Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute

After a weekend of camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, I decided to write about the imperiled marbled murrelet, and efforts to reduce the threats to this endangered species. Here’s my Marbled Murrelet story, with an excerpt below:

California State Parks has launched a

California State Parks has launched a “keep it crumb clean” campaign to remind visitors to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to never feed wildlife and to pick up after themselves (Photo by Cole Allen).

Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute

California State Parks urging campers to clean up after themselves, in a novel effort to protect the endangered marbled murrelet

By Sena Christian

When campers register at the headquarters of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, they receive the usual trail map and, for the past couple years, instructions on how to be “crumb clean” and why this matters to the fate of the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird about the size of a robin.

California State Parks launched its “keep it crumb clean” campaign to educate visitors about the importance of never feeding wildlife and picking up after themselves. The campaign has been propelled forward by a 2014 lawsuit settlement agreement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which had claimed the government was failing to protect the bird under its new general plan for Big Basin. The planned expansion of public uses and infrastructure in the bird’s habitat exacerbated the species’ risk for extinction, according to the lawsuit.

“Education is such a big part of the solution,” says Shaye Wolf, a wildlife biologist and the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Most park visitors would be heartbroken to learn their trash is contributing to the decline of this beautiful, endangered seabird … What we’re trying to do with the settlement is educate and increase public participation in the solution.”

The marbled murrelet’s low reproductive rate makes it especially vulnerable. A mature female lays only one egg high in the mossy branches of ancient coast redwoods (or other conifer such as firs) that stretch up the Pacific coastline from central California into Oregon, Washington, and as far north as Alaska. The parents take turns incubating the egg and flying miles away to the ocean to eat herring, smelt and anchovies and then returning to feed the nestling. A mere month or so after hatching, a chick will make its first flight to the ocean. That is, if it survives till then.

Murrelets face a mighty foe in corvid predators — mainly Stellar’s jays and ravens that are intelligent enough to know food follows humans. When these birds finish foraging around people, they notice murrelet nests high in the trees and attack the eggs and chicks. Jays are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, and murrelets evolved under their predatory pressure. But the corvid’s population has exploded throughout the park, along with the once-rare raven that is now a common sight.

“Whenever there are people, there is food, and whenever there is food, there will be animals taking advantage of that,” says Portia Halbert, the environmental scientist with State Parks who oversees the “crumb clean” campaign in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some 1.5 million people visit Big Basin State Park each year. An estimated 400 to 600 murrelets exist in the entire Santa Cruz mountain range.

Read the rest of the article here …

Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

My latest piece for Earth Island Journal is about how insect feed could be the next frontier in animal agriculture. I focus on the research — and breakthroughs — of scientist Philip Taylor, who is examining the role the black soldier fly can play as an alternative protein source in livestock feed. Read an excerpt below:

Site of new refinery being built at Black Cat in the foothills just north of Boulder (photo courtesy Philip Taylor).

Site of new refinery being built at Black Cat Farm near Boulder (photo courtesy Philip Taylor).

Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

Bugs offer an environmentally friendly alternative to soy and fishmeal when it comes to feeding livestock

By Sena Christian

Philip Taylor knew that when the black soldier fly began mating under artificial light in his hatchery at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado, something important was happening.

“For the mass production of larvae there needs to be a large and consistent source of eggs,” he explains. Taylor, a fellow with Duke University and INSTARR, needs a lot of larvae for his investigation into how insects can be used as an alternative protein source in animal feed. Using ultraviolet light, humidity and temperature, Taylor is trying to influence mating and egg production among the black solider fly. The goal is to mimic the subtropical and warmer temperate climates where these flies naturally occur, and Taylor is confident he’s found the light bulb that provides just the right balance. He says he’s already achieved about an 80 percent reproduction rate, which is the highest he knows of under artificial conditions.

The motivation for Taylor’s research stems from his belief that insects can be the cornerstone of a new-and-improved food system. He’s not alone in touting this great source of protein; putting edible insects on the menu has garnered plenty of media attention recently. Feasting on these healthy little buggers could help feed a growing global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and reduce the environmental impact of eating meat. But if chowing down insects isn’t your cultural norm, the option might sound kind of gross. Maybe one day most Americans will get there. But, in the meantime, why not use insects as a protein source in animal feed to replace fishmeal and soy?

Read the rest of the article here …

Is Plant Science The Answer To Improved Food Security?

In May, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metcalf Institute for Climate Change and the News in St. Louis, Missouri. The institute coincided with the second National Adaptation Forum, and I wrote a dispatch from the forum for Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team tasked with developing virus-resistant cassava, which is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri (Photo by Sena Christian).

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team developing virus-resistant cassava. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Photo by Sena Christian).

Is plant science the answer to improved food security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

By Sena Christian

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us.

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Unconventional Agriculture

This time around I’ve profiled four women farmers in the United States who are trying to make agriculture better. We’ve got an urban farmer, an ex-farmworker, an activist and a beginner. This article appears in the spring print issue of Earth Island Journal and is the fifth story in my series on American farming and food systems. Read an excerpt below.

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Elle2

Elle Huftill-Balzer is a farm manager for Soil Born Farms in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

Unconventional Agriculture

A rising crop of women farmers are changing our food systems for the better

By Sena Christian

Last year, all five of the first-year apprentices at Soil Born Farms’ headquarters near Sacramento, California were women. Another young woman, Elle Huftill-Balzer, was the boss of them all, the farm manager. “It [was] a total girl-power year around here,” says Janet Whalen Zeller, co-founder and co-director of Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, which oversees two farms totaling 56 acres. In fact, during the past few years the majority of apprenticeship applicants at the farm have been women.

Zeller isn’t a farmer. She is an educator and advocate with a vision of healthy food for all of Sacramento County’s 1.4 million residents. In 2004, she and two farmers turned Soil Born into a nonprofit organization to help urban residents connect with their local food system and to improve under- served communities’ access to organic produce.

Zeller can’t really explain the girl-power phenomenon, or why Soil Born’s team is such a striking con- trast to the demographic portrait of American farmers, which skews largely male. According to the US Census of Agriculture, 86 percent of the 2.1 mil- lion people responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of this coun- try’s farms are men. But wagering a guess, Zeller suggests that young wom- en are probably becoming attracted to sustainable agriculture because of an interest in social justice and in curbing the harmful environmental practices of industrial-scale farming. “There seems to be a cellular call to tend the earth in a more sustainable way,” she says.

… Read rest of the article here …

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

‘Quito Grown’ Appears On Earth Island Journal

Whoa, I barely even finished sending out rewards to my Kickstater backers for “Quito Grown,” and I’ve learn that Earth Island Journal decided to publish my article on its website today. I just submitted my draft yesterday. Now that’s what I call a quick turnaround!

The unfinished greenhouse on the rooftop of Escuela Bogota. Photo by Julia C.

Unfortunately, the editor previously forewarned me that the article would likely not make it into print. That’s one of the drawbacks of pitching to a quarterly magazine. But I’m still very excited and thankful for the article’s online appearance, and I’ll be trying to spread the link around and get as much exposure as possible. Feel free to help a sister out!

Marco waters vegetables in the garden at this school. (Photo by Julia)

I hope you enjoy my article “In Ecuador, urban farms provide an antidote to rising food prices.” Thanks, again, to everyone for all your support both emotionally and financially.

UCLA student Daniel Block works with kids on the greenhouse project in Quito. (Photo by Julia)

More good news: Alternet has also published my story. One more thing! In my article, you’ll read about a nongovernmental organization called Triple Salto. This group is critical in making urban farms happen throughout the city of Quito, and they have an ongoing need for donations and international volunteers. To connect with or donate to Triple Salto, visit www.triplesalto.org or email info@triplesalto.org.

An agricultural engineer with CONQUITO assembles a greenhouse on the rooftop of a school. (Photo by Julia)