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Guilty as chard

Are you a terrible gardener? This brilliant tool could change your life

What if I told you there's a gardening system so simple you didn't need to worry about buying or planting seeds, figuring out watering logistics, or weeding? Instead, all you'd have to do is take a deep breath and push a starter ball of parsley into its pre-marked slot. The UrbMat wants to make gardening that easy.

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UrbnEarth

The UrbMat is marketed both as a gardening intro for busy people living in small spaces and as a fail-safe learning experience for tiny, clumsy-fingered children. I'm sure toddlers appreciate any excuse to play in the dirt, but I think we all know it's the dumb-thumbed adults among us who are dropping the wilted lettuce and moldy carrots to do the slow clap. 

Read more: Food, Living

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This artist builds coral reefs by hand

It's not easy to build a coral reef, which is why it usually takes millions of coral polyps and sponges and other organisms decades to build them up. Artist Courtney Mattison took on the job solo, while she was studying conservation biology in grad school at Brown and moonlighting in ceramics at Rhode Island School of Design. Her thesis project became the first sculpture in a series called Our Changing Seas, which highlights the dangers facing reefs on a massive scale by building them on a (slightly less) massive scale. (We're talking 15 by 11 feet and not much lighter than a Smart Car.)

Mattison's newest piece, Our Changing Seas III, depicts a hurricane-spiral of bleached corals coalescing to a bright center. You can read it as a message of hope or one of impending doom, depending on your disposition, but Mattison tries to stay on the cautiously sunny side. "I really hope I’m not building monuments to reefs, memorials of their demise," she told Grist over the phone. "I would really like these to be celebrations of them -- but time will tell."

Mattison has an Etsy shop and also sells sea-licious art objects from her website. A portion of the profits go toward 350.org and Mission Blue.

If you’re near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., you can see Our Changing Seas III at the Tang Museum (Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway) until June 15. On June 14, Courtney Mattison will speak at the closing reception for the show. Our Changing Seas I is on display at the AAAS gallery in Washington, D.C., where Mattison will also be speaking on May 1

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Vermont will label genetically engineered food

vermont-label

Vermont is the first U.S. state to require the mandatory labeling of food produced using genetic engineering. Maybe I shouldn't get ahead of myself -- it's not official yet, but the state House and Senate passed the bill with overwhelming majorities (114-30 in the House, 28-2 in the Senate), and the governor has said he looks forward to signing it.

The law requires retail products to have a label by July 2016 if they contain genetically engineered ingredients. Enforcement of the law will go through the state attorney general's office, said Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the bill. The bill also prohibits the use of a "natural" label on foods that contain genetically engineered elements. The rule will primarily affect processed foods -- such as cereal and bread -- where it can be difficult to impossible for the producer to know whether the ingredients, like corn starch and sugar, are GE or not.

This makes things interesting. Several New England states have been tiptoeing around the issue, passing or considering labeling laws that only kick into effect when enough other states join them, so they might collectively defend against food-industry lawsuits. At the same time, the food industry is working on a federal law that would lay out the ground rules for voluntary labeling of GMOs, while also nullifying state labeling rules. Each side has been eyeing the other, and quietly fortifying its position. Now it may get very noisy.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin elliptically alluded to the fact that the state could be sued over this law. On his Facebook page he wrote: "There is no doubt that there are those who will work to derail this common sense legislation." Which makes it sound like he's prepared to defend the law in court.

It also ups the ante on the push for a federal voluntary labeling law. When there were no mandatory labeling laws on the books, it may have been a little easier to talk about the federal effort as a simple measure to insure that we had one standard across the entire U.S.. But now the fact that the legislation would also preempt and invalidate Vermont's law will have to become part of the conversation.

There's a whole swarm of issues surrounding genetically engineered food. If you think it's just about your right to know, or your right to inexpensive food, you might want to read my attempt to cut through the debate. I think there are some good reasons to label GMOs. But if I were in charge, there are plenty of other, more important measures of agricultural and nutritional quality that I'd choose to label first.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Milk & cookies

Tired of milking your cow? There’s a robot for that

cow farts
Shutterstock

Bursting at the teat, a cow at the Borden family dairy farm ambles over into a big metal cubicle. Like a car in a drive-thru wash, the cow stands still while a rotating brush sweeps under and wipes down her udders. Then the lasers take over, locating the cow’s glands to insert them into plastic tubes, which begin to suck out milk.

This isn’t a scene from a distant, twisted future: Turns out, these milk bots are the next big thing in dairy.

The New York Times reports:

Scores of machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy -- and manure-averse -- generation.

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Wyoming doesn’t want its kids to learn about climate change

kids at school
Shutterstock
"Wait -- so is coal good for the environment?"

Let’s briefly review the science on anthropogenic climate change: 97 percent of articles on the subject published in peer-reviewed scientific journals over two decades have agreed with the consensus that humans are causing global warming. Now, granted, climate change is a theory, in the same way that gravity is a theory: It is the framework that explains indisputable phenomena, in this case the Earth’s warming temperatures since the dawn of the Industrial Age. So it follows that, just as school textbooks teach students about gravity, they should teach them about climate change, right?

Not if you live in Wyoming. Last month Dick Cheney’s home state passed a budget with a footnote that prohibits the use of public funds to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The standards were recently developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in concert with 26 states. They're intended to replace a hodgepodge of state standards of varying quality, providing a national framework for teaching the most up-to-date science. Naturally, this includes climate change (though the climate sections were watered down).

But Republican State Rep. Matt Teeters, who holds an aptly abbreviated B.S. in political science from the University of Wyoming, knows more than all those experts. Teeters, who sponsored the budget footnote, complained that the standards "handle global warming as settled science.” And why should scientists tell everyone else what constitutes “settled science”? (Teeters did not respond to a call from Grist, which was hoping to ask whether he intends to also remove gravity from the state science curriculum.)

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Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables

When your produce gets wasted, it’s really a cry for help

veggies
ep_jhu

When Nick Papadopoulos looked at all the veggies that didn’t sell at the farmers market, he felt terrible. Papadopoulos is general manager of Bloomfield Organics, and he’d seen all the sweat, all the nutrients, all the coaxing and coddling that it had taken to persuade the land to produce this bounty. These were beautiful, well-proportioned, organic vegetables! And now they were bound for the compost heap. He sipped his beer and thought, there has to be a better way.

We end up throwing out a lot of the food we grow. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, we’re tossing 40 percent of our food, the equivalent of $165 billion wasted -- giant lakes of water, mountains of fertilizer, and megajoules of energy, all squandered.

If we’re interested in scaling up regional food systems, we’re going to need a lot more reasonably priced, locally grown calories. And one obvious place to go looking for those calories is among those foods valued so low that they rot, rather than selling in a nearby city. The question is, how do you get people to eat those unloved, unwanted veggies? In other words, how do you solve Papadopoulos’ problem?

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Plastic Bag Bans Spreading in the United States

By Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova Los Angeles rang in the 2014 New Year with a ban on the distribution of plastic bags at the checkout counter of big retailers, making it the largest of the 132 cities and counties around the United States with anti-plastic bag legislation. And a movement that gained momentum in California is going national. More than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans or fees. Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator …

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Corn waste-based ethanol could be worse for the climate than gasoline

corn growing in stover
Ron Nichols, USDA
Young corn growing in the residue of the previous crop.

A lot of carbon-rich waste is left behind after a cornfield is stripped of its juicy ears. It used to be that the stalks, leaves, and detrital cobs would be left on fields to prevent soil erosion and to allow the next crop to feast on the organic goodness of its late brethren. Increasingly, though, these leftovers are being sent to cellulosic ethanol biorefineries. Millions of gallons of biofuels are expected to be produced from such waste this year -- a figure could rise to more than 10 billion gallons in 2022 to satisfy federal requirements.

But a new study suggests this approach may be worse for the climate, at least in the short term, than drilling for oil and burning the refined gasoline. The benefits of cellulosic biofuel made from corn waste improve over the longer term, but the study, published online Sunday in Nature Climate Change, suggests that the fuel could never hit the benchmark set in the 2007 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires that cellulosic ethanol be 60 percent better for the climate than traditional gasoline.

The problem is that after corn residue is torn out and hauled away from a farm field, more carbon is lost from the soil. This problem is pervasive throughout the cornbelt, but it's the most pronounced in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, owing in part to the high carbon contents of soils there.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Students Sit-In, Rally to Get Washington University to Cut Ties With Peabody Coal

Wash U Students Against PeabodyWashington University (St. Louis) students after a campus rally to get the school to cut ties with Peabody Energy. If you’re looking for clean energy inspiration, we’ve had lots of it this past week, courtesy of a phenomenal group of Washington University (St. Louis) students who are holding a sit-in until the school cuts ties with Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company. For almost two weeks now, students have been holding a sit-in outside the school's admissions office, and then over the weekend more than 400 students, alumni, and community members rallied on campus as …

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Swoonworthy

Street artist Swoon takes on rising sea levels and drowning communities

swoon
Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn street artist Swoon creates art that makes you feel like a kid again. She's wheat-pasted life-sized portraits on the sides of industrial buildings and transformed an abandoned warehouse into a playground for art and community in post-industrial Braddock, Pa., where she lives and works.

And then there are the rafts, whimsical floating creations that make you want to pull a Peter Pan and hop on board to start your new life as a junk boat sailor. In 2006, Swoon and the adventurous crew of the Miss Rockaway Armada built a raft made entirely from salvaged materials -- wood from dumpsters, ropes found on the sidewalk, and a vegetable oil powered engine -- and sailed down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans. Since then, she's made two more boat trips: one with a flotilla of seven rafts and one steam-powered paddleboat down the Hudson River, and another across the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia to Italy for the Venice Biennial with the Swimming Cities of Serenissima.

Click to embiggen.
Tod Seelie
Click to embiggen.

This time around Swoon's given the old rafts new life and brought them indoors to the Brooklyn Museum, for a new exhibit that addresses the loss of people's homelands because of climate change and rising sea levels. She sat down to talk about the inspiration for the exhibit, and the role of the artist in raising awareness about climate change and other environmental issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living