Yesterday the Silver State North Solar Project on the California border near Primm, Nevada began generating electricity. It is the first-ever solar project sited on public lands to be completed and produce power.
The 50-megawatt project, which was developed by First Solar and owned by Enbridge, will power approximately 9,000 homes. It employed 380 workers at peak construction, just a portion of Nevada’s 17,254 jobs in green goods and services.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described the significance of the project in a dedication ceremony:
… a landmark for America, a landmark for the solar industry and a landmark for how we use public lands.
The Silver State project is also notable because the company worked with stakeholders to avoid places unfit for industrial energy development. It is close to existing transmission lines and the size of the project’s footprint was reduced in order to minimize impacts on wildlife and the landscape. As the Nevada Wilderness Project wrote on its blog:
In the case of Silver State North, we dubbed this 600-acre project 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas “smart” because the developer was willing to gather environmental input early on to avoid complications during the formal review process. From where we sat at the review table, that was a good sign.
Currently there are a handful of wind and geothermal project sited on public lands that are operational. But until today, there were no solar energy projects producing power. The Interior Department has permitted 15 other solar energy projects that are in various states of construction, financing and permitting.
The Obama administration has permitted more renewable energy projects on public lands than all other administrations combined. It is also in the process of finalizing a landmark set of guidelines that guide solar energy development into specially-designated zones, a new and improved model for energy development on public lands.
Jessica Goad is Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.
I was incredibly sad to read this morning of the death of Maurice Sendak at 83. It’s hard to imagine that anyone here hasn’t encountered Where The Wild Things Are, whether as the object of a reading of Sendak’s most enduring classic, a reader of it to a child in your life, or even only through the strange, wonderful in its own right, movie adaptation of the book. But Where The Wild Things Are was only part of Sendak’s legacy: as both a writer of his own work and an illustrator for others, he brought new worlds to life and made our own seem a marvelous, even miraculous place.
One of the reasons Sendak’s work is so enduring is that it treats children like children rather than turning them into tiny adults, and captures the real sense of fear and smallness that children often experience. Max enjoys his time with the Wild Things because it lets him flout his mother’s rules, but the intensity of their emotions and the thought of being responsible for them is intimidating. The supper his mother’s kept waiting for him seems a feeble light to drive back the darkness, but it’s enough. Small certainties, which children are still sussing out even if their parents think they’ve been clear, can defeat amorphous terrors. Outside Over There, in which a girl rescues the baby sister she’s been caring for from goblins, is also about being overwhelmed by responsibility and a sense of parental abandonment. In The Night Kitchen may be a perpetual subject of controversy, but it also captures how unsettling our dreams can be, particularly at a time when we aren’t yet experts in our waking world.
Sendak lent his skills as an illustrator to other authors as well, among them Dutch children’s author Meindert De Jong, poet Randall Jarrell, and Ruth Krauss. Whether he was illustrating a young girl’s effort to lure a stork to her village or helping Krauss bring the natural world to life, Sendak made huge contributions to creating the visual world of children’s literature. Whether they know it or not, Sendak is the first artist many children are repeatedly exposed to.
And as a gay man and a Jew, Sendak was particularly aware of how frightening the world could be, even after children grow up and grow into adult power and responsibility. Though it’s a later work, I’ve always particularly loved Sendak and Tony Kushner’s collaboration on Brundibar, an adaptation of a children’s opera first performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The story, about children who team up to chase a wicked organ grinder out of the town square so they can sing to raise the money to pay a doctor to attend to their sick father, is both an anti-Hitler allegory and in keeping with Sendak’s view of children as confronters of a large and sometimes frightening world. The opera’s survival is also a testament to the power of art in arming children for that fight, as fitting a summary of Sendak’s work as I could imagine.
To Hindus, cows are sacred. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Muslim dietary laws (halal) prohibit pork consumption. Traditional Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Religion and food have forever been intertwined. Food is deep, emotional stuff.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that devotees of organic food often embrace with quasi-religious fervor the practice of growing food without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. [See, for example, my blogpost about Maria Rodale.] But if we want to understand impact of organic agriculture on the planet and on our health, science and not faith ought to guide us.
New scientific research points to a key drawback of organic agriculture, unfortunately: It is typically less efficient and productive than conventional growing methods. That’s a problem for fans of organic because the world has a limited supply of farmland, a billion or so undernourished people, a growing population, an expanding middle class and therefore a vast appetite for affordable and nourishing food. If, in fact, organic methods are less productive, scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way.
In a meta-analysis of 66 research studies called “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture” published last month in Nature, Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty and Jonathan A. Foley write:
Overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields.
They go on to say that the yield differences are highly contextual, depending on crops and localities. The studies that they studied, it must be noted, use different methods and many are a decade or two old. This is by no means the last word on this issue. Still, they report that the yield differences
range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable)
Of course, there are other reasons to embrace organic methods, which may be able to match or even outperform conventional farming methods under certain conditions. Organic methods reduce the use of agricultural chemicals that damage farm workers’ health, for example. But, as the authors write, the yield issue should not be ignored:
To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
To learn more, I called Navin Ramankutty, a geography professor at McGill University and an author of the study. Much of the debate that goes on about food today focuses on methods rather than outcomes, he told. That was obvious to me after he said it, but I’d never thought about it that way. Organic farming is a method, or management system; it may well generates less water pollution and fewer greenhouse gases than conventional agriculture, but organic certification doesn’t measure those outcomes. Likewise, locavores, a group that includes not just the folks browsing the stands at a farmer’s market, but also Walmart, which has promised to buy more locally-grown produce, are all about location, and the environmental benefits of localism, if any, are unclear. One reason why we don’t look at outcomes, Navin said, is that “measuring those outcomes is extremely difficulty.” Broad generalizations about agriculture don’t tend to hold true because, like politics, all farming is local. Florida tomatoes have a different environmental profile from those grown in California.
Instead of wondering how and where an agricultural product was grown, we should be asking different questions, Navin suggested: “Is it good for the environment? Can it feed people? Is it good for the farmer?” To answer those last two questions–can it feed people and is it good for the farmer–you have to understand yields. Land is scarce and expensive, and if organic methods require more land (because they produce fewer calories per hectar), they will drive up food costs. That’s troubling in a world where hunger is a bigger problem than obesity.
The Nature report has provoked a variety of responses. In an email to Andrew Revkin, who wrote about it at Dot Earth, author Jon Foley wrote:
The bottom line? Today’s organic farming practices are probably best deployed in fruit and vegetable farms, where growing nutrition (not just bulk calories) is the primary goal. But for delivering sheer calories, especially in our staple crops of wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and so on, conventional farms have the advantage right now.
I asked Stave Savage, a scientist and industry consultant who blogs about agriculture at Applied Mythology, for his reaction. He looked at the underlying studies and told me that the evidence for the claim that organic can compete with conventional methods, even when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables, is skimpy. He told me by email:
The authors ultimately come out saying that some sort of hybrid would be a good idea. On that I agree. Organic was very ahead of its time in the early 20th century by focusing on building soil quality. No-till and cover cropping achieve the same benefits without having to haul in massive amounts of compost or manure.
The problem is that many of the avid supporters of organic have no interest in anything like a hybrid or one learning from the other. There is too much emphasis on philosophical purity and about demonizing regular agriculture rather than observing how much it has changed over time.
Less than 1% of US farmland is farmed organically. If farmers could improve their yields by giving up chemicals and genetically modified seeds, why wouldn’t they?
I’m planning to interview Laura Batcha of the Organic Trade Association this week, and I’ll ask her that question. We’ll also talk about the Farm Bill, the campaign to label genetically-modified foods and mad cow disease. I’ll report back in a few days.