air, water, and land pollution and were taking to the streets demanding action.

It took a couple of decades, but eventually, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act leading to the USDA’s National Organic Program that standardized what substances can and cannot be used to grow organic crops, raise organic livestock, and make processed organic foods. It defines farming practices for keeping the soil healthy, reducing pests and weeds, and raising livestock animals without preemptive antibiotics.

Now that you have some background let’s talk about the soil. Then you can decide whether buying organic food (at least sometimes) is worth it to you.

What Constitutes Healthy Soil?

“Soil is a mixture of organic matter [remains of plants and animals and their wastes], minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life. The Earth’s body of soil is the pedosphere, which has four important functions: it is a medium for plant growth; it is a means of water storage, supply, and purification; it is a modifier of Earth’s atmosphere; it is a habitat for organisms; all of which, in turn, modify the soil.” —Wikipedia

Healthy soil is alive with activity. Bacteria produce antibiotics, fix nitrogen (convert it for plants to use to form chlorophyll), and decompose materials to be recycled as plant nutrients. Fungi spread miles of filaments that transport nutrients and information among plants and trees. Larger organisms like ants and earthworms aerate the soil and mix things up as they move about.

These soil communities feed plants, absorb, hold and release water, maintain low levels of pests, pathogens, and salinity, and resist degradation and erosion.

If you grab a handful of healthy soil, it will hold together unlike dirt that will fall through your fingers.

Why is Healthy Soil Important for Growing Food?

At its most basic level, healthy soil provides a physical support system for plants. It holds together but is not tightly compacted allowing roots to grow and spread anchoring the plants above.

Healthy soil contains a wondrous network of microscopic organisms that deliver minerals and nutrients to plants so they can grow and thrive. Rainwater and irrigation water percolates through the spaces in the soil created by the aerators and then gets absorbed and released to the roots of the plants. Plants also receive assistance in fighting off pests and diseases.

How Do Organic Farmers Help Keep Soil Healthy?

Farmers who market their food with the USDA organic seal are required to adhere to the USDA organic program standards and be certified by a third party organization. Good stewardship of the land is at the core of organic farming.

Like people, healthy soil needs year-round care.

Organic Farm Cover Crop Plots at University of Minnesota
Organic Farm Cover Crop Plots at University of Minnesota – Photo Credit Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota

For instance, if the soil is left bare and exposed after crops are harvested it is subject to being relocated without its consent. Rain can cause the soil to run off fields and wind can pick up the unprotected soil and fly away with it. Organic farmers protect their soil by planting cover crops, an apt name for crops grown to cover the land between rotations of income-producing crops.

Cover crops can also provide food for the soil. Leguminous plants like peas, beans, lentils, clover, and vetch are especially good at returning nitrogen to the soil. This so-called green manure acts as a natural fertilizer for plants. Other plants and animal wastes are composted and used on fields to feed the soil.

Maintaining biodiversity is important for soil and plant health. Organic farmers rotate crops and plant a variety of crops together making life more difficult for pests who can devastate a monocrop field. They also incorporate buffer areas of native plants that attract and provide habitat for pollinators, birds, animals, and predator insects that eat crop pests.

These are just a few of the ways that organic farmers contribute to keeping the soil healthy.

Why is Healthy Soil Important to You and Your Family?

Well, of course, there is the food. However, there are other benefits that might not readily come to mind when you think about healthy soil and organic farming.

In addition to providing water for plants and preventing erosion, healthy soil acts as a sort of time-release water purification and refilling system. As water seeps through the soil, it filters out impurities and pollutants. Depleted soil cannot perform this function. The water continues its downward journey through rock layers and refills groundwater basins in its path. You could be one of the many people whose drinking water comes from a groundwater basin.

Organic Farm Buffer Zone with Pheasants Forever Sign
Organic Farm Buffer Zone with Pheasants Forever Sign – Photo Credit Oregon Tilth

Healthy soil eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers, which are applied heavily on industrial agriculture fields. Besides nourishing the dead soil so that it can grow plants, these fertilizers run off into streams, lakes, and oceans creating dead zones where nothing can live. People rely on riverbanks and wetlands to prevent flooding. If these areas are dead, there is no protection.

When the soil is healthy, it eliminates the need for industrial strength pesticides. Spraying these poisons causes air pollution and runoff from fields causes water pollution. Widespread and heavy use of pesticides has had other unintended consequences. Pests have evolved quickly resulting in “super pests” requiring evermore powerful poisons. I am unconvinced that there is any safe level of exposure to pesticides for anyone and I do not believe farm workers should be required to wear masks and hazmat suits to work.

You may not realize that along with retaining moisture healthy soil grabs and holds onto carbon helping to keep it sequestered in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

Certainly, certified organic farmers are not the only farmers living in harmony with the land and contributing to maintaining healthy soil communities, but they have gone the extra mile to certify (prove) that they do.

Buying Organic Food Supports Healthy Soil

While reading this post, I hope you learned something about how important healthy soil is and how organic farming helps soil communities stay healthy.

You can promote healthy soil by choosing to buy organic food, at least some of the time.

Organic Tomatoes in a Paper Bag with Fresh Produce in the Background
Organic Tomatoes in a Paper Bag with Fresh Produce in the Background – Photo Credit iStock/mrPliskin

The purchase price of organic food is often higher than its taxpayer-subsidized industrial counterparts and prices may vary widely depending on the type of food and where you buy it. Be a savvy shopper and check prices at farmers markets, co-ops, farm stands, grocery markets, and even big box stores.

I realize that paying more for organic food may not fit easily into everyone’s budget so here are a few ideas on how you can support organic food in various ways.

  • Select one fruit or vegetable and start buying the organic version all the time or at least once a month.
  • Buy all organic fresh produce once a month or as often as you can.
  • Switch to organic milk, butter, cheese or the dairy product of your choice.
  • Try buying organically raised chicken, pork, or beef. It is expensive so you may find yourself eating less meat and more plants, which is good for you and the environment.
  • Support healthy land and people in your own community or region by purchasing organic food grown or raised locally.

I look forward to the day when all food is grown organically and everyone can afford it. I hope you will join me in buying at least one organic food item if you can, so we can inform the agricultural community at large that we want to eat food that is healthy for us and the planet.

Featured Image at Top: Close-up of Onions Growing in Soil – Photo Credit iStock/YuriyS

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