Time to Focus on Food

Turns out we should be focusing more on clean eating than clean energy. That’s the finding of a new documentary based on stats about greenhouse gas emissions. “Cowspiracy” shows convincingly that our industrial food system, especially the part that involves livestock, does more harm to the planet than possibly anything else. As far as greenhouse gases go, this sector produces more of them than the entire transportation sector. Maybe when we spent so much time lobbying for CAFÉ standards in DC, we should have focused on café food sourcing standards. Hopefully it’s not too late to turn our focus to food.

Despite inaction in Washington, we’ve made amazing strides in growing clean energy across the nation. The solar industry is growing by leaps and bounds while energy efficiency is becoming mainstream. In DC, we even got an increase in CAFÉ (fuel economy) standards under President Obama. Meanwhile, we appear to be floundering as a nation when it comes to deciding what we do about food. By food I mean the broad category that includes farming, livestock, delivery, sourcing, nutrition, advertising, and government subsidies. Because of this disarray, we have an increase in obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, the fish are disappearing, the Amazon is being chopped down, our water and air are being polluted, and yes, the ice caps are melting.

We need to elevate the dialogue on food policy just as we did for clean energy. There are so many amazing non-profits and food businesses that are already creating a buzz, as well as effecting real change. But to me, it seems that there is no unifying frame to convey the various food related messages – organic, local, plant-based, grass-fed, non-GMO, fair trade, etc. As authors Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier Schutter point out in their article, “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives,” the Federal government has a role to play in shaping the agenda. The business community, local and state governments, farmers and other stakeholders all have a large role to play. The first step is to start the conversation – there’s no time to waste.

Running on Junk?

Runners should be at the forefront of healthy eating and a commitment to a healthy planet. After all, running is all about improving your body’s health, and eating and breathing obviously have a big impact on that. So you can picture my shock when I participated in my first 10K race as part of the Marine Corps Marathon the other day and saw the vendors/sponsors at both the fitness expo before the race and the finish-line celebration after the race. There was barely a smidgen of anything resembling eco-friendly products or services, while there was a plentiful amount of junk food offered.

“Protein” is apparently the buzz word in good eating for athletes. Nearly every product I saw advertised high protein content. That’s all well and good, but the other ingredients in many of these products included refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, chemicals, milk (?!), artificial ingredients, and some things I could not even pronounce. I was expecting a corn-a-copia of vegan health bars, great unsweetened, dairy free drinks, organic protein boosters, and smoothies with loads of dark green leafy vegetables and fruit. There was none of that, with the exception of Clif Bar. You can get protein from good sources.  I eat a health bar almost daily called “Ever Bar,” which comes packed with 11 grams of protein and a simple list of healthy ingredients, all of which I can pronounce.

There were no environmental groups, or clean air groups present. At Clean Currents, we ran a campaign called “Energize Responsibly” targeted to runners and other outdoor athletes. The idea was that these folks care a great deal about clean air and parks because they are outside exercising all the time. It was a big hit when we ran it as the audience really seemed to understand the message. Yet, at this event, there was not a single table talking about clean air and water, or the need for more open space and parks. The only advocacy group I saw was, believe it or not, the Beef Council. They were passing out beef jerky (“protein”) and literature extolling the sustainability of beef. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking some “sustainability” groups should be at this event.

When I finished the race, thankfully the marines gave me a bottle of water and a banana. Good start. But the next marine give-away was a bottle of something that I believe is called a protein shake. It’s a bottled drink with like 18 grams of protein. I almost drank some until I read the label and it looked like a shopping list for a chemistry lab. To top it all off, the drink was milk based. I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m pretty sure drinking milk after a big run is a huge no-no.

There are so many great, earth-friendly, body-friendly products for runners and other athletes to consume before or after exercising. Our friends in the natural food industry should be providing these alternatives to runners, so the junk food guys don’t own the field all to themselves. A running event is one of the best places to help people make the connection between food that has a low impact on the planet and a high positive impact on health. As for the environmental groups, they can’t be a no-show in this world and expect to grow their community. Runners may not think they’re environmentalists, but their choice of exercise forces them to be in the green camp.  After all, dirty air and junky food are to runners what gusty winds and alcohol are to a high-wire act.

Some samples of junk food for runners.

Some samples of junk food for runners.

McDonalds and Chipotle – The Changing American Diet

You’re driving down the road at 6pm and your stomach starts gurgling out of hunger. You see a McDonalds on the left and a Chipotle’s on the right. Which way do you turn? Why? The answer to the first question seems to increasingly be to the right, as Chipotle’s just reported an astonishing 57% increase in net income for the last quarter while McDonalds saw a 30% drop in net income amidst declining sales in the U.S. The question of why is a bit more complicated, and it could determine the future of the American food industry.

The financial pundits are pointing to obvious differences. Chiptole is new, McDonalds is old. Chipotle lets consumers build their own meal, while McDonalds serves pre-made items.  Chipotle is known for high quality, McDonalds has a reputation for poor quality. But to find the answer, perhaps we need to look to a larger movement of Americans paying attention to what they put in their bodies as well as how their food impacts the planet.

Chipotle is certainly not perfect, but it’s better than most places when it comes to sourcing and serving healthier food.  The company claims to source sustainably raised, anti-biotic and hormone free meat as much as possible, and locally grown produce, as well as organic produce when practical. The company’s slogan is Food with Integrity. They have some improvements to make, surely, but they are at least heading down the right path for the right reasons. Their web site gives a good primer on the environmental and public health dangers of factory farmed food and other industrial food practices. As far as serving good food, Chipotle is doing better than many there. It has a vegan option at several of its restaurants. Let’s hope they make it universal at every place. For vegetarians, it’s very easy to find a tasty bean burrito to eat. And of course the food is fresh.  Finally, Chipotle is using its business to promote better environmental and health practices. Check out the funny series they did called “Farmed and Dangerous” to see a pretty direct hit on the industrial food barons.

Americans are warming up to the benefits of what I call a low-impact/high impact diet. This is a diet that’s low impact on the planet but high impact on your body’s good health. People increasingly recognize the connection between the industrial food sector and climate change, or environmental degradation.  They are looking for food that is tasty and filling, but that also makes them feel good or gives them balanced energy. This means less junk food, less sugary drinks, and more healthy options including vegetables and fruits. Keep watching the news about McDonalds and Chipotle. When McDonalds sales go down, that means Americans health and environmental consciousness is going up.

A Consumer Protection Issue in Energy for Maryland Regulators to Review

While state regulators in Maryland are reviewing consumer protections in the proceeding known as PC35, they should take a close look at the deceptive marketing practices some suppliers use. The most egregious I’ve seen (IMHO) is a company that sends a mailer that looks like it comes from the utility and it’s giving the consumer an option to switch. I have had several people ask me about this mailing because they didn’t know the utility was doing this. I had to tell them to re-read the letter closely and see that it’s not actually from the utility.

If a supplier has to rely on deception to acquire customers then it’s not only a moral failing for that company’s leaders to think about, it’s a problem for the whole market. Consumers have a hard time distinguishing between the bad apples who use deceptive tactics like this and those that legitimately market their products. It’s the old ‘a pox on all your houses’ syndrome. I believe electric choice is a good thing and should be encouraged. That’s why I think state regulators need to take another look at the rules for marketing and eliminate the loopholes that allow for these unethical practices. Once they do that, coupled with increased enforcement, they will give consumers the chance to truly review various offers and make an honest choice.

Could Maryland’s Regulators be Moving to More Consumer Protection in Energy?

Regulators, consumer advocates and energy companies in Maryland are all weighing in on some critical issues relating to consumer protection in the electricity market, and it’s safe to say many people don’t know what’s happening.  There are no big press conferences, or commercials, or much if any media coverage. While the proceedings, called PC35, cover a wide array of issues, I want to focus on just one – variable rate electricity products. To me, these are the products most in need of some serious attention.

Variable rate electricity products are products that have a price that can vary from month to month. There is no standard mechanism that warrants a change, but rather the vague “market conditions,” which for an electricity supplier can mean anything related to their business operations. Consumers sign up for these products because they typically have no cancellation fee, or have low introductory rates, or just because that’s the product they were offered.

Many suppliers use variable teaser rates as a cost of acquisition tool. In other words, they don’t mind losing money during the first few months of the customer relationship because they will increase the rates later to nice large margins. One supplier CEO told me that most consumers stop reading their electric bill carefully after about three months. Thus, you will see several companies offering three or six month teaser rates, which could be followed by higher rates.

The solution to this is pretty straight forward and it’s something we actually were going to do voluntarily at Clean Currents if we rolled out a variable rate product. The solution is to require the suppliers to inform their customers every month that the rates change and to provide them the new rate, in advance. Customers would then have the option of continuing with the plan, switching to a fixed price plan, going to another supplier or going back to the utility. This is the recommendation of the Office of People’s Counsel, the state’s consumer advocate.  Suppliers that want to earn the trust and respect of their customers should seriously consider doing this voluntarily. At the very least, they should advocate for regulations to this effect, so the whole market is covered. It’s the ethical thing to do and probably a smart business decision as well.

Pennsylvania’s Potential Wind Revival

Last decade, Pennsylvania was a leading player in developing a vibrant wind power industry, with new wind farms and new wind turbine manufacturing plants. Unfortunately, lack of Federal direction and a recent rush to fossil fuels has seemingly pushed wind to the background in the commonwealth. That could all be changing soon with new Carbon regulations from the Feds and a push by activists to re-start the Pennsylvania clean energy economy.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Carbon rules would make it more difficult to build new coal-fired power plants and could assign many existing plants to the scrapheap of history, where they belong. Wind and solar are in a perfect position to fill the vacuum left by this diminishing power resource. Pennsylvania has a lot to gain. Though it already has more than 700 wind turbines operating, mainly in the middle of the state, that’s just a small piece of what could be built. Indeed, the anti-wind forces see the potential here. They just passed a bill in the Pennsylvania State House to require a year long study on wind power’s impacts on the environment. This, despite the fact that the wind industry already agreed to studies conducted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and despite the fact that this same body does not seem interested in passing bills requiring studies of the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and human health.

Meanwhile, activists in Pennsylvania are hoping for a brighter future. They’ve developed new ideas for policies that would get the clean energy industry back on track. Depending on what happens in the upcoming election, these ideas could be incorporated by new leadership in Harrisburg. To see what a clean energy revival looks like, Pennsylvanians just have to look south, towards their neighbor Maryland, where a strong solar requirement has led to thousands of homes going solar, new green jobs, and national companies moving into the state. Let’s hope there’s some change coming to Pennsylvania, for a cleaner, green future for everyone.

What Comes After the People’s Climate March?

There’s no denying that the People’s Climate March was historic and deserves all the superlatives being thrown at it. The fact that more than 300,000 people in New York and thousands of others around the world marched for action on climate change is astounding and something some of us in the climate movement probably couldn’t envision just a few short years ago. We should all be proud. Like many such great events, the question naturally becomes, “what’s next?”

Fortunately, the climate movement’s unofficial leader is a man brimming with ideas and the ability to communicate them. Bill McKibben, founder and Chair of 350.org, has written persuasively and passionately about climate change for years. He understands the power of the “message” as well as anyone in the movement. His main action item these days seems to be the fossil-fuel divestment movement. In that regard, we scored a major victory with the recent announcement that the Rockefeller Foundation is divesting of fossil fuel investments. But is divestment really the answer to “what’s next?” Is it the answer that will get us to our ultimate goal of dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change?

The road to reaching our ultimate goal must somehow go through a process to make emissions reductions the law of the land. I can’t think of any way this happens without Congress passing legislation.  This is where the way ahead becomes murky. Is the strategy to make investment in fossil fuels so unpopular that enough funds and major shareholders divest, which in turn scares the fossil fuel industry into working with its erstwhile allies in Congress to pass laws?  Or is the plan to get rank and file American voters concerned enough about climate change to be galvanized by this new movement they see and thus ratchet up the pressure on their legislators to make something happen?  Or maybe it’s to protest loudly enough and often enough to reach some kind of tipping point that we can’t even fathom at this time?

We have a wonderful new opportunity to scale up the climate movement in a way that’s never happened before thanks to McKibben, the many other climate activist groups, and the 300,000 people that showed up in New York. Let’s think long and hard about a strategy going forward to ensure this great display of people power doesn’t fizzle out.