Home solar power becomes a brighter prospect for many

Just out of view on the back side of Rob and Irene Kneeland’s Colonial house in Sutton, 28 photovoltaic panels are transforming light into power every time the sun shines.

The system came online in December. By March, the Kneelands’ monthly electric bill had dropped from $150 to $38.

“I imagine the next bill will be about zero,” Rob Kneeland said. “It appears that they’re performing as promised.”

Historically, installing solar panels was a pricey proposition — usually something only committed environmentalists with money to spend did. In recent years, however, improvements in technology, falling manufacturing costs, government incentives, and worries about the perils of fossil fuel dependence have come together to accelerate the adoption of solar technologies among everyday homeowners.

Between late 2013 and mid-2016, Massachusetts’ solar capacity more than tripled, from 362 megawatts to 1,174 megawatts, according to numbers from regional electric grid operator ISO-New England.

If you want to consider joining the surge, here’s how it works.

First, determine whether solar panels are feasible for your home. Generally, you will need a roof that isn’t facing north and doesn’t receive too much shade from the south, said Andrew Belden, senior director for renewable energy generation at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Your roof should also be large enough to accommodate at least 10 to 15 panels and be relatively new.

“You want to make sure you’re not going to be taking the system down in the next five years to replace your roof,” Belden said. Just about all installers will provide a free on-site assessment.

Next, study up on the basic economics of residential solar. In the past, leasing and power purchase agreements were popular ways for homeowners to get solar power. Under such arrangements, a business builds and retains ownership of a solar system then sells the energy produced to the homeowner.

But today, the price of a residential solar installation is about one-third what it was just 10 years ago, according to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. At the same time, financing options have multiplied, making straightforward ownership more economically advantageous.

“More financial institutions are familiar with solar now,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group. “Today, you’ve got lots of options.”

The median price per watt of capacity for systems financed through the Mass Solar Loan Program is $4, and the median installation size is 8.1 kilowatts. Those numbers suggest a new solar system could easily run more than $30,000.

Fortunately, several programs can help defray the costs. Federal tax incentives allow you to take a credit worth 30 percent of the cost of the installation. Massachusetts also offers a tax credit of 15 percent of the remaining cost after the federal incentive has been subtracted, with a maximum value of $1,000.

Together, these credits could reduce the cost of a $30,000 system to roughly $20,000 — still a pretty hefty total. To help cover that balance, the Mass. Solar Loan Program will assist you in locating a participating bank or credit union and, for income-eligible households, it also can provide further financial assistance.

Households below 80 percent of median income — the threshold is currently $87,183 for a four-person household — are eligible for a principal reduction of 30 percent. Those below 120 percent of median income — $130,774 for a family of four – qualify for a 20 percent reduction.

Some individual communities may have further incentives — DSIRE.org maintains an updated database of renewable energy programs, state by state

Once the system is installed, ongoing savings will come from two places: net metering and solar renewable energy credits, or SRECs.

When your system is producing more power than you use, the excess electricity flows back into the grid and your meter runs backward, deducting kilowatt-hours from your usage — and your bill. This phenomenon is known as net metering.

If your power is currently delivered by a utility company, your system will almost certainly be able to take advantage of net metering. Homes served by municipal electric plants, however, may not be, so research eligibility before moving forward.

SRECs are certificates representing the environmental benefits generated by your solar system. They can be sold to companies looking to meet regulations, boost their green credentials, or offset their carbon emissions.

An 8-kilowatt system could produce as many as 10 SRECs per year and, though prices fluctuate, one SREC can sell for well over $200. While homeowners can sell their SRECs on their own, many choose to work with aggregation companies, which pool many SRECs and then sell them on behalf of their members.

Once you understand the financial basics, it is time to start shopping for an installer. If you are interested in the Mass. Solar Loan program, start with its list of prequalified businesses. Make sure to contact several installers. But limit your search to companies that are solar specialists, rather than roofers or general contractors who have added solar to their menu of services.

Ask vendors questions until you are completely satisfied with the answers, Kimbis said. He recommended asking how many systems the company has installed in your area, and requesting at least three references.

A potential installer should provide detailed cost estimates, including expected annual production, available incentives, and projections of how long the system should take to pay for itself. Be wary of companies that offer vague assurances instead of hard numbers.

An installer also should arrange for local inspections, connections to the utility, and the paperwork involved in signing you up to receive SRECs.

Finally, once you’ve chosen a company, be prepared to wait. Solar is becoming so popular that there will probably be a delay before you can schedule installation.

“Crews might be scheduling six, eight, 10 weeks out,” Belden said. “There’s a lot of solar activity going on in the state.”


Invasive Lionfish Coming to a Menu Near You

American seafood enthusiasts have spent years dining on salmon, shrimp, and the occasional mahi mahi. Now a new, rather unexpected fish is starting to creep onto menus and into seafood shelves at supermarkets: lionfish.

As a growing number of people become aware of the vast environmental havoc this small fish can wreak, a group of fish vendors, chefs, and diners are realizing that the best way to control the threat might just be to eat our way out of it.


Seafood Watch, a program that assesses and rates the sustainability of seafood options, started looking into lionfish last year after fielding inquiries from local chefs and consumers who were interested in eating the species. At first, the organization declined to provide a recommendation because there is not yet an established commercial fishery for lionfish, said Ryan Bigelow, outreach program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But the more they heard, the more interested they became, and, in October 2015, the group released its first report on lionfish, labeling it a “best choice,” the highest available rating.

“It really is a grassroots sort of campaign that pushed it into the spotlight,” Bigelow said.

The Seafood Watch rating, in turn, sparked interest from Whole Foods, which only sells fish that has been highly rated by the organization.

Though the natural foods chain told NPR in 2011 that there wasn’t enough buyer interest to research the possibility of carrying lionfish, the company recently told Civil Eats that it will begin selling lionfish in its stores over the next six months, beginning on the West coast.

The announcement is welcomed by Justine Burt, a Palo Alto resident who had been petitioning the store to carry lionfish since she first tasted it on a trip to Belize last year. “It’s something that needs to be eaten, instead of fish coming from fisheries that are collapsing,” she said.

Until recently, creating a reliable supply chain for this hard-to-catch fish was a major challenge. But the recent moves by both Seafood Watch and Whole Foods hints that the lionfish market might now be on the cusp of entering the seafood mainstream.

“It has a white, flaky delicious meat—a lot of restaurants are very interested in that,” said Emily Stokes, lionfish program assistant at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. “The problem is the supply.”

To most Americans, the lionfish is better known as a pet than as a meal. The species, native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, boasts dramatic stripes, flamboyant fins, and intimidating, venomous spines. They have long been a popular choice for saltwater fish tanks. No one is certain how the fish made their way into the wild, but it is believed that some were released into the ocean by aquarium owners at least 30 years ago. The hearty species took it from there.

“They are such voracious eaters, they will eat just about anything, and because of their poisonous spikes, nothing can really eat them,” said Bigelow. “Once they hit the waters around Florida, there was really no stopping them–they were clearing out reefs.”

Today, lionfish have spread throughout the coral reefs of the Caribbean, where they prey on and compete with other species, generally decimating the native ecosystem. In areas the fish has invaded, the biomass of native reef fish species has dropped by an average of 65 percent, according to one study.

Lionfish can only be removed from the ecosystem without damaging other species by spear-fishing, however. And professional spear fishermen have generally been more apt to go after familiar and reliable targets like group or snapper, rather than take chances with the fish’s venomous spines and the uncertain demand for the fish, Stokes said.

But that might be changing as chefs and restaurateurs like New York City’s Ryan Chadwick are developing demand for the prickly predator. Chadwick opened his Caribbean-themed restaurant Norman’s Cay in 2013, shortly after he first learned about the lionfish invasion. From the beginning, the invasive fish was a central item on his menu: jerk lionfish, lionfish ceviche, curried lionfish. He trained waitstaff to explain the lionfish problem to diners and made literature on the issue available.

Customers were very responsive and soon supply was unable to keep up with demand. Chadwick had been diving for his own lionfish, taking regular trips to the Bahamas and bringing back coolers stocked with 50 pounds of fish at a time. As the popularity of the species grew, he developed a network of Caribbean spear-fishermen whom he could count on to supply the fish.

Now he is in the midst of launching what he believes to be the country’s only lionfish wholesale business, Norman’s Lionfish.

“We’ve got divers calling us every day,” Chadwick said. “Now my job is to push this nationally to other chefs, other restaurants.”

He is also working on developing a trap that will lure in lionfish without accidentally catching the very native species he is trying to protect. If he can find a way to catch more of the fish without depending on labor-intensive spear-fishing, it would suddenly become much easier to scale up lionfish sales and have a bigger impact on damaged reefs.

Still, Chadwick remains realistic about the chances of solving the lionfish problem once and for all.

“I don’t think eradication is possible—it’s part of our ecosystem now,” he said. “We just have to figure out ways to deal with it.”

When startups collide: Greentown Labs hopes working elbow to elbow can create innovation

GreentownWhen clean technology incubator Greentown Labs moved from South Boston, Massachusetts, to the neighboring city of Somerville in 2013, the sprawling new facility was a little daunting, said chief executive Emily Reichert. With 18 member companies – all small startups – the organization filled less than half the 33,000 square feet in the building.

“At that time, it seemed like an incredibly big space,” she said.

Less than two years later, Greentown Labs has expanded into every corner of the former envelope factory. With 44 member companies employing 285 people, Greentown Labs has become the largest clean tech incubator in the US, Reichert said. Member startups are working on everything from data-collecting sailboats tofloating wind turbines.

“It’s become a cultural center of forward thinking entrepreneurial activity,” said Gabe Blanchet, co-founder of Grove Labs, a Greentown tenant that is developing residential-scale aquaponic systems that allow tenants to grow vegetables indoors.

The Boston area has long been known as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurial activity, from the computer technology corridor that boomed along Route 128 in the 1980s to today’s flourishing biosciences sector. Greentown Labs aims to join this tradition, giving innovative sustainability-focused startups the traction they need to turn their bold ideas into game-changing realities. But until one of its growing startups makes it big – something that has not happened yet – its model of collaboration and resource sharing remains unproven.

Greentown Labs began in late 2010, when four clean energy startups, all with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came together to split the rent on a rundown warehouse space in East Cambridge. There, they could tinker, tweak, and try out their intended products. When the warehouse was demolished in 2011, the four companies moved to a space in South Boston, expanding and bringing in more young enterprises. After just two years, the incubator had outgrown its new space and decided to move again.

When Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone heard Greentown was looking for a new home, he decided to woo the group to his city, offering $300,000 in tax incentives.

“They bring us everything we hope for in the type of companies we need to build our locally-sustainable economy,” said Curtatone, who also ordered one of Grove Labs’ first home aquaponics system.

Framed by lime green and teal blue walls, Greentown’s Somerville office is a tightly-packed collection of desks where employees study product designs, cluster together around laptops, and share ideas and advice over cups of coffee. Workshop space runs along the back and side of the building, where 3D printers whirr, plants grow under LED lights, and prototypes are assembled and honed.

Neither traditional incubators nor shared work spaces are new ideas. Greentown Labs, however, is carving out a distinctive space for itself somewhere between the two models.

Unlike most incubators, Greentown does not take equity in member companies, nor seats on their boards. Accepted companies pay $425 per month for each desk they need and $3.20 per month for each square foot of lab space.

Greentown does, however, shape the workplace environment with a careful member selection process. Successful applicants intend to produce manufactured products rather than software or services, and generally have existing investments from outside sources, Reichert said. To nurture collaboration, Greentown Labs will not accept any companies that are direct competitors with existing members.

Perhaps most importantly, all members must have an interest in cleantech and in building businesses that solve global problems, Reichert said. The result of these policies is a group of companies that easily and eagerly trade expertise and advice, according to those involved.

“Whenever we have a question or a problem, the first thing we do is throw it out to the Greentown email list,” said Ben Glass, CEO of high altitude wind turbine producer Altaeros Energies, another Greentown founder. Someone is almost always able to help immediately, he said.

Greentown also forms partnerships with corporate sponsors, including Shell, Chevron, American Airlines and Microsoft. These sponsorships, which provide about 20% of Greentown’s revenue, according to Reichert, also connect member startups with major companies that in search of new technology. In addition, the incubator hosts networking events and job fairs to help member companies make business connections and find new employees and interns.

Greentown is also hiring a manager who will help the young businesses contact and communicate with manufacturing partners. Often, Reichert said, new entrepreneurs have big ideas, but little practical knowledge about how to make the leap from prototype to production. She hopes the new manager will help bridge that gap.

With the current facility at 100% occupancy, Greentown’s directors are considering what comes next. They are looking at ways to expand within Somerville and exploring partnerships elsewhere in Massachusetts, Reichert said. The group has already started consulting with organizations looking to build their own technology incubators.

Jeff Anthony, director of the Energy Innovation Center at the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said Greentown’s advice has been crucial in developing plans for an innovation center. He point specifically to the idea of “maximizing collisions”: creating a space that generates encounters between occupants and their ideas.

“They’ve been a proven success and we’re hoping to learn even more from them,” Anthony said.

Meanwhile, many will continue watching Greentown to see if a physical space that increases collisions will ultimately end up sparking big wins – or not.

This story originally appeared at TheGuardian.com on April 14, 2015.

Is the era of Big Food coming to an end?

Big FoodFood giant Kellogg is removing the genetically modified ingredients from its Kashi Golean cereals. Competitor ConAgra is launching a line of minimally processed frozen meals under the brand name Healthy Choice Simply. And General Mills last fall snapped up Annie’s, a popular brand of organic pastas, snacks and condiments.

As consumer demand for local, organic and fresh foods continues to grow, the enormous multinational firms that are collectively being called Big Food are in the position of having to rework, reshape and reimagine themselves. Although this changing consumer landscape has contributed to lackluster growth among some of the industry’s major players, the consensus among producers, analysts and healthy food advocates is that the major food companies – and their influence – are still going strong. For now.

“These companies make billions of dollars every year. The issue isn’t profits – these are massive – it’s growth,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, and an advocate for healthy food policy.

Indeed, growth has been a challenge for many in the industry over the past year.

Net sales at Kellogg – maker of Cheez-Its, Pringles and Keebler cookies in addition to its well-known cereals – decreased by 1.4% to $14.6b in 2014, a performance CEO John Bryant called “disappointing” in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call. Declining sales of breakfast foods and snacks contributed to the downward trend. At Kraft – home of brands including Oscar Mayer, Jell-O and Velveeta – net revenues edged down 0.1% in 2014.

Consumers’ growing appetite for foods that feel healthier, fresher and less processed is one of the significant obstacles to growth. In remarks at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in February, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison said: “we are also confronting profound shifts in consumers’ preferences and priorities with respect to food”, pointing to an “explosion of interest in fresh foods” and “a mounting distrust of so-called Big Food”.

Sales on the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, meat and dairy are generally sold, have risen about 5% over the last year, while sales of the more processed and packaged items sold in the aisles have increased only 1%, says Erin Lash, food industry analyst for investment research firm Morningstar.

“Consumers just want to overall feel like they are eating healthier,” Lash says. “That’s one of the biggest trends, especially in the US.”

Big food companies have seen some of these changes coming and attempted to prepare for them. Kellogg acquired whole-grains-focused Kashi in 2000, the same year General Mills bought organic food company Small Planet Foods, which produces Cascadian Farms vegetables and Muir Glen tomatoes.

“We have a strong portfolio of natural and organic brands, which has been growing double digits since [the Small Planet acquisition],” says General Mills spokeswoman Bridget Christenson, valuing the company’s natural and organic portfolio at $600m.

The trend shows no signs of slowing, with plenty of examples of big companies redoubling their investments in healthy food initiatives.

Nestlé USA announced last month that it will stop using artificial colors in its chocolates by the end of 2015. ConAgra has been expanding its “all-natural, gourmet-inspired” Alexia brand, adding frozen vegetables, side dishes and breads to the line. Campbell’s launched an organic soup line last month, and Morrison, in her remarks at the analyst conference, promised an investment in “packaged fresh” foods.

At the same time, while fresher, healthier foods may be grabbing more room in the lineup, there is reason to believe that the appetite for convenient packaged foods remains strong. Kraft’s fourth quarter earnings release (pdf) points to increased sales of Lunchables prepackaged lunches and “ongoing growth in bacon” as key factors driving higher revenues in its refrigerated meals category. Sales of Pringles are increasing, Kellogg’s Bryant said at the analysts conference. ConAgra’s pot pies and Chef Boyardee canned pastas are both seeing increased sales.

“People who don’t consume Chef Boyardee might comment on the processed nature of it, but when we talk to people who depend on that product, it’s something that they dramatically love,” says Thatcher Schulte, ConAgra’s director of insights and analytics.

The future, as always, is uncertain. And it’s unlikely all the companies’ efforts will share the same fate. After all, some companies have done a better job of positioning themselves than others. Lash points to Kellogg and Campbell’s as two companies that have struggled. Kraft, on the other hand, has been doing a good job refocusing its marketing efforts, and General Mills is getting some traction with its Greek yogurt offerings, she says.

Lash says that the future looks bright for those that are willing to adapt: “The companies that you see that are focused on innovation, focused on bringing to market new products – they have the opportunity to continue to realize decent growth.”

This story was originally published on TheGuardian.com on March 12, 2015.

Next-gen urban farms: 10 innovative projects from around the world


Photo: Lufa Farms

Many shoppers like the idea of buying local. After all, it can mean fresher and healthier foods, stronger local economies, direct contact with food producers and in some cases — but not always — lower carbon emissions.

But most of us have only a few options for participating in the local food movement: visiting the farmers market or signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription. As the movement continues to grow and evolve, however, social entrepreneurs are experimenting with novel ways to make local agriculture an integral part of urban life.

Here are 10 of the most intriguing projects currently underway:

GrowUp Box, London, UK


Photo: GrowUp Urban Farms

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster are giving new meaning to the phrase “box lunch” with their reinvented shipping container, the GrowUp Box.

Inside the 20-foot container, tilapia are farmed in tanks specially designed to ensure the fish enough room to grow, while on top, greens are cultivated in vertical columns. The water from the tilapia tanks circulates through the columns, where the fish waste provides nourishment to about 400 plants. The fish and greens are sold to area restaurants.

The project’s parent company, GrowUp Urban Farms, consults with people looking to build their own boxes and is set to start building the first commercial-scale aquaponics farm in London soon, Hofman said.

Beacon Food Forest, Seattle, Washington, US

Opening to the public this spring, the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is turning a piece of public land into an edible forest garden.

Residents will be welcome to forage in the forest, a 7-acre plot — adjacent to a city park — featuring fruit and nut trees, a pumpkin patch and dozens of berry bushes. The goal is to mimic a natural ecosystem, creating a space that requires less maintenance and offers higher yields, co-founder Glenn Herlihy says.

Pasona Group, Tokyo, Japan

At the Tokyo headquarters of the Pasona Group, a staffing company, tomatoes dangle from the ceiling, herbs grow fragrantly in meeting rooms and a rice paddy is the lobby centerpiece. The plants are intended to relax employees, encourage innovative thinking about agriculture and create a sense of community as workers tend to the crops. The foods grown in the office are prepared and served in the company cafeteria.

Farmery, North Carolina and TBA, US

Benjamin Greene, founder of the Farmery, plans to make the journey from farm to store more efficient by eliminating it almost entirely. The Farmery will be an 8,000-square-foot market with food shopping on the lower level and mushrooms, greens and fruits growing on the upper level. Whatever is not grown on site will be sourced locally.

A smaller, Kickstarter-funded prototype — what Greene calls “a souped-up produce stand” — is currently in operation in Durham, North Carolina, and the first full-scale store is coming this fall, Greene says. The location, however, is being kept under wraps for now.

Sky Greens, Lim Chu Kang area, Singapore

Singapore, one of the most densely populated nations in the world, has little room available for farming. So inventor and entrepreneur Jack Ng created the Sky Greens system to grow more food in less space. Think of it as a plant skyscraper.

The equipment holds up to 32 trays of greens — including lettuce, spinach and a variety of Asian greens — on a tall, narrow A-frame structure. The plants slowly rotate, as if on a Ferris wheel, so each tray gets sufficient exposure to sunlight.

Sky Greens, which launched commercial operations in October 2012, harvests and delivers vegetables to Singaporean markets every day.

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, New York, US

The Brooklyn Grange comprises two and a half acres of growing space high atop a pair of office buildings. “We’re looking at ways to increase food production without increasing agricultural footprint,” spokeswoman Anastasia Plakias says.

The operation grows more than 50,000lbs of food each year, which it sells through farmers markets, CSA subscriptions and wholesale accounts. In addition to boosting New York City’s local food supply, the farm also absorbs more than 1m gallons of stormwater every year, reducing the load the city’s systems must manage.

Deu Horta Na Telha, São Paulo, Brazil

After 30 years of building urban gardens in São Paulo, agricultural technician Marcos Victorino started running out of cultivable land. As part of his research work at local college Faculdade Cantareira, he designed a way to turn roofs, balconies and paved areas across the city into miniature farms. Victorino turns large roof tiles upside down, creating a long, V-shaped trough that can be filled with soil.

These tile beds are elevated, making them easily accessible to children and the handicapped. Because the tiles are watertight, they hold in moisture, allowing growers to make the most of an increasingly limited water supply.

Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, Germany

The Prinzessinnengarten is an urban farm nestled in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall, between unused subway stops, graffiti-ed concrete walls and aging apartment blocks. Inside vine-covered fences grows a wide range of vegetables, all planted in easy-to-move containers — recycled Tetra Paks, rice sacks, and plastic crates — that allow the entire operation to be moved if needed. Visitors can pick vegetables, learn about seed harvesting and vegetable pickling, or visit the café to enjoy snacks made from the garden’s produce.


Photo: Urban Organics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, Minnesota, US

Located in a building formerly occupied by a commercial brewery, Urban Organics is an aquaponics operation that provides salad greens and fish to grocery stores and restaurants using just 2% of the water of conventional agriculture. Founder Fred Haberman, CEO of Minneapolis marketing agency Haberman, hopes the for-profit farm will prove the commercial viability of aquaponics and help spur economic development in the area. “If we can do that, I believe you’ll see more of these types of facilities popping up,” he said.

Lufa Farms, Montreal, Canada

The goal of Lufa Farms in Montreal is to create a “local food engine”, says the company’s greenhouse director Lauren Rathmell.

At the heart of the operation are two sprawling rooftop greenhouses — currently totaling 1.75 acres — that produce a range of vegetables: greens and herbs, peppers and eggplants. The produce is packaged with locally sourced goods like handmade pastas, fresh bread and dark baking chocolate, and delivered to approximately 4,000 customers each week.

And the business isn’t stopping there: It has two more greenhouses in the works.

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on July 2, 2014. Click here to see the original and a lot more awesome urban farm photos. Do it. It’s worth it.

Why are food activists targeting Honey Nut Cheerios?

The GMO Inside campaign wants to get genetically modified organisms out of the US food system. So it’s starting where we all start: breakfast.

The campaign, a coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations, is taking aim at the popular breakfast cereal Honey Nut Cheerios, pressing producer General Mills to remove anything that could even potentially be genetically modified. Citing concerns about environmental degradation, corporate control of agriculture and food safety, the group is encouraging consumers to sign an online petition and to contact the company on social media and by email to express their opposition to GMOs.


“We’re not going to give up on Honey Nut Cheerios until we succeed,” Nicole McCann, director of food campaigns for Green America, an environmental nonprofit that is part of the campaign, said. “All of our followers are putting pressure on them.”

The GMO Inside campaign also owns two shares of General Mills stock, which has allowed spokespeople to attend shareholders meetings and raise questions about the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

This effort is a follow-up to a previous GMO Inside campaign that targeted the original Cheerios, an initiative the group says generated 25,000 emails and 40,000 calls for action on the brand‘s Facebook page. In January, General Mills announced that it no longer uses GMOs in classic Cheerios. The company did not acknowledge the effect of any of the anti-GMO campaigns, but rather explained on a company blog that it made the change because “we think consumers may embrace it”.

Genetically modified foods are plants whose genetic code has been engineered to select for certain traits: yield, pesticide resistance, color. They are worrisome for several reasons, said McCann. Their widespread use is causing a decline in crop diversity, leaving our food supply more vulnerable to disaster, she and others argue.

Furthermore, strains engineered to withstand pesticides can lead to more liberal use of such chemicals, potentially causing environmental damage, they say. There is also concern that changing a plant’s genetic codes could make them unsafe for consumption in the long-term; opponents say GMOs might increase the risk of allergies, digestive issues and organ damage.

The crops most likely to be genetically modified include alfalfa, canola, corn, soy and sugar beets. But the principal ingredient of both regular and Honey Nut Cheerios is oats, a plant that is not genetically modified. The components that most concern GMO opponents are ingredients used in much smaller amounts: sugar, corn starch and vitamin E, which can be derived from soy. So why is GMO Inside campaign targeting these products?

In part, precisely because these foods have so few GMO ingredients, making a change much more feasible than for products more heavily dependent on genetically engineered ingredients, said campaign director Elizabeth O’Connell. Also, the popularity of Honey Nut Cheerios – the country’s best-selling cereal – means a small change in its ingredients could send an outsized message.

“They’re not the lone bad actors,” O’Connell said. But “if they changed, they could have a big impact.”

In January, Post Foods also announced that it had removed GMOs from one of its signature cereals, Grape-Nuts. The Kellogg’s-owned Kashi brand has been removing GMOs from its cereals since early 2012; today 11 of its 25 Kashi cold cereals are certified GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group that verifies such claims.

The US cold breakfast cereal industry generates about $10.1bn annually and more than 91% of households buy cold cereal, according to market research firm Mintel. This high market penetration has made cereal a rich target for those looking to effect widespread change in the use of genetically modified ingredients.

GMO Inside is also targeting Chobani, the country’s leading brand of Greek yogurt, which it says uses dairy products that may come from cows raised on genetically modified feed.

So far, General Mills has resisted making other Cheerios varieties GMO-free, contending on its website that it was the “unique and simple nature of original Cheerios” that allowed the company to keep it free of GMOs. Other versions of the cereal have more ingredients that could be genetically modified, and thus it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to make the switch.

The company also argues that health concerns about government-approved GMO ingredients are unwarranted, noting that there is “broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies” that such foods do not pose a threat. The US Food and Drug Administration and the United Nations World Health Organization have both expressed the belief that approved GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Supporters of genetically engineered crops also argue that these techniques can improve crop production and yields, helping reduce global food shortages.

GMO Inside, however, argues that the potential problems associated with genetic modifications are very real. And if General Mills could remove GMO ingredients from classic Cheerios, it is feasible to remove these ingredients from other cereals as well, O’Connell said.

“It might be slightly more complicated, but not impossible,” she said. “They just need to get the right amount of consumer demand.”

This story originally ran on theguardian.com.

Latest in farm fresh products: We deliver

LEXINGTON — When Amanda Bosh goes grocery shopping, it’s all about super fresh apples, artisan cheese, free-range chicken, and organic Brussels sprouts.

But Bosh doesn’t get these products at an upscale supermarket. Instead, she heads to a local private school, where she will pick up the best quality meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables.

Bosh’s bounty, packed tight into a reusable grocery bag, comes courtesy of Farmers to You, a company that delivers to Boston area consumers direct from Vermont farms. In addition to drop-off sites such as the Waldorf School of Lexington, the company offers home delivery in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and a few suburban communities.

Farmers to You is one of several area companies expanding the local food movement beyond farmers markets and trendy restaurants, tapping into the growing demand by consumers to know and understand the source of their food. Some businesses, like Farmers to You, deliver from farm to fridge. Others add another stop and more convenience, by preparing local farm products as ready-to-eat meals. Still others connect New England farms to institutional food services, such as school cafeterias.

Farmers to You, based in Calais, Vt., was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Something GUD, a Somerville startup, works on a similar model, sourcing foods from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island and delivering them to pickup sites and homes from Quincy to Newburyport.

Prices are comparable to what a shopper would pay at Whole Foods for similar items, the company founders said. For example, a gallon of organic skim milk is about $6 both through Something GUD and at Whole Foods.

The difference: Most of the money spent with these local food businesses goes to the farmers and artisans producing the food.

Greg Georgaklis, the founder of Farmers to You, estimates the farms with which the company partners receive about 65 cents for each dollar customers pay. On average, farmers nationally get just 15.5 cents per dollar spent by consumers in supermarkets, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“My vision of the future would be that 50 percent of food that’s bought is bought somehow directly through farmers,” Georgaklis said.

Farmers to You delivers to about 480 families that spend an average of $65 each week. The company estimates it will turn a profit when it signs up 600 families, which it expects to do by spring.

At Cuisine en Locale in Somerville, owner JJ Gonson turns local foods into frozen meals that are delivered weekly to the company’s 35 customers.

Each delivery includes about 10 pounds of prepared food, about enough to provide four meals for two adults. At $145 per week, the service costs about the same as getting takeout a few times a week, Gonson said.

Farmers to You was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Among the products it delivers to Boston area customers, organic ice cream, maple syrup, eggs, and apple butter.

Gonson uses only fresh foods produced within a 100-mile radius of Boston, never using ingredients, such as lemons, that can’t be grown here. She estimates her sales last year generated about $150,000 in revenues for area farmers, and she expects that to double in the coming year.

“We don’t even own a can opener, nor a lemon reamer,” she said.

The business evolved from Gonson’s work as a personal chef. The company operated out of shared commercial kitchens around the Boston area for the first seven years, but moved into its own space about a month ago after buying Anthony’s function hall in Somerville.

Rather than focusing on individual consumers, FoodEx in Roxbury serves institutional buyers – school districts, universities, hospitals.

JD Kemp, the chief executive and cofounder, wants to reach what he describes as “the other 90 percent of the market” – people who don’t go out of their way to pursue local food.

FoodEx secures commitments from institutions to buy produce, eggs, and dairy from farmers throughout the Northeast. The company’s customers include about 40 universities, school districts, and individual high schools.

FoodEx runs its own trucks and warehouse. This distribution system cuts out several steps — and costs — in the supply chain, which means farmers get above average prices while buyers pay the same as or less than they pay to conventional suppliers, Kemp said.

“We’re unique in this area – and perhaps in the country,” Kemp said, “because we are focused on wholesale and trying to find solutions that go beyond the individual consumer.”

This story originally ran in The Boston Globe on December 6, 2014. Click here to read the story and see photos and graphics.