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Claire Thompson's Posts

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Deadly fire at Chinese poultry plant highlights industrial-ag safety concerns

We don't know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.
Brian Yap
We don't know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.

We’re still reeling from April’s garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, making the 112 fatalities of a clothing-factory fire in the same country five months earlier seem tragically routine in comparison. Today’s news, then, of at least 119 deaths in a fire at a poultry plant in northeast China, not only adds another unwanted entry to this history of horror, but also shows that mortally unsafe working conditions are not limited to the apparel industry.

According to Chinese news reports cited by The New York Times, when a fire broke out inside the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, “a major domestic poultry supplier,” workers rushed to the factory’s few exits only to find some of them blocked -- the same safety hazard that made November’s fire in a Bangladesh factory so lethal, and that killed workers in the U.S.’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire a century ago (which spurred important safety reforms in this country).

Industrial-scale ag is taking off in China thanks to a growing middle class with an appetite for meat. The Baoyuanfeng plant began operations just four years ago in Jilin Province, whose administrative city, Dehui, “has promoted itself as a base for commercial agriculture,” and claims it can produce 250 million broiler chickens a year. Last week’s announcement that Chinese meat company Shuanghui hopes to buy U.S. pork behemoth Smithfield demonstrated the global implications of a rapidly expanding Chinese meat market. This week’s tragedy shows the human consequences.

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Smithfield, world’s largest pork producer, could be sold to a Chinese company

gold-piggy-bank-chinese-money
Shutterstock

In Smithfield, Va., on Wednesday, locals were shocked to discover that their town’s namesake, Smithfield Foods, founded in 1936 as a single meatpacking plant and now the largest pork producer in the world, is poised to be sold to Chinese meat company Shuanghui International. If approved by federal regulators, the $4.7 billion deal would be the biggest takeover in history of an American company by a Chinese one.

The announcement of the deal immediately provoked skepticism far beyond the town of Smithfield, with a wide range of camps voicing concern about everything from food safety to foreign financial control to increasing corporate consolidation of the food industry. Shuanghui is the biggest meat company in China, and Smithfield already owns more hogs than the next eight largest hog producers combined, according to Food & Water Watch. It’s not necessarily a complete foreign takeover if you consider that Shuanghui is partially owned by Goldman Sachs, but if you’re worried about corporate control of the food system, that’s not exactly cause for comfort.

Why is China interested in owning an American pork behemoth? The New York Times reports:

Smithfield and Shuanghui said that the deal was meant to … increase exports of American products to China, already the nation’s third-largest export market for pork. Meat consumption in China has exploded over the past decade because of a growing middle class and a shift in diet from rice and vegetables to more protein.

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Bike culture: Not as white as you think

family-biking
Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

Even as it grows in popularity, cycling just can’t shake its reputation as a pastime for spandex- or skinny jean-clad white people. But a new report from the Sierra Club and the League of American Bicyclists challenges that common stereotype, spotlighting a decade of rapid growth in biking among communities of color.

From 2001 to 2009, the percentage of trips taken by bike increased by 50 percent among Latinos, and by 100 percent among African Americans -- compared to only a 22-percent increase among whites. This, the report notes, is in spite of the fact that communities of color often lack the kind of infrastructure that makes biking safer, easier, and more appealing. Twenty-six percent of non-whites said they want to ride more but worry about safety (compared to only 19 percent of whites); 47 percent of non-whites said they’d ride more if they had better access to secure places to park and store their bikes (versus 32 percent of white folks).

These safety concerns aren’t unfounded: The report cites data from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition indicating that neighborhoods with the largest share of people of color have lower distributions of bike facilities, and that the lowest-income neighborhoods have the most bike and pedestrian crashes. Those neighborhoods have the most to gain from an increase in cycling: The nation’s poorest families spend the biggest chunk of their income on transportation -- 30 percent. The average yearly cost of owning and operating a bike is only $308, compared to $8,220 for an average car.

Simple infrastructure upgrades can have major impacts on riding habits, says the report:

Read more: Cities, Living

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Zen and the art of bridge maintenance

The collapse of an Interstate 5 bridge in Washington state Thursday night offered a wake-up call about the sorry state of disrepair in which we’ve left our country's auto-centric transportation system. But all the talk about aging bridges and infrastructure drowns out a few larger questions -- about how we plan to fund the massive road system we've built, and why, with existing roads crumbling, we keep dropping money on more.

No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.
WSDOT
No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.

The bridge that collapsed in Washington was built, like many major bridges in the U.S., during the rise of the interstate highway system, circa 1955. That means it had already exceeded by several years the 50-year lifespan typical of American bridges.

Ironically, the bridge in Washington, unlike nearly 70,000 bridges across the country, wasn’t rated “structurally deficient.” It had been inspected as recently as November 2012. But after a half a century, a bridge is likely to need major upgrades of some kind, and with the average bridge in this country now 43 years old, we’re looking at a huge roster of bridges due for repairs. According to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2009, the backlog of deficient bridges required $70.9 billion to address -- and that number has likely increased since then.

So what are states doing to tackle the problem? They're funneling money to shiny new construction projects instead, natch.

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Chemical creep: Farmers return to pesticides as GMO corn loses bug resistance

corn-crop-tractor-fertilizer-pesticide
Shutterstock

Monsanto’s Bt corn was supposed to reduce pesticide use. The Environmental Protection Agency said as much when the corn, which is genetically modified to resist the crop-ravaging rootworm, debuted in 2003. Sure enough, as more farmers sowed their fields with Bt corn, fewer of them needed to spray pesticides to protect their crops. The share of U.S. corn acreage treated with insecticides fell from 25 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2010.

But now, Bt corn has become, basically, too successful: Rootworms are starting to develop immunity to this prevalent crop, driving farmers to return to insecticide use. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Syngenta, one of the world's largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major soil insecticide for corn, which is applied at planting time, more than doubled in 2012. Chief Financial Officer John Ramsay attributed the growth to "increased grower awareness" of rootworm resistance in the U.S. Insecticide sales in the first quarter climbed 5% to $480 million.

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Could a Chinese carbon cap pave the way for a global climate deal?

Chinese flag against sunLike sparring siblings, China and the United States -- the world’s two biggest carbon dioxide emitters -- keep passing the climate-action buck back and forth: “Why should I cut emissions if they don’t have to?” Well, China is either the more mature of the pair, or just majorly sucking up to Mama Earth. The country is reportedly gearing up to set firm limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, seriously weakening one of the U.S.’s go-to excuses for climate inaction.

China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission has proposed an absolute cap on emissions starting in 2016. The proposal still needs to be accepted by the Chinese cabinet, but experts say the commission’s influence makes it likely to pass. China today also announced the details of trial carbon-trading programs that will roll out in seven regions by 2014. In February, the country had said it would implement a carbon tax, but backed off a few weeks later, saying it will wait until early next year to get started on that.

The commission’s carbon-cap proposal calls for Chinese emissions to peak in 2025, five years earlier than previously planned. RenewEconomy explains:

China has already pledged to cut its emissions intensity – the amount of Co2 it emits per economic unit – by up to 45 per cent by 2020. The significance of an absolute cap is that it promises to rein in emissions even if the economy grows faster than expected.

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L.A. on a green streak: New mayor pledges allegiance to smart growth, bikes

Eric Garcetti.
Eric Garcetti
Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles got a new mayor this morning: City Councilmember Eric Garcetti beat City Controller Wendy Greuel, a fellow Democrat, more handily than expected in a historically low-turnout race (a pathetic 19 percent of L.A. voters cast ballots). He takes office July 1.

Garcetti, a Rhodes scholar and L.A.’s first Jewish mayor, has big shoes to fill: Will he carry on current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s celebrated efforts to combat L.A.’s image as a smog-choked, car-worshipping, freeway-entangled sprawlsville?

So far, the signs point in that direction. Some have criticized Garcetti for being too friendly to business interests, but he sees working with developers as a necessary component of the smart-growth strategy he’s pursued to revitalize once-blighted areas of Hollywood, Echo Park, and Silver Lake, his home turf.

Villaraigosa did not endorse a candidate in the race. But Garcetti earned the support of the Sierra Club, which called his environmental record "unmatched":

He authored the nation's largest green building ordinance, the nation's largest local clean water initiative, and legislation making L.A. the nation's largest city with a solar feed-in-tariff. He nearly tripled the number of parks in his district by finding innovative ways to create 31 new neighborhood parks. He led the effort to pass the plastic bag ban and Low Impact Development Ordinance.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Canada’s government is spending millions to get you to like the Keystone pipeline

Canada obviously has a huge stake in the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline. If President Obama fails to approve it -- a decision he recently put off yet again -- the Canadian oil industry will have a tough time getting its abundant tar-sands crude to seaside ports. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently came to the U.S. to make the case for the pipeline in person, as did Canada's ministers of foreign affairs and natural resources and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

ad: "Canada: America's best energy partner"
Let's be friends!

And now our neighbor to the north is focusing its powers of persuasion directly on the American people. The country just launched a taxpayer-funded, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign extolling the virtues of tar-sands oil to U.S. citizens. From The Vancouver Observer:

To support the government position and its travelling ministers, Ottawa has launched a $16 million marketing campaign that includes a new website and newspaper advertisements in the US to promote Keystone KL. The thrust of the campaign is the promotion of Canada as a reliable supplier of oil and a “world environmental leader” in the field of oil and gas development.

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Could the Monsanto Protection Act get repealed?

logo for "Stop the Monsanto Protection Act" campaign
Food Democracy Now!

Smuggled into the bill President Obama signed to avert a government shutdown in March was a sneaky little rider called the “farmer assurance provision.” It’s since come to be known as the Monsanto Protection Act, being very assuring to the biotech giant, if no one else. It allows farmers to plant genetically modified crops before they’ve been declared safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in defiance of court orders suspending planting until environmental reviews can be completed.

Once food-advocacy groups and then the general public found out about the quietly passed provision, outcry against it spread, in the form of petitions and even rare displays of bipartisan solidarity. On Monday, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced that he’s introducing an amendment to the Senate version of the farm bill that would repeal the Monsanto Protection Act in its entirety.

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Kosher salt: Don’t stress about sodium intake (unless you’re an average American)

Go crazy, dude.
Shutterstock
Go crazy, dude.

Salt’s membership in junk food’s holy trinity (along with sugar and fat) means it’s one of the food industry’s essential tools for making its products addictively good. (Journalist Michael Moss reveals this in his eye-opening book Salt Sugar Fat, but if you’ve ever housed a box of Cheez-Its solo, you already knew that.) For decades now, limiting salt intake has been part of the public-health mantra; groups like the American Heart Association vilify salt for its links to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease and recommend that we all aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams a day of salt consumption.

But all of a sudden a new report is causing a stir by saying that recommendation may be meaningless, and that consuming extremely low levels of sodium could actually be harmful.

Far out. Pass the Cheez-Its!

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. The report, commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confuses more than it clarifies. It looks at studies on sodium intake and health outcomes conducted since 2005 — the last time the U.S. issued dietary guidelines on salt. Back then, the USDA recommended that the general population consume 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day, and that populations at risk for heart disease and high blood pressure limit intake to 1,500 milligrams. The more recent evidence calls those guidelines into question. The New York Times reports:

“As you go below the 2,300 mark, there is an absence of data in terms of benefit and there begin to be suggestions in subgroup populations about potential harms,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, chairman of the committee and a professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania. He explained that the possible harms included increased rates of heart attacks and an increased risk of death. …

There are physiological consequences of consuming little sodium, said Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a dietary sodium expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who was not a member of the committee. As sodium levels plunge, triglyceride levels increase, insulin resistance increases, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases. Each of these factors can increase the risk of heart disease.

“Those are all bad things,” Dr. Alderman said. “A health effect can’t be predicted by looking at one physiological consequence. There has to be a net effect.”

Medical and public health experts responded to the new assessment of the evidence with elation or concern, depending on where they stand in the salt debates.

Some experts worry the report will send the wrong message -- that we’re off the hook in terms of watching our salt. A spokesperson for the AHA said the group “remained concerned about the large amount of sodium in processed foods, which makes it almost impossible for most Americans to cut back.”

Read more: Food, Living