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Earth Talk
EarthTalk®
Written by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine   
Monday, 01 February 2010 10:53

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of all the food we

earthtalkfoodwaste

"According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Food Loss Project, Americans throw away more than
25 percent -­ some 25.9 million tons -­ of all the food we
produce for domestic sale and consumption."
Image credit to "Patrick Michael Mcleon, courtesy Flickr."

throw away here in the United States?       -- Mike Schiller, Cambridge, MA

Food waste is a huge issue in America, especially in light of the growing divide between the profligate rich and the hungry poor. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, we throw away more than 25 percent—some 25.9 million tons—of all the food we produce for domestic sale and consumption. A 2004 University of Arizona study pegs the figure at closer to 50 percent, finding that Americans squander some $43 billion annually on wasted food. Lead researcher Timothy Jones reported that on average, U.S. households waste 14 percent of their food purchases. He estimates that a family of four tosses out $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products alone.

Once this food gets to the landfill, it then generates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.—meaning that the sandwich you made and then didn’t eat yesterday is increasing your personal—and our collective—carbon footprint.

 
EarthTalk®
Written by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine   
Monday, 25 January 2010 15:19

Dear EarthTalk: What are the primary environmental concerns in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Haiti?        -- Frank Dover, Portland, OR

As would be the case after any natural disaster, water-borne illness could run rampant and chemicals and oil could leak out of damaged storage facilities as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ripped apart Haiti on January 12. Surprisingly, no large industrial spills have been found during initial post-quake rescue efforts, but of course the focus has been on saving human lives and restoring civil order.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the biggest

earthtalkhaiti

Even before the earthquake Haiti had major
environmental and economic problems. Intensive
logging beginning in the 1950s has reduced Haiti’s
forest cover from 60 percent to less than two
percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil
erosion problems, threatening both food and clean
water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty
people. The earthquake has only exacerbated problems
in this country of 9.7 million people that is the poorest
in the Western hemisphere."
Credit this image to "Remi Kaupp, Wikipedia."

issue is the building waste; some 40 to 50 percent of the buildings fell in Port-au-Prince and nearby towns. “Thousands of buildings suddenly become debris and this overwhelms the capacity of waste management,” says UNEP’s Muralee Thummarukudy, who is directing efforts to collect the waste for use in reconstruction projects.

Even before the quake Haiti had major environmental problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s reduced Haiti’s forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. “If you have forest cover, when heavy rain takes place it doesn’t erode the land,” UNEP’s Asif Zaidi reports. “It doesn’t result in flash floods.” He adds that, due to its lack of forest cover, Haiti suffers much more during hurricanes than does the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Compounding these ecological insults is Haiti’s fast growing population, now 9.7 million and growing by 2.5 percent per year. This has pushed millions of Haitians into marginal areas like floodplains and on land that could otherwise be used profitably. “Most fertile land areas are often used for slums, while hillsides and steep landscapes are used for agriculture,” reports USAID’s Beth Cypser. The resulting sanitation problems have stepped up cases of dysentery, malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis among Haiti’s poverty-stricken population. Trash-filled beaches, smelly waterways, swarms of dead fish and tons of floating debris stand testament to Haiti’s water pollution problems—now exacerbated by the earthquake.

 
EarthTalk®
Written by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine   
Tuesday, 19 January 2010 13:54

Dear EarthTalk: How does growing human population, and its resultant landscape

earthtalkmigratorybirds

"The role of migratory birds in spreading bird flu is not well
understood, but waterfowl are a “natural reservoir” of
mostly harmless H5 and H7 influenza A viruses. Recent
research suggests that these viruses may be mutating into
more pathogenic (disease producing) forms that can “jump
the species barrier” and infect people and other animals."
Image courtesy of "Tom Brakefield, Getty Images."

changes, affect the flight paths of migratory birds that might carry diseases? -- Ronnie Washines, Toppenish, WA

As human population numbers grow, oceans of people seem to spread out into every conceivable environment—even the forests and estuaries used for eons by migratory birds as nutrient-rich stopovers on their longer annual journeys between feeding areas and birthing grounds.

Of course, more human development means fewer habitats suitable for such birds of passage (and other wildlife) as we “pave paradise…” and put up parking lots. But tired and hungry birds may not have the wherewithal or instinctual coding to seek out alternative resting areas, so they make do with habitat crowded and compromised by human incursion. Close proximity to avian life hasn’t presented too big of a problem for people in the past, but new concerns about the spread of bird flu (the H5N1 virus) via infected migratory birds (which presumably infect local populations of domestic birds) does have some scientists worried that persistent human expansion could indirectly lead to a disease pandemic of global proportions.

 
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