Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our New Web Site - No new posts here

We are in the midst of developing a new website here. We are rather excited about this change, and think everyone will like it, but it will take some time to get everything moved there. So the old sites will remain, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, this column is going up there already, so we will not longer be posting anything here. So check out the new site. Share your opinions on the issues of the day there. The site allows that.

If you have some thoughts about the website, get back to WadeWiebe@yahoo.com or eric@southeasttransition.com

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Canadians Want a Clean Energy Future

One goal of the Premier’s conference last month was to develop a national energy strategy. That did not happen. According to news reports, this failure occurred because Premier Christy Clark would not agree to any general energy strategy unless BC and Alberta could reach some agreement in their current dispute. Clark had laid down five conditions that would need to be met if the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, promoted by Alberta, was to pass through BC. The single condition that is generating the most controversy has to do with the sharing of the revenues resulting from the export of the bitumen/oil. 
At first glance there seems to be much wisdom in such a stance: if we can’t agree on the detail on this specific aspect of energy development, what’s the point of talking about general agreements. The devil is in the detail.

But on second thought, much of that wisdom evaporates. The dispute seems to be about who gets what revenue. The dispute framed that way assumes the resource, bitumen/oil, ought to be developed, exported and sold. But should and do Canadians accept this assumption?

A new survey commissioned by Tides Canada speaks to this. The results are striking. According to this new poll, Canadians believe the country needs an energy plan that reduces fossil fuel dependence, cuts energy waste, creates more clean-energy jobs, fights climate change, and sets aside a portion of oil wealth to help prepare for a clean and renewable energy future.

“Citizens are hungry for a smart plan that will move the nation forward on the emerging global clean-energy opportunity and tackle climate change at the same time,” says Merran Smith, director of the energy initiative at Tides Canada.

Tides Canada commissioned Harris/Decima to do the survey. Canadians were asked to indicate to what degree they would prioritize a series of objectives for a potential Canadian energy strategy. They identified as a “top” or “high” priority “improving energy efficiency” (82 percent), “creating more jobs in clean energy” (75 percent), “reducing Canada’s carbon pollution to slow down climate change” (66 percent), and “reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal” (66 percent).

In contrast, only 33 percent of those surveyed placed a “top” or “high” priority on “exporting more of Canada’s oil and gas resources.” 

Meanwhile, 82 percent of those surveyed said that they either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that “Canada should set aside a portion of its oil wealth to help prepare the nation for a clean and renewable energy future.”

The idea of a Canadian energy strategy resonates strongly with citizens. Fully 87 percent of those surveyed either “strongly” or “somewhat” agree with the statement “the nation needs a Canadian energy strategy to plan its energy future.” 

Oh that our governments would listen!

Eric Rempel

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Natural Systems Agriculture Field day

I attended the Ecological and Organic Farming Systems Field Day at Carman last Monday. As in previous years, the plots and the work we were shown was most impressive. In introducing the day, Dr. Martin Entz informed us that their work indicates they can produce field crops using 37% of the fossil energy needed in conventional farming. The 150 guests there spent the rest of the day seeing how the research team goes about achieving this remarkable efficiency.

This reported efficiency is astonishing for two very different reasons.

It is astonishing that, given this efficiency, only very few people produce food in this way. Why don’t they? Because current economics does not reward this efficiency. The current fossil energy price is artificial. True, the price is determined by free market forces. In that sense it is the free market price, but that price only includes the cost of extracting the oil, and does not even include all of those costs. Furthermore, that price includes no compensation to future generations who will not have access to this precious resource because it will be gone. Whatever that compensation ought to be, whether it is high or low, it is never included in the market price of fossil energy. The market price of fossil energy is artificially low. Because of this low market price, it currently makes economic sense to use fossil energy extravagantly, in the production of our food.

But the number is also astonishing because it shows what is possible when good science is applied to a problem. In conventional agriculture, the posed challenge is, maximize net economic return by managing fertility, weed control, pest control and genetics. Prodigious amounts of research dollars have been and are being devoted to addressing the challenge defined in this way, and the results have been truly impressive.

The Natural Systems Farming research team has redefined the challenge. Their focus is not on economic return, but on return to energy. Prior to the fossil era, prior to this era when fossil fuel has been readily available, the food production challenge has always been that: how to get the necessary food, while expending the minimal amount of energy. What was lacking prior to the fossil era, was the application of the scientific method, and world wide communications.

When my grandfather farmed with horses, he was very aware of energy in and energy out. There was no cheap energy. His tools to enhance fertility were summerfallow, alfalfa, sweet clover, and to a limited extent, barnyard manure. The Carman researchers, today, are able to choose for some twenty different potentially useful green manure crops. My grandfather was very limited in the tools he had available. Today many more tools are available to both researcher and farmer.

The work done at Carman needs to be nurtured. Input manufacturers will not do this research, because it does not result in a return for them. Such research needs to be and only will be funded by a forward thinking government.

By Eric Rempel

Does extreme weather add up to climate change?

I have no trouble remembering a time when a drought was just that: a drought. Sure, even as we lapped up the sunshine and enjoyed our ice cream, we were concerned about our gardens and the crops our farmer friends were tending. But no one doubted then, that the drought would come to an end – sometime.

But things are not that way anymore. Now we have extreme weather, and we wonder: is this just another weather cycle, or are we beginning to experience climate change. There can be little doubt that we are experiencing extreme weather. For us in Manitoba it began with the record flooding on the Assiniboine River in the spring of 2011. That was followed by the record dry summer in 2011, an extremely warm winter, and now again record high temperatures and prolonged drought.

Britain by contrast has been incredibly wet. The reporting leading up to the Olympics refers to this every evening. The wettest April ever was followed by the wettest June (more than double average rainfall), and July has started the same way.

Russia had its hottest summer ever in 2010, with peat wildfires raging out of control — over 5,000 excess deaths in Moscow in July alone — but this summer it’s wet in Russia too.

This past week we have been hearing about flash floods in China

One could go on, enumerating extreme weather events in Australia and the US, but in fact, they are all just anecdotal. Anecdotes – extreme weather events – do not prove that climate change is occurring.

So can we say anything about climate change with absolute certainty? Well, no, we can’t. It is just possible that all of the events we are witnessing are just a random collection of extreme events that signify nothing at all. But it’s a long-shot. Occasionally a tossed coin comes up heads six times in a row. But usually it doesn’t.

Were global warming actually occurring we would not feel it. If the actual temperature of our planet went up one or two degrees, we would not notice this. The glaciers and the polar ice caps may be affected, and, say the climate scientests, the weather would get wilder.

We never really experience the climate; what we feel is the daily weather that it produces. A climate that is changing will produce unfamiliar weather — and if it is getting warmer, it will be more energetic weather. Wilder weather, if you like.

That means hotter, longer heat waves, and bigger storms that bring torrential rain and killer wind speeds. But it can also mean prolonged droughts as rainfall patterns change — and much more severe winters, like the “Snowmageddon” storm that hit Washington in February 2010 and shut down the U.S. federal government for a week.

You can’t prove that all this means we are sliding into a new and steadily worsening climate right now — that the long-threatened future has arrived.

The statistics aren’t good enough to support that conclusion yet. But if you have to put your money down now, bet yes.

By Eric Rempel

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Need for Resilience

In 2006 we became aware of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Even if we did not read the book, author Michael Pollan effectively raised all of our awareness of the implications of our food choices: the distance some of the food on our dinner plate has travelled, the inputs used in growing our food, the labour conditions present in the production of other food, and the sustainability of our whole food system. Pollan’s other concern is agricultural policy, and how subsidies, some overt, but many covert, affect our food choices.
On the heels of that book came The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. This is one couple’s account of life when they had set themselves the challenge of eating only food grown within 100 miles for a year. Inspired by that account, others have set themselves identical or similar challenges. All the people I have heard talking about this experience say the same thing: the discipline was a good experience, one they encourage others to try, but it is not a discipline they intend to follow for the rest of their life. They do not advocate it as a lifestyle.
Now there is The Localivore’s Dilemma. The book seems to make some good points primarily in drawing attention to the fact that long distance transportation may not be as large an energy input in the production of our food as say, the heating of a greenhouse. Had they stopped there, the book would be a good contribution to the whole food discussion. Unfortunately, the authors seem exceptionally intent on debunking The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The 100-Mile Diet. Without that emphasis, the book would be much more helpful to us as we make food choices.
Perhaps more helpful is The Resilience Imperative, a book I have been reading lately. This book suggests that with regard to our entire way of life, things have been going well. Nevertheless, shocks will come, whether they be the result of financial breakdown, resource depletion, or political breakdown. How well are we prepared for such a shock?
Our food system is predicated on a number of largely unexamined assumptions. The first assumption is that cheap fertilizer made from distant fossil and rock deposits will always be available. Conventionally, large quantities of energy are needed in both the production and delivery of food. The second assumption is that this energy will always be available.
A few dedicated researchers at the University of Manitoba are devoted to developing a food production system independent of imported fertilizers, and less dependent on fossil energy inputs. If these questions concern you, consider attending the Natural Systems Agriculture field day in Carman July 23.
At the South Eastman Transition Initiative we discuss and delve into these important questions. Join us Thursday, July 26 as we spend the evening with Kim Shukla and Richard Whitehead of Stonelane Orchard discussing the challenges and rewards of growing food without chemical inputs.
Eric Rempel

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When the Power Goes Off

Events of the past few weeks have again reinforced the awareness that as a society we are extremely vulnerable to extended electrical power outages.

In my world, three recent events have helped to focus my attention and concern. At the Annual General Meeting of Steinbach Housing, Inc. on June 27th, it was reported that a faulty stand-by generator had recently been replaced with a new one. Shortly after the announcement, the power went out, leaving the gathering in semi-darkness. “Will the new, standby generator work?” could be heard here and there. Fortunately the power came back on in about a minute so the standby system did not get a workout.

Then about a week ago a severe storm passed through Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where my son is working at Camp Kadesh. In that case power was restored a day and a half later, just in time to begin their annual staff training sessions.

Last week Friday, my sister flew home to Virginia after spending a week with family here in Manitoba. She made it as far as Richmond and then was advised to seek shelter from the “derecho” storm instead of attempting the one-hour drive to her home. She barely made it into a motel before the deluge hit. As we all heard in the news, electrical power went down for three million people. Four days later, 1.2 million people still were without power, and that amid sweltering heat.

All this makes me wonder what impact an extended power outage would have on us in Southeastern Manitoba. Of course the winter season is of greatest concern, but our normal lives would come to a virtual standstill during any season of the year should our electrical power system fail for more than a few hours.

Most of us don’t want to think about how vulnerable our power supply really is and don’t make even minimal plans for life without electricity. There is a collective denial among us that extended power outages could happen where we live. We simply choose to believe that when the lights go out, they will be back on shortly. Sometimes that happens. What if it doesn’t?

Larger institutions in our area place their hope on stand-by generators. These are good for short-term outages, but are less reliable when the power stays off for extended periods of time. And even so, these generators do not bring power to the larger population in the area.

A sustainable solution to such an eventuality has become quite elusive because we have built dependency on electrical power into the fabric of our modern life styles. Our grandparents survived quite well without electricity and so could we if we put our minds to it. But we cannot ‘flick a switch’ to erase such dependency. We have to think long and hard about how to minimize our dependence on electricity.

The question is whether we have the courage and willingness to change our lifestyles to reduce the vulnerability we now live with.

Jack Heppner

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Phosphates in our Ditches

I have previously written about the phosphate cycle. In nature, plants take up phosphate from the soil, and it becomes a part of plant tissue. The nutrient is returned to the soil when the plant dies. If it is ingested by animals or people, the phosphate is returned to the soil when the animal defecates. The cycle is complete.
In modern food production systems phosphate is a scarce resource. It is mined thousands of miles from here, is transported to where it is needed and applied to fields and gardens. The phosphate works its way up the food chain, and ultimately ends up in a livestock barn or human stomachs.
We flush our toilets and that phosphate is on its way to Lake Winnipeg. Animal manure is applied to agricultural fields. If the same amount of manure phosphate is applied as what the plants will take up, the natural phosphate cycle is intact. If surplus manure phosphate is applied, the extra is on its way to Lake Winnipeg. No matter how the phosphate is treated, it does not simply disappear.
As the phosphates get to Lake Winnipeg, they encourage algal growth in the lake, which in turn consumes oxygen resulting in a sterile lake unable to support fish or anything else. 
There are currently projects underway to see whether excess phosphate can be removed from Lake Winnipeg. Experimentally, cattails in the lake are being harvested and removed to see if the lake could benefit from such a removal. This may offer possibilities, but in my mind, the biggest problem is not addressed: the recovered phosphate is now a long ways from where it is needed, namely the farm fields.
Recently, David Dawson pointed out to me that the Highways Dept and Municipalities cut the grass and cattails in our ditches regularly. The lush growth in the ditches is the result of nutrients coming off the adjacent fields. In spring, many of these ditches become raging torrents. The rotting mass of cut grass is flushed down into the rivers and into Lake Winnipeg where it releases its phosphates.
Suppose, David says, an enterprising farmer cut the grass in the ditch, baled it up, took it to his farm and fed it to his cattle. Then the farmer collected the manure from his cattle and dumped it back in the ditch. There would be an outcry and rightly so. But, in fact, the farmer would be returning less to the ditch than he had taken out. The cattle would have utilized a good part of it. So why is it OK to leave all that grass in the ditch but not OK to dump the manure back in the ditch?
If we are seeking ways of removing phosphate from Lake Winnipeg, surely it makes more sense to prevent the phosphate from getting there in the first place. A relatively simple solution would be that the Highways Dept include in its grass cutting contracts a clause that the cut grass be removed. The material could be composted and recycled for public use. It’s not rocket science.
By Eric Rempel