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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fighting to enjoy a green haven in the concrete jungle

Gatineau Park is located just 20 minutes north of down-town Ottawa, and is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts from all over Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec. The park itself does not have a national or provincial designation and is thus not legally protected. It is home to many of Canada's native wild species, but also to species not found anywhere else, living remnants of an earlier period in our Earth's history.

In 2004 the National Capital Commission (NCC), a Crown corporation created in 1959 to manage federal lands and buildings in the National Capital of Region of Canada, proposed to ban rock climbing in Gatineau Park. An advocacy group, the Ottawa-Gatineau Climbers' Access Coalition, was able to reach an interim agreement with the NCC which allowed climbing in certain areas of the park and curbed the development of new climbing routes. This past March the NCC released an Eco-system Conservation Plan for the park that  cuts climbing access by 90% with no changes proposed for other park uses such as hiking, cross-country skiing, or mountain biking.

Understandably, the climbing community was shocked with the news.  The Ottawa-Gatineau Climber's Access Coalition quickly took action to determine how they could work with the NCC to ease the restrictions. They provided expertise and a management plan that was endorsed by CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) which would allow access but provided impact mitigation measures addressing the NCC's ecological concerns. According to the Coalition's latest blog post in July (2010) , this has for the most part been rejected by the NCC, which continues to go ahead with implementing the restrictions.

The NCC has indicated on their site that they are pleased to be working with the Coalition and the Alpine Club of Canada in order to 'maintain rock climbing in Gatineau Park, while ensuring the integrity of the unique ecosystem that the Eardley Escarpment represents.' Cutting access from 400 sport, trad, and boulder routes to a mere 64 does not seem like 'maintaining' at all. Only five rock faces are now open to climbing:
  • Home cliff, Centre Wall
  • Western Cwm - west
  • The three rock faces at the Twin Ribs site: Down Under, Eastern Block and the Left Twin 
The NCC, however, agreed to examine four new possibilities: 
  • Permitting ice climbing
  • Evaluating access to the clifftop on two rock faces, Home Cliff — Centre Wall and Western Cwm — West (for setting anchors and top-roping)
  • Evaluate two sites for bouldering, Home Cliff Boulders and Shrine Boulders
  • Studying the possibility of adding one climbing site outside of the integral conservation zone, Western Chalet Cliffs.
But who knows how long it will take to come to a decision and if that decision will be a positive one for the Coalition and climbing community at large. 

Since Gatineau Park is uniquely faced with multiple pressures given its location and eco-diversity, the bigger problem for the climbing community may be in getting Gatineau Park official national park status. This would define its borders, legally protect it, and get it into the more capable managerial hands of Parks Canada. CPAWS has been campaigning hard for this in the last few years. They cite development as the single largest stressor on the park; development, which is largely as a result of NCC activities and permissions.

Climbers obviously love the outdoors, and it's a good bet that most respect nature. As a climber wrote in a petition to the NCC and parliament to keep climbing access in Gatineau Park: 'if no one can use the park, no one will care if it gets paved over into a parking lot'. I urge climbers and the rest of the park users to keep up the fight. We all care about nature, but we also want to be able to enjoy nature too!

Just remember, that there a few things you should keep in mind (as I am sure most of you know) when you use the park:
  • Stay on established pathways. This is especially important for mountain bikers who tend to veer around obstacles like roots, rocks, and puddles.
  • Only climb on established routes and never set anchors using trees or roots
  • Don't top out when bouldering
  • Look around for garbage you may have dropped, and take it away with you
  • If you really need to use the toilet and there are none readily available, please, please dig a hole and bury your toilet paper!
  • Consistent trail maintenance is a huge help. The Ottawa Mountain Bike Club does a great job in the South March Highlands
  • Join a club, society or association, to help support those trying to preserve, and maintain access to your favourite spots. Some links to such organizations can be found below:             

To keep up-to-date on NCC decisions with respect to rock climbing in Gatineau Park, visit:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A societal norm that needs changing

Two things happened to me the other day, that really angered me and made me think about how our society values cars over pedestrians and cyclists.  

The first incident happened as I was roller-blading with my dog in my neighbourhood. It is a subdivision where side loops and lollipops have no sidewalks and there are very few speed limit signs (although everyone knows or should know that it is 50 km/h when not posted). I have many issues with subdivisions beyond these that you will hear about later. I was on the left-hand side of the street, where pedestrians should be when there is no sidewalk, and was starting to take an-almost hair-pin curve when a motorist coming the other way decided that he would rather hug the corner than slow down. He almost knocked me over with his side-view mirror and I was close enough to have put a nasty dent on the side of his car with an angry fist. Unfortunately, I did not..The shock, delayed my reaction too much. 

The second incident happened as I was biking home from work.   I try to actively commute to work at least one day a week in good weather. It's not an easy bike ride either. Twelve kilometers one-way doesn't seem like a lot but when you factor in a fair number of hills, construction,  and negotiating your way through motorists that are not used to sharing the roadways with cyclists, it ends up being a good mental and physical work-out. You'll hear a lot about active commuting in later posts. I was coming to a busy four-way stop and was in the left-most lane as I planned to continue straight. A woman driving a camry passed me on the left then cut me off to turn right. Once she was in front of me, she braked. I almost went through her back windshield; good thing my reaction time was quick this time and that I had decent brakes!
Motorists need to slow down, watch out, and respect pedestrians when driving in residential areas. A residential area is a place where people are allowed to be out and about WITHOUT their cars, trying to 'reside'. It is seemingly the last place where people can use the roadways for exercise or leisure and feel reasonably safe. Ignorant motorists are ruining this last haven. Motorists need also to respect cyclists and share the road with them. It is clear, that in order for transportation to be sustainable, motorists should no longer be given top priority on our roadways.