Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish

Paul Greenberg’s fascinating new book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, examines the reasons why humans chose to seek out salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the four staples of our seafood diet, and questions the sustainability of our efforts to continue doing so.  I recently lived in Japan for three years, and had my fair share of Toro sashimi, fatty blue fin tuna, along with other delicacies.   Having lived in that seafood-based culture, and having fished for salmon myself, I understand the appeal of the current staples of seafood.  I was really impressed with the background and the framework with which Greenberg examines these fisheries.

Greenberg grew in Connecticut, fishing along its namesake river (Connecticut comes from the Algonquin word quonehtacut, or ‘long coastal river’), and developed a love of fishing from an early age.  He understands fisheries management and aquaculture, and deftly explains how our fisheries came to be in their current state.  At root, the book is examining four fish, “Or rather four archetypes of fish flesh which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species for another.”  In fact that is where Four Fish is particularly insightful – Greenberg identifies some potential sustainable aquaculture candidates that are efficient and safe (for both humans and the marine environment), that you probably never heard of, like barramundi and Kona Kampachi.

I recently attended a public hearing about proposed fisheries regulations in Rhode Island, and what became immediately apparent to me was that most of the audience, stakeholders in the fisheries industry, spoke an entirely different language than the fisheries scientists, employees of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).  There were both commercial and recreational fishers of a wide range of aquatic species, ranging from soft-shell clams to cod, stripers to monkfish.  Their individual economic incentives often conflicted with each other; party boat captains relied on a large bag limit of tautog, because the state regulations were more liberal than in neighboring states; divers and waders for shellfish fought for different season opening dates, to get an advantage on each other.  The fisheries scientists spoke of maintaining sustainable fisheries through regulation, while the fishermen complained they would be unable to make a profit with ‘micromanagement.’

Greenberg’s Four Fish examines the economic aspects of fisheries as well, and he recommends that artisan fishers replace factory trawlers; subsidized fishing fleets should go away and in their place, respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species as well as catch them.  He also argues that blue fin tuna and other species that travel across oceans are unmanageable, and should be protected like tigers and whales.  Having seen the Japanese fish markets, I know how difficult that will be, but mercury-laden tuna is simply not sustainable or manageable.  Here in Rhode Island, fishermen at the hearing spoke of resources and jobs; while they may sometimes disagree with the fisheries scientists, both will need to work together in the long term to create sustainable fisheries, sustainable jobs, and sustainable seafood.  Ultimately, that will require “a profound reduction in fishing effort,” and open-minded consumers.

 


Democracy in action

Last night I attended a public comment hearing on some proposed fishing management regulations, and I could hear the tension that exists between our economy, reliant on steady growth, and our diminishing resources.  The proposals, presented by RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) administrators, were framed by scientific assessments of the health of fisheries.  The fish were referred to mainly as biomass and resources.  The hearing was attended by 50 people, mainly fishermen and women, but also citizens concerned about sustainable fisheries.

Critics of DEM regulation  presented arguments about the rising cost of fuel, and the need to maintain a high harvest in order to make a profit; many of them did not agree with the DEM about their fishery assessments.  Ultimately, the administrators and the fishermen seemed to be speaking two languages, much like our national political discourse.  When the DEM administrator chairing the hearing referred to ‘management,’ fisherman recoiled as if the word meant ‘closure.’  The DEM assessed fishery populations scientifically, whereas the fishermen offered anecdotal evidence about days when the fish come and days when they don’t.  One shellfisherman asked a DEM scientist to explain where the evidence of soft-shell clam underpopulation was.

The hearing was an exercise in democracy, one that both sides seemed familiar with.  The DEM administrator chairing the hearing knew many of the fishermen by name, including several leaders of trade associations.  Those trade associations take different positions on DEM regulation, but the word ‘micromanagement’ came up many times.  Several members of an Advisory Panel, which worked prior to the hearing to offer recommendations to the DEM on the proposals, spoke of the long hours spent trying to identify the best path forward.  Several veterans, involved with RI fisheries and regulation going back to the 1970s, spoke of the ‘give-and-take’ that happens with these regulations over time.  The process itself offered by the hearing gave me some hope about the ability of our system of government to work ‘for the people and by the people.’  Ultimately, that is the only way we can move forward, especially with the great challenges we will face in coming years.


With tax bill, Congress restores biodiesel tax credit

In October, I toured Newport Biodiesel, and spoke with its founder, Nat Harris.  Newport Biodiesel is a remarkable local business that takes Waste Vegetable Oil from restaurants across Rhode Island and converts it to ASTM certified Biodiesel, which then heats homes and powers automobiles across New England.  When we met, Nat talked about some of the difficulties many in the biodiesel industry faced when the $1/gallon biodiesel Federal Tax Credit expired in January 2010.  However, Nat Harris and the rest of the nacent biodiesel industry are undoubtedly celebrating the retroactive extension of the tax credit through 2011, which will become official when the President signs the tax bill.

Why is biodiesel important?  I wrote about it here in detail, but for a quick primer, biodiesel emits fewer pollutants when it is burned; because it is created from waste products and plant matter, it has less than 50% of the life cycle carbon emissions than petroluem-based fuels.  This is not ethanol, it is an Advanced Biofuel that can be blended with petro-fuel to work year ’round.  More importantly, this is a domestic industry that takes material out of the waste stream and resuses it.  Biodiesel is sustainability.  And for President Obama, it is another victory in a Lame Duck session that is surprisingly bountiful.  The Senate may even have enough votes to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this weekend.


A Purple Cow in Rhode Island

This weekend, while visiting the Wintertime Farmers’ Market in Pawtucket, RI, I stopped by the booth of New Harvest Coffee Roasters, a local roaster of whom I am a loyal customer.  I typically pick up their packages of Whole Bean coffee when I shop at Whole Foods, but often I will savor a cup of their Pour-Over coffee while I idle around the Farmers’ Market.   On Saturday, I approached the booth, and asked the barista for a cup of Kenya AA Gaturine Estate, a coffee I had not seen previously at Whole Foods.  The barista carefully prepared my cup, then handed it to me.  To quote Agent Dale Cooper in the seminal television program Twin Peaks, it was a damn fine cup of coffee.  I asked the barista why I never saw this coffee at Whole Foods.  He told me that Whole Foods is very careful about what types of coffee they want.   A post card explained:

SOURCE DIRECT: How to connect coffee consumers with coffee growers

A DIFFERENT WAY

Source Direct is an alternative to Fair Trade.  As artisan roasters, we need to connect with small producers to develop the highest quality coffee.  This is difficult under the Fair Trade model, which is based on very large cooperatives that produce huge mixed-lots of coffee.  It treats coffee as a commodity.  We consider coffee to be an artisan food, and Source Direct is a way for us to achieve new levels of quality with our farmer producers.

THE MODEL

Source Direct is not a certification.  It is commitment to do what it takes to create real collaboration between New Harvest and small coffee farms.  The most important element is communication: farmers need to know what we want and we need to know what their challenges are in meeting our needs.  Usually it means visiting the farms at least once a year, checking up on the picking and processing practices, tasting coffee with growers and comparing notes.  Sometimes it involves purchasing a crop months before we receive it.  Occasionally, or barista trainer will find himself training 30 Costa Rica farmers at a Tarrazu wet-mill.

At Whole Foods, New Harvest sells 4-5 varieties of coffee that are all Shade Grown, Fair Trade, and USDA Organic certified.  Yet, at the farmers market, New Harvest was promoting a variety of coffee with none of those certifications, but instead under a new program where the company pledges only to “do what it takes.”   New Harvest’s Source Direct program, a brand new initiative from the local company, represents a potential paradigm shift away from Fair Trade.  The example of these two types of coffee, sold through two different distribution channels, speak to the complexity associated with the Fair Trade label as it continues to grow in volume; estimated worldwide sales of Fair Trade products increased 187% between 2004 and 2007.

Valery Bezencon, a management consultant and Peruvian business professor, in his thesis The Fair Trade Journey: Conciliating Romance and Strategy, examines the Fair Trade market as a whole, specifically comparing the growing mainstream distribution growth with traditional alternative distribution, and identifies the different motivations of customers who purchase Fair Trade products.  Bezencon’s analysis provides context for the New Harvest Source Direct program, as well as prescriptions for marketers and managers of Fair Trade products.

Fair Trade’s continued growth and relevance hinges partially upon the manner with which it is marketed to consumers.  The Fair Trade label that consumers see on products serves as an instrument to provide information to consumers, and to convey the underlying values of the company that sells the product.  Fair Trade products are not competitive on price with non-Fair Trade products, so the Fair Trade products must provide an added value.

Consumers approach Fair Trade products for different reasons, but for Benzecon, it all comes down to the level of “involvement,” or motivation, to seek out Fair Trade products; that involvement can originate from the product itself or from the Fair Trade certification.  Benzecon coins a term to describe the latter consumer involvement: Fair Trade adhesion, the extent to which consumers buy Fair Trade products because of their underlying Fair Trade principles.   According to Benzecon, increasing the Fair trade adhesion will result in greater sales of Fair Trade products.  However, New Harvest Coffee, a local roaster popular with foodies who appreciate both Fair Trade and good local food, is marketing a new product that runs in direct opposition to Fair Trade.  Why would they do that?

New Harvest took the initiative to communicate about its new product, directly to its most ardent consumers.  In one sense, Source Direct is, in the frame of Seth Godin, a Purple Cow.  However, New Harvest makes an important claim about the Source Direct coffee: it tastes better.  According to New Harvest’s marketing material, Fair Trade coffee is a commodity sold in mixed lots.  For a company that continues to sell many pounds of that Fair Trade coffee, that is a bold strategy.  According to Benzecon, the folks at New Harvest may be onto something:

Hedonic value is a weak predictor of Fair Trade decision involvement.  This means that taste is hardly an argument to prefer Fair Trade over conventional coffee.  Indeed, Fair Trade products do not at present differentiate themselves with better quality or taste.” (Benzecon 86)

According to Benzecon, the biggest indicators of commitment to Fair Trade products are Fair Trade adhesion, concentrating on empowering small farmers and improving their working conditions.

New Harvest emphasizes in its marketing material that Source Direct “is commitment to do what it takes to create real collaboration between New Harvest and small coffee farms.  The most important element is communication: farmers need to know what we want and we need to know what their challenges are in meeting our needs.” New Harvest is taking the most important aspects of Fair Trade that appeal to consumers, and repackaging them around their own Purple Cow: finer tasting coffee.  In fact, New Harvest seems to be reading right out of Benzecon’s playbook.  He recommends that the communication strategy for a company to increase Fair Trade’s revenues “should be focused on the dimensions that exacerbate a differentiated identity in order to nourish consumers with additional signification related to Fair Trade values, adding competitiveness to the products.” (Benzecon 89)

Despite New Harvest’s Purple Cow, Fair Trade products are growing in availability.  It used to be that consumers could only find Fair Trade products at specialty shops, and at grocery stores like Whole Foods.  Now, most big grocery chains have organic sections with a wide variety of products; even Wal-Mart sells Fair Trade products.  How can Fair Trade avoid becoming a meaningless, ubiquitous seal, whose standards of excellence are swallowed under the pressure of greater market share and revenue?

Most companies just throw the Fair Trade label on their product and leave it to consumers to judge.  An artisan coffee producer like New Harvest has the luxury of communicating more directly with its customers than a global behemoth like Starbucks does.   Benzecon has a strategic recommendation for any company that wants to increase sales of their Fair Trade products: know the market, including its consumer segments, and communicate directly to those niches.   Benzecon surveyed 433 consumers of Fair Trade coffee in Switzerland, and discovered some important insights.  He found that younger and less educated consumers buy Fair Trade products for different reasons than older and more highly educated consumers.  For example, the taste of Fair Trade coffee is very important to less educated consumers.  The Fair Trade market is much more complex than previously understood, and communicating with it effectively and efficiently will require more than a simple seal – it will require tailored communication.

However, despite their foray outside the Fair Trade universe, New Harvest is a model for communicating with its customers.  New Harvest baristas treat their coffee like fine wine, and empower their customers with knowledge. When New Harvest says they are committed to doing “what it takes” for their partner farms, their customers believe it.  The Starbucks of the world can learn a lot from New Harvest.

 


Stimulus II the “swindle of the year”; Biogas powers Kristianstad, Sweden

Check out this excellent column by Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, on how the President swindled the Republicans:

“If Obama had asked for a second stimulus directly, he would have been laughed out of town. Stimulus I was so reviled that the Democrats banished the word from their lexicon throughout the 2010 campaign. And yet, despite a very weak post-election hand, Obama got the Republicans to offer to increase spending and cut taxes by $990 billion over two years. Two-thirds of that is above and beyond extension of the Bush tax cuts but includes such urgent national necessities as windmill subsidies. No mean achievement. After all, these are the same Republicans who spent 2010 running on limited government and reducing debt. And this budget busting occurs less than a week after the president’s deficit commission had supposedly signaled a new national consensus of austerity and frugality. Some Republicans are crowing that Stimulus II is the Republican way – mostly tax cuts – rather than the Democrats’ spending orgy of Stimulus I. That’s consolation? This just means that Republicans are two years too late. Stimulus II will still blow another near-$1 trillion hole in the budget.  At great cost that will have to be paid after this newest free lunch, the package will add as much as 1 percent to GDP and lower the unemployment rate by about 1.5 percentage points. That could easily be the difference between victory and defeat in 2012. Obama is no fool. While getting Republicans to boost his own reelection chances, he gets them to make a mockery of their newfound, second-chance, post-Bush, Tea-Party, this-time-we’re-serious persona of debt-averse fiscal responsibility. And he gets all this in return for what? For a mere two-year postponement of a mere 4.6-point increase in marginal tax rates for upper incomes. And an estate tax rate of 35 percent – it jumps insanely from zero to 55 percent on Jan. 1 – that is somewhat lower than what the Democrats wanted.”

I can’t believe that Rhode Island Democrats are still complaining about the extension of tax cuts for the top 2%.  This is an outstanding political achievement on the President’s part, and much needed stimulus.  Krauthammer is right, this stimulus represents the President pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

On another note, check out this biogas plant in Sweden. The town of Kristianstad no longer uses oil, natural gas, or coal to heat its homes or power its cars.  It generates biogas from waste agricultural products and other waste, including potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines.  Fantastic!  In the United States, we have only 151 biomass digesters.  Most of our waste just ends up in landfills, where often the methane is not even tapped.

 


Deepwater Wind doubles down

A wise man once said you always double down when you are dealt eleven in Blackjack. Well, Deepwater Wind is pursuing economies of scale, and has effectively doubled down, increasing its proposed wind park from 100 to 200 turbines, lowering the cost of wind generated to 16 cents/kw.  I detailed the long and complicated process of this development, herehere, and here; this study details the great potential of Atlantic offshore wind.  Suffice it to say, this expansion bodes well for the approval and completion of the large-scale wind farm.  Save the Bay’s Jonathan Stone, director of the largest and most prestigious environmental group in Rhode Island, supports the move.  Rhode Island taxpayers will like the lower rates.  This is a win-win.


The glass half full view of Tuesday’s election

If you were to rely on the mainstream media for an analysis of Tuesday’s election, you might think that a Tea Party revolution is about to take hold of Washington.  Yes, Rand Paul was elected; the countdown begins on his vow to eliminate entire Federal Government departments.  Yes, some amazingly effective leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold were defeated.  However, in the larger picture, those concerned with creating a sustainable future can celebrate some important victories.

First of all, California voters dealt a resounding defeat to Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s pioneering greenhouse gas reduction law, AB 32.  Prop. 23 wasn’t just defeated, it was defeated 61-39.  California voters said no to Texas-based oil interests.  They are committed to an energy future that recognizes the externalities of fossil-based fuels, and demand a clean energy revolution.  Try that on for size, Tea Party.

Second, while many sympathetic politicians lost, some stalwarts of sustainability, like Senator Barbera Boxer in California, fought off challengers.  Former Denver mayor, and sustainability advocate John Hickenlooper was convincingly elected Governor of Colorado.  Governor Deval Patrick was re-elected in Massachusetts, and Independent Lincoln Chafee held off a last minute challenge by Republican John Robitaille in the Rhode Island Governor’s race.  Even one Republican victor, Governor-elect Rick Snyder of Michigan, offers hope, as he is a board member of The Nature Conservancy.  Extremists like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell were defeated.  In short, while no one will confuse incoming House Speaker John Boehner as a champion of sustainability, Tuesday’s midterm election was not a disaster.