Friday, July 23, 2010

Save the Bay. Eat Beans!

We learned today that Harry Reid has hung it up on climate change legislation. Cap-and-Trade is over for this session of Congress. Any how, the economy has faltered so badly that our country’s emissions of GHG, I mean greenhouse gases, have probably come down from the weight of our new impoverishment.

For me this really is a relief, because I found getting really worked up about GHG control hard to do. As for Cap-and-Trade, I had always preferred the even less politically tenable carbon taxation approach.

I am ready for a change. Not change, as in climate change. I mean a change in the focus of attention away from climate-changing gases.

I am ready to focus on what I have for long believed is a more serious environmental issue than the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.

Do you want to hear it?

Mineralized nitrogen, as in ammonia and nitrate nitrogen. Mineralized nitrogen was the key driver for the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico long before the recent oil well fiasco. Mineralized nitrogen is damaging the Chesapeake Bay when washed off of confined animal feed operations. Mineralized impacts local streams when ammonia-laden rainfall drains away. Mineralized nitrogen acidifies forest soils when the ammonia is converted by soil organisms to nitric acid. Mineralized nitrogen contaminates groundwaters, cauing build up to unhealthy level of nitrates that are a health risk to babies.

I have always been fascinated by a few factoids about mineralized nitrogen. First, the catalysis of nitrogen and hydrogen gases into ammonia is a technological invention from the opening of the Twentieth Century of revolutionary scope. Messers Haber and Bosch, in their process of nitrogen mineralization, for which they independently received Nobel Prizes, unleashed the conversion of stable, abundant atmospheric gases into ammonium nitrate for use as explosives for modern warfare and to ammonium nitrate for use as fertilizer for the “green revolution.” In one great miraculous invention, humanity developed the capacity to support precipitous growth in populations through cheap fertilizer and to mow them down with horrendous efficiency with cheap firepower.

But the other fascinating factoid is the tremendous ecological alterations that are underway inexorably as a consequence of the incessant release of ammonia to the air, land and waters, causing permanent changes to the environment. In one article, a reported 90 percent of all of the manufactured mineralized nitrogen produced for agricultural use is dispersed to the environment and never enters into intended crops and animals as nutrients protein.

There are no coincidences… or are there?

The same day I learned that carbon legislation had been shelved in the US Senate I learn that Water Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the International Water Association, had published a science article on an approach to management of nitrogen in watersheds that in my 35 years of environmentalism I had failed to so clearly distinguish.

The new watershed strategy? Vegetarianism! Or, at least greatly reduced meat consumption by a region’s inhabitants.

The journal article is entitled “Considerations on the importance of nutrition habits for the national nitrogen balance of Austria,” by Matthias Zessner, Simon Thaler, Katerina Ruzicka, Stephanie Natho and Helmut Kroiss. It will be published this week (WS&T, Volume 62.1, 2010, pages 21 to 27).

The authors, in their best scientific style, assert in their opening sentence: “The anthropogenic nitrogen turnover of Western societies is highly unbalanced.” This means that modern society releases far more nitrogen to the environment when it grows food than it takes in as protein in the food it eats. The biggest culprits are the high nutrient inputs to the raising of cattle and poultry and the extremely low proportion of mineralized nitrogen that ends up in the animal protein sold at supermarkets.

Their recommendation: “a shift from the actual animal-based nutrition to a “healthier nutrition” (mainly characterised by 2/3 vegetable protein supply) would lead to a reduction of needed nitrogen supply as well as of nitrogen emissions to the environment by about one quarter to one third on a national scale.”

So, here is a thought! Senator Reid has left US EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in a real bind by having her negotiate, without good political cover, the minefield that is carbon dioxide emission regulation. But let’s have Ms. Jackson scrap even the pretense that bold new regulations are going to be promulgated on carbon dioxide.

Carbon management is passé. Nitrogen management is the new thing.

The article in WS&T holds the key. We need to derive our dietary protein from plant, not animal, sources. Ms. Jackson should go to her natural liberal constituents in the vegan/vegetarian communities, join forces with the radical PETA groups, and develop new alliances with certain cliques within the conservative USDA and FDA, and come out with a major campaign promoting vegetarianism as the greatest of all watershed management tools.

So no longer is our heavily meat-laden diet merely an issue of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It is an issue of even greater importance -- eutrophication of lakes and ponds and dead zones in bays and estuaries.

Now there is an issue that I can get excited about!

The US EPA will finally be able to connect to people in a way that is as immediate as the plate of food on their table. For it, the EPA needs a new slogan.

Ms. Jackson, try out: “Save the Bay. Eat Beans!”

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