Thursday, October 28, 2010

In the News Today

copyright Marlith (2008)
 The Heart and Stroke Foundation wants to help fight the obesity epidemic and has put together an expert panel that recommends some pretty new (and controversial) strategies: they want the government to tax soft drinks, subsidize lower-income families to buy more fruit and veggies, and finance an increase in the growth of fresh produce. I agree that we need to put an end to cheap junk "food" - it does, after all, cost less than real food if you do a calorie by calorie comparison. Also, the soft drink tax revenue can help offset the health care costs associated with a poor diet. Meanwhile, the head of the soft drinks industry association feels unfairly targeted, claiming these products "fulfil a function". Sure they do: they contribute to the obesity epidemic. Read the full article here.

copyright Martin Addison (2006)
If avoiding junk food isn't enough to keep you healthy, try cycling - but make sure you wear a helmet. Over in Sweden, some designers have come up with a method of protecting your head while showing off your luscious locks with what is essentially a helmet version of an airbag. You wear a stylish collar around your neck, and when the sensors detect the kind of movement that would imply your cranium is about to collide with the pavement (going over the handlebars, being impacted by a moving vehicle, etc.), the airbag deploys before any damage is done. Will this new technology encourage people who don't like helmets to give cycling a second chance? I'm not convinced, in part because I generally dislike complex solutions to easy problems, but also because in urban areas, there are many other impediments to adopting the bicycle as a primary mode of transportation. Read the full article here, and make sure to watch the crash-test video.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Everything Is Going to Be Okay!

On the first day after Rob Ford won the Toronto mayoral election, I spent the day in bed, curled up in the foetus position rocking back and forth, hoping this was just a nightmare I would wake up from. The next day - today - I awoke with a more hopeful outlook. After all, the greatest acts of heroism arise from the biggest challenges. And this is a big challenge. One that will no doubt inspire many of us to take action and fight for the progressive development this city and its residents deserve over the next four years and beyond.

I may have lost some of you. Toronto is not the centre of the universe, after all, and many municipal elections were held on Monday. So, a brief primer on Rob Ford if you've never heard of him before: you can think of him as Canada's Sarah Palin, only way more controversial, and interested in replacing light rail with subways, streetcars with buses, bikes with cars, and city councillors with... nobody... all the while claiming to respect taxpayers. Because apparently that's all we are. People who give him money to play with.

Toronto City Hall copyright Benson Kua (2008)

Back to being optimistic! Part of the reason I am feeling much more hopeful today is because the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) has gotten the ball rolling by pointing out that a majority of the elected city councillors got A grades on their environmental report cards and are committed to key environmental priority actions. So until Mr. Ford gets around to kicking those councillors off the island (though city hall resembles more of a futuristic building from Star Trek than an island), they will oppose his radical plans.

But wait, there's more! I'm not usually one to endorse letter writing, but it's such a simple action that anyone can take that there is no reason not to give it a shot: TEA wants us to send a strong message to the new council that we expect the new councillors to make the environment a priority over the next four years, and they've set up a form on their website that will make the process really easy. Simply choose the ward you live in, then electronically send their version of the letter, or write your own. TEA will deliver all letters in person before the first council meeting in December. How simple is that? (If you don't live here, please consider forwarding the link to this post to anyone you know who resides in this city. Thanks!)

Meanwhile, I will do my best to share with you other options for creating a healthier city and keep you updated on any major decisions the new council makes that affect the environment.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hallowe'en: Orange, Black, and... Green?

With only eight days to go until one of my favourite events of the year, I'm going to squeak this post in before it's too late. Hallowe'en is so much fun that it's easy to ignore how much waste it creates, from candy wrappers to decorations to costumes. Here are some tips I've come up with that will help you green this otherwise strictly orange and black festival.


Dog/cow, copyright istolethetv (2008)

The easiest way to wear an environmentally-friendly costume is to come up with the idea well in advance of October 31st, gather the items you need from the stuff in your home, and create the outfit yourself! This requires some planning but guarantees compliments if you pull it off well. For any materials you lack, browse your local thrift stores and garage sales to reuse what others no longer need. Kids can pass on their costumes to younger siblings, and throwing a costume trading party earlier in the fall is a good idea, too. Don't forget to donate your outfit to a charitable organization if you don't expect it will be worn again.


These days, it's pretty easy to find locally and sustainably grown pumpkins. After carving them, roast the seeds for a yummy snack! Once you no longer need their spooky faces (which you've been lighting with cleaner-burning, longer-lasting soy candles instead of paraffin/petroleum ones), make pies and cookies, and compost the scraps. As for the inedible type of decorations, as with costumes you can put your arts and crafts skills to good use and create your own from the items in your home. Not that creative? Consider renting decorations from a party supply store, or if you must buy, choose durable products that will last many years. Last but not least, if you hang up festive porch lights, choose LED over incandescent bulbs.


Pictured above is a great example of an earth- and health-conscious Hallowe'en treat: dried fruit in a recyclable container. I've also heard that apple sauce makes a great candy alternative, and those little plastic cups they come in are great for crafts. Generally speaking, look out for local, sustainable treats, although to be completely honest, I have no idea how sustainable or unsustainable chocolate bars are - just that they're pretty terrible for you. Try to choose products with as little packaging as possible, however keep in mind that food wrapped up in such a way that it may have been tampered with will be tossed out. Looking for something completely different? Give trick-or-treaters usable items, like pumpkin-shaped erasers! And remember to send the kids out with sturdy, reusable shopping bags or pillowcases, or those plastic jack-o-lanterns.

Have a happy, safe, and eco-friendly Hallowe'en!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The TTC: if you think the service is poor now, wait until it becomes privatized!

The citizens of Toronto will be electing a new mayor and dozens of city councillors on Monday, October 25th. It remains to be seen how many people will actually cast their ballot, considering many don't like the top three candidates, and recent polls show that up to 1/5th of residents are still undecided with only four days to go before the elections. I can't say I'm going to be happy with either of two front-runners as my new mayor, and I'm only half-kidding when I say I'll leave town if one in particular is voted in.

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the candidates' platforms, but rather to share with you what I have learned about a very central issue this year: public transit - public or private? Currently, more than 12,000 Torontonians have become members of the Public Transit Coalition, believing that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) must remain publicly owned and operated, with government oversight and accountability being critical to its success. They also feel that funding must come from all levels of government, and that the Transit City plan needs to go forward.

The TTC subway: imperfect but functional.

To educate Torontonians on the dangers of the privatization of transit systems, the Public Transit Coalition has created a TV ad and online video that show what went wrong in other large cities when that scenario played itself out. There are four issues:

  1. Privatization does not necessarily save government money: transit systems are always subsidized by the government, even those controlled by private corporations. In fact, nearby York Region's system is private and required five times as many tax dollars per ride compared to the public TTC last year. The situation is even worse in Melbourne, with only two thirds as many riders as in Toronto but four times the cost to the public. To top it off, private corporations always pay higher interest rates than governments on loans for transit construction.
  2. Privatization does not cause fares to drop: this has never happened and the opposite is often true, like in York Region, where despite such a great degree of subsidization the fares are actually higher than in Toronto. Another great example of how big of a myth this is comes from toll Highway 407, which cost 200% more to traverse four years after it was sold by the government than when it was still public. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation can't even put a stop to the fee increases, which should come as no surprise since they no longer own the road.
  3. Privatization does not result in an overall improvement in service: with profit as their bottom line, private corporations tend to cut those services which are least profitable. In the case of transit, that means late night buses and routes to areas outside of the city core. Due to Toronto's relatively large number of suburban neighbourhoods, transit service cuts could be particularly harsh. I was stunned to learn that most bus riders in Melbourne essentially have 8 pm curfews on weeknights and can't go out at all on Sundays, when there is no service.
  4. Privatization does not promote public accountability: although the government does not lose all authority over services once they are sold to private corporations, its ability to control the quality of the services diminishes. What's worse, even everyday people like you and I lose power: no matter who we vote for, private owners don't have to debate subsidies, fare prices, or profit margins in front of the officials we elect. Keep in mind that their main job is to line the pockets of their shareholders, not satisfy the service needs of the public.

    Toronto's iconic red streetcars. Copyright wyliepoon (2009)

    For more information about the campaign to keep the TTC public, check out the keepttcpublic website. To see the environmental report cards on the mayoral and council candidates, visit the Toronto Environmental Alliance site.

    A billboard promoting the TTC's Transit City plan.

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Enviropig™ ... More Than Just a Cute Pig.

    Cuter than Spiderpig, but scarier: wait till you hear about what they are and why they exist.

    Courtesy of The Simpsons™
    Researchers at the University of Guelph have created a genetically modified pig that excretes less phosphorous and, thanks to Environment Canada, have been allowed to reproduce and export it since February of this year. Now it's up to Health Canada to approve Enviropig™ for human consumption in this country - a scary thought.

    Why is phosphorous bad?

    Actually, phosphorous isn't bad. In fact, the phosphorous cycle is critical to plant growth and therefore, our survival. The problem is that excess phosphorous contaminates water: rivers and lakes with high phosphorous levels become overgrown with algae while other plants die off with too little sunlight and fish choke on too little oxygen. And if that weren't enough, it's also really unhealthy for animals (that includes us!) to drink.

    How is all of this excess phosphorous ending up in the waterways?

    This is a direct consequence of industrial hog production, otherwise known as the factory farming of pigs. It's exactly what the name implies: a big factory containing a large number of pigs, and often nothing else on the farm. Now, Mother Nature, left to her own devices, is one clever lady: she created pigs that excrete phosphorous so that their manure can be broken down by bacteria to release phosphorous back into the soil for plants to consume for growth. The cycle is complete. (By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not citing any sources, it's because I'm the source. Yesterday I wrote the first midterm for a course on sustainable development I'm taking this fall, so I've got cred!)

    Enter human greed: the desire to make more money by cramming way too many pigs in way too small a space with way too little soil and plants in the surrounding area (not that there isn't land surrounding the farm, just that there couldn't possibly be enough of it compared to the size of the factory). Take Mother Nature's cycle, but add too much phosphorous, using the equation "too many pigs = too much manure = too much phosphorous", and what do you get? Factory farm run-off of pollutants into waterways.

    Enviropig™ solves the problem of too much phosphorous - isn't that good enough?

    No! I don't want the story of genetic modification to turn into the story of cigarettes, where we find out it's horribly bad decades after it's introduced to the market. How can we even determine the long-term health effects of GMOs when the companies who create GM seeds prohibit independent research on them? In other words, the reports we hear about are the ones funded by Big Agri-Business, and any proof that GMOs are harmful never sees the light of day. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but shouldn't we be "better safe than sorry" when it comes to our health?

    What if genetic modification were absolutely safe?

    Enviropig™ would still be wrong, simply because factory farming is wrong, and the associated problems can be solved in much easier and cheaper ways!

    • raise fewer pigs in one place, or raise fewer pigs, period: we produce much more than we consume (yet hunger remains a big issue across the country) so could easily tolerate smaller livestock operations while simultaneously supporting family farms rather than their corporate counterparts
    • feed pigs what they were meant to eat: a little bit of everything rather than a small variety of grains (typically corn and soybeans), which they can't fully digest and directly causes excess phosphorous in their manure
    • spread the manure over much larger areas on the surrounding farmland (which is often used to grow the grain fed to pigs), rather than storing it in pits; this also reduces the amount of synthetic fertilizer used on crops, further reducing the likelihood of pollution run-off into waterways

    When I claim these methods would cost less than raising
    Enviropig™, I'm including potential fees charged per pig, which is what Big Agri-Business does with its GM seed, the instability of foreign markets which have previously closed due to swine flu (most of the pork Canada produces leaves the country, by the way, in a desperate attempt to keep the industry afloat), and the big unknown - whether those markets are even interested in Enviropig™ at all.

    For more information, check out the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

    If, like me, you're feeling a little powerless about all of this (after all, when has writing to the Minister of Health ever influenced legislation?) and want to take proactive steps, I encourage you to talk to your butcher, ask where your meat comes from, and refuse it if it comes from a factory farm. Vote with your wallet!

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    Getting Wayne Roberts' Two Thumbs Up

    While unwinding this evening after having volunteered 20+ hours for the Planet in Focus environmental film and video festival (and taking in six screenings) since Wednesday, I caught up with the blogs I follow and came across a recent post by Wayne Roberts, Toronto's own food policy superhero. He writes about respecting the Live Green Toronto Volunteers, of which I am one, and feels that our training sessions help create community leaders and social capital. Incapable of writing as eloquently as Wayne - even on a good day, when I'm not this exhausted - I will opt to link to his post rather than summarize his points! Happy reading.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    In the News Today

    Remember the eco-fee? I wrote about it back in July, when it first came into effect (you may want to read that post if you have no idea what I'm talking about). We collectively didn't notice the new fee because we were distracted by the new harmonized sales tax. Then there was uproar, Canadian Tire scrapped the fee, and the government finally suspended the program to begin a 90-day review. Well, those three months are up, and the verdict is out: no more eco-fee, new consumer advocates on the Stewardship Ontario board, and municipalities get cash (a.k.a. our taxes) to properly dispose of hazardous household products. Read the full article here.

    Without the eco-fee, we can now spend our Canadian Tire money more frivolously!

    And now for some good news: BPA is now officially on the Canadian Toxic Substances List, thanks to intervention by the federal government. This hormone-mimicking, cancer-causing, immune system-damaging, miscarriage-inducing substance is used to make plastic food and beverage containers, line tin cans, and coat receipts. What's next? In addition to banning it in baby bottles, let's ban it altogether! Read Environmental Defence's news release here.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Planet in Focus

    While the rest of the country is looking forward to working a short week, I'll be facing 21.5 volunteer hours over the next three days. What motivates me so? None other than the Planet in Focus international environmental film and video festival!

    Around since 1999, PiF has been bringing programs featuring environmental and ecological issues to the public's attention in hopes of raising awareness and fostering discussion. The festival brings together filmmakers, distributors, broadcasters, and a diverse audience, and the films are both entertaining and provocative.

    This year's special events include:

    • Wed, Oct 13: Opening Night Gala, including a film screening, reception, and presentation of the Canadian Eco-Heroes Awards
    • Fri, Oct 15: Industry Day, featuring panel discussions, workshops, and a reception
    • Sat, Oct 16: Children's Program, including free film screenings, an animation workshop, and a scavenger hunt
    • Sun, Oct 17: Green Sprouts, a showcase of youth films from Canada and abroad

    Check the full schedule, get your tickets, and come celebrate the planet. I'll be there to usher you to your seat. :)

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    An Apple a Day...

    After much searching, I finally found an apple orchard that minimizes its pesticide use! Frootogo Orchards, nestled within the Niagara Escarpment in Waterdown, implements integrated pest management (IPM), which is a fancy term for using beneficial insects to eat bad bugs, among other things. Follow this link to read about the other IPM components Frootogo employs on the farm. The provincial government also provides a lot of crop-specific information about IPM on their website.

    Another surprise: Frootogo is participating in the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan, which uses workshops to educate farmers about potential environmental issues on the farm (e.g. water and energy efficiency, soil management, pest management, waste disposal, wildlife habitat protection, etc.), then helps analyze a given farm's situation to create realistic projects that reduce its overall environmental risk. Frootogo has already completed two plans.

    Thanks to all of these wonderful environmental initiatives, the apples taste amazing! So, on to the pictures...

    First, Northern Spy, the tried-and-true baking apple. Frankly, I'd just as happily eat these out of hand.

    The dwarf trees made for easy picking.

    These are Cortlands, another great baking apple, and also super tasty to eat.

    I discovered a new (to me) variety: Jonagold, a cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious developed in the 50s in New York. Really flavourful, incredibly crisp, a hint of tartness... I don't want to eat supermarket-bought apples ever again. Ever. EVER!


    Good haul! Compared to berry picking, the basket filled very quickly. That's probably the only downside to apple picking. Too bad I forgot to take a picture of the cute red wagon we borrowed to carry the baskets!

    Lots and lots of apple trees! The farm had a total of 60 rows, and what you see here is half of one row.

    Oh, and lots of animals, too. I couldn't help myself, they were very cute. Scroll past them for pumpkins, if you prefer!

    There are still plenty of apples available for picking. I won't accept the excuse that this is just an activity for children. An outing to a pick-your-own farm is always worth your time. Get out of the city (carpooling with friends, of course), breathe in fresh, clean air, go for a hike when you're done, and reconnect with nature. Most importantly, get to know the farmers who grow your food, and savour the flavours of the land.

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    In the News Today

    I don't usually write posts this late at night but just read an article that I feel compelled to share with you immediately.

    A breast cancer action group based out of Montreal is trying to raise awareness about the importance of research into the prevention of breast cancer, and they point out how little this area is being funded relative to how much goes towards research into treatments or a cure. The group urges consumers to change their spending habits and support organizations that fund prevention research rather than purchase products with a pink ribbon on the label. What's the problem with the pink ribbon? Something called "pinkwashing" (a term I first heard Annie Leonard use), which occurs when big corporations get consumers to buy more of their products by projecting an image of leading the fight against breast cancer when in reality they make matters worse. Examples include Ford, whose vehicles' exhaust includes carcinogens, which is especially ironic in light of a recent study that found breast cancer is associated with traffic-related air pollution. Then there's Avon, L'Oreal, Revlon, and Estee Lauder, whose personal care products contain known or suspected carcinogens. While it is no doubt important to improve treatments and find a cure, it is equally vital that we research the causes of breast cancer, test widely used chemicals' toxicity levels, change legislation to ban known carcinogens, and raise public awareness about how to prevent this disease.

    Read the article here, and check out the following related links:

    Don't be deceived by pinkwashing!

    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    What Will You Be Doing on 10/10/10 Besides Eating Turkey?

    I suspect you have very few other plans, but this post will hopefully change that. Sunday is the date for this year's Global Work Party, which is basically about getting together with neighbours to take action against climate change. The goal is let the government know that everyday people can and do make a difference, and that they've fallen behind on their responsibilities: to change policies, to draft new legislation, to sign treaties.

    Thousands of groups in over 150 countries have already planned events for October 10th. You can search for one near you here. Or, if you have an even better idea for a project, sign up to host your own party here.

    Here are the ten favourite ideas as posted on the site:
    1. plant trees
    2. install solar panels or a solar hot water heater
    3. work on a community garden or organic farm
    4. ride your bike to raise awareness, or host a bike repair workshop
    5. set up a small-scale wind farm
    6. increase energy efficiency by installing LED or CFL lights, weatherizing your home, or scheduling an energy audit
    7. start a Transition Town in which there is increased awareness of sustainable living and a community-led response to the pressures of climate change and fossil fuel depletion
    8. work together with the members of your religious community to brainstorm ideas
    9. pick up litter, dispose of it appropriately (compost, recycling, and landfill), and beautify your neighbourhood
    10. join the 10:10 Global campaign to help cut carbon by 10% per year starting in 2010
    So go out on Sunday! Meet your neighbours, feel proud about your community, get some exercise and fresh air, work on an exciting project, and send a strong message to the government. Then go home and eat local, sustainably raised turkey.

    Monday, October 4, 2010

    What Can One Person Do, When 6.8 Billion Are Frying the Planet?

    That's a good question. Check out Franke James' newest art-essay for the answer. An artist, photographer, and writer who sold her car and built a permeable driveway, James makes you think with bright images and important messages about environmental and social issues. Not only is she my hero, she follows me on Twitter!

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    In the News Today

    Today I invite you to chew on some news about food:

    The Guardian reports on the ugly side of pineapple farming in Costa Rica: growing this fruit requires massive amounts of toxic pesticides, which not only poison consumers but also farm workers; price wars result in poor working conditions and wage cuts to save profit margins; residents in villages downstream from the plantations are forced to find alternative sources of water because the ground water is contaminated with cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting chemicals; and farm employees who dare to join labour unions are laid off and only rehired if they give up their affiliations, and then, at a lower wage than they were earning before. Read the full article here.

    And NPR talks about the threat of lead contamination in urban gardens: in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Indianapolis, some abandoned lots contain soil laced with this toxic heavy metal which is used for urban agriculture by avid gardeners in the neighbouring communities. As for the origin of the lead, the likely culprits are industrial factories and old pipes. What are the dangers? Root vegetables and leafy greens that grow close to the ground tend to be "sticky" to lead, and no amount of scrubbing will get the metal back off. Lead poisoning can lead to serious illness, so please have your local health department test the soil before starting your own garden! Read the details here.