Monday, October 16, 2017

Grass-fed Beef and Greenhouse Gases

Grazed and Confused, a report released this month by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) led by Tara Garnett. The report essentially looks at greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration in relation to beef and dairy production for human consumption. The report focuses exclusively on greenhouse gas emissions and attempts to determine if the grass-fed beef can sequester enough carbon to benefit the planet or if it is necessary to eliminate beef from the human diet to save the planet. 

Ruminants (mostly beef cattle) are blamed by environmental literature, the popular press and media and, increasingly, public for a significant portion of global warming. Extremists of this view believe that giving up beef will reduce the carbon footprint of mankind more than eliminating cars. Others believe that the sequestered carbon from pasture raised grass-fed beef can save the planet. The scientists tried to determine how much if any carbon is sequestered by grass-fed beef on net.

I should mention here that for decades what beef we eat is grass-fed. I started buying grass fed beef back in the 1990’s when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the details of that work that would shock most people; however, lets just say that my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected. Today, in retirement, I continue to buy off the grid, sustainable, grass-fed beef from Polyface Farms here in Virginia.

Cattle that are grass-fed spend their entire lives grazing eating grass and forage that grows in the pasture. In addition, hay and silage which is just compacted grass are used to supplement in winter. Grass-fed beef require more land for pasturing as well as good management of the grazing to avoid over grazing the fields. This type of farm management protects our land and water resources. According to a study by Consumer Reports in 2015 found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with these antibiotic resistant bacteria as more sustainably produced meat and three times more likely to be contaminated with the “superbug” bacteria as grass-fed organic meat.

Conventionally raised beef is where young cattle are shipped to feedlots where they are restricted in space and fed mostly corn and soybeans for several months to a year. They are also given antibiotics and other drugs to promote weight gain and prevent disease. In addition, they are sometimes feed other junk such as candy and feed that contains animal production waste. The animals in feedlots are crowded into pens; the average feedlot in the U.S. houses about 4,300 head of cattle, according to Food & Water Watch’s 2015 Factory Farm Nation Report.

Most academic studies have conclude that ruminant products, most commonly beef but also include goats, sheep, deer and others are the most emissions-intensive of all animal products, and within ruminant production systems, “conventionally raised” animals are the worst. However, that only measures greenhouse gas emission. Ruminant animals are actually rather miraculous and part of the planet’s ecology. Cattle and other ruminants can be raised on land unsuited to other food-producing purposes and on grain by-products from brewing and other food activities. In mixed a farming system the animals recycle nutrients and re-fertilize soils.

On the downside, ruminants emit large quantities of methane, use vast tracts of land, and are held responsible for a host of environmental ills, most notably deforestation and biodiversity loss, as well as the pollution of soils, air and water. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it has a shorter atmospheric life span than carbon dioxide (CO2). The effect of a given pulse of methane is temporary, unless replaced by another pulse. In contrast CO2’s warming effects are weak, but permanent. The next bit of CO2 emitted adds to the warming effects of all the CO2 emitted previously (except that absorbed by plants or other sequestered). So, because of their differing lifespans, a constant emission of methane from constantly replaced herd of cattle is therefore equivalent to one-off release of CO2.

The report , Grazed and Confused, found that the relationship between soil carbon sequestration and grazing intensity is complex. In soils that are not in equilibrium and where climate and other agro-ecological factors are right, light to moderate intensity grazing tends to promote sequestration of carbon overall. The scientists found some evidence to suggest that in some cases, grassland can store more carbon than forests. Thus, keeping ruminants on the land can achieve greater sequestration than removing them altogether and allowing woody vegetation to encroach.

However, the scientists state that on many lands, reversion to their natural wooded state would likely achieve higher levels of sequestration than would grazing although the loss of food from the grazing animals has to be compensated for elsewhere. The scientists also found that overgrazing damages soils, leads to soil carbon losses and undermines the organic matter in the soil and the soil overall health and fertility.

Overall the report found that grass-fed beef is not the magic bullet that will stop CO2 from building up in the atmosphere. However, as the scientists point out there are good reasons to build soil organic matter by pasturing livestock: soils rich in carbon foster soil fertility and health and a properly managed pasture with the livestock excluded from rivers and streams protects our waterways from contamination. The “conventional” livestock systems that operate today have caused an enormous amount environmental damage. Forests have been cleared, species driven to extinction, air and surface water polluted, and we have released vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Animal farming has also brought humanity huge benefits- It provides food that is highly nutrient dense, and very tasty. Farm animals can convert grass and silage that humans cannot eat into food that we can. When population densities were or still are sufficiently low and land abundant, livestock plays an important role in transferring nutrients from grasslands and onto cropland via their manure. The problem is there are over 7 billion people on earth none of whom want to be poorer or have less.

If you would like to watch the videos (which total more than an hour) here are the links:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

GRACE Satellite Dies

from NASA
In September scientist lost contact with the GRACE-2 satellite. Contact was restored, but another battery cell had failed. GRACE is nearly out of fuel and the ability to store the energy collected by its solar panels when it is in earth shadow. Little power beyond the active solar collectors remains. The scientists put her on standby and in the next weeks she will complete her final data collection in full sun along the terminator line between night and day.

Launched in March of 2002 as the second mission under the NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) Program, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment twin satellites were designed for a five years mission life. They have operated for 15 years far more than expected, though scientists had hoped they would continue to operate and collect data until their replacements, GRACE-FO (follow on), were launched, but GRACE-FO has been delayed.

The decommissioning of the GRACE satellites will begin in November when one of the satellites is moved to eliminate any chance it could collide with the other, followed by steps to render the spacecraft inert. The spacecraft will make an uncontrolled reentry (crash) in early 2018, with the exact time dependent on solar activity and its effects on the Earth’s atmosphere.

GRACE is a joint partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States and Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR) in Germany. GRACE consists of two identical twin satellites that fly about 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart in a polar orbit 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth. GRACE maps Earth's gravity field by making accurate measurements of the distance between the two satellites, using GPS and a microwave ranging system. This allows scientists all over the world an efficient and accurate way to map Earth's gravity field. The replacement pair of satellites known as GRACE-FO will also be a joint German-American project, and are similar to the original GRACE spacecraft, but with the addition of a laser interferometer for more accurate measurements.

In January, NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences announced that a SpaceX Falcon 9 will carry the two GRACE-FO satellites as well as five Iridium Next communications satellites into low earth orbit. A launch date for the joint Iridium Next/GRACE-FO mission has not been set, but it is expected to occur in early 2018. NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, published in May, projected a February 2018 launch of GRACE-FO.

The information gathered from the GRACE mission have allowed scientists to track the distribution and flow of mass within Earth and its surroundings- changes in water. The gravity variations studied by GRACE include: changes due to surface and deep currents in the ocean; runoff and ground water storage on land masses; exchanges between ice sheets or glaciers and the ocean; and variations of mass within Earth. Advances in hydraulic modeling with data from the satellites, make it possible to construct accurate and holistic picture of freshwater availability, across the globe as well as measure sea water.

GRACE data has provided a global picture of water storage trends for over a decade and could be an invaluable tool for understanding water resource availability. The GRACE mission is able to monitor monthly water storage changes within river basins and aquifers that are 77,000 square miles or larger. While this area may be too large for community water management, this information could someday be used to develop a unifying principal of cross border water resource allocation. The first use has been to study the trends on groundwater in various regions during this period.

Observing the groundwater buried beneath layers of soil and rock was almost impossible until, the twin satellites GRACE were launched in March 2002. At the time few believed the satellites could measure changes in groundwater, but thanks to work of Dr. Jay Famiglietti and his graduate student Matt Rodell, who were working at that time at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) the techniques for measuring groundwater using the GRACE satellites were developed and proven. Expanding on this earlier work is additional work by Alexandra S. Richey, Brian F. Thomas, Min-Hui Lo, John T. Reager, James S. Famiglietti, Katalyn Voss, Sean Swenson, and Matthew Rodell and I’m sure others that I have missed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Global CO2 Emissions Held Steady in 2016

From IEA

As we saw last week world consumption of energy has continued to increase as the world economy continues to grow. According to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (published annually) and the U.S. Energy Information Agency and the International Energy Agency (IEA) world consumption of fuel for energy production (as measured in millions of tonnes of oil equivalents) has increased 2.2% over the last three years, while the global economy grew 3.1% though global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year in 2016.

Global emissions of CO2 equivalents from the energy sector stood at 32.1 gigatonnes last year, the same as the previous two years. Scientists have welcomed this as a signal that energy use and CO2 emissions are decoupling from economic activity. This good news was the result of growth in renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas for power generation and improvements in energy efficiency.
CO2 Emissions by Country taken from Statista
Carbon dioxide emissions declined in the United States and China, and were stable in Europe, offsetting increases in CO2 emission in most of the rest of the world. The biggest drop in CO2 emissions came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3%, or 160 million tonnes, while the economy grew by 1.6%. The decline in CO2 emission was driven by an increase in the use of natural gas from shale displacing coal to provide electricity and an increase in renewable power. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2016 were at their lowest level since 1992. This is true though the economy grew by 80% over this time frame.

In China, CO2 emissions fell by 1% last year while their economy was reported by the government to have grown by 6.7%. There were several reasons for this trend: an increasing share of renewables, nuclear and natural gas in the power sector, but also a switch from coal to gas in the industrial and buildings sector that was driven in large part by government policies combatting the horrible air pollution in their cities.

Two-thirds of China’s electricity demand growth, which was up 5.4%, was supplied by hydropower and nuclear. Five new nuclear reactors were connected to the grid in China, increasing its nuclear generation by 25%. According to IEA the growth in natural gas use in China has been significant and due mostly to air-quality measures to fight pollution. The share of natural gas in the global energy mix is approaching 25%, but in China it is 6% and in India just 5%. Changing from coal to natural gas in China and India could reduce global emissions significantly.

In the European Union, emissions were largely stable last year as gas demand rose about 8% and coal demand fell 10%. Growth in renewables continued, but provide a small impact. The United Kingdom saw a significant coal-to-gas conversion in the power sector, thanks to cheaper gas.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Monsanto's Dicamba Resistant Seeds

In 2015 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed the sale of seeds that have been genetically engineered to tolerate dicamba, a selective herbicide. Monsanto introduced a new product called Xtend a genetically modified soybean seed that is resistant to the herbicide. Dicamba is already registered (approved by the EPA) for uses in agriculture, on corn, wheat and other crops. Dicamba is also registered for non-agricultural uses in residential areas, and other sites such as golf courses, mainly to control broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, chickweed, clover and ground ivy.

One of the main concerns about genetically engineered crops such as Roundup Ready crops and now the new genetically modified soybean and cotton seeds that are resistant to dicamba and 2,4 D is the development of weeds and other plants that are also resistant to the pesticides. Glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup is also manufactured by Monsanto and is the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States, and throughout the World. Americans spray an estimated 180-185 million pounds of the weed killer, on their yards and farms every year.

The massive adoption of genetically engineered resistant crops in soybean-, maize and cotton-growing regions of the United States has resulted in evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. The first reported resistant weed was in 2001, Conyza canadensis L. This occurred after more than 25 years of glyphosate use. However, the development of resistant species of weeds has speeded up. There are now several known glyphosate-resistant populations of the very vigorous, highly competitive and economically damaging ragweeds Ambrosia artemissifolia L. and Ambrosia trifida L.

Researching this scientists found that If there is a sufficiently diverse system of weed management, herbicide resistance may evolve only very slowly or not at all. However, the reality is that most farmers using Roundup resistant seeds rely on glyphosate alone, with markedly reduced diversity in other weed management tools historically used like burndown, glyphosate use before crop seeding, or physical tillage were found to minimize glyphosate-resistant weeds, but they increased runoff of pesticides and soil. These methods were abandoned to the easier and no till method of spraying once the crop emerges. The result is that Roundup is not working so well anymore. So, Monsanto has come out with their new product With the new dicamba and 2,4 D resistant seeds.

The New York Times reports that the expanded use of dicamba is damaging nearby traditional crops through vaporization and  pesticide that is carried on the wind. That is the first problem to be seen. The development of weeds and other plants that are also resistant to the pesticides will happen. Right now dicamba kills weeds that can no longer be controlled by Roundup. In the long run it is likely that weed resistance to dicamba will increase. There are more sustainable methods of weed control.

Monday, October 2, 2017

World Energy Use 2016

Energy is the basis of the world economy and the use of fossil fuels to produce energy releases greenhouse gases. So lets take a look at energy consumed world wide. According to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (published annually) and the U.S. Energy Information Agency world consumption of fuel for energy production (as measured in millions of tonnes of oil equivalents) has increased by about 50% over the last 20 years. The good news is that over that time renewables have increased from less than 1% to 3.2% of the energy produced. In 2016 hydro-electricity, nuclear power and renewable sources accounted for 14.5% of the energy consumed and these sources produce no greenhouse gases. Take a look at the world and then a more granular look at the energy used in some countries.
from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016

As you can see above the use of all types of energy with the exception of nuclear has continued to grow year after year. 
Energy use in the United States, the Russian Federation and Europe appears to have leveled off and even decreased a bit over the past decade. Take a look at the relative size of the nations in terms of energy consumed. 

China has the largest absolute amount of renewables and hydro-electric sources of energy, but they are so much larger an energy user than any other country, representing 23.3% of the energy used globally that  taking a look at the percentages tells another story.

As you can see above Germany has the largest percentage of energy consumed in the country coming from renewables followed by the United Kingdom and Brazil. France has the highest percentage of energy consumed produced by nuclear power; and Canada and Brazil get more than a quarter of their energy from hydro-electricity. China gets more than 60% of the energy from coal and India gets more than 56% of their energy from coal. The oil producing nations and the car centric western nations all get huge amounts of energy from oil.  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Well Water Testing Clinic in Fairfax County

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be holding its first drinking water clinic for well owners in Fairfax County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program on October 16th 2017. You can register online at or contact: Lareka Washington or Adria Bordas in Fairfax county at 703-324-5369.

The program consists of two meetings- one to get instructions, learn about the local geology and wells, and pick up test kits, and the other a month later to get results and provide interpretation and recommendations. Samples will need to be dropped off at the Pennino Building on October 18th , 2017 from 6:30AM—10:00AM ONLY.

The samples will be analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and the cost $55. Comparable analysis at a private commercial lab would cost $150-$200. Samples will be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria.

The Kickoff Meeting will be on October 16th, 2017 at 7-8:30 PM at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office (Pennino Building) 12011 Government Center Parkway, 10th floor (Virginia Room) Fairfax, VA 22035. A brief presentation will be given to discuss common water quality issues in your area and instructions for how to properly collect the water samples from your tap. Water sampling kits will be distributed with written sampling directions and a short survey about your water supply for data gathering purposes.

The samples should be taken early Wednesday morning and then dropped off on Wednesday October 18th , 2017, between 6:30 AM—10:00 AM ONLY at the Virginia Cooperative Extension (Pennino Building) 12011 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035.

Results Interpretation Meeting will be held on Nov. 15, 2017 from 7:00PM - 9:00PM once more at the Pennino Bldg. this time on the 2nd floor in room 206. Participants will receive their confidential water test results. A presentation will be given that explains what the numbers on the test report mean and what possible options participants may consider to deal with water problems. Experts will be on hand to answer any specific questions you may have about your water and water system.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. All drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for at least Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water. Testing is not mandatory, but should be done to ensure your family’s safety. Maintenance and ensuring that water is safe to drink is the responsibility of the owner. If there is a pregnant woman or infant in the home the water should be tested. If there is any change in the taste, appearance, odor of water or your system is serviced or repaired then water should be tested to confirm that no contaminants were introduced.

Most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color and be annoying and persistent problems and EPA has established secondary standards that can be used as guidance. Excessive levels of sodium, total dissolved solids, harness, can be an annoyance and impact appliances. Several of the naturally occurring contaminants that commonly appear in well water are primary contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act and can be a health hazard- nitrate, lead, arsenic, floride, and copper.

The VCE Drinking Water Clinics from 2009-2015 testing in Virginia found that the most common Contaminants found were sodium, coiform bacteria, low pH, maganese and lead.

The presence of total coliform bacteria is an indication that surface water may be entering a well and that there may a pathway for other, more harmful microorganisms. E. coli was is an indication that human or animal waste is contaminating the groundwater. The most common sources of E. coli is a failing septic system or improperly manage manure from animal operations.

Monday, September 25, 2017


Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer of several brands of personal wipes that they call "flushable" is suing Washington DC over a new city law regulating when a wipe can be labeled "flush-able." The law was passed after DC Water and public utilities found that these wipes were clogging the sewage pipes and treatment plants. They also clog septic systems and reminded me that last week was the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fifth annual SepticSmart Week.

 SepticSmart is a program the EPA uses to encourage the more than 26 million homeowners with septic systems to properly maintain their septic systems; and update homeowners on the latest in best management practices for their home systems.

When homeowners flush and don’t think about their home’s septic system, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows, surfacing sewage in your yard which can be expensive to fix, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment. Yet, Virginia like many states has struggled to get homeowners to consistently maintain their septic systems. A well maintained septic system can last 30 years.

Homeowners fail to see or simply ignore signs that their septic systems may be failing, do not pump their tanks often enough and do not comply with inspection and maintenance regulation for alternative systems. The EPA launched the annual SepticSmart Week, to encourage homeowners to get “SepticSmart”-understand how to properly operate and maintain their septic systems.

The United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our water resources EPA has turned their focus to controlling pollution from diffuse, or non-point, sources. Things like stormwater runoff and septic systems. According to EPA, these non-point source pollution are the largest remaining source of water quality problems. However, these are the most difficult sources of pollution to address, because eliminating them involves changing the behavior of millions of people. We did not do enough to control these small pollution sources from our homes and daily lives. The maintenance and care of their septic systems is the responsibility of homeowners, but failure to maintain their system can impact their neighbors drinking water.

The average household septic system should be inspected at least every three years by a septic service professional. Household septic tanks are typically pumped every three to five years. Alternative systems with electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components should be inspected more often, generally once a year. A service contract is important since alternative systems have mechanized parts.

Taking the steps recommended by the EPA for SepticSmart Week would be a great start at reducing nonpoint pollution of our waters. Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:

1. Protect It and Inspect It: In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
2. Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
3. Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank; also they can clog the piping.
4. Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks, install faucet aerators and water-efficient products, and spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.
5. Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.