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Food Conscious: Is organic better? It depends

Carol Ness, San Francisco Chronicle
Fans of eating organic have always believed that organic fruits and vegetables packed a bigger nutritional punch than conventionally grown produce.

But until pretty recently, hard scientific evidence has been lacking.

Studies that seemed to prove the theory often turned out to be poorly designed – the organic and conventional crops weren’t grown in the same area or weren’t the same variety, for example. Or the samples were too small, the studies too short or they were flawed in some other way, according to food chemist Alyson Mitchell, an associate professor in the Department of Food, Science and Technology at UC Davis.

Mitchell says it was just a few years back that her own studies that found higher nutrient levels in organic crops were dismissed as nothing more than wishful thinking, no matter how well done the science was.

Now, though, the scientific fulcrum is swinging. It seems like a week doesn’t go by without a headline from university researchers somewhere in the world who have shown that organic tomatoes, corn, or some other fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients, especially when it comes to vitamin C and other antioxidants.

… The trend would seem to be great news for shoppers. It should mean that consumers are getting a nutritional bonus when they ante up the extra for organic, along with avoiding pesticides and contributing to a cleaner environment.

“No,” says Mitchell. It’s just not that simple.

You can’t just figure you’re getting more nutrients by buying organic tomatoes instead of conventional, she says.

Where the tomatoes were grown, what kind of tomatoes they are, how ripe they were when they were picked, if they were kept cool or not, and how long they’ve been in the store all affect nutrient levels.

“Variety is critically important,” Mitchell says. Different varieties of tomatoes grown in the same area, in the same way, with the same handling and same amount of time on the shelf, will still vary in their nutrient levels simply based on their variety.
(28 November 2007)
Good popular round-up of new studies. Unfortunately, plants and ecosystems refuse to conform to our desire for easy generalities. -BA

‘This is our world: the acoustics of vegetables’
The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra serves up a musical feast at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
(28 November 2007)
For real. One musician explains that she has to have at least four carrot recorders because, you know, they break or go out of tune during a concert.

Backyard Gardens Shelter Europe’s Orphan Seeds

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
BANDITELLA, Italy – Gino Boscherini’s neat two-story house – the one with the lawn furniture and old men playing cards out front – does not look like a repository for precious genetic material.

And with his missing teeth, worn sweater and weathered face, Mr. Boscherini, 84, seems an unlikely hero in the quest to preserve biodiversity in the face of climate change.

But his backyard garden contains unusual variants of several plants: a bean grown only here in the hills overlooking Lake Trasimeno, a special tomato that can be stored for months, a type of pulpy squash that is good for pig feed. Such variants, called landraces, possess unique traits encoded in their genes.

Scientists may need to borrow these traits – the ability to thrive in hotter weather or to resist a particular pest, for example – to safeguard the global food supply in response to a changing climate. As farms have become more commercialized in recent decades and have moved toward growing one or two high-yield crops, the number of varieties globally is quickly diminishing, erasing plant genes at the very moment in history when they may be most needed.

That has left Europe’s backyard gardeners and small farmers, like Mr. Boscherini, as the de facto guardians of disappearing fruits, grains and vegetables. Time is working against them.
(27 November 2007)
Elisabeth Rosenthal and others at the New York Times have been writing some dynamite stories about energy, food and sustainability. Unfortunately, the NYT continues to fall flat when it comes to peak oil. Ditto for the Washington Post and LA Times. -BA

Wave of Costs Arriving to a Farm Near You

Aaron Edmonds, AgWeb
Are you ready for complications in the grain handling system?

The recent upleg in oil prices will take a number of weeks to be felt by farmers. If indeed we are currently experiencing the peaking of oil supplies, then one thing you can be sure of is significant inflationary impacts on the cost base of grains production over and above where we are already at. We know about fertilizer price rises but one fixed cost that could increasingly trend to variable is handling and freight. And by that I mean as every year goes by we will continue to see an uptick in this cost.

Global bulk freight rates are trading at record highs as competition for bulk space surges. Grain is being pushed into the container trade which is far more inefficient logistically but at this point in time cheaper. Local transportation issues in many countries will continue to be complicated by potential shortages of fuel and inadequate investment in road and trucking infrastructure. Even in Western Australia on the back of a second drought depressed grain harvest, transportation issues away from the field are being experienced as I write and this is a first world country.

On farm storage will likely continue to move to centre stage as a must for producers without it world over. This to avoid transportation bottlenecks, reduce freight costs by enabling grain movement out of the peak harvest period and of course fertilizer backloading. The future is arriving quickly and it pays to have your eyes wide open. Peak oil will continue to throw create what economists like to term ‘capacity constraints’.
(28 November 2007)
Aaron Edmunds an Energy Bulletin contributor and:

an Australian grain producer located in Calingiri, Western Australia, Australia and 2003 Nuffield Scholar. He has worked and traveled extensively throughout farming regions of the world and is passionate about the future of this industry. He farms 2000 hectares with his parents Charlie and Margaret in the central Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. Aaron is keen to help farmers understand how the unfolding agricultural boom will present many opportunities but also perpetuate many threats concurrently. He is a farmer keen to futurise in an attempt to picture just how the approaching oil crisis and climate change will alter the face of food production systems around the world. You can visit his website to learn more about his future farming principles. (Australia Nuts)