Thursday, November 30, 2006

Celebrating Late Season Locally Grown Organic Food

Link to information on "Taste of Organic" Reception and Dinner

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As winter weather closes in on east central Illinois those of us who really prefer summer to the other seasons have less and less to sustain us. If you’re working in the yard or garden these days you’re probably making up things to do. Fishing is slow and birding is more and more difficult. Even now, though, there’s one last vestige of summer 2006 left: the Urbana Farmer’s Market. Sure, it has moved inside, and it’s a smaller affair now than it was at the height of the growing season. But hey, come Saturday you’ll still be able to buy locally produced organic food there, and that’s something to celebrate.

The farmers I spoke with this week said that root crops will be the most abundant produce: potatoes, radishes, beets, turnips, and the like. But you should also be able to find some leafy greens, like kale. And I’m told that one grower still had some tomatoes and green peppers last week, so you never know. Beyond that, organically produced meat and eggs will also be available

Why bother shopping for local food at this time of year when there’s so much else going on? For the same reasons you do any other time.

Taste is one reason. Produce that’s eaten shortly after it’s harvested tastes better than produce that’s been wrapped in plastic and trucked from California. And vegetables that don’t have to make such a journey can be selected for their unique flavor rather than their ability to withstand mechanical harvesting and shipping.

You may also seek out organically produced food in the interest of human health. That might be your own health, if you’re concerned about traces of pesticides in what you eat, or the health of farm workers, who are exposed to those pesticides in far more concentrated forms.

When you buy organic produce you support farmers who are working to create a healthier environment. By avoiding synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilizers they are protecting the soil by which they make a living. At the same time they are protecting the public good as well, by not polluting streams and rivers with nutrient and chemical runoff.

When you buy food at the farmers market you also promote a healthy local community. Smaller scale farming is more conducive to family participation than larger-scale, more highly mechanized production. And smaller scale distribution promotes ties between the people who produce food and the people who consume it to the benefit of both.

If you are interested in learning even more about organic farming in Illinois, or just eating some really super organic food, you might want to attend the public dinner and reception to be held in conjunction with a conference on organic production and marketing in Bloomington next week. The dinner is billed as “an opportunity to learn about organic food, talk to real organic farmers, get some great recipes, and (best of all) TASTE some wonderfully prepared organic food.” For more information click here, Taste of Organic, or contact Dan Anderson with the U of I’s Agroecology / Sustainable Agriculture Program. His phone number is 217-333-1588.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bumped for National Programming

Environmental Almanac was bumped from AM-580 by national programming on Thanksgiving. Look for a new installment on the air and online this Thursday, November 30.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ecological Footprint : Stepping Toward Sustainability

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Ecological footprint analysis is a tool for measuring the impact of human activity on the earth. It was developed in the mid-1990s, and it has been taken up around the world by researchers who are interested in the issue of sustainability. Ecological footprint analysis tells us how much biologically productive land is required to support an individual or population based on the resources they consume and the waste they generate. This allows us to explore a key aspect of sustainability: how well are we living within the means of nature?

For all of the time humans lived on earth up until the 1980s, our collective footprint remained within the area that the earth could afford us. But since then, we have overstepped our bounds by an increasing amount every year.

The most recent annual calculations published by the World Wildlife Fund (See WWF's Living Planet Report) indicate that the current global average ecological footprint stands at about 5.4 acres per person. That may not sound like a lot, but in fact it’s nearly 25% more than nature can provide on a continuous basis. We’re able get that extra 25% for now by depleting stocks of natural resources that have accrued over millions of years.

Ecological footprint analysis also provides information about the relative impacts created by people living in different countries. The United States, which is second only to the United Arab Emirates in this regard, has a per-capita ecological footprint of 24 acres per person. That’s about 4 times the global average, and about 5 times what the earth can support on a continuous basis. If all the people alive on earth today had access to an American standard of living we would need 5 planets to support us.

Now, you may hear that and think, whoa, too much—somebody else is going to have to figure that one out.

But the cool thing about ecological footprint analysis is the way it can be used by individuals and communities who are interested in moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle. It helps you see which of your choices have the most significant impacts on the earth, and enables you to track your progress as you make adjustments in the way you do things.

You can measure your own ecological footprint using the web-based calculator at

When I took the quiz I came out with a footprint of 20 acres. That’s way over the 4.5 acres available per person as a global average. But it’s not so far over the available biologically productive land in the United States, which is about 12 acres per capita. So, rather than despairing because no change I make can reduce my footprint to the average that the earth as a whole will support, I’m aiming to reduce my footprint to what the land of the U.S. can support. In other words, I want to go from 20-acre footprint to a 12.

That’s still a substantial task, but one that’s do-able over time, and really worth engaging. By reducing our own ecological footprints, we bring ourselves into a more equitable relationship to the other people with whom we share the earth, now, and in the future.

Thanks to Rumi Shammin, a soon-to-be Ph.D. in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I for help with today’s show.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Defining Sustainability

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Whether you’re looking to buy a new home or picking up broccoli at a farmer’s market, you’re more likely than ever before to be confronted with the idea of sustainability in the choices you make. But have you ever stopped to wonder where our current focus on sustainability comes from?

I have. So I checked in recently with Rumi Shammin, who’s in the final stages of completing his doctoral dissertation on ways to implement sustainability in urban and regional planning. He knows as well as anyone the many ways the term “sustainability” has been defined and redefined in the past couple of decades.

Shammin points out that the current interest in ‘sustainability’ has its roots in the 60’s and early 70’s. However, widespread use of the concept was prompted by a 1987 report commissioned by the United Nations to re-examine critical environmental and development problems and to formulate realistic proposals to solve them. That report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For the purposes of his work, Shammin has combined the key elements others have used to define sustainability in subsequent years in a more comprehensive definition. In his terms, sustainability means “ensuring that critical social, economic and ecological processes are maintained in a way so that both the short and long-term quality of life of human societies and the health and diversity of natural ecosystems are not compromised and the scale of human activities are kept within the natural carrying capacity of the environment.”

Now, that definition covers a lot of territory. In order to develop a framework for applying it, Shammin breaks it down into five guiding principles.

The first principle asserts that humans exist neither above nor outside of nature, and that there are limits on the earth’s capacity to provide resources and accept waste.

Principle two tells us that in recent years we have begun to approach those limits very quickly.

The third principle defines “development” as improving quality of human life in three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. Shammin emphasizes that while development is typically equated with economic growth alone, human needs are often better satisfied by an improved environment and opportunities for a safe, engaged social life. This possibility is commonly ignored in the planning process.

The fourth principle draws attention to equity in the way the earth’s resources and capacities to process waste are used. This implies an obligation to allow others of our own generation access to the quality of life that we look for ourselves, and an obligation to future generations, that our activities do not diminish their opportunities. This obligation also extends to the other species that we share the earth with.

The fifth principle of sustainability stresses that local behavior and global development are inextricably intertwined. For example, many of the clothes we wear and the foods we eat come from around the world, and so our choices in these matters have impacts in far-away places. So to with other activities that have even greater aggregate impacts--our individual contributions to global warming, for example.

Shammin emphasizes that these five principles of sustainability are deliberately broad so that they can be adapted for specific purposes in different local contexts. Tune in next week to hear how they can be applied in ecological footprint analysis, which is designed to help people gauge the sustainability of their own activities.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Urbana's Big Grove Oaks

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When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie:" tall grasses and wild flowers adapted to life in unevenly drained soil subject to burning on a fairly regular basis.

And prairie is most of the story. But it is not the whole story.

Groves of trees intruded on the prairie here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well.

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game, shelter, and respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for Native American villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was called by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s the cool thing. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand in Urbana today.

You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a Bur Oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises more than eighty feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage. This tree’s limbs spread as wide as it is tall, which tells us that it grew up in a relatively open area, the meeting zone between woodland and prairie.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger Bur Oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Quaker Meetinghouse that was completed last year. We know this tree to be roughly two hundred forty years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

The “bicentennial tree” and the oak at Long’s Garage are both commemorated with stone markers and plaques that were set up by the Urbana Tree Commission in 1976.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The oldest and largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are ten or so of the trees at Weaver Park, now being developed on East Main.

Special thanks for assistance with today’s piece to Bob Vaiden of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Derek Liebert of the Urbana Park District, and Mike Brunk, City Arborist for Urbana.