All posts by Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer appointed public policy scholar

Lisa PalmerIn July, Lisa Palmer was appointed public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is conducting independent research and reporting on food, agriculture, the environment, and population. Her Wilson Center project, “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet,” will examine agriculture, population and climate change, with special emphasis on solutions-oriented perspectives across disciplines.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the national, living memorial honoring President Woodrow Wilson. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policymaking and scholarship to interact. By conducting relevant and timely research and promoting dialogue from all perspectives, it works to address the critical current and emerging challenges confronting the United States and the world. Created by an Act of Congress in 1968, The Wilson Center is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and supported by both public and private funds.


Calestous Juma – Future Food 2050

A_1 12 11Calestous35goodReading articles by Calestous Juma should be a requirement for anyone interested in agriculture, Africa, and economic development. The assignment wouldn’t be a burden. Juma is a prolific writer; and his regular posts in The Guardian, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, or on Twitter, arm you with a range of information on agricultural innovation in Africa.

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Famine Is a Feminist Issue

In 2013 the United Nations Population Division revised its population projections to show that population could grow even faster than previously anticipated, especially in Africa. Planning ahead for feeding a hot, hungry, teeming planet is both a numbers game and social venture. Calories, climate change, and acres of land are some of the factors on one side of the equation. The 7 billion people in the world, projected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, are on the other.

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Rethinking Meat

By Lisa Palmer

How will science and technology play a role in feeding over nine billion people by 2050? From May 14 to 17 I hope to learn more about real food science breakthroughs in areas like sustainability, food safety, nutrition, and agriculture at the Sustainable Food Institute at Monterey Bay Aquarium. I recently talked to one of the speakers on the agenda, Isha Datar, of New Harvest, who says cultured meat will play a much larger role in our future food system. Look for my interview in on  For more on Isha’s work, check out her TEDx talk on rethinking meat in the video above.

Melting Arctic Ice Will Make Way for More Ships–and More Species Invasions

Mar 6, 2013 |By Lisa Palmer

The rare ships that have ventured through the harsh, icebound Arctic Ocean require reinforced hulls and ice-breaking bows that allow them to plow through dense ice as much as two meters deep, and face hazardous conditions in remote locations for long periods of time. Arctic sea ice now is melting so rapidly each summer due to global warming, however, that ships without ice-breaking hulls will be able to cross previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean by 2050. And light-weight ships equipped to cut through one meter of ice will be able to travel over the North Pole regularly in late summer, according to a new study published March 4 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.

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Behavior Frontiers: Can Social Science Combat Climate Change?

Roughly 44 percent of Californians smoked tobacco in 1965. By 2010, 9.3 percent did—a shift that might have seemed impossible before it happened. Understanding exactly how such a social transformation occurred in the past may prove key to understanding how individuals might alter their behavior to help combat climate change in the future.
By studying past instances of social transformation, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) hope to predict future change in response to global warming as part of California’s Carbon Challenge—a study commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels. LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and his colleagues are analyzing  technology options as well as data records from 10 historical behavior changes—smoking cessation, seat belt use, vegetarianism, drunk driving, recycling and yoga, among others.
For starters, Greenblatt is examining the full mix of technical advances in both the supply and demand of energy that could possibly help meet the target, including more efficient electric motors, better insulation, intelligent controls for energy, as well as fluorescent and LED lighting. But even all of these technological advances may not get California to its mid-century mandate alone.
Individual choices could close the gap, according to historical data. Because smoking cessation data and seat belt—use statistics have around for decades, scientists have a good grasp on so-called adoption rates, or how much behavior change is ultimately possible. Historical data also explains how long it takes for change to stick. For example, tobacco smoking has been in a steady decline since the 1960s with all sorts of factors driving this trend—improved science and epidemiology, education through labeling and advertising campaigns, and greater public awareness of risks—all of which could be applied to behaviors that contribute to climate change. “Watershed events and labeling can play important roles in transforming change. The 1964 Surgeon General report is an example [of a watershed event] and subsequent labeling for cigarettes was a big factor,” says energy researcher Max Wei of LBNL, adding that he imagines far more carbon or environmental labeling to inform the public.
By identifying the hurdles, policies and incentives used to, say, dissuade smokers from lighting up, the LBNL team says they can better pinpoint corresponding elements related to persuading individuals to alter their energy use. “We’re eliminating the squish from what has often been known as the squishy science,” Greenblatt says. In total, the team is looking at 23 different energy behavior areas—from telecommuting and public transit to wasting less food—and projecting these well into the future. 
Consider, for example, some of the obstacles in switching to a vegetarian diet, which can save more than three metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Changing one’s diet can be difficult because it requires new food habits and learning about alternative sources of protein and iron. Cultural barriers  such as gender, race, ethnicity, education and where you live are also involved: white men in the Midwest eat considerably more beef than their compatriots on the coasts, and education is inversely proportional to beef and meat consumption. There’s also a perceived lack of pleasure associated with going meatless because many carnivores perceive vegetarian diets as boring. In addition, historical data on rates of people adopting a vegetarian diet have risen from 0.9 percent in 1991 to about 3 percent in the U.S. now, suggesting that actions perceived as involving sacrifices of comfort or pleasure are not adopted widely. The LBNL scientists have identified several energy-saving behaviors that share the obstacles of forgoing comfort and pleasure. Line-drying clothing, for instance, results in stiff fabric that can be scratchy on the skin; shorter showers can feel cold and rushed; and setting the thermostat higher in summer can make a person feel too warm.

Parallels exist, too, between what drove the increase in seat belt use to what might encourage people to turn off lights and computers. In the 1980s, seat belts were not widely used, just as turning off lights and computers when not in use are behaviors that few Americans commit to now. But a public information campaign for seat belt laws ultimately convinced motorists to use seat belts; so too turning off lights and computers could benefit from similar campaigns. “Not wearing seat belts can [also] carry the threat of fines,” notes Wei, a tactic that could be considered to encourage energy efficiency.

Realistic expectations
Unlike private organizations that target short-term consumer electricity savings, such as OPOWER, Greenblatt and Wei are using their behavior analogs to determine the full potential rates of adoption for energy saving measures. “We are assuming that if a campaign is designed as well as possible based on past experience, we would achieve a certain percent of participation,” Greenblatt says.

Such “realistic adoption rates” grounded in past data can help quantify household actions. “We expect the behavior change savings to be higher than the two percent OPOWER observes, and probably higher than some other previous studies,” Greenblatt says, adding that it’s too early to tell how  significant the household savings could be.

Such savings are key as U.S. households are responsible for 626 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 8 percent of global emissions. That amount is larger than the emissions of any other country except China and larger than the emissions of any U.S. industry.

Still, ecologist and sociologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University remains optimistic. “I often hear energy experts who have never studied behavior say that behavior doesn’t change,” says Dietz, who is not involved in the LBNL project. “But if we learn anything from the last 50 years, it’s that behavior changes in huge ways.” Dietz led a study of household energy consumption, published online August 31, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, that looked at the effects of programs trying to influence energy use, many of which were very effective. “We also looked to programs that have tried to change other kinds of behavior for analogies. I’m glad to hear that others are following this line of work,” he says. “It’s one of the best tools we have for getting a realistic estimate of what behavioral change can accomplish.”

Dietz explains that even very conservative estimates suggest a change in energy use behavior by households could lead to over a 7 percent reduction in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, or more than 1.5 percent of global emissions. To put this into perspective, that reduction is 44 percent of the goal that President Obama set for the nation, roughly equal to the total emissions of France.

This story originally appeared in Scientific American

Green Appetit-How one food-service company is trying to transform America’s food system, one sustainable purchase at a time.

In the processing department of a fish supplier in Alaska, the director of purchasing strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company, a California-based food-service company, noticed chunks of salmon left on the skin after workers boned and filleted the fish for market. “What are you planning to do with these?” she asked the fish processor, who told her the remnants would be crushed and thrown into Prince William Sound. Seeing opportunity where others saw waste, she offered to buy the small pieces, called trim, if the supplier shipped them to San Francisco.

Once there, the trim was delivered to chefs employed by BAMCO, who were challenged to do something innovative with it. They created salmon burgers, salmon pad thai, salmon tacos and a wide variety of other meals.

The 26-year-old company, which serves 150 million meals per year to corporate employees, university students and museum goers in 32 states, has a long history of leadership in sustainable practices. Eliminating food waste like trim is just one example. Each of its 500 locations is under the direction of a chef who is required to buy at least 20 percent of produce from suppliers within 150 miles, a mandate that began back in 1999 when Maisie Greenawalt, vice president of strategy, established BAMCO’s Farm to Fork program. Another program, the company’s Low Carbon Diet, asks chefs to cut use of beef companywide by 33 percent, cut the use of cheese by 10 percent and eliminate airfreighted produce. And BAMCO was among the first food service companies to address the issues of antibiotic overuse, sustainable seafood, humanely raised meat and eggs, and farmworker welfare.

By empowering chefs to independently support sustainability, BAMCO is attempting to create the kind of food system it wants to see in America, rather than proceed with the industrial food system’s status quo. “How can we use every single part of our business to create that food system?” asks Greenawalt.

“There is no food service company that is close to Bon Appétit’s leadership on animal welfare issues.” – Josh Balk, director of corporate policy for the Humane Society’s farm animal protection campaign

The food service industry as a whole is increasingly moving toward sustainability. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, a restaurant franchise and food product company, offers organic selections, serves vegetarian meals, and buys only sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs, crate-free veal and pork raised without gestation crates. Similarly, among other initiatives, the fast-food restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill buys 100 percent of its pork from suppliers that don’t use gestation crates or antibiotics. Meanwhile, the large supermarket chain Whole Foods buys local produce, procures large quantities of meat from producers that treat animals humanely, and has collaborated with the Marine Stewardship Council, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium to make its seafood selection as sustainable as possible. Even Burger King has gotten on the bandwagon, offering veggie burgers and promoting meatless Monday.

But BAMCO’s long history has made it a leader in such efforts. “There is no food service company that is close to Bon Appétit’s leadership on animal welfare issues,” says Josh Balk, director of corporate policy for the Humane Society’s farm animal protection campaign. “Specifically, their commitments of switching 100 percent of their eggs to cage free, eliminating gestation crates in their supply chain and sourcing … animal products from farms that pass third-party certification programs from credible animal-welfare organizations.” By 2015 at least 25 percent of the company’s meat and eggs will be from sources whose humane practices have been verified by four such organizations.

“We put a stake in the ground, and we want to make it a reality of what we promised,” says Greenawalt, adding that the company still has a lot of work to do to meet its 2015 goal of procuring pork raised without gestation crates. “The problem is, we don’t have enough suppliers lined up,” she says. “We are making promises faster than producers are making changes — and we are even willing to write the bigger check!”

While most of the company’s efforts have been in support of local producers, BAMCO’s focus is also international. When company chefs requested tilapia, it enlisted the help of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to find the only tilapia producer in China producing the fish sustainably (less than 5 percent of tilapia is produced in the U.S.). Despite its red list of all tilapia from China at that time, the Seafood Watch program gave BAMCO the green light as a commercial buyer. Why? “Because it would send a signal to everyone else in China that if you change your practices, you can get more sales,” says Greenawalt. “So we buy from one particular producer in China as a way to create a carrot incentive for the other producers to change their practices to be more environmentally preferable.” As a whole, China’s tilapia production has improved since the time BAMCO first started buying from its sustainable producer. Now tilapia from China is no longer red-listed but labeled a “good alternative” by Seafood Watch.

Large-scale factory farms are the company’s next target. “We’ve always supported small, local growers, but how can we change the big growers?” asks Greenawalt. “They’ve gotten away with a lot by being nameless and faceless to most consumers.”

Though not the biggest food-service company, BAMCO looks to punch above its weight, so to speak, and create change. “We are always pushing and striving to think of ways to leverage our brand and purchases to exert more pressure than our size commands, in order to make changes in the supply chain,” Greenawalt says. Still, Greenawalt understands that success in any area of food will only come if the product is something consumers will want to eat. “Don’t think we are so focused on sustainability that we forget that,” she says.

This story originally appeared in Ensia

Artificial Islands Mimic Nature’s Way of Cleansing Water

Keeping lakes and rivers healthy is a challenge for cities around the world as runoff adds nutrients, development eats up habitat, landfills pollute and wastewater stagnates. Wetlands and marshlands along waterways cleanse water, protect biodiversity and reduce erosion. But wetlands and marshes take a long time to develop naturally. So, how can humans help? Inventors are finding solutions by looking to the natural world.

Anne and Bruce Kania of Montana-based Floating Island International are working to bring a concentrated wetland effect to any body of water through biomimicry. Their water management work is inspired by the kind of floating peat bogs found in waters across northern latitudes.

Municipalities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, private organizations and many others from California to New Zealand have commissioned the floating islands for lakes and waterways because the islands clean polluted water, provide nutrients for fish, contribute to species habitat and sequester carbon. More than 5,000 islands have been built from a nonwoven matt of filter material made of recycled plastic (think loofah sponge made from recycled soda bottles) that is seeded with native plants. In the company’s early days, it created mostly small, backyard-pond-sized swaths. More recently, though, FII has focused on larger islands, like the one in Lake Rotorua, New Zealand, which spans roughly 55,000 square feet.

This story originally appeared in Ensia

The power of procurement: can sustainable purchasing save the world?

October 24, 2013 — By Lisa Palmer

In 2008, students at the University of Texas at Austin left an average of just under six ounces of edible food on their lunch plates, which food service workers measured during a five-day waste audit. A year later, after identifying reasons for the waste and implementing programs to reduce it, such as better quality food, sample tasting and getting rid of trays, students reduced food waste by 48%.

According to Jason Pearson, of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, reducing food waste in higher education is one of the major ways sustainable purchasing can help improve the planet.

Waste seems the unlikely focus of a purchasing group, but as Pearson sees it, the goal of his organization is to “buy less and buy better.” The Council officially opened for business this summer. It has been five years in the making and is closely modeled on the United States Green Building Council’s LEED certification program. By developing a system of guidance for best practices, measurement and recognition that can be applied to a wide array of organizations, buyers can be much more strategic in their sustainable purchases, Pearson says.

Take the example of higher education. Of all the goods and services they purchase, 65% falls into five categories: electricity, food, fuel, agriculture and food products, and waste services. Roughly 85% of the environmental impacts in their supply chain can be attributed to those five categories, Pearson explains. Reducing food waste also reduces the social and environmental impact of those purchases in at least three categories: food, agriculture and food products, and waste services.

Outside of higher education, hotels chains, public institutions, and corporations face similar challenges. These challenges reflect those the green building market encountered in the 1990s before the LEED program offered sweeping guidance to builders and developers. With a flood of new products and services making green claims, and both buyers and marketers are increasingly frustrated by the bounty of options. People need clarity around what claims are legitimate.

Universities and colleges have been at the forefront of sustainable purchasing, along with federal, state, and local governments and Fortune 500 companies, because their sustainability goals tend to track carbon emissions of their supply chains. By zeroing in on each of the purchasing categories that contribute most to greenhouse gas emissions, purchasers can become more strategic in how their purchases affect the environment.

Yalmaz Siddiqui, senior director of environmental strategy at Office Depot, is a founding member of the Council. As a supplier, he says the Council provides a clearing-house that examines the environmental impacts of purchases. He says that clear guidance will help Office Depot, and other suppliers, provide the best prices for sustainable goods and services that impact the environment the least. In his words:

“The main thing that the SLPC can offer is a macro level view of what methods exist to reduce social and environmental impacts through purchases with a combination of life-cycle analysis and eco-label standards, and to help people focus on what matters most.”

“At the moment we’re sort of accidentally buying greener products without necessarily stepping back and saying, ‘What are we trying to do?’ And what we are trying to do is reduce the environmental impact of organizations through the way people buy. There’s a lot of interest in this area with a plethora of approaches, and none of which necessarily addresses ‘Where can we reduce the impacts the most?'”

Siddiqui says that by identifying the hurdles to making sustainable purchases, suppliers can have a clearer market signal on which products have the least impact on the environment and provide better pricing.

“We’re now in the zone of independent creation where the City of Portland has one approach, one position and one methodology of green procurement, the federal government has another, Target has another, JP Morgan has another, and and so on, so it’s not efficient both with the intellectual power going to independent efforts and by connecting the value chain.”

Over the past five years the Council has been developing a system of best practices that can be applied to a purchasing program and result in a certification. Like the LEED certification program, the program is trying to make buying green an easier task for procurement professionals in governments and large institutions, as well as service providers such as hospitals, hotels, banks, airlines and schools, which together account for about 75% of all consumer spending.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 procurement professionals control the vast majority of institutional buying. Their purchasing power, if well coordinated, has the potential to drive sweeping change in greening supply chains – a far more feasible task than trying to change the mindset of six billion people.

This story originally appeared in The Guardian