The Wicked Green: Thanksgiving Food Waste

By: Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Spoiler alert: nothing I’m about to say is particularly revolutionary. However, with Thanksgiving and the winter holidays upon us, many folks are wondering how to tackle the age-old question of food waste. The short answer is – and Faith can back me up here – try to cut back on waste as much as possible this year. While some waste is inevitable (I’m looking at you, onion skins), there’s no need for an 18 lb turkey, three potato dishes, five pies, two styles of cranberries (does anyone really eat those, anyway?), stuffing, green beans, and whatever else – all to feed a family of 4. Believe me, I love Thanksgiving as much as anyone. When else can you have a beer at 10am in the name of gratitude?! However, I am an advocate of only buying and making what I need. And if you have a surplus, perhaps consider donating food, time, or money to a local food bank or family in need.

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Waste not, want not? Some food we collect is still edible, as you can see above. Collected on 11/21/2016.

As for those pesky scraps that you can’t eat or donate, the next best thing you can do is compost! If you have a backyard compost pile, that’s great! Be sure to add plenty of carbon sources (check back to my previous post about yard waste if you need some ideas) so that your compost pile is balanced and nutritious. If you live in a city and can’t compost outside, you can try vermicomposting or a pickup service (like us!)

If composting isn’t an option for you, or if you have oils, fats, and bones you need to deal with, it’s important to research the best way to dispose of those items. Are they appropriate for the sink disposal? What kind of septic system do you have? Are they better suited for the landfill? Ultimately, the answer to that question depends on where you live and how your municipality deals with waste. If you’re in Massachusetts, the MassDEP is a great place to start your research. Finally, you can read more about handling food waste over at Grist, including some of the energy costs and benefits for your potential options!

Please add questions, comments, onion skins, concerns, and all other thoughts in the comment section below!

Also, below a certain temperature, helium has the ability to become a superfluid, meaning it can flow without friction. In this state it is able to do things like climb up the sides of glass containers.

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 4 – Pollution

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Let’s get this party started. Today will be the fourth and final round (at least for this blog series) of the organic vs. conventional agriculture debate. Before the grand finale, a quick review of the previous posts. In round one I defined conventional and organic farming and explored their impacts on soil health. I found soils subjected to organic methods were less susceptible to erosion, exhibited better water holding capacity, and overall were more healthful in the long term. Round two explored the finer points of land use and crop yields. Currently, organic yields per acre lag behind conventional ones and if organic farming is to compete for a better grasp of soil health, nutrient availability and plant growth is needed. Round three was all about energy- inputs and emissions. Organic methods produced greater crop output relative to energy inputs, as well as fewer emissions per pound of crop compared to conventional farming. So now we are going to unveil our last chapter on the organic versus conventional face-off!  And through what fun prism are we going to examine the debate this time? Pollution.

“Agriculture, be it organic or conventional, is guilty of terrible unintended consequences and crimes against nature. Agricultural pollution is the leading cause of impaired water quality in the US according to the EPA.”

First a preface. This post was supposed to be all about chemical and pesticide runoff from agriculture. However, as I went to research down the internet rabbit hole one thing became clear: agriculture — be it organic or conventional — is guilty of a host of environmental sins in addition to chemical runoff. A quick perusal of the data revealed that runoff from pesticides, sediment, nutrients, metals, bacteria, and pathogens are among agriculture’s crimes against nature. Thus, I broadened my scope and will not only cover chemical pollution, but several types of agricultural pollution with an emphasis on water pollution. Why water pollution? Because agricultural pollution is the leading cause of impaired water quality in the US according to the EPA. America’s 915 million acres of agricultural land (41% of all US land!) are having a massive impact on water quality.

Agriculture often pollutes water by using more water, of all things. During irrigation or rainfall, excess water can wash away sediments into nearby water bodies. A little dirt won’t hurt though, right? Turns out runaway soil wreaks havoc on aquatic life. It can cloud the water, block the sun from aquatic plants, clog the gills of fish, and smother insect larvae. Finally, displaced soil particles can contain traces of pesticides and fertilizers used on croplands.

Before we go any further, let me remind everyone organic does not mean chemical free. Let that sink in. Organic farming has a whole list of USDA approved chemicals for use on crops and I even wrote a whole post about it! Thus, organic agriculture can be just as guilty of chemical runoff as its conventional counterpart. I’m not going to dwell on all the impacts of pesticides in the water supply, but here’s a few noteworthy effects on wildlife: mutations, hormonal imbalances, cancers, sterilization, and lesions. Yikes! All that from something used to kill a bug munching on corn stalks.

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Conventional or organic, the biggest difference you can make is changing your eating habits. How about them apples? 

Speaking of corn stalks, fertilizer used to grow those stalks also make their way into the water system. Again, organic does not mean pesticide, chemical or fertilizer free. The manure used on organic farms and the synthetic fertilizers used on conventional systems can be washed into nearby water bodies. The excess nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers fuel algal blooms. Algal blooms (no, that’s not an indie rock band) are actually beneficial in most cases. In fact, they are a crucial component of and basis for food webs. On the flip side, algal blooms gone wild can release toxins and promote the growth of harmful bacteria. These toxins and bacteria can kill fish, shellfish, as well as any birds or mammals that come in contact with any affected water bodies.

Algal blooms don’t just kill with toxins. Large blooms deplete oxygen in the water and create massive “dead zones” where no sea life or fish can survive. Nationwide there are 166 documented dead zones. The most infamous and largest of these dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico where a piece of the ocean the size of New Jersey is lifeless. On second thought, maybe algal blooms might actually be a death metal band.

So there you have it. Agriculture, be it organic or conventional, is guilty of terrible unintended consequences and crimes against nature. Keep in mind I focused on water pollution. I didn’t touch air pollution or even acid rain. Besides pollution, other environmental impacts of agriculture include deforestation, effects on climate, depleted aquifers and probably a bunch of things I have never heard of. Thus, it’s not fair to call either farming method a “winner” in this series. I think the better term might be “less awful.”

But let’s not heap all the environmental woes on agriculture. Take a step back from agriculture’s crimes against nature and think about the big picture. More than 40% of food grown in the US is never eaten. It’s lost during harvest, transportation, and packaging. It gets trashed at restaurants and supermarkets or gets thrown out by households. The environment is being degraded as 60% of the food that hard-working farmers grew using all those acres, fertilizers, and pesticides is tossed.

So what’s hurting the environment more: organic agriculture, conventional agriculture or consumers driving the expansion of agriculture to sustain their wasteful habits? You want to prevent food waste? Eat local and in season so food doesn’t rot before it reaches its destination. You want to preserve natural resources? Eat less meat and dairy. They’re resource intensive. You want to stop landfill expansion? Eat less processed and packaged foods with disposable wrappers. You want to preserve the environment? Start by reforming your eating habits.

The Wicked Green: The Grass Ain’t Always Greener

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

It’s officially fall in New England, and that means it’s time to rake leaves, and rake again, and then rake some more. But wait! Last year, I learned that your lawn can actually benefit greatly from the leaves that fall every year. You can fertilize your grass (for free!) by mulching the leaves and leaving them in place over the winter. In turn, your yard will be supporting a healthier ecosystem, which means you’ll have better soil for trees, shrubs, flowers, and yes, even grass.

Here’s the thing, though. Traditional lawns are a huge resource drain as they mostly sit empty and unused. Instead, homeowners would be wise to plant perennial flowers, shrubs, trees, or even a vegetable garden. Why? Home vegetable gardens can reduce your carbon footprint – up to two pounds of carbon emissions can be prevented for each pound of homegrown vegetables consumed. In Florida, a start-up called Fleet Farming will come help you plant a vegetable garden, help you care for it, and help you harvest it.  In some places, there are financial incentives for ripping out your lawn, and specifically your automatic watering system, where drought is common and water is scarce. In Long Beach, California, residents can apply to receive financial credit to turn their lawn into a landscape that fits Southern California’s semi-arid climate.

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Don’t be this guy.

Ultimately, what you plant and what you grow will depend on where you live. The point is to work with your local ecosystem and not against it. It can be more harmful to plant vegetables at home and not care for them than if you had never planted them in the first place. But if you know what to plant, not only will you be helping the environment, you’ll be helping your stomach and your wallet. Now, isn’t that something to feast on?

Also, there are typically 3 different types of membrane proteins: 1) integral membrane proteins (embedded in the lipid bilayer); 2) lipid-anchored membrane proteins (attach to fatty acids that are attached to the lipid bilayer); and 3) peripheral membrane proteins (bind to integral membrane proteins and never come in contact with the lipid bilayer).

 

The Wicked Green: The French Revolution

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

This week, France became the first country in the world to ban single-use plastic cups and dishes. This year, the French have been leading the way in banning needless waste and creating more environmentally friendly infrastructure. In February, the country’s Parliament voted to ban supermarket waste. In March, a ban on plastic bags went into effect. In July, Paris opened the first section of a 28-mile bicycle “super highway.” At least in France, the United Nations’ Paris Agreement is being taken to heart. After all, home is where the heart is.

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In France, say no to plastic, or non au plastique

Businesses in France must comply with the plastic cup ban by January 1, 2020, though I hope many move to comply much sooner. Each year, more than 4.7 billing cups are wasted and few are recycled. To comply, businesses must use cups that are compostable and at least partially made of bio-sourced materials. Alternatively, businesses can use re-usable cups and dishes, of course.

What I’m not sure about is the availability of commercial composting facilities in France that will be able to process all of these additional bio-plastics. I suspect that many will need to be built around the country. And while compostable plastics are more appealing than traditional plastics, I’m not sure that their benefit is all that great and may only continue to fuel a throwaway culture. But that’s an argument for a different day.

Please add questions, comments, concerns, compostable forks, etc. in the comment section below!

Also, in astrophysics, it can take a photon 40,000 years to travel from the core of the sun to its surface, but only eight minutes to travel the rest of the way to Earth.

The Wicked Green: Trash 2 Treasure

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Ah, September 1, or as the college kids say, “Allston Christmas.” Every year, the end of August and beginning of September brings a frenzy of moving vans, bad traffic and displaced household items scattered around the city of Boston, particularly in areas densely populated by college students. But unlike December 25th, Allston Christmas looks more like an apocalypse, due to the mounds of displaced furniture lining the streets. Save for a relatively small batch of treasures that lucky passers-by’s have collected, most of the furniture is hauled off to the landfill.

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Allston Christmas in all its glory. Credit: Olga Khvan/ Boston Magazine

Allston Christmas or not, a lot of salvageable furniture hiding on these streets goes unnoticed. On top of that, adding to landfills creates more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, and costs the community a lot of money through disposal fees. The problem is – not surprisingly – particularly bad around college towns, which is why a former student from the University of New Hampshire, Alex Fried, founded Trash 2 Treasure (T2T). Trash 2 Treasure is an entirely student-led group that collects unwanted items, stores them in a safe place, and resells them at the beginning of each fall semester. In doing this, the group has saved thousands of dollars for the University and hundreds of thousands of tons of would-be waste from landfills.

Okay, a quick disclaimer. I attended UNH and I’ve personally donated items in the spring and purchased items in the fall. I love it. There are a lot of fantastic things about T2T. It’s entirely free and extremely simple for students to donate unwanted items. Volunteers set up donation zones in dorms and other central campus locations, then haul, sort, and resell the items. All of the profits from the sales go back into operating costs.

“On a fundamental level, waste is just resources in the wrong place.”

-Alex Freid, founder, Post-Landfill Action Network

Programs like Trash 2 Treasure, and its parent nonprofit the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) demonstrate that recycling can be cost effective, work well, and reduce your carbon footprint. Since 2010, T2T has expanded to over 40 schools across the country, and it only continues to grow. So, you students at MIT, Northeastern, and Clark, check out your alternative options on or off campus before you toss that old chair on the side of the road. You never know who might want it.

Please add questions, comments, concerns, sofas, etc. to the comment section below!

Also, in quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the momentum and position of a particle cannot be measured at the same time. If this were possible, it is theorized that the entire past and present of the particle could be calculated.

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 3 – Energy Use

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Welcome back to the BiG Stink and thanks for joining me for Round 3 of the great conventional vs. organic farming inquisition! Here’s a rapid recap: So far in this debate I, your trusty guide Faith, have defined organic and conventional agriculture; explored the impacts of both methods on soil health; and examined the ins and outs of land use efficiency. Today’s agenda? Diving into emissions and energy inputs for conventional and organic farming.

For my purposes, energy inputs for crop production are fossil fuels needed for equipment and transport of materials, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. The largest energy sucker for organic farming was diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is needed to keep on-site machinery rolling and to bring in supplies such as seeds and natural soil amendments like compost and fertilizers like manure.

When assessing conventional agriculture, though, diesel fuel use was in the number two slot. The single largest energy sink in modern agriculture was the production and distribution of nitrogen fertilizers. To let that soak in, consider that the production and distribution of one ton of synthetic fertilizer was estimated to consume the equivalent of one and a half tons of gasoline! One study found that nitrogen fertilizer accounted for a whopping 41% of total energy input. Compared to fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides were miniscule, accounting for a measly 10% of inputs for conventional farming. Though it varied from study to study, organic agriculture inputs overall were found to be 28-32% less than those of conventional methods.

“Organic farms were superior energy misers than their conventional counterparts and were found to require nearly a third less energy inputs.”

Much like inputs, greenhouse gas emissions were dominated by nitrogen. The single largest contributor to emissions in conventional and organic farming was nitrous oxide (N20). Both methods spew a fair amount of the potent greenhouse gas during farming. Agriculture (be it conventional or organic) is the largest source of N20 and accounts for 79% of U.S. emissions of nitrous oxide. Where is all this nitrogen coming from? As mentioned while dissecting inputs, conventional farming relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers and nitrous oxide is a byproduct created during the manufacture of the synthetic fertilizers.

What about organic agriculture? Since most synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are off limits for organic methods, farmers rely upon the use of compost and manure for nitrogen.  N20 is a naturally occurring compound and a normal byproduct of the nitrogen cycle. Nitrous oxide is emitted when microbes break down the various forms of nitrogen (nitrate, nitrite, nitrogen dioxide – I’ll stop now) found in manure and compost.

Naturally occurring or not, organic and conventional agriculture have the same major greenhouse gas emitter, N20. That does not mean the farming methods have the same overall emissions! According to the Rodale Farming Systems Trial (FST), conventional agriculture oozes out nearly 40% more greenhouse gas emissions per pound of crop, largely owing to the manufacture, production,and application of synthetic fertilizers.

Interestingly, in my previous post on land use I pointed out that conventional agriculture puts out more crop per acre. However, now I know organic farms were superior energy misers than their conventional counterparts and were found to require nearly a third less energy inputs. The “organic advantage” means greater crop output relative to energy inputs and fewer emissions per pound of crop. Or in other words: more bang per energy buck. And less gassy.
And so with that, we’re three quarters of the way through this series and the end is nigh! Please stay tuned, keep your eyes peeled, and keep an ear out for the final round of the conventional vs. organic debate, where we’ll explore the uplifting subject of chemical and pesticide leaching.

The Wicked Green: Self-Healing Fabric

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

I love clothes. I love sewing and crocheting clothes. I love creating upcycled merch for Bootstrap, or fashioning my own apparel out of reused bits and pieces. But I also like to get down and dirty (I work for a composting company after all), and, as such, sometimes my clothes don’t hold up to the wear and tear. I commonly find myself wondering where I collected the latest hole in my sleeve or rip in my jeans. Unfortunately, not all clothes are as easy or discreet to fix as others.

Enter: squid teeth! Some squid have evolved in such a way that their tentacles have suction cups with little ring teeth (called SRT) which are made entirely of proteins rather than bone or other hard tissues. These proteins have the ability of transitioning between solid and rubber, which allows them to be molded into virtually any 3D shape. Scientists have been able to isolate these proteins, recreate them in a lab and harness a malleable fabric. With the addition of water and pressure, patches of this fabric can bond with surrounding material. By doing so, scientists have effectively created a self healing material. Shirt holes be gone! You can watch a patch of fabric in action in the video below.

One of my favorite things about this new technology is that the protein is coated on a natural fiber, which means it’s compostable! Thus, we don’t have to add more polypropylene or other synthetic fibers to landfills. Use one of these patches on a shirt that’s 100% cotton or silk, and the whole thing is safe to compost. It’s just one more way we’re creating a sustainable future in fashion (along with pineapple leather!)

Please add your thoughts, questions, concerns, dental problems, and other comments below!

Also, everyone has cancerous cells in their body. It’s when the body stops recognizing these mutations (50% of cancers include mutations at the p53 gene) that it becomes a problem.

The Wicked Green: Mealworms to the Rescue!

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

It happens to us all: you’re in the market for a new TV, maybe one that’s energy efficient with a really crisp HD picture. You save up all your money and finally pull the trigger to buy it. You take it home and unwrap it and it’s padded in styrofoam. You’re bummed because even though styrofoam is technically “recyclable,” you don’t have anywhere to recycle it, so you’re forced to put it out with your curbside landfill pickup.

Well, have I got news for you! It turns out that mealworms, those little wiggly buggers, can eat styrofoam with no negative repercussions, effectively turning it into a nutritious soil amendment. It’s the same process that happens when red wiggler worms feed on your food scraps in your home compost bin. Researchers in a collaborative study between Stanford University and Beihang University published their findings in September, 2015 and our joyful squeals haven’t stopped ever since.

mealworm

Here’s the catch: one hundred mealworms can only consume between 35 and 39 milligrams of styrofoam per day, which means we have a long way to go before that floating-Texas-sized trash patch in the ocean gets cleaned up by our little friends. For comparison, the average adult housefly weighs approximately 21.4 milligrams. Nonetheless, the discovery is an important one, because it gives scientists a clue as to one way they can start to tackle the problem at hand. Of course, we could also be making an effort to reduce our production and consumption of those products in the first place, but that won’t reduce the issue we already have.

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What are your thoughts? Questions? Comments? Disbeliefs? Concerns? Favorite beetles? Please add them to the comments below.

Also, due to Saturn’s low density, it would float in water (the only planet in our solar system that would do so).

The Wicked Green: How Mushrooms Will Save The World

By Emma Brown
Creative Marketing at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Whatever your culinary preferences are regarding mushrooms, it turns out that there are some seriously green uses with fungi outside of the kitchen. Indeed, there are good, hardworking folks throughout the world concocting unique ideas and products with mushrooms that may just help save the planet.

Back in February, I found out about Coeio, a company that produces the Infinity Burial Suit. What’s so special about it? It’s completely biodegradable and made from mushrooms and other microorganisms. Bodies buried in the suits eventually break down and aid the earth. Heck, they even make suits for pets to be buried in! You can read more about the Infinity Suit over at Grist.

As beautiful as some caskets may be, they also act to slow the process of decomposition. Thus, each and every body that is buried in a casket acts more like a personalized underground landfill rather than a compost pile that returns the body back to the earth. Couple this with the fact that populations continue to rise and age, solutions for alternative burials will become increasingly important over the coming decades.

Humans are one thing, but what about all that pesky plastic we are creating and throwing away? Plastic can survive over 150 years in a landfill- that’s bad news for Mother Earth. But it turns out that mushrooms can help us tackle that issue, too. We’ve known since 2012 that fungi can break down plastic, but no one has really figured out a great way to harness that power and use it to our advantage – until now. A joint effort between Livin Studio and Utrecht University led to the development of the Fungi Mutarium, which not only breaks down plastic, but leaves an edible product in its wake!

It works like this: pods of agar (an algae-based type of gelatin) are loaded up with plastic waste and fungi, which feeds on the waste and leaves a puffy mushroom-like food product within a few weeks. The plastic is completely broken down and not incorporated into the fungal matter so the end product is non-toxic and 100% edible for human consumption. These pods might be hard to come by today, but with more funding and research, we could all have plastic-fighting fungi in our kitchens in a few short years.

Whew! Like wild mushrooms in a damp forest, we covered a lot of ground here. Please feel free to add comments, questions, concerns, tiny hair-like fibers, your opinions on mushrooms, and other thoughts in the comment section below. Happy digesting!

Also, the human body consists of more bacterial cells (~39 trillion) than actual human cells (~30 trillion).

 

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 2 – Land Use

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

After a bit of a hiatus owing to Bootstrap’s seemingly unbridled growth (1,600 subscribers and counting), I’m thrilled to announce the return of the BiG Stink! As you may recall, I left off in the midst of a whopper of an investigation: Is organic farming better for the environment than conventional farming? There are hundreds of angles to consider to answer that question and I will not make you read through hundreds of posts, but I did chose four specific topics to cover: soil health, land use efficiency, energy use, and chemical runoff.

Last time I defined organic and conventional farming and explored the effects of each farming method on soil health. This time around we’ll delve into crop yields. How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Depends on what kind of food is being grown. Are we talking fruits, vegetables, legumes or grains?

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BSC co-founder Igor and Faith drop off scraps at organic farm Wright-Locke Farm.

When going head to head, organic and conventional fruit production finish in a statistical dead heat. Fruits such as melons, apples, and tomatoes (yes, tomatoes are fruit) have similar yields per acre regardless of farming techniques. In fact, organically grown tomatoes (considered separately from other fruits) were statistically indistinguishable from conventional tomatoes. Oilseeds such as sunflowers and canola performed well under either farming method. Legumes such as peas and beans also had similar yields.

So far so good for both methods when it comes to crop yield; here comes trouble though. Organic grain and vegetable yields are underwhelming when compared to conventional acres. Organic acres of grains such as corn and wheat are 26% less productive than conventional ones. Among vegetables, organic farming yields 33% less food per acre (!). When considering multiple crop types (grains, fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, and legumes), organic crops produce 25% less food per acre overall than conventional ones. That 25% gap is a big deal. One study projected that in 2014 growing all US crops organically would have required farming 109 million more acres of land, an area equivalent to all the parkland and wild-land areas in the lower 48 states.

“While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.”

What is causing the gap between organic and conventional yields? Scientists suspect organic farms produce less food per acre because of nitrogen availability, a crucial nutrient for plant growth. While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.

Don’t count out organic farming just yet! With expert knowledge and careful management, organic farming can equal or even surpass conventional yields. Well-educated organic farmers know when to apply nitrogen sources to achieve maximum growth during peak growing times as well as how to manage soil pH and other factors that could limit organic yields. After 30 years of study, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) found that organic methods can produce just as much food as conventional ones, whether it be a fruit, grain or vegetable.

Let’s go back to the original question: How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Currently organic yields lag behind conventional ones and when it comes to output, conventional is king. That doesn’t mean we should give up on organic agriculture. With better technology and an increased understanding of soil health, nutrient availability, and plant growth, organic farming has been shown to compete with industrial methods. But organic farming still has a lot of work and research to do before it can top industrial systems. Indeed — at this very minute — conventional farming takes the cake when it comes to food per acre.