Use of Designer Crops Increases, Home Gardeners Keep Heirloom Strains Alive

Despite persistent questions by some about the health of eating genetically engineered (GE) crops or the food from animals that eat them, and concerns about their impact on the environment, the use of these new designer plants has risen sharply.

The USDA just released data on the increasing use of GE crops and the graphical trend is striking. According to the report: “U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts.”

On a different front, this summer, as government and corporations continue to advance the use of GE crops, backyard tomato growers are busy as ever keeping old-time heirloom strains alive garden by garden. One perennially popular variety is called the Radiator Charlie Mortgage Lifter and here is its story.

The name he went by was Charlie or just plain MC and “he’d get mad if anybody said it is Marshall Cletis Byles,” said his grandson. Charlie was a hardworking man with no formal education.

“Well, I’ve always had a mind of doing things that nobody else couldn’t do. I never been to school a day in my life but anything I wanted to do, I done it,” said Charlie.

He got his start in farming at age four helping his mom in the fields of North Carolina when he was just knee high to a mule. “I had to go out there and start pickin’ cotton,” Charlie said.

Charlie took a number of jobs through the Depression Era and into the next decade. He served in the National Guard. He toured Appalachia earning money as a wrestler taking home a dollar for every minute he lasted in the ring. “I never lost, but very few times,” Charlie boasted. He also served as an airmail pilot. Eventually he settled as a mechanic repairing the local coal mining trucks of Logan, West Virginia and that is where he took on the handle “Radiator Charlie.”

In the early 1940s Radiator Charlie turned his indomitable attention to tinkering with tomatoes. He wanted to create something big, meaty and with few seeds. “What I did I took ten plants and put them in a circle and put one in the center,” he said.

He planted seeds from four tomato varieties of the largest fruiting plants he could find and surrounded a different type called a German Johnson. He gathered the pollen from the circle of plants and pollinated the German Johnson, whose seeds he then saved and started again the next season. He repeated the process for the next six years.

The new variety of plant he created produced meaty, colossal-sized tomatoes weighing in at over four pounds in some instances. Word began to spread about the incredible new tomato ‘ol Radiator Charlie was growing. People wanted to know where they could get their green thumbs on the seeds of this new wonder plant. And soon Radiator Charlie was in business peddling his own specialty strain of tomato to eager gardeners.

People drove from as far away as 200 miles to buy Charlie’s tomato plants for a dollar a piece, which in the 1940s was a considerable bit of change for a vegetable seedling. He sold so many plants that he was able to pay off his six thousand dollar mortgage on his house in six years.

And the legendary Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato was born etching his name in the annals of Americana forever. Gardeners still grow the famous strain Marshall Cletis Byles, a.k.a Radiator Charlie, created.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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Save the Poles Expedition: Journey to Ends of Earth Documents Climate Change

Sitting within the comfort and convenience of home and waxing eloquent about the need to fight anthropogenic climate change was definitely not an option. Making the changes in day to day life to move toward a sustainable environmentally sound future, while absolutely necessary, was insufficient. Confronting a crisis of this magnitude requires traveling to the front lines.

So thought global adventurer extraordinaire Eric Larsen. In November of 2009 he launched an ambitious campaign called Save the Poles to raise awareness about how human actions impact the most remote regions of the planet. It is the world’s first expedition to the South Pole, North Pole and the summit of Mt. Everest in a continuous trip completed within a single year. Larsen seeks to document the drastic changes occurring on the front lines of global warming. “I’m trying to tell the story of the last great frozen places on earth, and the reality is that those places are disappearing,” says Larsen. Outside Magazine named him one of nine “Eco-All-Stars” in 2008.

These isolated, seldom seen areas of the planet remain little more than a name on a map for the vast majority of people, but they serve as  indispensable components of the planet’s interconnected systems. “Seemingly desolate and vacant,” Larsen says, “these areas support vital ecosystems and are integral to regulating and maintaining world climate.” As they melt the balance may be tipped creating the potential for epochal environmental change with catastrophic consequences.

Data gathered on the expedition will be used to produce a documentary and educational lecture series about climate change and the global impact of regional actions. You can follow Larsen’s latest real-life tales of adventure and learn more at his website:

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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An Oil Spill of a Different Sort, but No Less Deadly

Plastic pollution is poisoning the world’s seas and leaving a trail of death throughout the oceanic wilderness. It serves as a largely unseen testament to the awful cost of fossil fuel dependency, which has seeped into nearly every aspect of daily life. In 2005, on an atoll deep in the Pacific Ocean, a researcher found a small fragment of plastic from a WWII era plane inside the stomach of a dead Albatross. For decades the fragment bobbed in ocean currents and tumbled about on desolate beaches. Eventually a bird mistook it for food. At this moment millions of tons of trash spoil the world’s oceans. The accumulation between California and Hawaii alone is so immense it’s been given a name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s purportedly the single largest dump on the planet. And it continues to grow.

Beginning about 500 nautical miles off the coast of California, encircled by several major oceanic currents, the water swirls in a massive slow-moving eddy called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. A natural phenomenon turn pollution trap where debris circulates for decades and covers hundreds of thousands of square miles. Litter blown offshore and carried in river run off is drawn here by the surrounding currents. And much of it is plastic. It’s forever.

The environmental impact is incalculable. Millions of seabirds, mammals, fish, and other creatures perish from ingesting bits of debris or getting tangled in it. The pollution may even be poisoning the food chain and ending up in seafood on dinner plates. Yet, the plastic bottles, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes are merely the most visible traces. Plastic breaks down through a process of photo degradation. It eventually becomes dust, but never disappears. A pioneer in research on plastic pollution from Long Beach, CA, Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research Foundation first began studying the problem ten years ago. A blog entry from one expedition describes “an endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface.” The result is a poisonous mix of seawater with plastic outnumbering plankton in some areas by a ratio of 6:1.

The feedstock for plastic, as mentioned here, is derived from oil and its by-products. While the British Petroleum spill, the worst in American history, is currently capturing worldwide attention, we should not ignore another far more insidious oil spill of sorts that has been ongoing for decades: plastic pollution. It is oil in a different form than what is washing ashore in the Gulf, but no less destructive to the environment when littered across vast expanses of ocean. It is a global blight of epic proportions.

In response, the world’s first global scientific study called the “5 Gyres Project” launched from the US Virgin Islands on January 7. A collaborative effort led in part by Charles Moore, the expedition will take water samples from the five major gyres of the world’s oceans. The project is the most extensive scientific study on plastic pollution ever undertaken.

In a press release, Moore stated the following:

“Plastic pollution is a global issue. We’ve seen the so-called garbage patch of plastic accumulating in the North Pacific Gyre, but there are four other gyres worldwide, each with its own patch and we don’t know yet what we will find in them.”

If the North Pacific gyre is any guide, one thing is certain. Whatever researchers find will not be pleasant.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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Making Plastic From Plants: A Step Toward an Oil Free Future

The gusher in the gulf continues to spew, the oily sheen and clumpy globules seeping into every nook and cranny of the marine environment along hundreds of miles of coastline. Not a bad time to consider the extent to which petroleum has seeped into nearly every aspect of daily life. Whether it is a product, food or service odds are it was created, packaged, stored, shipped or sold using numerous convenient innovations derived from petroleum or fueled by it.

Disposable plastic packaging, bags and food service containers are just some of petroleum’s many uses. Making the move away from fossil fuel dependency will require substituting renewable materials for oil-based sources we currently rely on in numerous industries. One company working to achieve this move is Michigan-based Fabri-Kal, which produces high quality food service containers called Greenware® and other consumer packaging made from a biopolymer derived entirely from plants.

Fabri-Kal’s Greenware® is made in America from source material that is annually renewable. It is derived from domestically grown plants which can be replanted yearly and are not part of the food supply. Currently the feedstock is made mostly from corn, but many other plants can be used. The containers and packaging are 100% compostable in an actively managed facility and offer “significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the developer of Ingeo™ biopolymer, IngeoNature Works LLC. Greenware® is also recyclable, but the common availability of such facilities has yet to materialize. Fabri-Kal stands behind their products and claims with a No Greenwashing Pledge.

Although only “about 4 percent of the world’s annual oil production of some 84.5 million barrels per day is used as feedstock for plastic,” according to Grist Magazine, “and another 4 percent or so provides the energy to transform the feedstock into handy plastic,” moving toward renewable resources is a step in the right direction. Fabri-Kal continues to push into the frontier of environmentally conscious packaging helping to wean our culture of convenience and consumption off other oil-based products.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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The Costner Oil Separator Stands Ready to Help in Gulf Oil Spill

In the mid-1990s while filming the movie “Waterworld” actor Kevin Costner began working on a way to clean up maritime oil spills. He purchased the rights to technology developed in concert with the Department of Energy after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. Fifteen years later and with $24 million dollars of his own money invested, he has developed a machine referred to as the Costner oil separator.

Costner’s business partner, John Houghtaling, described the centrifugal oil separator technology to the Los Angeles Times on May 21:

“The machines are essentially like big vacuum cleaners, which sit on barges and suck up oily water and spin it around at high speed,” Houghtaling said. “On one side, it spits out pure oil, which can be recovered. The other side spits out 99% pure water.”

A spokesman for British Petroleum confirmed the company has agreed to test the machines to help clean up the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Regarding the potential of the oil separator, Houghtailing further explained:

“We could have as many as 26 machines dispatched throughout the gulf. Our largest machine is 112 inches high, weighs 2 ½ tons and cleans 210,000 gallons a day of oily water. We are hoping to have 10 machines that size out there — meaning we could potentially clean 2 million gallons of oil water a day.”

British Petroleum’s market cap fluctuates around $140 billion on any given day. The $24 million spent by Costner to develop such a machine is a drop in the bucket for BP. A drop they were apparently unwilling to part with.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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How Green is Your Money?

Every day we make choices that not only shape our own experience, but impact other life around us and the world. Some of the most significant far-reaching choices involve how we choose to use money.

And so we buy local. We buy organic and sustainably produced products and food. We support fair trade and patronize environmentally minded companies. Whenever we spend money we do so if at all possible in a way that reinforces our values and ideals.

But what was that money supporting before it was spent?

If it was saved in an account at a major bank like Bank of America, Citigroup or JP Morgan Chase, then it may well have been used to finance environmentally destructive projects like construction of new coal fired power plants or mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining.

You do not have to be a millionaire to make a difference. Through the policy of fractional reserve lending a bank can lend out ten times the amount of money it holds in reserve. This means that even the smallest accounts alone can be leveraged to finance relatively large ventures.

Nineteen year old Californian Kyle Thiermann produced a short video on this issue called “Claim Your Change.” Consider the possible impact of collective action. “So far just from the video coming out,” he said in an interview in September, “I’ve documented $400,000 dollars coming out of centralized banks like B of A and into community banks – which is $4,000,000 worth of lending power for the bank.” Since then documented withdrawals have grown to over $800,000. Not bad for a teenage surfer.

Average people acting together can influence lending policies to help forge a greener future by simply shifting their accounts to more environmentally friendly companies like Deutsche Bank. Locally based banks and credit unions may also be wise options to avoid supporting environmentally destructive ends. They also tend to invest in their own communities making them all the more attractive alternatives. Switching banks is a positive action that takes little effort. Not only does it have the potential to lessen lending power, but it also provides moral satisfaction when one’s money is not supporting an irresponsible financier.

Find a local bank

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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Harnessing the Power of Ocean Energy

“It is estimated that harnessing just 2 one-thousandths of the oceans’ untapped energy could provide power equal to current worldwide demand.”Annette von Jouanne founder of the Wave Energy program at Oregon State University (OSU)

With 70 percent of the world’s surface covered by ocean a remarkable opportunity exists to produce clean energy. The sea remains the greatest pool of untapped renewable power on the planet. The wave energy off American coasts alone can provide as much electricity as the nation’s hydroelectric plants.

“Full scale of the wave resource is about the same as the hydro resource, which is approximately six percent,” Dr. Ted Brekken told me by phone. He is the co-director of the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility at Oregon State University, “the highest-power university energy systems lab in the U.S.”

“The resource will be fully developed when there are five to seven wave parks with each of those generating over 100 megawatts,” he said. The amount of electricity from one park could power several hundred thousand homes.

In September 2008 OSU and Columbia Power Technologies (CPT) tested a type of wave energy conversion machine called a point absorber buoy, which CPT describes as “the first ocean energy device to produce kilowatt scale electrical energy off the Oregon coast.”

Dr. Brekken explained the prototype in simple terms. “A point absorber design basically means it’s just a buoy that bobs up and down,” he said.

Inside the buoy contains a vertical metal spar coiled in copper. Surrounding this spar a float with magnets rises and falls with each passing swell.

“It works pretty much exactly the same way as those shake flashlights; it’s identically the same principal,” he said. “You have a magnet moving past a copper coil generating electricity.” The electricity would then be carried to shore through transmission lines along the seafloor.

In March OSU and CPT passed another milestone in the quest for clean energy when it concluded lab tests of their latest design of point absorber buoy. Researchers took the data gathered from the 2008 test launch and developed an improved, more productive device. The new generation of buoy generates electricity from not only the rise and fall heave of passing swells, but also the side to side surge. Production of a full scale size prototype for ocean testing can now begin.

In related news, New Jersey based Ocean Power Technologies recently won a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy and announced it will move forward with early commercial development of its own version of point absorber buoy. The company plans to install a wave park off the Oregon coast.

The wave energy industry remains in an emergent state, but renewed worldwide interest is advancing the technology with vigor. It’s possible to make electricity from waves. It now remains to create devices capable of supplying large population centers and weave through the obstacle course of competing interests to get them installed. Environmental concerns exist and currently are under study. It will take broad based cooperation, but within sight is an opportunity to help wean ourselves from other pollution ridden sources of electricity.

Published online at Hippie Magazine.

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