Monday, February 11, 2019

Cleaner Cotton

We embrace technology when it comes to our sewing machines and rotary cutters.  Let's embrace technology that brings us cleaner cotton.

Transgenic crops contain genes inserted from another organism with desirable traits.  For instance, Bt cotton and corn contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that commonly lives in soil. Cotton engineered with Bt can produce a protein that is toxic to the cotton boll weevil, which means that farmers don't have to spray fields with pesticides that target the boll weevil.  It also means that land and water don't have to be used to grow the biologically-derived pesticides that organic farmers rely on.

In the US, Monsanto sells versions of Bt cotton with and without resistance to RoundUp, a herbicide.  There are valid reasons to be suspicious of heavy reliance on RoundUp that are treated elsewhere.  Monsanto seeds are not cheap and may not be affordable for low-income countries.  However, Brazilian scientists have independently developed a Bt cotton, and I hope that will drive down seed prices.

Bt cotton is not a panacea as cotton is susceptible to pests besides the boll weevil.  However, farmers in both India and the US report a 75% or greater reduction in pesticide use.

Cotton is a thirsty crop.  When I started following GMO cotton news around 2005, GMO cotton used 30% less cotton than organic cotton.  That number is now 50% less.  Not only can GMO cotton be grown with less water, it can be grown with saltier water that is not suitable for other crops.  Water scarcity is the the largest problem for many farmers (intricately tied to climate change) so I look askance at anyone who markets organic cotton as the environmental choice.

I was heartened to read about Cleaner Cotton™ and Sustainable Cotton movements.  Farmers are growing GMO cotton and using integrated pest management and crop rotation to reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides.  It's not organic.  It's better than organic.
The cost to grow organic cotton in California is higher than brands are willing to pay. In organic trials that SCP farmers have run, organic cotton fields yielded as much as 30% less fiber than conventional. Cleaner Cotton™, on average, yields more than 1,250 pounds of cotton per acre compared to average yields of 925 pounds in organic production. Lacking a secure market, farmers are unwilling to risk the lower yields and corresponding decrease in financial return.
quince & co. introduced their Cleaner Cotton™yarn, Willet, in 2015.  It's a start, but it contained some infuriating misinformation.  I'm not referring to the lack of credit given to genetic engineering.

quince & co. Willet Cleaner Cotton
"California is home to the finest cotton growing land in the country" is a lie.  The SJV is a desert; that's why the land was cheap and did not already have boll weevils plaguing the areas that had previously grown cotton.  During WWII, the military needed cotton for uniforms and lacked manpower to deal with pests in the southeast, which did have the water to support cotton.

Pretty cotton field in the desert of SJV shown on quince & co website
Cotton was planted in the SJV and irrigated with spring runoff from the mountains supplemented by fossil water in ancient aquifers.  Those aquifers are now so depleted, that the land has sunk 70-100 feet in 60 years of agriculture! It's time to retire the land and let the desert reclaim most of the southern SJV.

Cotton uses more water in CA than almonds despite smaller acreage
quince & co. also touted the family farm* that grows their cotton, Mari and Gary Martin of Pikalok farms.  They sound like lovely people, very concerned with modern farming and good land stewardship.  But there is no getting around the fact that their farm is in Mendota, a desert climate with only 9 inches of annual rainfall on average and as hot as a blast furnace in the summer.

Moreover, even at $8.50 per 50g skein, the Martins still rely on crop subsidies from the government.  Pikalok Farms received $4,214,481 in Total USDA Subsidies 1995-2017.  That's not including the water subsidies they receive from California.  They are small potatoes.  They received less than 1% of the cotton subsidies in their county over the same time period.

Just in case I've been unclear.  We should not grow cotton in the deserts of California ($3.3 B in USDA crop subsidies) or Arizona ($1.2 B).  Those industries were fed by war-time desperation for cotton and absence of boll weevils in the southwest.  Boll weevils are now endemic in the southwest as well, so there is no reason not to move cotton production back into the southeast.

Pests can be reduced by crop rotation.  GMO cotton, with lower water requirements, can be grown over a greater geographical range.  This also helps pest management.

Room&Board is now selling bedding made from cotton grown on a rain-irrigated farm.  The cotton is grown in Alabama, woven in South Carolina and sewn in Minnesota.
[Red Land Cotton] plant cover crops to reduce erosion and runoff, practice crop rotation and graze cattle on their land. All of this allows them to grow cotton without artificial irrigation—an exception to the norm among cotton farmers.

Sunset at Red Land Cotton

Sewing the bedding in MN

Gorgeous bedding
Even at $270 for a duvet, Red Land Farms still took $4,921,061 in USDA crop subsidies 1995-2017.

Farming is a tough and heartbreaking business and I think that some level of non-market support is needed.  However, we should be able to have rational debates about how much is appropriate and the best way to spend our collective money and effort.

When we talk about sustainable sewing, be prepared to pay more and to take a more nuanced approach to what constitutes "good" and "bad" production.

Since I've started tracking how much I buy and use, I've been buying 2-3x as much as I sew.  So it's time for me to use what I have and to recycle textiles when appropriate.  I'll still buy small amounts of new stuff to help create a market for responsible producers/sellers, but I will need to consume less.

*All farmers belong to a family.  Some families have small farms, some have huge farms.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about small farms, though they tend to be less efficient than large ones.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Energy and Bullshit Asymmetry

Have you heard of the bullshit asymmetry principle (also known as Brandolini's law)?
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
For example, Mark Jacobson et al published in 2015 with great fanfare that the US could meet all of its energy needs reliably with 100% wind, water and solar (WWS) power.  He further claimed that
No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed. The resulting 2050–2055 US electricity social cost for a full system is much less than for fossil fuels. These results hold for many conditions, suggesting that low-cost, reliable 100% WWS systems should work many places worldwide.
It uses a new grid integration model and finds low-cost, no-load-loss, nonunique solutions to this problem on electrification of all US energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) while accounting for wind and solar time series data from a 3D global weather model that simulates extreme events and competition among wind turbines for available kinetic energy.
It sounds fantastic.  Who wouldn't want to go all electric, including vehicles (we can keep our cars!), and produce zero green house gases without nuclear energy?

Many progressives, including Boulder's pro-municipalization* city council, latched on to Jacobson's results. It's a foundation for AOC's Green New Deal (GND).  The California Clean Power Alliance was formed to provide this magical 100% WWS.  Likewise, the City of Los Angeles hired a consulting firm to find out if it is feasible for LADWP to go 100% WWS.

Almost immediately, scientists raised alarm bells over Jacobson's methodology, assumptions and arithmetic errors. But it didn't matter, because bullshit, once it takes hold, is hard to refute.

It took a team of 21 authors a year to refute all the flaws in the original Jacobson paper; you can read Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar yourself.  The biggest source of disagreement is future availability of water for hydropower.  Christopher Clack et al found that 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid was possible at a reasonable cost.

Like climate science, there is broad general consensus.  It's basically Jacobson and his 3 coauthors against thousands of other researchers working in the same arena.  Clack's numbers are in line with the 75-80% of most other studies.  I have studied the issue and believe the consensus.

It got ugly. Letters and papers went back and forth.  Rather than letting peer review and the scientific method sort it out, Jacobson (who was losing in the science arena) took to the courts and sued both the National Academy of Sciences (who published the evaluation) and the lead author of the evaluation, Christopher Clack, in court for libel.

It was a nuisance suit, meant to bankrupt critics in order to silence them.  Thankfully, Jacobson withdrew the suit after much bad press.

Now comes the hard part.

How do we deprogram well-meaning people from repeating Jacobson's lies and dealing with the reality of physical science and available technologies?

It's late and I will deal with the flaws in the Green New Deal another day.  I want to make it clear, I support moving much faster than we have been doing to slow down climate change.  But the GND is not the best way to do it.  We can make some reality-based amendments to the resolution.  We can be a carbon-neutral and fairer society.  We just need to have rational debates on the actual merits of the science and technologies.

* Read some background on Boulder's municipalization effort

** Numerous California cities, including mine, moved all customers into the Clean Power Alliance so we can have the consumer choice of selecting 36%, 50% or 100% clean energy.  LOL.  It's done with smoke and mirrors and paper swaps of electricity source accounting that do nothing about our underlying electricity generating capabilities.

If you want to join me, you can opt out of the Clean Power Alliance here.  Beware, they make you take a push puol meant to make you feel like a monster that wants to scorch the earth just because you don't want to buy into their charade.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Re-Occupy Drakes Beach!

Ocean-front property taken in land grab during government shutdown.

Trespassers or rightful owners reasserting their ancestral ownership?
Around 1,500 seals live on narrow Chimney Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore. Humans had claimed the much wider Drakes Beach, leaving the seals to live in crowded conditions that flood during high tides and suffer from dangerous rockslides. Humans had hired goons park rangers to scare seals away from the prime real estate unilaterally claimed by humans.

During the government shut-down, the beach was closed to humans and the goons were furloughed. Meanwhile, "high tides and storms battered the seals' normal habitat."  When faced with high tides and winter storms that washed away the already narrow beach and sent rocks tumbling from the cliffs above, the seals went looking for better real estate.

"So the seals showed up at the suddenly deserted Drakes Beach, and they brought friends and apparently family, too. Seals give birth during winter, and the unoccupied Drakes Beach appears to be an excellent place to raise pups."

Male Elephant seals are gigantic; they can reach 4.5 tons and measure 20 feet in length.  The females are diminutive in comparison but still much larger than other seal species.  They are quite aggressive when protecting their families.  TBH, they also have a strong odor.  In short, they don't make good neighbors.  Best to leave them alone.

photo courtesy of Wikipedia

You can view them from above in satellite view on Google Maps.

Don't buzz them with a drone camera, though.  That would be extremely rude.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Put down that almond milk

The news about almonds gets worse and worse. In 2015, Mother Jones exposed that almond groves used up more water in California than the residents of LA and SF combined. Almonds made up 17% of all irrigated farm land in CA and used up 10% of CA irrigation water used for food crops.

Almond apologists countered that almonds are highly nutritious and that their water use should be weighed against their nutritional and economic values.  The Almond Board of California (an industry group) hired researchers at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento to study the water footprint of almonds and their nutritional and economic value relative to other California crops.

The evidence is in and it looks even worse for almonds.

Remember the statistic of 1.1 gallons of water per almond?  It's actually 12 liters or 3.2 gallons per almond.

It got kinda wonky
Consumptive water use includes the water from managed sources, termed “blue water,” effective rainfall or “green water” and pollution impacts to ground and surface water, termed “grey water.”
  • Green water falls from the sky
  • Blue water is managed by humans by pumping it up from underground aquifers or transporting it from another region
  • Grey water is the amount of water fouled by pollution from almond production
Water inputs to almonds by type.  Notice the tiny amount of rainwater (green) used relative to imported or groundwater and how polluting it is.
Almond apologists chime, "Almonds are nutritious!" True, but how do they rank nutritionally compared to other California crops? "Spinach, broccoli, raspberries, artichokes, and kiwifruit rank similarly in relative nutrient content but rank better in terms of water footprint."

Almonds use more water than any other crop and provide less nutritional value than other tree nuts.  Almonds are comparable nutritionally to some row crops like spinach, broccoli and berries--but at much higher water cost.
The money shot:
Almonds are a mediocre money-maker relative to their water input.  It falls on the line with most other crops.  Spinach, strawberries, and berries in general,  are the real money makers.

Almonds do bring in the most revenue per kilogram of all food crops, but with mediocre returns relative to saner crops. If we wanted to maximize revenue for water consumed, we should grow spinach, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Moreover, spinach and berries are row crops, which means their acreage can be rotated or fallowed as conditions warrant.

Almond trees need to be  irrigated year-round, every year.  In drought years, when there is little rainfall and no water to import, almond growers pump obscene amounts of water from aquifers (some 100,000 to millions of years old) until the land literally breaks and sinks. The acreage under these almond farms is sinking up to 11 inches per year, breaking roads, bridges and aqua ducts.

Almond farmers are privatizing a public resource, groundwater, and socializing the cost of their irresponsible behavior (pollution, broken shared infrastructure.)  Until we attain the political will to drastically reduce and regulate almond farms, don't buy almond products.  Please spread the word that vegan is not always good for the environment or the earth.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The View from Flyover Country

This is a review that I posted to Goodreads* in 2018.

I've been telling so many people to read this book, follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter @sarahkendzior and to listen to her podcast (with Andrea Chalupa,) Gaslit Nation.

This is a compilation of her essays, originally published in newspapers between 2012-2014, organized roughly by theme. This can appear repetitive on the surface, but pay close attention to the dates and the world events she cites.

You can pick up and start reading anywhere.

I highly recommend "The Political Consequences of Academic Paywalls" on pages 136-141. Dr Kendzior received her PhD studying authoritarian regimes in Central Asia. The for-profit journal business model is an inconvenience for physical scientists like myself. But having access to her published research, "Inventing Akromiya: The Role of Uzbek Propagandists in the Andijon Massacre," meant life and death for Uzbeks applying for political asylum.

Russian-backed propagandists honed their skills in Uzbekistan, and then trained their sights on the US. A decade after inventing Akromiya, they invented Antifa.

She is a uniquely qualified voice to explain the larger pattern that we see in current US politics.

Never stop looking critically.

Never stop complaining.

It matters.
* I joined the readers' community before Amazon bought Goodreads and log all my reading and thoughts about the books there. You can see the books I am currently reading on the right and click to see what I'm reading, what I've read, or what I'd like to read. Like fabric, I'm adding more books I want to read than I can read them. ;-)

This book reminds me of the Flyover Country app. Set your route and download geophysical data along your route before you leave the house. If you are sitting in a window seat, the GPS reception on your phone (set in airplane mode) will be able to give you real-time information about features below.  It also works on road trips and when hiking.  It even works in remote areas without cell phone access.

This app has a great backstory. Some geologists at the University of Minnesota came up with the idea and decided to apply for a small grant from a National Science Foundation program. They got approval in 15 minutes instead of the more normal 15 months.
Flyover Country® is a National Science Foundation funded offline mobile app for geoscience outreach and data discovery. Learn about the world along the path of your flight, hike, or road trip with inflight maps and GPS tracking. Offline maps with interactive points of interest and geologic data reveal the locations of landscape features, fossils digs, cities, and more that are visible from your airplane window seat, vehicle, or hiking trail vista.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


We just got the famous IRS impersonator robocall scam.

It makes absolutely no sense.

What kind of low-life makes these kinds of calls?  I question my commitment to opposition to "cruel and unusual punishment."  What kind of punishment would you inflict on the people behind these and other robocall scams?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Book storage goals

We are drowning in books, DVDs and fabric chez BMGM. Instead of unpacking boxes still in the garage 4 months after my move, I'm reading and streaming instead.

Does anyone else watch K-dramas for design ideas? I want to move into the sets for Chicago Typewriter (as long as someone else does the cleaning and dusting.)

This is the entrance to the hero's study where he writes his novels.
Bird's-eye view of the inner sanctum.
We meet the nemesis (a novelist/plagiarist) when they shoot a PSA in a library together.
The office of the nemesis.  He may be a villain, but his office has clerestory windows and wraparound bookshelves.  This would be great for our urban townhouse, where our views are of the apartment building next door.
Great sweaters, too.

Korean Wave (Hallyu) – The Rise of Korea’s Cultural Economy & Pop Culture