Thursday, January 24, 2008

Seeing the Forest for the Fuel

On November 20th I read in the Science Times this article "Through Genetics, Tapping a Tree’s Potential as a Source of Energy" by Andrew Pollack. This article describes a cocktail of university departments, the Energy Department, and lumber companies working together to find ways of reducing lignin in trees through genetic engineering. Lignin, the chemical trees produce to keep them rigid and upright, gets in the way of producing ethanol from wood pulp. It also slows the process of making paper from wood pulp.

Its another attempt for an agricultural business to get into the oh, so lucrative fuel business. I do not know the science on this, but my suspicion is that trees won't make the most efficient ethanol once you have to farm it. But the biggest problem here is the genetic engineering of trees to contain less lignin. Unlike farm crops, which are generally annual and often do not survive without the farmers' helping hand, trees will survive and pollinate other wild trees with their genetically altered pollen. In not so many years, this trait could spread to much of the new wild offspring in the forest. Seems like a bad idea-especially if we are risking our forests for car fuel. It appears to me that we are in a period of boondoggling in the absence of any true leadership on our car fuel problems. In this period we are going to see a lot of companies looking to get rich off the boondoggle. Lets tell our congressmen and women we don't want to power our cars with trees. The Energy Department should get out of the forest.

Andrew Hancock for The New York Times

Young poplars in a laboratory at Purdue University.

Here's another article about the use of trees for fuel. It seems to have some strange statements,like this one: "Forests can provide renewable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil,” Kimbell said. “This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere while diminishing our dependence on foreign fuel sources." I'm not sure how burning wood or anything made from wood reduces CO2, but thats a sound bite for you.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Post Holiday Catalog Crush

I haven't ordered plants or seeds or really anything from a printed catalog in years. Because of this, I have stopped receiving them. Until just this passed week. I was away for the holiday at my father-in-law's place. My wife and I came back just after New Year's day and our mail box was stuffed with catalogs. About 7 catalogs; all for seeds. At first glance these catalogs, both color glossy and black-printed newsprint, offered a world of dreams. I sat down that evening and started to peruse the one promising heirloom vegetables next summer.

But I barely made it through that first catalog. I suspect that there are a few reasons for this, but the most important that comes to mind is the Internet. I have become an Internet plant and seed shopper (when I can't go to nurseries). The benefits of this are obvious, but I'll lay it out anyway: I can look at color photos, I can research items I'm thinking of buying, and I can easily comparison shop. The printed catalogs felt clumsy to me and maybe this was because they were folded and stuffed into my small, shoebox-shaped mailbox. A minor complaint pre-Internet, but today I was annoyed by flipping folded pages.

Another thing that comes to mind is that I feel like 7 salespeople have just tried to sell me something. I guess the reality is that I always have found catalogs lacking although I have had good and bad catalog shopping experiences. The difference may be that when I go online to shop I have something in mind. The printed catalogs beg me to look through them with no sense of direction. Besides, hum, I guess the real reason is that I have no space left to plant and this unsolicited garden porn highlights the fact that I ain't gettin' any anytime soon.

Funny thing, but one catalog looks just like the old Shepherd's Garden Seed catalog I remember ordering from 10 years ago. But the name is John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. The illustrations, layout, and typeface all remind me of this old catalog. With buyouts of companies rampant over the last 10 years, it may be that this is the old Shepherd's. Or not. A little research reveals that they do not have any relationship, although Shepherd's is now Renee's. Shepherd's and Scheepers are based in Connecticut, but the Shepherd's brand seems to belong to White Flower Farm. I don't think White Flower Farm sells Shepherd's seeds anymore.

Its worth noting that all the companies I have received catalogs from also have web-based catalogs. I think I am receiving these print catalogs because I have ordered from some of these websites, but certainly not all of them. I guess my address has been sold by one or all of the companies I have ordered from. I already knew that my email was sold to every plant and seed company possible. Now my physical address has too. I'll try not to take it out on the catalogs, but they're all headed for the recycle bag.