Sunday, May 26, 2019

Pitching Seaweed Straws

"Kelp-based straws will beat the price of paper straw competitors later this year and could under-price plastic straws by the end of 2020."


The young woman strode past the three judges and spoke directly to the Standing Room Only audience of more than 1000. “I am Chelsea Briganti, my company is LOLIWARE, and we are part of a plastics-free movement. We believe that single-use plastics should never be designed to last forever. They should be designed to disappear.”

This was the long-awaited final pitch-off between what had begun as a large flock of eager entrepreneurs two days earlier. I was at the Collision Conference, held towards the end of each May, this year for the first time in Toronto. I had already listened to Chelsea’s pitch twice before, each time with 3 new judges, as she advanced through the competition, and it was clear to me she was getting consistently better. The first time she had 15 minutes and was able to use a larger slide deck to tell her story with images and numbers. This final time she had only 5 minutes, just a few slides, and the competition was the two very best other finalists from the entire contest. One was a Silicon Valley gourmet vegan food delivery and mail order service. The other was a wireless credit bank for under-served parts of rural Africa.

Briganti had seemed nervous in some of the earlier competition but this time was fearless. “There are currently 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. I’ve seen it first hand. I was at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit down in Bermuda last week. I was diving in the open ocean and I was surrounded by plastics. It was like being in a snow globe.

“And straws are no exception (slide changes to read, ‘360 billion straws used worldwide annually’). We use them and discard them in the billions annually. They end up in our waterways and across our shorelines. I have to ask myself, why, if we are only going to use something once, have we engineered it to last forever? This thinking seemed fundamentally flawed, so I set out to change it (slide changes to read, “the straw of the future”).

She gives each of the judges a faux plastic, edible straw made from kelp, colored with blue-green spirulina algae.

“We asked ourselves, what would radical change look like? The straw of the future would be designed to last for hours, not centuries. It would be made from carbon-sequestering kelp, and after you were done using it, it would disappear due to natural processes.”

She then briefly gave her own resume before founding LOLIWARE, working in design and branding for major global companies. She named some her early backers and supporters: the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Closed Loop Ventures, NY State Venture Fund, and Mark Cuban. “I focus on radical leaps towards a sustainable future, not incrementalism, and we are a team of chemists, engineers, technologists, and innovators and we take the building blocks of seaweed and combine them with super-innovative manufacturing methods to create the plastics of the future.”

The first wave of LOLIWARE straws started shipping March 7th to Kickstarter pre-orders and some early adopter companies she had signed, such as Marriott and Pernod Ricard. “I have demand for 18 billion straws through GBG (Global Brands Group, a joint venture with Creative Artists Agency, currently the world’s largest brand management company) for coffee shop and fast food outlets. For every one billion straws that I replace there is $100 million in revenue.

“And that’s just the beginning. With our game-changing technology, we will be creating and commercializing the future of single-use plastics made from kelp. Imagine all cups, all lids, utensils, plates, and films [used in packaging] — designed to disappear.

“Together, let’s create plastic-free oceans once again, for generations to come. Thank you!”

Thanks to grassroots campaigns like The Last Plastic Straw, begun in 2011 and described in detail in my recent book, Transforming Plastics, in September 2018 California became the first US state to implement a ban on plastic straws. Dine-in restaurants no longer are allowed to provide customers with straws automatically. Instead, customers who need plastic straws have to request them. Restaurants that violate the ban will receive warnings first, and repeat offenders will be fined up to $300. Other states and countries have enacted or are considering enacting similar and even more extensive bans. None of these laws would have happened if the people of those jurisdictions had not first demanded them of their government officials. In Transforming Plastics, I wrote:
In 2018, Business Insider South Africa tested five alternatives to plastic straws: stainless steel, etched copper, glass, bamboo, and Khanyiso reed. All are reusable and two are both biodegradable and renewable. Prices for each straw ranged between fifteen and ninety-five times its plastic counterpart. Metal straws, both copper and, to a lesser extent, stainless steel, had serious problems with heat because they heated or cooled to the temperature of the drink, which made them harder to handle or sip from. The bamboo straw left a bad taste, and the reed straw was nearly as bad. With the reed, everything hot tasted woody quickly, and anything cold tasted woody eventually. Bamboo left a foul green aftertaste and ruined the flavor of coffee. Glass had none of these problems and had the added advantage of being see-through. But glass could not be carried around safely. Business Insider concluded, “So this glass straw is a clear winner with one important caveat: it requires a sturdy carry case. Most likely something made of rigid plastic, rather than the hemp sleeve its makers provide.”
LOLIWARE’s kelp straw adds no flavor to either hot or cold drinks, outlasts paper straws that can wither only a third of the way through the drink (necessitating 3 straws each time), and can be reused if it is washed and dried after each use. Otherwise, left outside it would degrade in about 18 hours. Alternatively, you can just eat it, because — although flavorless — it is both digestible and nutritious. Briganti says it will cross below the price point of her paper straw competitors later this year and likely (if she can scale quickly) best all its plastic straw competitors by the end of 2020.

It is none too soon. Microplastics in the oceans will soon outweigh the weight of all ocean fish combined. Not really a fair comparison, because it is being absorbed into all those fish, as well as seabirds, lobsters, octopi, and all other marine life, so you really should subtract the non-plastic flesh and blood and compare that. And from there the same plastic is being consumed by us and being passed along to our offspring. Studies show that most of us have microplastics in our bloodstreams and stored in our organs, and our babies now show trace amounts at birth.
In The Golden Age (1889), Cuban author José Marti wrote:
There are men who can live contentedly even if they do live undignified lives. There are others who suffer as if in agony when they see people around them living without dignity. There must be a certain amount of dignity in the world. There must be a certain amount of light. When there are many undignified men, there are always others who have within them the dignity of many men. Those are the ones who rebel ferociously against those who rob nations of their freedom, which is robbing men of their dignity.
Those, like Chelsea Briganti, with the dignity of many men, are beginning to act. In December 2017, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a global goal to stop the discharge of plastic to the sea.
In April 2018, just ahead of a Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance meeting in Vanuatu, soon-to-be British ex-prime minister Theresa May announced her intent to ban single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swab handles. Calling plastic waste “one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world,” May said she would work with industry to develop alternatives. An estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws are tossed out in the UK every year, and £61.4 million from the public purse was pledged to fight the rising tide.

At that Commonwealth meeting led by Caribbean-born secretary general Patricia Scotland, fifty-two countries pledged to ban microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products and to cut plastic bag use by 2021. On June 5, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, just re-elected, announced his intent to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. With a fast-growing economy and population of 1.3 billion, India struggles to manage its vast waste stream and is a significant contributor to global ocean plastic. “Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live,” Modi said.

On July 6, 2018, Chile’s Constitutional Court ratified a bill that bans retail use of plastic bags across the country. They ruled against an appeal of the law that had been filed by the plastics industry. Also in July, Seattle became the first US city to ban plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants. Roughly five thousand licensees are being told they must now switch to paper or compostable plastics. A similar ban that was proposed for Hawai’i was defeated by opposition from industry. Other proposed bans are being debated in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC, among other places.

In the same month, Disney, Starbucks, Red Lobster, and Lindblad Expeditions all announced they were getting rid of single-use plastics. McDonald’s is also planning to phase out plastic straws at their UK and Ireland locations, coinciding with UK and EU proposals to cut single-use plastic. Family-owned Bacardi Ltd, the world’s largest spirits producer with more than 200 brands and labels, intends to cut their usage over the next two years by a billion straws.

The Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP), comprising twenty-two aquariums in seventeen US states, have gotten Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, the Chicago White Sox, and Dignity Health hospitals to stop offering plastic straws. They hope to commit another five hundred companies by Earth Day, April 20, 2019. ACP is also partnering with the UN and European Commission to create a global coalition of two hundred aquariums to campaign against plastic.

In September 2018, Danish brewer Carlsberg became the first beer producer to ditch plastic multipack rings that hold beer and other cans together, for holders made of recyclable glue. In October, the European Parliament voted 571 to 53 to slash single-use plastic across the continent, beginning in 2021. The rules would also mandate that EU countries collect and recycle 90 percent of plastic bottles by 2025. Plastic producers would be on the hook for most of the expense of waste management and cleanup efforts.
More than 800 species of marine animals have been documented to inhabit kelp forests, and while some of these creatures are microscopic in size, the easily visible species range from tiny rainbow-colored nudibranchs to the occasional California gray whale, creatures that reach proportions of 50 feet (15 m) and 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg). Commonly seen kelp forest residents include California’s state fish, the bright-orange damselfish known as the garibaldi, schools of jack mackerel, giant sea bass, opal eye, blacksmith fish, and the occasional school of barracuda. Along the seafloor divers enjoy encounters with brilliantly colored gobies, curious blennies, colorful but well-camouflaged sculpin, cabezon, and lingcod, moray eels that are often accompanied by cleaner shrimps and more than 60 species of rockfishes.
Dive Training Magazine

Kelp forests are not just great for fish, they also cool coastal waters, which reduces storm impact. They can be sustainably harvested for their biomass, and the more of these forests we make, the more fish we will have also.

 The European plastic ban gave LOLIWARE its wings. Briganti was feeling that lift even before she took to the stage to ask for more investment. The faster she can grow LOLIWARE, starting from a single European pilot plant this year, the sooner you will see those green straws, cups, lids, and wraps coming out of the drive-up window the next time you order a fast-food breakfast.

I have only one suggestion that I will be making to LOLIWARE after the glow of Briganti’s victory at Collision starts to fade (no surprise — she won the competition!): biochar as a kelp plastic amendment. Whether you eat the straw (or plastic plate), or compost it, the carbon that the kelp removed from the ocean and atmosphere to work its photosynthesis and grow its carbon/hydrogen/oxygen body is still in labile form and will be returning to the atmosphere and oceans as carbon dioxide or methane. If LOLIWARE carbonizes its manufacturing process scraps and adds that biochar to the bioplastic, it won’t affect the taste, could improve digestive health, would be good for any compost pile, and because it has been transformed to an inorganic, recalcitrant form of carbon, won’t be returning to the atmosphere or oceans for many centuries to come.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

What is your climate pawprint?

"If US dogs had their own country it would be bigger than 200 other countries and likely be on the UN Security Council."

I mean no offense towards pet people. My daughter volunteers at an Animal Rescue Shelter. We always had a dog and a cat when I was growing up. I grew up taking care of horses. I’ve personally kept chickens, ducks, and rabbits.
It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.
But, after that caveat, I need to utter the hard truth that pets, in general, are bad for our planet. Given the knife’s edge between climate safety and human extinction, pets could hold the difference between a return to safety and our annihilation. And that is not because they teach us love.


  • Two German Shepherds raised in Germany use more resources just for their annual food needs than the average Bangladeshi uses each year for all needs. Bangladeshis (and much of the world’s population) cannot afford advanced healthcare, yet a dog raised in North America or Europe can get all manner of expensive surgery or chemotherapy if the owner can afford it. 
  • Costs of owning a cat, excluding medical expenses, falls in the range of $21,917 to $30,942. With typical premiums going for around $25 a month, buying pet insurance coverage to protect against the cost of accidents or emergency surgeries can tack on thousands to the total.
  • Remote video camera treat dispensing systems, designer pet clothes, toys, and burial caskets and cemeteries stoke an annual $55.7 billion pet industry in the US, much of it involving single-use and discarded plastic.
  • Dogs and cats are responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by animal agriculture, according a new study out Wednesday, which adds up to a whopping 64 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent emitted in the production of their food. A medium-sized dog has an ecological footprint twice that of a typical SUV. (The ecological footprint is a different measure than a carbon footprint: it measures the amount of land necessary).
  • Size matters. A Jack Russell terrier emits only about 600 kg of CO2e/y, a Labrador 1.6 metric tons, and a St. Bernard as much as 2.3 tons
  • The dog population of just the US alone is estimated at 179 million, larger than the human population of all but 7 countries. If US dogs had their own country it would be larger than some 200 other countries and likely be on the UN Security Council.

Given that dogs are already taking over major US cities (witness the large feral dog population in Detroit), the notion that they could control a whole country is not that far-fetched. Perhaps we should be worried more about them than genetically-modified transhumans or AI androids.
In the US, dogs, and cats consume up to 21% of the amount of dietary energy that humans do (203 ± 15 petajoules per year vs.1051 ± 9 PJ/y) and 42% of the animal-derived energy (67 ± 17 PJ/y vs. 206 ± 2 PJ/y). They produce up to 43% by mass, of feces (5.1 ± 1.9 Tg/y vs. 17.2 Tg/y), and through their diet, constitute about 25–30% of the environmental impacts from animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides. Dog and cat animal product consumption is responsible for the release of up to 64 ± 16 million tons CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, two powerful greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Americans are the largest pet owners in the world, but the tradition of pet ownership in the US has considerable costs. As pet ownership increases in some developing countries, especially China, and trends continue in pet food toward higher content and quality of meat, globally, pet ownership will compound the environmental impacts of human dietary choices. Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favor of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits would considerably reduce these impacts. Simultaneous industry-wide efforts to reduce overfeeding, reduce waste, and find alternative sources of protein will also reduce these impacts.

With the recent UN scientific report on the biodiversity crisis, where do pets fit in? Perhaps they could be seen as a species consolidation, much like their owners. More and more species are being consolidated into fewer and fewer. This consolidation brings with it habitat uniformity, loss of ecosystem functionality, and destruction of intelligences and roles in the greater relationships that sustain life on Earth that we do not yet even fathom.

Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including 124 at risk of extinction, such as Piping Plover. Feral and domestic cats kill an estimated 1.3 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually in the US every year, where songbird populations continue to decline. Nonetheless, common practice is to give cats access to the outdoors to prevent feline obesity and health and behavior problems arising from confinement stress (a euphemism for animal slavery).

We hear a lot about how our meat-based Western diet is contributing to greenhouse pollution but we should remember that dogs and cats tend to eat meat. Moreover, they tend to eat highly processed meat, so the negative effect grows as their food is manufactured, and again as it is packaged and transported. 

The dramatic decline of wild capture fisheries has created concern about the practice of exploiting by-catch or “forage fish” — the unhunted collateral catch in giant seine nets — for fishmeal and fish oil, as feed for farmed animals (including aquaculture), and pet food. A very large part is sold untransformed (fresh or frozen) to the pet food industry. It is estimated that 2.48 million tons of raw fishery products go to the cat food industry per year. Add dry pet food and 13.5% of the total 39 million tons of wild caught forage fish is eaten by pets. It may seem innocuous because these are considered, at least by the fisherman, as “waste products,” but in fact, that by-catch is a critical food source in the marine food chain. There is a vast, unseen genocide underway. We are destroying the oceans to feed Tabby.

There are some straightforward solutions, but they are not particularly popular. Erik Assidourian writes: 
Governments could facilitate [neutering] by strengthening the pet licensing system, for example, creating a very steep tax on pets (along with pet products and pet food) and tripling that tax for pets that aren’t spayed or neutered (so that only breeders would choose not to fix their pets).
Imagine, for example, if the pet culture shifted away from owning one or more pets per household to more of a “time-share” or Zipcar model? Reserving a play date with your favorite Golden Retriever once a week would reduce pet ownership — and the resulting economic and environmental costs — dramatically as people felt comfortable occasionally playing with a shared pet instead of owning one.
While we’re a long way from that future, a few services that promote pet sharing among pet lovers do already exist, like the online pet sharing platform, Pets to Share, and Californian-based nonprofit,
Of the more than 4,000 pet owners surveyed by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, 93 percent said the decision of owning their pet makes them happier. That is a strong pull. If we are trying to cut down the number of pets the planet must sustain, we may need to ask what can we substitute for those sources of happiness. And, why are all those people unhappy to start with?

Scientists have identified the most effective actions individuals can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Surprise! They are not buying better light bulbs, hang-drying clothing, or driving a more fuel-efficient or electric vehicle. They are tougher than that — things like having fewer children, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet. We need to add going pet-free to that list of hard-to-do, high-impact changes.

It is not surprising that education systems and government reports do not focus on these sacrificial actions, because they are likely to be unpopular. But that lack of focus only makes it harder for people (especially for change agents like adolescents) to give credibility to the warnings or align their behavior with realistic reduction targets. It is time that changed.

If you are considering going out to join your nearest School Strike or Extinction Rebellion die-in, first ask yourself: what about your personal animal policy? What do you intend to do about that?

I try really hard not to be judgmental about people and their personal choices (lest I be judged), but truthfully, after learning these things I find it really hard to look pet-owners in the eyes without some small judgment entering in. I acknowledge that some pet owners will go absolutely ballistic after reading this, but if we are not able to face something as straightforward as this, how then will we solve the biodiversity and climate crises?

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Orellana's Robots

"Climate scientists are now connecting the dots and starting to glimpse how a terra preta therapy might heal our atmosphere and oceans."

Robot: n.; a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.

In 2009, the New Scientist interviewed James Lovelock, the originator, with Lynn Margulis, of the Gaia Hypothesis, that all Earth was a great living organism. At 90, Lovelock’s outlook for the human future was dim.
Do you think we will survive?
I'm an optimistic pessimist. I think it's wrong to assume we'll survive 2°C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4°C, we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population.
What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?
That is a waste of time. It's a crazy idea — and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.
Do you still advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change?
It is a way for the UK to solve its energy problems, but it is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reduction measures.
So are we doomed?
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste — which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering — into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine percent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes, and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then plows into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few percent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it.
In 2010, New Society released a book I had been laboring on for several years, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change. I can’t claim that the central theme of reversing climate change with biochar was original, and indeed, I hastened to give credit to key scientists, many of whom I had the honor of meeting on my trips to Brazil. Their light was hidden under a bushel, however, and I saw my role as turning the bushel over and letting that light out.

In compiling The Biochar Solution, I searched the earliest sources for the observation of terra preta do Indios (the dark earths of the Indians), and in that process discovered, stored for safekeeping in the library of Seville, Spain, the journal of Francesco de Orellana’s scribe, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal — Relación del Nuevo Descubrimiento del Famoso Río Grande que Descubrió por Muy Gran Ventura el Capitán Francisco de Orellana (“The Account of the Recent Discovery of the Famous Grand River which was Discovered by Great Good Fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana”).

Carvajal’s history of the journey had remained in the Archivo de Indias and largely forgotten for 353 years until the Chilean historian, José Toribio Medina, compiled an abridged version in Spanish in 1895. A translation of Medina’s account by Bertram T. Lee and edited by H.C. Heaton is in Stanford University Library as The discovery of the Amazon according to the account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal and other documents as published with an introduction by José Toribio Medina (New York, American Geographical Society, 1934).

In The Biochar Solution, I related the expedition that began in February 1541 when, by various accounts, Gonzalo Pizzaro (1502-1548) left coastal Ecuador to travel inland in search of cinnamon and gold, then fell on hard going, with hundreds (mostly slaves) starving and dying. Pizzaro, desperate, dispatched a trusted lieutenant, Orellana (1511-1546), to take 50 men and descend a newly discovered river in search of food. Historian Ed Hart explained what happened next:
Having traveled 200 leagues (a league equates to 2.6 miles) down fast-flowing rivers through inhospitable country where food was scarce, in the end his party hadn’t the food, the capacity, the support or the means to alleviate Pizarro’s predicament. There was no way back. They were both in the same famished predicament only in different places.
By improvisation and his unique skills, especially in languages, Orellana and his men escaped being swallowed by the jungle, eaten by crocodiles or strung up on poles by headhunters, and managed to find their way across the uncharted continent to the Atlantic Ocean, where they navigated the coast to Venezuela and returned from there to Spain. To Emperor Carlos V, Orellana’s tale seemed fantastic and contrived, and so it was that Carvajal’s Jornadas languished four centuries on a dusty library shelf, unpublished.

In recent days we have seen ramped-up interest both in the terra preta soils, which, as Lovelock said, are essential to any plan to escape the juggernaut of rapid climate change, and in the history of ancient civilizations. All around the planet, LIDAR imaging has rolled back the forest cover and, in the Amazon, revealed vast city complexes, validating Carvajal’s account. While slow to understand what soil scientists like Sombroek, et al, were telling them, climate scientists are now connecting the dots and starting to glimpse how a terra preta therapy might heal our atmosphere and oceans.

Explorers and scientists who arrived after Orellana found no trace of the great civilizations Orellana claimed to have discovered. Since the interest of the conquerors was best served by relegating the history of the Americas to Stone Age isolated bands of hunter-gatherers until their Christian redemption in service to the monarchs of Europe, calling Orellana and Carvajal fabricators suited the times. Hart wrote in 2013:
Some, like American archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921-2012), didn’t believe that the nutrient-poor, acidic oxisols (soils) could support more than the minimum recycling of nutrients required to sustain an unchanging fetid equilibrium. In Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, published in 1971, she was unequivocal: there just wasn’t enough resources to sustain agriculture, significant population densities or social organization beyond that of the “pop-up” hunter-gatherer village.
But by the 1960s, soil scientists and geographers had already begun to unravel the popular myth and replace it with hard evidence of an entirely different story.

In January 1542, nearly a year into his expedition, Orellana captured two Yagua chiefs named Aparia and Dirimara, whose names likely came from the Yagua words (j)ápiiryá ('red macaw clan') and rimyurá {'shaman'), linguistically similar to the language of Peru, Quechua. Today the Yagua live in some 30 subsistence communities scattered throughout a 70,000 sq. mi. section of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon basin, still speak Yagua and still wear a traditional clothing made of palm fiber.

Carvajal described them as pale-skinned Indians with fine hair to their waists, who stood “a span taller than the tallest Christian.” They spoke of wealthy cities in the hinterland, part of a confederation which included Aparia the Lesser and Aparia the Great, part of which extended 80 leagues (208 miles) from the Rio Caracuray to the Rio Javari. This corresponds closely to Yagua land today, extending southward from the second to the fifth parallel and westward from the 70th to the 75th meridian west. Carvajal observed that the settlements were so close to each other they were separated by “less than a crossbow shot.” Similarly, the Machiparo territory, a neighboring confederation, extended 190 leagues (494 miles) from Rio Juruá to the Rio Japurá/Caquetá.

Traveling further down river, Orellana next encountered the Omagua, who had the custom of flattening their children's heads by binding a piece of wood to the forehead soon after birth. Omagua women would jeer at the women from other tribes, saying that their heads were "round like those of forest savages." The Omaguas considered their flattened foreheads a sign of cultural superiority over their neighbors, and for a long time they resisted abandoning this custom, even under missionary pressure.  Los Llanos, modern home of the famous Gaviotas ecovillage, is in former Omagua territory. Carvajal, estimating their army at 50,000 men between 30-70 years of age under arms (younger men were exempt from military service), noted the Omagua had a hereditary aristocracy, a sign of sedentary, agrarian culture. The territory was described as having roads (“royal highways”) into the interior. A single settlement, with an overlord named Ica, was 5 leagues long (13 miles) and rich in gold and silver.

At the point where Omagua territory ended, the people were described as “stocky,” (in contrast to the tall Yagua), bore wooden shields and lived in stockades “fortified with walls of heavy timber.” Inside these gated fortresses were large plazas in which 10-foot carved wooden reliefs stood. In The Biochar Solution, I translated Carvajal’s entry from the medieval Spanish:
In this town were houses of pleasing interiors with much stoneware of diverse forms. There were enormous pitchers and vases, and many other smaller containers, plates, silverware, and candlesticks. This stoneware is of the best quality that has ever been seen in the world, and even that of Malaga does not equal it. It is all enameled with glass, of all colors and the brightest hues. Some are drawn to frighten, but on others, the drawings and paintings are delicate depictions of nature. They craft and they draw everything like the Romans. There were ornaments of gold and silver, and in this house were two idols woven of feathers of intricate design, and designed to frighten. There were giant statuary and in one there were working arms and knees, run by gears and wheels. The statues’ heads had very great ears, with ornate earrings. And also in this town were much gold and silver, but our intention was not to look for wealth but to eat and to try to discover how we might save our lives. 
From this village there went out many roads, fine highways to the inland country. The Captain wished to find out where they led to. For this purpose, he took with him Cristóbal Maldonado and the Lieutenant and some other companions and started to follow the roads. He had not gone half a league when the roads became more like royal highways, and wider. When the Captain perceived this, he decided to turn back, because he saw it was not prudent to go any farther. 
A few days later, Carvajal described making port at a medium-sized village and being astonished by its feats of architecture.
In this village was a very large public square, and in the center of the square . . . were two towers, very tall and having windows, and each tower had a door, the two facing each other, and at each door were two columns; and this entire structure that I am telling about rested upon two very fierce lions, which turned their glances backward as though suspicious of each other, holding between their forepaws and claws the entire structure. 
The “fierce lions,” were most probably jaguars, which would have been a concern to herders. Paguana, a land of villages two leagues (5 miles) long, was described as having many “sheep like Peru” (llamas) and being rich in silver, pineapples, avocados, plums, cherimoya (passion fruit). It had wide roads and stood over a bluff at a point where the river was so wide the Spaniards couldn’t see the opposite bank.

The expedition then passes 70 leagues downriver through the “Provincia de Picotas” (headhunters) before Orellana came upon two white women and “many Christians” with Indian wives, possibly survivors of the ill-fated Diego de Ordaz Rio Orinoco expedition of 1531-1532. One of the ships, under the command of Lt. General Juan Cornejo, was wrecked just north of the Amazon and the entire party “lost to the jungle.”
“There are very large cities that glistened white and besides this land is as good, as fertile, and as normal in appearance as our Spain…. [A]ccording to the disposition of what we saw, the interior must be populated much as what we had seen, and thus, this area ... we must say is “grandísimo.” 
Carvajal’s experience in Spanish cities like Seville and the royal capital, Valladolid, provided some reference for “very large cities,” but the sheer scale of these 13-mile long, wealthy “glistening white” cities, and what he witnessed passing down the river dwarfed even those. For some 200 miles, “the farthest separation less than an average league, and at least five cities lasted entire leagues without separation from house to house.”

Passing into Provincia de San Juan, which extended 150 leagues (390 miles) into the Amazon delta, Carvajal says it was ruled over by the overlord, Couyuco/Quenyuc, who had an elaborate tribute (tax) system. The region was said to be densely populated (according to their Indian guides) and had roads and stone houses with doors. In these tidal reaches, dominated by Carib tribes, the chief Arripuna was “the overlord of white men and Christians.” Carvajal describes Tinamostón, chief of La Provincia de los Negros (they covered themselves in black body paint) and the chiefdom of Nurandaluguaburabara-Ichipayo, guarded by fortresses built on hills stripped of vegetation.
Of the Amazon women warriors, Carvajal describes their bravery, mores, and customs. Was Father Gaspar going for accurate detail or was he writing for the prurient delight of other monks? He wrote:
These women are very white and tall, and have very long hair, bound and shaken wildly at the top, and are very bold and walk naked, but for leathers over their shames. They carry scimitar knives and bows and even if you shoot them with arrows in their arms, they still fight as much as ten men; and these women put so many arrows into one of our brigs, that it looked like a porcupine. 
Fearing for their lives, the travelers bypassed large population centers, occasionally got into skirmishes with armies numbered in the thousands, and looked for small towns into which they could land a raiding party, steal whatever food they could lay their hands on quickly, and resume their journey downriver. Father Gaspar observed and recorded fine colored clothes of cotton and wool, wealthy port cities, ceremonial buildings with roofs clad in macaw feathers, woven tapestries that narrated historical events, elaborately carved furnishings, and even machinery.

Meggars and others who said no large population centers could have been possible in the Amazon were disproven by the Orellana expedition, although it has taken almost 500 years to confirm. Thanks to LIDAR, there is now little doubt that “very large cities” existed and were supplied by an advanced form of agriculture that the Spanish, and many later, failed to comprehend.

In 1661, Santarém was founded by Father João Felipe Bettendorf with the name "Aldeia do Tapajós" (Tapajós village) in the divide where the Amazon and Tapajós rivers run along many miles, side by side, without mixing. Today Santarém is the seventh largest city in the north region of Brazil. Bettendorf was an educated man and could not help but observe the difference in the color of the soils. He named them terra preta do Indios. 

The first published mention of dark earths in Amazonia, “black and very fertile,” was in 1870 by the American geologist and explorer James Orton, a professor at Vassar, in his book The Andes and the Amazon, dedicated to Charles Darwin. In 1865-66, Louis Agassiz put together an expedition to the Amazon that included the young Canadian geologist Charles Hartt. Later named the first professor of geology at Cornell University, Hartt published studies of this soil (1874), as did his assistant Herbert Smith (1879), and the British geologists Brown and Lidstone (1878). Ballard S. Dunn’s book, Brazil: Home for Southerners (1867), described the post-civil war emigration to slavery-legal Brazil of 10,000 to 20,000 former Confederate soldiers and plantation owners. Descendants of Confederados now comprise a tenth of the municipal population of Santarem. Former First Lady Roslynn Carter had a relative among the originals. But well before this period, R.L. Allen wrote in American Agriculture (1846):
“Charcoal dust applied in the same way has been found to increase the early growth from four to ten-fold.”
It is therefore no surprise that the Confederados chose terra preta lands for their new plantations. They had plenty to chose from — terra preta soils cover an area in Brazil the size of Great Britain. It's also no surprise that Henry Ford chose to site Fordlandia and his “Dearborn in the Jungle,” the Belterra rubber plantation, on a terra preta bluff outside Santarem.

The oldest written record of charcoal use in agriculture may be the “Nogyo Zensho,” a Japanese agricultural encyclopedia written in 1697 during the Edo period by the wandering samurai-turned-peasant Yasusada Miyazaki. The earliest chemical description linking terra preta to carbon came in 1903 from the German geologist Friedrich Katzer, who identified the high organic matter content in the soil, the fine carbon biochar giving the dark hue, and suggested a cultural origin. His library and samples were destroyed in the siege of Sarajevo in 1992–1996.

From the 1920s into the 1970s, much time was wasted debating whether terra preta was formed by the accumulation of organic material in former lakes and ponds that attracted Indian settlement or by organized manufacture as Katzer had said. Wim Sombroek showed terra preta “obtained its specific properties from long-lasting cultivation” and, while questioning whether it was “economically justifiable” (in 1966), proposed developing new dark earths as carbon sinks and for food security, a strategy he named, “Terra Preta Nova.”

According to historian William Denevan, after 1980, groups of terra preta researchers can be identified, particularly in Germany, Brazil, and Colombia, but “in the US these Amazonian dark earth studies elsewhere initially aroused little interest.” It was not until the mid-1990s that geographers, archaeologists and soil scientists began to find common cause, and today we can start to add climate scientists to that mix.

Terra Preta Nova may have finally found its calling.

But before we leave, let us stop and ponder one more piece of Father Gaspar’s narrative that we brushed by perhaps a bit too quickly. Carvajal reported, “There were giant statuary and in one there were working arms and knees, run by gears and wheels. The statues’ heads had very great ears, with ornate earrings.”

Giant robots — in a place where almost all of the monumental architecture was carved from wood because stone was scarce. To make these giant robots, society would need either to have developed sophisticated metallurgy or elaborate woodworking. These androids would have required gears as precisely tuned as time-pieces. Since no machines of this type have since been discovered in the Amazon, one might surmise they were not widespread, although in the tropical climate even durable hardwoods like teak and mahogany would have eventually degraded. Nonetheless, to be able to make a giant statue with working arms and knees requires considerable engineering skill. Could that have come from a survivor of the Cornejo shipwreck? Chinese merchants? Or, was it a skill developed over the course of many millennia, along with astronomy, agronomy, and architecture? We may never know.

All that we can say now is that Orellana was not lying. It was those who came later that were wrong.

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Sunday, May 5, 2019

Can some nut unseat King Corn?

"Acornucopia is sprouting under a tree near you."

I am partial to the peculiar and wholesome sweetness of a nut, and I think that it is profitable sport every autumn in gathering them — Henry David Thoreau Wild Fruits
We have all heard the Bill of Particulars against agriculture. Pesticides, fertilizers, and animal manure and contaminating our precious water supply, just when we are really starting to need it. Chemical fertilizers are also nitrifying soils (destroying soil biology), eutrophying rivers (suffocating the fish) and depleting essential but non-renewable resources, such as potassium.
All agricultural land used to be something else. It used to be a forest or a prairie grassland or a steppe or a wetland. In some cases, the change of land use happened centuries ago and a new ecosystem has been established around it. But in every case, there is a net loss of biodiversity.

In the USA, over 53 million acres of prairie grasslands are being converted to farmland each year. Brazil lost rainforest the size of Spain to food production between the 1960s and 2005. It cleared more than 1 million hectares of forest in 2018 and the announced policies of President Jair Bolsonaro could make that far worse in 2019.
Changing climates won’t just bring super storms, flooding, unseasonal cold, and drought, but new pests and plant diseases moving into areas where they have never been seen before.
After tripling between 1980 and 1990, global wheat yields stagnated, surpassed by even greater gains in the global temperature records. A 2°C rise (the Paris goal) will cut maize yields by 18%. The 4 degrees now predicted for this century will cut maize yield in half. Same for sorghum, wheat, soy — virtually all cereal staples.
In his latest peon to collective ineptitude, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben observes that climate change could affect food delivery systems even before it affects supply. 
...[T]he transportation system that distributes it runs through just 14 major chokepoints and all those are vulnerable to, you guessed it, massive disruption from climate change. 

McKibben gives the example of the Mississippi, which barges one third of the world’s maize and soy to market. It has already been shut down to commercial traffic by extreme heat, causing river levels to plummet, or by flooding in its enormous catchment that make it too dangerous. 
Rising CO2 levels, by speeding plant growth, reduce the nutrition in our staple grain crops, meanin
g that even when there is enough supply, our food may not provide enough food value to sustain us.
All that was why it was so refreshing to discover the Acornucopia booth at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina this past Saturday. I was just walking down the aisle in one of the 
exhibitor halls when I noticed some guy, whose name turned out to be Justin Holt, sitting there cracking nuts and sorting meat from shell. Next to him were paper-bagged assortments of flours and bottles of colorful oils — red and white acorn, black walnut, bitternut hickory, chestnut, and avocado.

Since launching its first season of production at the Nuttery at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville in 2017, Acornucopia has processed thousands of pounds of native black walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and acorns into flour, oil, nut milk and nut meats. The project relies on community members throughout the region to collect fresh nuts and deliver them in trade for money or processed nuts. Their traveling nut carnival, Circus Quercus, recruits and trains their independent workforce.
These hardworking entrepreneurs, who all have day jobs, are pushing out the boundaries of what we think of as food and, at the same time, redesigning the future of agriculture. We tend to think of agroforestry only in the tropics, where for centuries trees have provided the fruit, nut and vegetable crops we are most familiar with. Protein, on the other hand, is a challenge, in the tropics no less than temperate climates, and native peoples tended to rely on harvesting fish and game that had converted fruits and nuts into the more complex amino acids our bodies crave. 
The fact that there are over 500 species of oak around the world is a great comfort. What is disturbing is that 85 of those species are endangered. Oaks are generalists meaning they are adaptive and survivors. When we start losing generalists to progress it might be time to scrutinize the definition of progress.Acornucopia

COMMUNITY HARVEST: Donna Kelly, left, drops off a load of black walnuts with Acornucopia Project volunteer Greg Mosser at the organizations facility in West Asheville. Community members can bring wild, edible nuts they harvest from their property to the Nuttery to be processed into oil, flour and other products. Photo by Justin Holt, Acornucopia, from Mountain Express. 
Sure, the native peoples of Turtle Island made acorn flour by boiling out the tannins and continuously rinsing, but it was maize, venison and wild turkeys that built their civilization. At his wood-fired restaurant, Tabula Rasa, chef Aaron Grigsby has been using nixtamalization, traditionally used to turn indigestible corn into first-stage masa, to also treat protein-rich but bitter wild nuts. Using a highly alkaline solution of wood ash he makes the nuts tender and digestible without a time-consuming tannin leach. 
Another Asheville chef, Mark Rosenstein, uses native walnuts in everything from pesto and salad garnish to braised pork belly and granola. Lately he’s combining black walnut with citrus to make infused liqueurs. Jessie Dean, owner of Asheville Tea Co., uses Acornucopia hickory nuts to make hickory milk chai and golden hickory milk. The flavor, Dean says, is a bit lighter than that of a chai made with dairy milk, “hinted with maple, vanilla, fall forest and pecan flavors.”

Hickory Chai

Recipe adapted by Cathy Cleary from instructions provided by Jessie Dean and Bill Whipple.
Combine 1 cup cracked hickory nuts (shells and all) with 3 cups of water in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. The nut pulp will float to the top. Allow mixture to cool. Skim off the nut meats and reserve for another use. Strain milk through cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer and put back into the saucepan or into jars for later use. The milk will be light and brothlike. 
Asheville Tea Co.s Hickory Milk Chai:
2 cups hickory milk  
2 tablespoons mixed sweet spices (such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove)  
2 tablespoons strong black tea leaves (such as assam)
Bring hickory milk to a simmer. Add spice mixture and simmer for three to four minutes. Remove from heat and add black tea leaves. Steep for three to four minutes. Strain and serve. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, a dusting of nutmeg or star anise, if desired.
“Chai does not have to include the above spices; you could create your own unique infusion using fennel, coriander and local ginger from one of our great tailgate markets. You could also sweeten this tea to taste, ideally with local honey or maple syrup. I did not add sweetener or additional milk to this tea and found it to be very satisfying: creamy mouthfeel, inherently sweet, slightly brothy and full of flavor notes like almond, vanilla, maple, pecan, honey and a nice, spicy finish and low astringency. But a spoonful of honey or syrup would also go down nicely.” Jessie Dean, Asheville Tea Co.
Liat Batshira, owner of Micro Miso, used chestnuts to make a special batch of miso, a paste traditionally made with fermented soybeans aged for 2 years. “I was surprised and amazed that a year after I’d made it, the flavor profile had transformed into a sweet maple syrup flavor,” she says. “The last batch of chestnut miso I made, I used very different ratios of ingredients and time, and while I think it tastes good, the chestnut flavor is subtle.”
When we speak of food forests in permaculture, we always talk about how much more resilient they are to predations by marauding armies or resilient in the face of creeping climate destruction. We need to also begin to see them as a strategy to reverse climate change, not just a fast exit from destructive grain farming, but growing more forests as carbon sponges. We should be adding forest to the planet at the rate of an area the size of 5 Spains every year. If we could do that, and also switch off fossil fuels, we would extract enough legacy carbon to get the atmosphere back in balance with natural cycles in about half a century. We could resume the Holocene.
As I told the audience at Mother Earth, we can’t just go from “Oh, we don’t know climate change is real” to “Heck, it is too late, we’re screwed.” There has to be a middle ground.
Bill Whipple, co-founder of Acornucopia with Holt, says:
With a national deficit of over 20 trillion dollars, the American dollar is backed only by debt. So my financial advice to you is unload your dollars as soon as you can because who knows when someone, some day, may come collecting…. 
Let us shift from a culture that is half nuts to one that has gone completely Nuts! Let’s work together with nature by starting to harness the regenerative resources of our native nut trees in our back yards, commons and woods. After proving the economic viability and social relevance of native nuts, public demand will incentivize landowners to augment their agricultural fields with low maintenance native species orchards and enhance the productivity of their grasslands. This will create biodiversity, sequester water, remineralize soils and subsequently our food. 
And, each tree will pull one ton of carbon out of the air during its lifetime.
Acornucopia also provides a community milling service for black walnuts where the project will dehull, wash, cure, crack and sift walnuts for a miller’s cut of 40% of dehulled, in-shell weight. Foragers receive 60% weight in cracked, sifted, large, unsorted walnut meat and shell.
Whipple says the economic model of Acornucopia aspires to reflect the trees that support it — generous, regenerative, and self replicating:
“The largest taxi company in the world doesn’t own one vehicle, nor does the largest hotel chain own a single hotel. What if the world’s largest global agricultural conglomerate was a worker-owned, non-heirarchecal cooperative, and didn’t need to own a single acre of land or even a plant? Why nut?”
Before Europeans, Oak/ Hickory forests were the predominant forests of the Midwest. The Acornucopia horizon includes oak orchards as far as the eye can see in every direction. Someday, when we come back to our senses, the Midwest will be referred to as “America’s Acorn Belt”

Justin Holt’s Acornucopia Brownies

4 tablespoons butter, melted  
1/4 cup hickory nut oil or other vegetable oil  
1/2 cup cocoa powder  
3 eggs, beaten  
1 teaspoon vanilla  
1/2 teaspoon salt  
1/2 cup acorn flour  
Handful chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix butter, oil, cocoa, eggs, vanilla and salt. Add acorn flour. Place mixture in greased 8-inch by 8-inch pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Allow to cool for one hour before cutting.

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