Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Drink Local!!

Please enjoy the following article from today's New York Times:

Fighting the Tide, a Few Restaurants Tilt to Tap Water

Published: May 30, 2007

DON’T bother asking for Fiji, San Pellegrino or any other designer water at either Incanto, a restaurant that opened in San Francisco in 2002, or at Poggio, which opened in Sausalito, Calif., two years later.

“Serving our local water in reusable carafes makes more sense for the environment than manufacturing thousands of single-use glass bottles for someone to use once and throw away,” Incanto explains at its Web site.

These two Bay Area restaurants were pretty much alone in kicking the bottle habit until Alice Waters, the godmother of things organic, sustainable and local, banned bottled still water at Chez Panisse in Berkeley last year and started serving only house-made sparkling water this year. Then the press took notice. Now other California restaurants, like Nopa in San Francisco, are following suit. Even an ice cream shop — Ici, in Berkeley — has jumped on the non-bottled-water wagon.

And now, with a little push from Ms. Waters, an important New York City restaurant is coming on board.

It’s a big move in the restaurant industry, which, if you extrapolate from the amount of water it buys, takes in at least $200 million to $350 million from bottled water a year, according to the restaurant consultant Clark Wolf.

The “eat local” movement first became popular in California, so it makes sense that “drink local” is catching on there as a way to reduce the environmental costs of manufacturing and transporting bottles of water, as well as the mountains of plastic that end up in landfills.

But soon the owners of Del Posto in New York, the most elegant and expensive of the restaurants in the empire of Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali, will be joining the nascent movement — once they decide on the proper containers for their filtered still and carbonated tap water. Etched on the glass will be an explanation of why bottled water is no longer available.

“Filling cargo ships with water and sending it hundreds and thousands of miles to get it around the world seems ridiculous,” Mr. Bastianich said. “With all the other things we do for sustainability, it makes sense.”

He added that of all their restaurants, Del Posto was best able to afford the change.

When Maury Rubin opened the first Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery in the East Village in 2005 and the second in Greenwich Village last month, banning bottled water was a no-brainer. “It was actually an easy decision,” Mr. Rubin said. “Bottled water is not great for the environment.”

Other restaurants, including the Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vt., have made the switch, but they have not made waves. Tod Murphy, who owns the diner and has gained a certain celebrity in the food world for serving local products, stopped ordering bottled water in February. “It makes no sense, because we have great well water,” he said, “but I had no idea I was on the cutting edge.”

For almost everyone else the idea is still in the talking stage, in part because there’s a big profit in bottled water, even though some of it comes out of a tap before it goes into the bottle. Restaurants buy it for $1 or $2 and sell it for as much as $8, or even more, giving it the highest markup of any item on the menu. Most restaurants making their own sparkling water are not charging for it.

Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and an owner of Country in Manhattan, described the ban as “a worthy thing to do.” But he added, “You have to make a profit.”

“Alice is very commendable and extraordinary, and we look to her,” Mr. Zakarian said, “but I think she gets carried away sometimes.” He wondered where he would make up the lost revenue if he eliminated bottled water. “Serving tap water is a great idea that we’d all love to be able to do, but it’s not going to happen all at once.”

Tom Colicchio, the chef and an owner of Craft restaurant and several spinoffs, was incredulous that restaurants would contemplate such a change. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “Why would you do that — not from a money standpoint, but from a service and hospitality standpoint? Fifty to 60 percent prefer bottled water, especially sparkling.”

Credit the bottled water industry with a brilliant marketing job, selling purity and convincing the public that its product tastes better, is more convenient and is safer than good tap water. From a trickle of Perrier in the early 1980s, consumption of bottled water in America rose to 27.6 gallons per capita last year, according to the International Bottled Water Association.

On the West Coast, at least, tap water is looking more fashionable. Seltzer Sisters, a company in Redwood City, Calif., that sells seltzer made from local tap water in old-fashioned reusable glass bottles, says its sales in Berkeley have risen 20 percent in the last six months. The Berkeley school district replaced commercially bottled water with large containers of tap water and cups in all its schools last year.

“The students were up in arms, but a year later no one says anything,” said Ann Cooper, director of the district’s nutrition services, who added, “We have been marketed to the point that children believe they can’t drink water out of the tap.”

Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental advocacy group, said there is no reason to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water, though there can be problems with either. The public water supply is much more stringently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency than bottled water is by the Food and Drug Administration. The E.P.A. requires multiple daily tests for bacteria, for example, with the results available to the public; the F.D.A. requires weekly testing, which does not have to be reported to the agency, to the states or to the public.

“The rationale for buying bottled water is a fantasy that has a destructive downside,” Dr. Solomon said. “These companies are marketing an illusion of environmental purity.”

Her organization has calculated how much carbon dioxide — a major greenhouse gas — is emitted during the transportation of bottled water imported from France and Italy, the two largest exporters to the United States, and Fiji water, which travels much farther. Together they account for 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent, Dr. Solomon said, of the yearly emissions from 700 cars on the road. She called that “a significant contribution to global warming, and fundamentally an unnecessary one.”

But Stephen Kay, the vice president for communications at the International Bottled Water Association, said eliminating bottled water would have “a negligible, nonexistent impact on protecting the environment.”

Most restaurateurs seem unready to go cold turkey. Some have moved toward reducing their carbon footprint by switching to local bottled water instead of imported, as Dan Barber has done at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills in Westchester County, N.Y. A week ago he also added house-made seltzer, served from old-fashioned glass bottles.

As part of its low-carbon plan Bon App├ętit, the institutional food service company, is switching to domestic bottled waters from imported and is looking at a filtering system using local water and reusable glass bottles for some customers.

Some restaurants make a point of serving tap water but still provide bottled water on request. “Santa Monica is known for its terrible tap water,” said Anastasia Israel, an owner of Abode, which opened there a month ago. Patrons are reluctant to drink the tap water, but after servers explain the filtration process, 80 percent of them give it a try. Carbonation will follow soon.

Mr. Wolf, the consultant, said he is confident that if restaurants are pressed to eliminate bottled water, they will figure out how to do it. “No one is more adaptable than a restaurateur,” he said, noting that they whined when smoking was banned but “survived beautifully.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Soap, Drugs, & Rock and Roll

From the Organic Consumers Association Newsletter: "In a recent bizarre encounter between the punk rock band, The Germs, and law enforcement officials in California, it was discovered that standard field drug testing kits could distinguish the difference between soap products that are made from natural and organic ingredients and products that may claim to be organic but really contain synthetic detergents made in part or entirely from petroleum. Watch this humorous short clip to see if some of your favorite so-called natural or organic "soaps" may actually be synthetic."

Stop New Postal Rules From Stifling Independent Media

Stamp Out the Rate Hike: Stop the Post Office

Postal rate hikes are planned that will cost smaller publications disproportionately more than larger ones, stifling independent voices. For more information:

Where did you come from, broccoli?

Where did you come from, broccoli? Where you grown in California? Or Mexico? Or here in New York? How did you get to the green grocer where I bought you? Did you travel across the country in a truck? Packed in ice? Your sign said simply " Broccoli $1.29 ea." You seem very hardy and fresh. Was anything washed away when I ran you under cold water? Was there bacteria or pesticide residues on you? I'm sure your shape makes it impossible to clean you thoroughly. I don't see any little insects hiding among your florets. If there are chemicals, I wouldn't be able to see them.

I've never had a broccoli plant of my own. Did you grow alone on a plant, or did you have siblings? Once you were cut off, did another one grow in your place? There's so much I don't know about you, broccoli.

The Mystery of the Honeybees

"Give me spots on my apples, just leave me the birds and the bees now. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone.." -Joni Mitchell

By now, you've probably heard about the mysterious die-offs of honeybees throughout North America, Canada, and parts of Europe. There have been many theories about the cause of this phenomenon, often called "colony collapse disorder". The Organic Consumers Organization has an excellent site that has compiled information and news articles about the crisis:

The latest culprit is the pesticide imidacloprid, manufactured by Bayer AG. This insecticide is used not only by farmers, but also by many homeowners as well. The brand names are Admire, Advantage, Gaucho, Merit, Premise and Provado. It is also used in some brands of flea collars.

This is from the Kalamazoo Gazette, Thursday May 24th: "A member of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, imidacloprid is a synthetic derivative of nicotine and works by impairing the central nervous system of insects, causing their neurons to fire uncontrollably and eventually leading to muscle paralysis and death...

`These things (imidacloprid insecticides) do a great job on termites, fleas, ticks, but people forget honeybees are insects, too,'' said Jerry Hayes, president of the Apirary Inspectors of America and an entomologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture.In the mid-1990s, imidacloprid was implicated in a massive bee die-off in France in which a third of the country's 1.5 million registered hives were lost. After beekeepers protested, imidacloprid was banned for several uses, including treatment of sunflowers and corn seed.

The possibility that neonicotinoids are at the heart of the bee die-off implies a far more complex problem because of their widespread use. Every year these chemicals are applied to hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural lands, gardens, golf courses and public and private lawns across the United States.

Their use on major crops nearly tripled between 1964 and 1982, from 233 million pounds to 612 million pounds of active ingredients. And since then, their use has exploded. By 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported 5 billion pounds of pesticides used on U.S. crops, forests, lawns, flowers, homes and buildings.

Because of imidacloprid's emergence as a primary player in pest management, a painful paradox has developed in the recent debate. Neonicotinoids are needed by farmers and growers to maintain the health of crops, many of which also require pollination by honeybees."

I will post any further developments on this issue as I discover them. Meanwhile, please think twice before using pesticides! I think we are really going to miss the bees once they are gone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Books to Read Part 1

To understanding the scale of the environmental problems that confront us, please read the following two books.

---Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
---Our Stolen Future: How We Are Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival-- A Scientific-Detective Story, by Theo Colburn

Both of these books altered my view of the world drastically. Silent Spring was published in 1962. It inspired the environmental movement and led to the banning of DDT use in the United States in 1972. (It is still legal in many other countries, including Mexico- where some of our produce is grown, and where some of our birds spend the winter.) Rachel Carson was not a scientist, but she was a talented writer and researcher. She died of cancer in 1964.

The book explains the dangers to wildlife caused by pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. She introduced the world to the concept that even when a chemical exposure does not cause death, there can be long-term effects on the animal and it's offspring. Although some chemicals pass through the body, many are stored in fat cells. Females pass the chemicals on to their offspring. It was also the place where many people came to understand the concept of bio-accumulation, where one insect may have a small dose of pesticide inside its body, but a bird that eats many insects will acquire a much higher level in its body. This is why there is a stronger warning against eating some fish than others. Fish that are higher on the food chain, like shark, swordfish and tuna, have more chemicals in them, too. Think about where humans are on the food chain.

According to the Washington Post: this week, a senate resolution to honor the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson was blocked by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. The article says: "In a statement on his Web site yesterday, Coburn (R) confirmed that he is holding up the bill. In the statement, he blames Carson for using "junk science" to turn public opinion against chemicals, including DDT, that could prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes. Coburn, whose Web site says he is a doctor specializing in family medicine, obstetrics and allergies, said in the statement that 1 million to 2 million people die of malaria every year. "Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'The Silent Spring,' " Coburn's statement reads. "This book was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT."" I was not able to find any of these quotes on the senator's website. They may have been removed already.

This is the argument used by industry to cast doubt on the serious problem of chemical exposure that every species in the world faces. DDT may be able to prevent some malaria deaths in the short term, but it will cause many, many more deaths in the long term. The more you read, the more you understand the depth of this problem.

Our Stolen Future, published in 1996, picks up where that book left off. The science is more clearly explanied in terms that a non-scientist can understand. (The website has a ton of information: It explains how many chemicals act as mimics of naturally- occurring hormones in the human body. These hormones trigger important pocesses in the reproductive and endrocrine systems. A very small amount of a hormone at the wrong time can lead to cancer and infertility. There are other chemicals accumulating in our bodies that may also explain the rise in autism, ADHD, diabetes, asthma, and food allergies.

What is difficult for both scientists and the general public to understand is that this is a new way of looking at toxicity. The previous understanding was that you needed high doses for something to be toxic. In fact, one molecule during a crucial time during the development of a fetus can cause serious problems. Fortunately, people have gradually come to understand the concept. A very interesting article was published this week in the Ontario Globe & Mail. It may not remain on the internet, so rather than including a link, I have cut and pasted the entire article here in it's entirety:

Estrogen threatens minnow manhood: Released into an Ontario lake as an experiment, tiny amounts of the hormone wreak havoc on male fish
May 22, 2007

Back in the summer of 2001, a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers spiked a lake in Northwestern Ontario with traces of synthetic estrogen used in human birth control pills. They then repeated the unusual treatment for the next two years and sat back and watched what happened to minnows living in the lake.

The results were nothing short of frightening. Exposing fish to tiny doses of the active ingredient in the pill, amounts little more than a whiff of estrogen, started turning male fish into females. Instead of sperm, they started developing eggs. Instead of looking like males, they became indistinguishable from females. Within a year of exposure, the minnow population began to crash. Within a few years, the fish, which at one time teemed in the lake, had practically vanished.

Details of the unusual experiment, conducted by a team of Canadian and U.S. government scientists, are being published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The dramatic results are likely to raise further concerns about the possible impact on wildlife and humans of drug residues in waterways.

In the experiment, the scientists added just enough estrogen to give the lake water the same level of the sex hormone found in water discharged from sewage treatment plants in Canada and in other countries where the birth control pill is widely used.

More than a million women in Canada and more than 100 million worldwide are on the pill, making it one of the most commonly prescribed drugs. Women on the pill pass on some of the estrogen in their urine, from which it gets into surface waters.

Although the doses in the lake's water were thousands of times lower than the amounts women on the pill receive, even this slight exposure was enough to skew development in both male and female fish, with males far more affected.

After treatment, the lake water had estrogen concentrations of about 5 parts per trillion, the scientific equivalent of almost nothing. A part per trillion is the equivalent of a few grains of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool. The amount of estrogen added was about a fifth of a gram a day, or about one-tenth the weight of a penny.

The lead researcher, Karen Kidd, who conducted the project while with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and is now a biologist at the University of New Brunswick, was astonished that so little of a hormone used by people could harm fish.

"What's sobering for me is that we've shown such a dramatic response in fish population at these low concentrations," Dr. Kidd said in an interview.

It's not known what effect, if any, human exposure to estrogen in drinking water might have, although Dr. Kidd said it is an area that should be a research priority. Reproductive problems in human males, such as declining sperm counts and testicular cancer, have been rising in recent decades, and the causes are not known.

"When we see these kinds of responses in fish, it raises a red flag for what these compounds are doing to humans," she said.

There are currently no regulations in Canada covering estrogen or other drug residues in waterways. Municipalities typically don't check for them and it is not known if there are human health effects for people who draw drinking water from sources receiving sewage, a common practice in Canada.

Researchers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also worked on the experiment, which was funded primarily by the federal government and the American Chemistry Council. One of the companies that manufactures birth control pills, Schering AG, donated the estrogen.

The researchers monitored fathead minnows, a species that breeds after about two years of life, making its population vulnerable to the reproductive effects of the drug sooner than longer-living fish.

After dosing the lake for three years, researchers monitored populations for the next two. It is expected that with time, estrogen levels in the lake, which was about 35 hectares, or about the size of a large farm field or a medium-sized cottage-country lake, will decline, allowing fish populations to recover.

To ensure that the population decline they were observing wasn't a natural phenomenon, the researchers tracked several other water bodies similar to the lake under investigation. There were no large population fluctuations elsewhere. The lake was located near Kenora.

Over the past decade, there have been a number of studies in North America and Europe showing skewed sexual development in aquatic life living near outfalls from sewage plants. This study is the first to show that exposure to drugs not only changes sexual characteristics, but can also destroy fish populations.

Dr. Kidd doesn't think women should stop taking the pill out of worry for wildlife. She said municipalities need to build more advanced sewage treatment plants, which are able to degrade more of the estrogen into harmless chemicals.

Because of the high expense of the project, estimated at $250,000 a year, the researchers didn't test the effects of lower estrogen levels on fish to determine if there is a safe exposure amount.

Hello World!

Many of the problems in the world pale in comparison to the environmental destruction we are causing. I know there are many people out there troubled by it, but we feel helpless to stop it. So should we just make the best of things as they are? That works for me for a while, but I am still troubled. It's the topic at the forefront of my mind most of the time.

It's difficult to talk to others about the environment because it's a downer and it's a touchy subject, but most of all, it makes people feel guilty that they aren't doing enough or caring enough. So I think the best way to relate to other human beings about the subject closest to my heart is to write about it, at least until I find it easier to communicate verbally about it.

What I envision for this blog is to post about interesting stories and books I read related to the environment, and to discuss practical ways of making a difference.