Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays

Photo credit:

So, it's that time of year again. Since I am still a student, I will continue to take advantage of long academic holidays; meaning, that I probably won't have any new blogs to post until the new year (we'll see). And because I am new to the world of blogging, I have no old posts with which to cheat, unlike some of my colleagues. 

I will, however, take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday. And remember to check back here for new material in the new year.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Making cities money with compact development: a win-win-win situation?

This is a great post from one of my favourite urban planning blogs. 'Place-making' or dense, urban development can make cities money!? This was certainly news to me. In fact, 'urban mixed-use midrise is over 200 times as profitable in tax revenue per acre than suburbia.' Compact development can also reduce infrastructure costs related to the existence of extensive road systems. And of course, we can't forget that when there are interesting things nearby to walk to, we tend to drive less and walk more, which decreases our risk for obesity and related diseases.

The author highlights some great examples including a few from Canada: Vancouver (understood) but Calgary, the Canadian capital of sprawl? That's right, Calgary is beginning to understand the error of its ways and is investing in compact development, estimated to save Calgary taxpayers $11.2B over 60 years.

Compact, mixed-use development sounds like a win-win-win situation to me - for the environment, city governments, and residents. Read more about this at:

PlaceShakers and NewsMakers 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Our dysfunctional food supply system: Part 2 - Factory Farming

Our seriously disordered food supply system is an enormous topic for discussion in terms of how it relates to our waistlines and our environment. I had originally set out to talk about two sub-themes. The first, our over-reliance on corn in food manufacturing, was discussed in October. Today I will talk about the second sub-theme: factory farming. 

It has been said that the way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000 (1). The change from pasture-based to large-scale, intensive animal farming practices has, in large part, enabled us to eat the way we do now - satisfying our insatiable demand for cheap meat, and no doubt helping to grow our waistlines. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global production of animal source foods (including meat, milk and eggs) rapidly increased from 1960-2000 (2). This is considered to reflect the increasing demand for these types of foods. Even though global demand has increased, consumption, especially of meat, is more a function of wealth, such that demand does not reflect actual need. Not surprisingly, the U.S. is the second largest global consumer of meat (per capita), and Canada the 8th - both consume over 3 times the world average.  It is expected that global consumption of meat will continue to rise, as developing countries become more wealthy - by about 30% from 233 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2000, to 300 million Mt  in 2020. Similar projections are estimated for milk and egg consumption.

FIGURE 1  Changes in meat production in developed and developing countries, 1960–2000.

In order for McDonald's to sell us cheap chicken nuggets and two-patty big-macs, the farm has become a factory where large numbers of animals are raised in close quarters - in feedlots, cages, crates, pens, stalls, and in warehouse-like facilities. Not only is this inhumane for the animals - devoid of natural stimuli and restrictive of innate behaviours - it is also energy inefficient and contributes substantially to global warming. 

The more obvious way in which factory farming contributes to green-house gas (GHG) emissions is through the enormous requirements for fossil fuels to grow crops, operate farm machinery, transport animals, and process and distribute animal-based food products. What might not be so obvious is the amount of manure that is generated. Often factory farms concentrate on farming just one thing, animals. Well then, what to do with all that poop? They have few or no fields to fertilize and too much poop to go around anyway. The result: large land areas that store massive amounts of manure. Some holding 'ponds' may be as large as 20 acres and 15 feet deep, containing 25 million gallons of manure(3,4)!  As these large land masses of manure decompose, they release huge amounts of methane, hydrogen sulfide, CO2, and ammonia into the atmosphere (5)(6). These holding areas are also prone to bursting and leaking, thus poop gets into our lakes and rivers.  Manure can also leach into surrounding water systems after being spread too excessively on crop fields (5). 

As you might have guessed this is not so good for the surrounding ecosystem, often resulting in fish kills and algal blooms (5). The quality of drinking water can also suffer. Decomposing algae can create an offensive taste and odour, and excessive nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome, a condition that reduces the baby's capacity to carry oxygen in the blood. And we know what can happen when our safeguards fail - you get the Walkerton tragedy. Plus, who wants to drink poop anyway?   

Overall, the agricultural sector contributed 8.5% of total GHG emissions in Canada during 2008. However, the agriculture sector is the second largest contributor to the long-term growth in GHG emissions, increasing 29% between 1990 and 2008 (6).  This was primarily the result of expansions in the beef cattle, swine, and poultry sectors, as well as an increase in the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. When looking worldwide on the other hand, animal agriculture is estimated to contribute 18% of human-induced GHG emissions, which is surprisingly more than the transportation sector (7).   
I would like to go on as we haven't even begun to talk about other environmental effects of factory-farming such as excessive water use, deforestation, land degradation etc, and other potential health effects such as the propagation of swine flu.  Or how some scientists believe that intensive farming is actually good for the environment in terms of feeding the planet. As an aside to this argument, these scientists don't take into consideration the inequitable distribution of food worldwide - we already have far too much food, what we need to do is to reduce consumption in wealthy countries and provide basic needs for poorer countries = 'REDISTRIBUTION'! Alas, people lose interest in long posts so I will finish here by highlighting a statement made by the FAO from a landmark report:

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity”(7).

I would argue that what needs to be added to this statement is obesity.

References and Resources

(1) Food Inc. Script Dialogue - Michael Pollan. Available at:

(2) Speedy AW. Global Production and Consumption of Animal Source Foods. J Nutr. 2003; 133: 4048S–4053S, 2003. Available at:

(3)Marvin D, (2005) Factory Farms Cause Pollution Increases. Johns Hopkins University Newsletter. Available at 

(4) Schlosser E, Charles W (2006), Chew On This .Houghton Mifflin Company: New York.

(5) ManureNet: Environmental Issues 

(6) Environment Canada. National Inventory Report: 1990-2008 Part I. Greenhouse gas sources and sinks in Canada: The Canadian Government's Submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available at:

(7) Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, de Haan, C (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow- Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


American Makeover TV is not something that you might expect. It's not another reality show about making people into supermodels or building houses that they can't afford. It's about changing American cities - from sprawling monsters that are bad for our health and our environment - to walkable, healthy and enjoyable cities. The solution to sprawl, say the series' makers, is New Urbanism, and that's what they set out to chronicle. 

The web series visits six American cities. The first webisode takes on Atlanta, Georgia, the 'capital city of sprawl' and ironically the home base of the world renowned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certainly building new communities and redesigning existing cities in ways we are not used will no doubt be a complex and time-consuming process, with many interacting societal factors. However, I think this series gives us a glimpse of some of the things we can expect - it's a start and certainly worth the watch. I'll keep you updated on the release of the second webisode coming soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Health by design (Part 1)

Today's post is one part of a two-part series on how we can build better places to live. Here I will briefly describe different neighbourhood designs and their issues in terms of health and environmental sustainability. The second post will further analyze the 'fused-grid' design, a design that may allow for both health and sustainability to exist in harmony. 
Now, to set the stage. Back in the olden days, neighbourhoods, towns, and cities were built to accommodate pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. This gave rise to the classic grid-iron street pattern - making it easy for someone on foot to get from point A to B. Because people could not get very far very fast, they had to live close to one another, to where they worked, and to markets where they could buy the necessities of living. The centres of very old European cities are great examples of this type of street design. 
                                                            Barcelona, Spain: classic pedestrian-friendly streets
The North American suburb evolved as a result of several things: abundance of land, the advent of the automobile as well as availability of cheap fossil fuels (at the time), and the need to separate land-uses for health reasons (1). More well-to-do residents also wanted more privacy and green space. The current result? Neighbourhoods with meandering loops and lollipop streets that go nowhere, connected to urban centres via large arterial roads that encourage drivers to speed, and therefore, are largely unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists (2). Residents no longer live close to anything and must rely on the car to get anywhere. In effect, the ability to live a healthy lifestyle has been engineered out of the built environment (3).

Route directness: comparison between loop/lollipop and grid-iron street designs
To build further on the previous point, many people see suburban sprawl as a determinant of the obesity epidemic, as residents spend more time in the car than actually walking, with often less access to services that promote healthy eating and physical activity. In the scientific literature, low population density has been found to relate significantly to excess weight; however the results have been  more consistent among adults than children(4,5,6). For children, it may be that it takes some time for such environments to exert their affects on weight, or the effects might not be the same among children compared to adults.  Given that the literature is primarily based on the cross-sectional study design, for both adults and children, it is likely that the relationship between sprawl and weight status is not that clear cut, with other factors at various levels of social organization (such as individual and  and neighbourhood socio-economic status) playing a role (7).  

Suburban living is also not sustainable. Few people can argue with that. The amount of land is not infinite, nor for that matter, is oil. We also need somewhere to grow our food. Greenhouse gas emissions from cars are poisoning our air, and new residential developments and road construction threaten ecosystem health, as well established communities, which are often disadvantaged, and therefore lack the power and resources to protect what is theirs (7,8). 

The pitfalls of sprawl have in large part led to the revitalization of the grid-iron street pattern of old, often referred to as 'neo-traditional,' as well as the rise in popularity of 'smart growth' and 'new urbanism': similar design mantras that focus on fostering a sense of community, mixing land-uses such as housing, commercial, and retail, are transit and pedestrian oriented, value the utility of green spaces, and often rely on the grid-iron street design. 

Herein lies the problem: balancing what people want/can afford with sustainability and health. 

Using the neo-traditional grid-iron neighbourhood pattern often means high-density housing. Many people still want single-family homes with a backyard, not a condo. For the average person or family, living 'downtown' in a condo is often not possible anyway due to enormous real estate costs. 

The grid-iron pattern also requires a lot of paved surface area.  This is bad for the environment in two main ways: 
[a]As the percentage of street surfaces increases, the city becomes a ‘heat island’ with temperatures differentials that can be 5-10°C between the city and surrounding hinterlands (9). Increased temperatures in and around cities leads to enhanced ozone formation and increase the number of officially recognized smog days. The adverse influence of ozone is further enhanced via suburban sprawl which can project ozone to surrounding agriculture lands, decreasing crop yields by 5-10% (9); 
[b] Streets are responsible for about 75% of total water runoff after a rainfall and are key sources of waterborne particles and pollutants from the built environment, which necessitate water treatment (10).

Finally, if a move to more high-density living is not accompanied by reductions in automobile use and investment in city infrastructure such as construction and maintenance of sidewalks and parks, mixed land-use development, public transportation, and sewage and water treatment systems, health and sustainability problems would stay the same or even worsen.    

How can we then fix suburban sprawl if we can't use street designs that worked in the days of horse and buggy? 

Certainly ALL urban planning should follow smart growth/new urbanism principles. However, in Canada, there is a large gap between what is proposed and what actually gets done (11) ; never mind the fact that not all cities and municipalities even 'propose' to follow these healthy and sustainable building principles. 

The answer may lie with a neighbourhood design that fuses the grid-iron and conventional sub-division designs. It is aptly named the Fused-grid Design (FG); a design that consists of a discontinuous grid of local streets (quadrants, quartiers, or quarters) surrounded by a continuous grid of collectors and arterial roads that provide connectivity for regional and district travel. Keeping local streets discontinuous, as in conventional suburban design, increases safety and tranquility for residents. The almost exclusive use of 3-way intersections also increases safety.

A Fused-Grid District with 36 neighbourhoods
Quadrants in the FG follow the same dimensions as those of traditional town quartiers that originated in the horse and buggy era (around 40 acres, or 1,300 x 1,300 ft) (12). The essential principle of the quadrant is that streets cannot traverse it. They must stop or return to the perimeter. Pedestrian and bicycle paths connect discontinuous streets between quadrants so that pedestrians or cyclists can travel directly and safely to nearby destinations. Open spaces are placed where streets end, usually in central areas of the quadrant (green area in the picture). They function as places for social interaction, physical activity, and route connection for pedestrians (12). Each quadrant is said to be traversable by a pedestrian in 5 minutes. 

The design is flexible in that there are many different configurations of street patterns with open space and housing densities (as can be seen in the picture). For example, one quadrant could contain exclusively high density or low density housing. Alternatively, high density housing could be placed on the perimeter of the quadrant, with single family housing located in the interior. Mixed land-use zones separate quadrants, and provide areas to develop schools, parks or businesses (white area with red lines). If population growth places too much stress on existing infrastructure, these areas can also be used for road redesign and/or expansion within the existing road allowance (13). 

New developments can use the FG but old grid-iron and conventional subdivision designs can also be retrofitted to the FG design. This design idea does not seem to be new - older European cities such as Munich appear to already be using these design principles.   

Three distinct FG quadrants in Munich, Germany
Does the FG work in terms of health and sustainability? Has it been implemented in Canada? These and other things will be discussed in Health by Design: Part 2


(1) Duany A, Plater-Zyberk E. The traditional neighbourhood and urban sprawl. New Urbanism and beyond: Designing cities for the future.New York: Rizzoli International Publishers; 2008. p. 64.

(2) Nozzi D. Speed, size, and the destruction of cities. New Urbanism and beyond: Designing cities for the future.New York: Rizzoli International Publishers; 2008. p. 89.

(3) Malizia EE. City and regional planning: a primer for public health officials. Am J Health Promot 2005;19(5):Suppl-13.

(4) Shields M, Tjepkema M. Regional differences in obesity. Health Rep 2006;17(3):61-7.
(5) Feng J, Glass TA, Curriero FC, Stewart WF, Schwartz BS. The built environment and obesity: A systematic review of the epidemiologic evidence. Health & Place 2009; 16 (2): 175 - 90

(6) Dunton GF, Kaplan J, Jerrett M, Reynolds KD. Physical environmental correlates of childhood obesity: a systematic review. Obes Rev 2009 Jul;10(4):393-402. 

(7) Lopez R, Hynes HP. Obesity, physical activity, and the urban environment: public health research needs. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source 2006;5(1):25-32

(8) Savitch HV. How suburban sprawl shapes human well-being. J Urban Health 2003;80(4):590-607.

(9) Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM, Nilon CH, Pouyat RV, Zipperer WC, et al. Urban ecological systems: Linking terrestrial ecological, physical, and socioeconomic components of metropolitan areas. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 2001;32:127-57.

(10) Engel-Yan J, Kennedy C, Saiz S, Pressnail K. Toward sustainable neighbourhoods: the need to consider infrastructure interactions. Can J Civil Eng 2005;32:45-57.

(11) Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Smart Growth in Canada: A Report Card. 2005

(12) Grammenos F. The Fused Grid: A contemporary urban pattern.

(13) Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The Fused Grid: A neighbourhood and district layout model. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Getting kids outside and back to nature

I am in the midst of a two-day conference called Healthy Children Healthy Spaces, put on jointly by KidActive, Child & Nature Alliance, and International Play Association Canada. The basic objective is to share knowledge and network around ways to make children's outdoor spaces conducive to active play and in turn foster their physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual health. One main way to accomplish all of this is to provide 'green' environments, which engage children and peak their natural curiosity.

On day 1, Tim Gill, a well-known thinker in child development in the UK, gave a keynote speech on his book 'No fear: growing up in a risk averse society.' For me, his speech added another element, or potential determinant if you like, to the childhood obesity epidemic. He first asked us to think of our favourite place to play when we were children. Then asked us to stand if that place was a wooded area or forest; everyone stood up. He then asked us if this place was away from adult supervision; most of us remained standing. That set the tone for his entire speech. 

Many adults feel that children grow up faster than they used to, but from Tim's perspective, it's totally the opposite. There is a growing anxiety among parents to protect their children from all types of harm; they feel that this is their job. Thus, children's freedom is shrinking as parents take more control and oversight over what they do. This 'helicopter parenting' it is to the detriment of children's health and well-being, but has become the norm, where parents who let their children bike to school are seen as negligent. Tim said that children are now 'raised in captivity.' I think that provides a nice visual of how children grow up these days.  He elaborated on this by showing us a report, although hardly representative but intriguing nonetheless, on 'how children have lost the right to roam in 4 generations'

Tim then focused his attention to outdoor play places made especially for kids. The built from a catalogue playground, sure, is designed to safety standards, but is it truly engaging? It certainly costs a lot. We aren't even sure if those seemingly 'extra safe' rubber surfaces prevent injuries; children tend to take more risks when they know the landing is softer. Over the past 20 years in the UK, there have been 5 or 6 equipment-related fatalities on playgrounds, yet 500 times as many children have been struck and killed by vehicles on the streets. In Canada, playground deaths are 'rare,' although I could not find exact numbers. Yet, an estimated 56 children under age 14 die each year from being hit by a car when they are on foot, and a further 20 die from being hit while on a bike. Where then is our money better spent? I'd say on: 

1) developing natural environments that allows kids the chance to explore and connect with nature, but are not restricted by rigid safety standards and helicopter parents

Trees and plants for play
Photo credit London Play 

2) on taking back our streets from the automobile, by making them safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Below is an example of taking right-of-way away from motorists  (the vibrant, permeable cul-de-sac - a design feature of the 'fused-grid' - full discussion of this neighbourhood design coming soon!)


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Story of Food

This is a great short film that reminds me a bit of the documentary 'Food Inc.'  It explains where our food actually comes from and is a great attempt at getting people to think about how seriously messed up our food system has become. Namely, that we have lost our connection with 'real' food and the people who grow it. The film was produced by USC Canada, an organization dedicated to supporting small family farms, strong rural communities, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and social equity, including food security.     

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Indiana Jones and the Fight for Biodiversity

Now if Indiana Jones thinks that saving biodiversity is a good thing, then well, maybe it is. I can't recall a time that Indi was ever wrong...Nor Hans Solo for that matter..

That's right, Harrison Ford was in attendance at a summit of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, being held in Nagoya, Japan from October 18 - 29, 2010. I had no idea he was a conservationist, not to be confused with conservative - an easy mistake to make given his country of origin..Tea Party Patriots, need I say more?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources. It entered into being in 1993 and has near universal participation of countries. Of course, the U.S. is among three countries that have not yet ratified it. 

That's why Indi was there, to kick some Congress butt into action! He called on the U.S. to ratify the convention and to spread the environmental word to American consumers, the largest (no pun intended) consumers in the world.  

In his opening summit address, Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD Executive Secretary, underlined the urgency of the talks: 'The third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook demonstrates that, today, the rate of loss of biodiversity is up to one thousand times higher than the background and historical rate of extinction. The report predicts that if we allow the current trends to continue we shall soon reach a tipping point with irreversible and irreparable damage to the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life on Earth.' 

Talks between country representatives resulted in agreement on the "Aichi Target", which includes 20 headline targets organized under five strategic goals to be reached by 2020. Targets of particular importance include:
  • Cutting the rate of natural habitat loss, including forests, by at least 50%;
  • Increasing protection of land (and inland waters) from 13% to 17%
  • Increasing protection of marine and coastal areas from 1% to 10%; 
  • Restoring at least 15 % of degraded areas; and
  • Reducing pressures faced by coral reefs 

Parties agreed to a 'substantial increase in the level of financial resources in support of implementation of the Convention'. But who knows what that will or will not translate into. Criticism of the Aichi Target stems in large part from lack of funding for its actual implementation.

Agreement on the equitable sharing of the benefits (often genetic) derived from the exploitation of flora and fauna was expected to cause problems for overall summit goals.  However, a protocol was developed to ensure that developing countries rich in natural resources, such as Brazil, are recompensated for products made from their native plants and animals. This protocol will come into play once it is ratified by at least 50 parties.   

Ahmed Djoghlaf seemed to be pleased with the outcome of the summit in light of his closing remarks. Conservation groups, on the other hand, say that it is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough.

Ford has sat on the board of Conservation International for 20 years, and is the current Vice Chair. In addition to calling on the U.S. to ratify the Convention, he was at the Nagoya Summit to persuade world leaders to protect vast amounts of land and water. His organization believes that 25% of land and 15% of oceans need to be protected in order to steer clear of the tipping point.

The U.S. has not paid heed to Indi's calls, citing that  it has so far not been politically 'necessary' to ratify the convention (let alone agree on the Aichi Target). This is the summit's greatest weakness. The U.S. is the world's largest energy consumer, and has the highest Gross Domestic Product; a country unfortunately, with a lot of pull on the world stage. If the U.S. is not on board, other developing countries may forgo their pledges in the name of economic development at the expense of their natural resources. Not to mention that American pharmaceutical companies and other businesses have no requirement to respect the protocol on the equitable sharing of benefits derived from countries' native plants and animals. And we all know how 'ethical' pharmaceutical companies have been of late. If the failing Obama government won't sign on, can we expect the next American government backed by a sweeping citizen movement that promotes fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets? I think that is a resounding no. 

Listen to Indiana Jones people! Speaking to the 193 countries in Nagoya he said that nature provides free services but that it is under threat, and bold and decisive action needs to be taken. He wasn't kidding. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a global study initiated by the G8 and five major developing economies to analyze the global economic benefit of biological diversity, the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation,” found compelling economic arguments for conservation. Below is an example: 

The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity: TEEB for Business Executive Summary
After seeing these numbers, why do we still not get it?! And we haven't even factored into the equation improvements to health. For instance, if we were to reduce overweight and obesity by changing the food industry; growing wholesome foods in a sustainable manner. In Canada, overweight and obesity are estimated to cost CAD$ 6 billion. Or by reducing the amount of pollutants we pump into the environment. Environmental pollutants in the U.S. are estimated to cost US$ 55 billion due to diseases in children, such as asthma.   
Let's all get on the same page here; being 'green' IS compatible with economic and social development, will improve health for all, and will leave us with a planet that we can pass on to our children.

Other references and resources:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Yet another reason to stop subsidizing corn..


To go with my earlier post:

High-fructose corn syrup may have more fructose than initially reported by soda companies. Marion Nestle discusses this surprising study finding recently published in the journal Obesity. Will litigation lawyers have a field day? I think more studies are warranted; however, lack of scientific evidence hasn't stopped lawyers before...Nonetheless this is further motivation to change the food industry.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sustainable seafood?

I absolutely love TED talks. I happened upon this talk the other day: Barton Seaver, a Chef, presents a blue take on our modern <green> dilemma of sustainability and expanding waistlines. 

As most of us know, seafood is one of our healthier protein options, but overfishing is stripping our oceans bare. Even though there are lists now like Seafood Watch, eating four times a week from the 'green' list isn't necessarily doing our lakes and oceans any favours.   

Seaver argues that we as a society get far too much protein and that the key is portion size control and variety; something that is actually making him money in his restaurant! This includes the oft' heard axiom - 'Eat yer veggies!'

Have a look below.

Barton Seaver: Sustainable seafood? Let's get smart | Video on

Monday, October 25, 2010

No Dumping

Today's post is a bit of a rant. I have a dog, a grey-hound mix at that, who requires plenty of exercise throughout the day. Since we live in a condo, this exercise is usually provided via walks throughout the neighbourhood. I like to walk in green areas, which to me are interesting, relaxing, and safe, with man-made pathways so that I do not have to rely on bushwhacking to get where I want to go. This preference therefore leads me to use parks, pedestrian/cycling paths that follow waterways, and man-made marshes with raised banks. In newly built Hull subdivisions, man-made marshes have been constructed to deal with water run-off; they are situated beside parks and in my view, are a part of the park, as they are usually maintained by city employees, providing an extension to park walkways.

My first complaint has mostly to do with these man-made marshes. Just because these areas are not refined in the same manner as a park, does not mean that people do not use them. It is actually quite an ingenious way to use nature to reduce pollutants in our water ways, creates a habitat for birds and other animals, and provides a point of interest for people to walk to.  I understand that people do not like to put their garden refuse out for garbage pickup because it is compostable. However, this does not mean that it should be thrown into these natural areas to decompose. First and foremost, this refuse often has a lot of fertilizer which can kill plants growing in the marsh. It is generally in one big pile and quite ugly to look at. What's more is that I've often seen non-compostable materials dumped in these areas. If everyone in the neighbourhood were to dump their stuff, the marshes would no longer be able to function as an eco-system, and people would stop using them as a way to increase their physical activity and well-being. So please, if you do this, STOP! Start a compost pile in your backyard, wait for yard waste pick-up, or get your neighbour to help you compost and/or put your garbage out for you if there is a bag maximum.

My second complaint is about dog owners. I like to think that I am a responsible dog-owner and pick up after my dog. Irresponsible dog-owners are ruining it for the rest of us when their dog takes a dump. Often, in the green areas where I walk my dog, I see dog poop along the sides of pathways. People seem to think that if it's off the pathway then it's okay. What they don't realize is that others do in fact use these areas, say to play with their dog (i.e. me), and inadvertently step in it. It's smelly, unsightly, difficult to remove from the tread of your shoe, and contrary to popular belief, not a good fertilizer. What's worse, is that young children can come into contact with it; and much of what young children come into contact with ends up in their mouths...Dog poop contains a lot of bacteria including E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, salmonella and giardia.  These bacteria can also end up in our waterways when water runoff comes into contact with the dog poop and flows into storm drains. So please, please pick up after your dog in these areas - and if at all possible, with biodegradable bags. You can also buy bag holders, from most pet stores, that hook onto the leash so you won't forget a bag ever again!

My take-home message in a nut-shell: NO DUMPING in public areas

Useful Links

Composting tips:

How to deal with dog poop in an environmentally friendly way:


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our dysfunctional food supply system: Part 1 - Corn

 There are many ways to illustrate how climate change and obesity are inextricably linked societal problems. Today's post provides one such example: our dysfunctional food supply system. Now certainly, this is a vast topic so I am going to focus on two sub-themes for now: 1) our over-reliance on corn in food manufacturing, and 2) factory farming. The former sub-theme I will discuss here and the latter will be dealt with in a forth-coming post.

Now, turning our attention to corn; it seems innocent enough. It's a vegetable, right? Well, paradoxically, corn is used to make many unhealthy foods.  High-fructose corn syrup is perhaps one of the most well known culprits. It is used as a sweetener in the manufacturing of many processed foods. An easily recognized example: soft drinks.  Most foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup are energy-dense and nutrient-poor; a recipe for obesity if not consumed in moderation. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case; for example, our consumption of sweetened beverages, soft drinks being a large contributor, has skyrocketed over the last few decades.

Corn is also used to make corn starch, a food additive that prolongs product shelf-life and maintains the consistency of food at a range of temperatures. This additive is responsible, in large part, for the development and popularity of convenience foods like frozen meals and snack foods. In fact, fewer households eat homemade meals and are relying more heavily on the convenience of  frozen meals. These products however, are often high in saturated fats and sodium, and tend to skimp on the veggies. Snack foods generally have a high calorie count and few or no nutrients. Children especially, are getting more calories from snacks than they did a generation ago; snacks which tend to be processed snack foods rather than wholesome fruits or dairy products. And surprisingly, Canadians seem to be snacking more often than their American counterparts.

And of course, we can't forget corn oil, the fry oil of choice among the majority of U.S. fast food restaurant chains.            

What's also interesting and necessary to factor into this discussion is that much of harvested corn is fed to livestock, which tends to end up on the menu at well-known fast food chains. Corn gives farmers the biggest bang for their buck; fattening animals in a relatively short amount of time.

Our consumption of corn additives and food derived from corn has grown exponentially in the last few decades, largely because companies can get corn cheap; a direct result of heavy government subsidization. For instance, from 1995 - 2009 American corn growers received almost $74 billion in federal subsidies! As the customer, this translates into relatively cheap foods for us to buy; not to mention that these products are  heavily marketed to us.

Growing all this corn, to the detriment of society's waistline, is not a sustainable environmental process. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO), over 826 million tonnes of corn for human consumption was produced worldwide in 2008, and almost of half of that was farmed just in the U.S. It was the third most harvested crop, behind sugar cane, and pumpkins (?- for fodder that is). If you also factor in corn grown for livestock consumption, an additional 374 million tonnes, that brings it pretty close to the top.


And what's more, growing corn for human consumption is not all that efficient. Worldwide, over 161 million hectares of land was farmed in 2008. This was the second largest land area used by any one crop out of all crops monitored by the FAO (and sugar cane was not the top land-user). Not surprisingly then, corn yield (100g produced per hectare) is fairly low; it was in the bottom 50% of these same FAO-monitored crops.      

Not only does corn take away land that could be used for growing healthier crops, or forests that could act as carbon sinks, it requires a lot of pesticides, fertilizers, machinery and transportation to get it to market - which contributes substantially to global warming. Additionally, the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers pollutes watersheds and kills plants that help in the capture of greenhouse gases. Just to give you an idea: it is estimated that corn and soybean production in the U.S requires about 270 million pounds of pesticides and more than 21 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizer, each year!

Our overuse of corn is no doubt contributing to the obesity epidemic in some way and we are killing our environment to do it! To me, this makes absolutely no sense. There is certainly much we can do to eat better and reduce the carbon foot print of the foods we eat (visit the very last link on this post - Cool Foods Campaign). However, to really make a difference, our food supply system needs to change, along with manufacturers, farmers, and our governments.

References and resources
Corn manufacturing

Rise in the consumption of sweetened beverages

Instant and frozen meals


Studies on determining the importance of corn in fast food manufacture

U.S. corn subsidies

Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations: FAOSTAT  (world agriculture statistics)

Cool Foods Campaign. A project of the Center for Food Safety and the CornerStone Campaign