May 19, 2011
Maybe because Cooking for Solutions is designed to inform awareness for a year's worth of sustainable eating (and reporting), or because life is short (and not exactly lengthened by pesticides or a dearth of wild fish in the sea), CFS—and just the Sustainability Academy—vacuum-packs two and a half tons of fresh, insightful information into four fleeting days.
Put differently, the Weekly team could extrapolate stories from every single decorated panel that appears before writing a story about each of the 70 heroically conscious chefs who appear at Friday's gala.
In that spirit, here's a report on a panel today called "The Land-Sea Connection" from Sara Rubin. As the event schedule predicted, it offered rare, textured attention to the fact that "human needs for food and energy have direct and indirect impacts on our oceans. Some highly visible, like the Gulf Oil Spill; others such as runoff, contaminants and ocean acidification are quietly changing our oceans." Here's what Weekly staff writer Rubin put together after the afternoon sitting:
Waterways across the globe are under distress was the concurrent message from four panelists, who spoke about different bodies of water their research and advocacy focuses on. And catastrophic, highly visible events like the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year are the least of our concerns–it’s more pedestrian daily runoff that’s threatening aquatic ecosystems.
Some of the life-threatening forces are naturally occurring. Dr. Eric Prince, a migratory species biologist with NOAA, studies compression zones in the ocean where oxygen levels sink so low they can’t support complex ecosystems. Such areas result partly from dead animals that suck up oxygen as they decay.
But a more insidious culprit, according to Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation spoke about, is agricultural runoff. The Chesapeake Bay–which with its ragged coastline spanning six states boasts greater coastal mileage that the entire Pacific coast of the United States–has endured toxics and nutrient overloads for decades, and Coble says 40 percent of nutrients, responsible for causing “dead zones” devoid of oxygen and hence biologically unproductive, are a results of agricultural runoff.
Panelists deferred to Maureen Wilmot, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, for wisdom on farming methods that have an immediate impact on ag runoff.
“I think we could clean up the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is we just converted farming in the Mississippi Basin to organic,” Wilmot said. “[Fertilizer applications] are greatly reduced in organic farming practices.”
Agronomists on the central coast have been fastidiously studying the nitrate runoff concerns now swirling in the regulatory limelight as the ag waiver expires, and have yet to come to an equally decisive conclusion about a set of practices that cut down on runoff.
But to Wilmot, it’s clear sailing: "We could put the fertilizer industry out of business, there’s so much nitrogen in cover crops.”
At risk of getting bogged down in tedious soil science, panelists also spoke about some sci fi-like events.
Microbes in the Gulf of Mexico do indeed dine on crude oil, “like beignets in New Orleans,” said Dr. George Crozier, executive director of the Dauphin Sea Lab. As microbial life digests crude oil, it becomes part of the food chain, potentially triggering a long term series of events that won’t be clear until at least another few reproductive cycles. But for now, fisheries are back in business and fish population in the Gulf are exploding thanks to the temporary no-fishing mandate.
As to what’s to be done, Prince called for more vigilant monitoring, Coble says the last great hope for the Chesapeake is pending litigation on Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of nutrients that out-compete life and Crozier advocated for a little outside-the-box thinking accounting for the complexity of ecosystem science.
“Just following the fisheries’ rules isn’t going to solve your problem,” he said. “You can’t overfish shrimp is the fishery maxim. That’s why our fishery management is so tortured.”
When asked what he’d do if he were king with an unlimited pool of disaster relief funds to undo the wreckage that’s become the Gulf of Mexico, Crozier gave a realist’s answer, perhaps unsettling to optimists: “We’ve been working on this for 100 years. I’m not sure a one-time injection of money is going to solve the problems.”
Until then, microbes will keep glutting on grease.