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Tin foiled again

Don’t believe anything you read at Natural News

conspiracy boy in tinfoil hat
Shutterstock

Last week, Mike Adams, who calls himself the Health Ranger and runs the site Natural News, posted a truly insane article which seems to advocate violence against scientists and journalists who support genetic engineering.

I wasn't going to write about this at first: It's just so far out there, so beyond the fringe, that I assumed it wasn't worth anyone's attention. But Natural News articles pop up on my Facebook feed so frequently that I figured it might be a valuable public service to publish a post about the site for future reference.

My friends who share stories from Natural News aren't nuts. They just don't realize how crazy the site is. They'll see something that aligns with a pet peeve and assume that it must have some basis in reality. (The thinking goes something like this: Aha! I knew antidepressants were bad. I should let my friends know ...)

Natural News has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and it publishes on themes that appeal to people who (like me) worry about effects of technological disruption of natural systems in our bodies and in the environment. But the site is simply not credible. It's filled with claims that vaccines are evil, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that Microsoft is practicing eugenics -- see this Big Think post, or this Slate article, for a pseudoscience rundown.

The health-science stories have a surface-level gloss of technical language, which make them seem plausible unless you read them carefully. But if you look at some of the articles on politics it becomes a little more transparent: This is nothing but a conspiracy-theory site.

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Feed lots

Hungry hungry humans: The science (and art) of feeding ourselves

world_hunger_forkhands
Shutterstock

The issue keeps coming up when I write about genetic engineering, or local food systems, or decreased farm yield due to climate change: How do we avoid starvation as populations grow, and how can we allow people to feed themselves equitably and sustainably? The question seems to lurk in the background of every story I do, and this makes me uncomfortable, because I don't know enough to answer. So I'm diving into the debate, blogging as I go.

I recently attended a debate on this topic put on by the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at UC Berkeley, and it quickly became clear that there are several contentious issues flying crosswise here. We really have a lot of work ahead of us. This was supposed to be a debate over solutions, but there was no agreement over what the problem is.

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Plants are poison — and that just may be why they keep us healthy

veggies
ep_jhu

The health effects of antioxidants came up recently because a study found that organic food has more of them. Now science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff has a fascinating story on a theory that upends conventional wisdom about antioxidants.

The original idea was that antioxidants were good because they sopped up molecules called "reactive oxygen species" (ROS) that are released by stress and bounce around cells, wrecking havoc. This new theory suggests that we need the stress, and it's our bodies' reaction to that (producing our own internal antioxidants) that really does us good.

In other words, it's the whole system that's important -- piling on more antioxidants from outside alone basically accomplishes nothing. Here's Velasquez-Manoff:

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Millions alive today would have to die before the paleo diet could take over

banksy caveman
Lord Jim

The idea of going paleo is attractive to someone like me, who feels he is living in an unhealthy, vapid world of consumerism. The sprawl of modern humanity is clearly unhealthy for earth’s biodiversity and for the stability of our climate. And it makes a lot of sense that our modern lifestyle would prove unhealthy for us: Our bodies were shaped for hundreds of thousands of years to hunt and gather -- and yet we insist on sitting down all day while eating things our ancestors would not recognize as food. We keep introducing new things that don’t fit into the natural environment or the environment of our bodies.

There’s a natural yearning to backtrack -- to get back to the garden. But there’s a problem, usually unacknowledged, with the whole paleo phenomenon: Going back to a hunter-gatherer's meat-heavy diet is impossible unless we cull our population to pre-agricultural levels. There have been no reasonable proposals for achieving quick population reduction. And so we are faced with a sad reality: We can’t ever go home again.

In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about putting her family on the paleo diet while reviewing “a small library of what might be called paleo literature -- how-to books that are mostly how-to-undo books.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Let them drink olive oil

California’s next oil rush might be surprisingly delicious

olives
Gabriele Tudico

Olives trees have a lot to offer the United States. One of those things is water -- and this year, as California dries to a shriveled crisp, water is looking especially important.

Most olives grown around the world have no irrigation. The trees are built for drought: They have narrow, waxy, abstemious leaves. They’ve evolved biological tricks for going dormant when things get too dry; they hunker down and then spring back when the rains come. These skills are appealing to farmers, especially ones who have recently ripped out a drought-ravaged orchard, thereby walking away from a 20-year investment.

It’s nearly impossible to say whether California’s drought is linked to climate change. Current models suggest that the state could actually get a little wetter, but they also suggest hotter summers and greater extremes. When the droughts do come, they are going to be serious.

One projection is clear: There are going to be a lot more people sticking their straws into the communal cup. So, right about now, this tree that’s adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, survives without irrigation, and produces food at the same time seems pretty cool.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Cargolicious

Whole Foods will bring you groceries by bike

peoples-cargo

OK, I'll admit right off the bat that I wasn't so excited when my editors suggested I write about Whole Foods making deliveries by bike. Now affluent people who can't be bothered to pick up their own groceries can have a slightly lower carbon impact -- I mean, where's the champagne!

But after I sat with this for a second, I decided there is reason to celebrate. Cargo-bike deliveries make a lot of sense for companies, even if they don't care about the environment: They don't get hung up in traffic, they don't require parking spaces, they don't guzzle fuel, they're cheaper than delivery vans, they are easy to repair ... The list could go on. But they are still pretty rare because, basically, change is hard.

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Sean Parker backs San Francisco’s “cars first” measure, twirls moustache

SeanParker
Helga Esteb

Okay, Sean Parker. I don't really mind if you have a Live Action Role Playing wedding in the redwoods, since you paid to clean it up. I don't care if you invest in tobacco marketed to kids. And it's none of my business which conservative politicians you support. But it does tick me off that you're putting your shoulder behind this cockamamie ballot measure to make San Francisco more car-friendly.

Of course it bothers me because, in my experience of San Francisco, making things more car-friendly always means making things less human-friendly. I tend to side with the humans. And on the other side, every time the city has taken freeways or parking lots and instead dedicated them to cyclists, pedestrians, or transit, it has made things easier, faster, and safer.

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Is organic food healthier? A new analysis adds … a question mark

produce
Jamie McCaffrey

A new paper on nutrition in organic foods just came out. It’s a meta-analysis -- which means, instead of doing any new measurement or experimentation, it’s simply combining the findings of past studies. According to the report, there are more antioxidants and carbohydrates in organic food, but less protein, pesticide residue, and less cadmium.

So what does all this mean in terms of health?

Protein and carbohydrates:

“Most people in Europe and North America are consuming adequate levels of protein, or even too much,” pointed out Charles Benbrook, one of the co-authors on the study. And the controversy rages over whether it’s good or bad to have more protein or carbs. So this result may be meaningful, but it would mean totally different things to different people.

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Hackers hack monster burritos down to sensible size

BurritoGodzilla2
Tyler Parker | Justin Brown

“Burrito creep” is the sort of jargon you’re unlikely to hear unless you descend deep into a highly specialized world. In this case, that world is the food company Chipotle, and "burrito creep" is the term of art employees have come up with to describe a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon: No matter what they try, the burritos keep getting bigger. And the bigger they get, the larger the proportion that ends up in the trash.

Thanks to some creative thinking at the Food+Tech Connect Hack//Dining event in New York, there may be a solution to burrito creep -- one that gives eaters an incentive to control portions and cut back on the most carbon-intensive ingredients (like meat).

The point of these hackathons is to bring clever people together and set them loose on bite-sized food and sustainability problems. “The problems in the food industry are complex, and they aren’t going to be solved in a weekend,” said Danielle Gould, founder of Food+Tech Connect. “The point is to get new ideas into circulation, new people working on this, and to do rapid prototyping -- to actually make a real product in a weekend.”

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Dumpster divine

At Chez Dumpster, every misshapen veggie gets its due

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 12.00.38 PM
Josh Treuhaft, Salvage Supperclub

An obscene amount of the food we grow gets thrown away. Some of it has to do with tough logistical issues (e.g., how do you make it feasible for a farmer to salvage those overripe plums?).

But a lot of our food is wasted because, to put it bluntly, we are ignorant and prejudiced. It's produce profiling: If the fruit or vegetable doesn't fit the established norm, it freaks us out, even when it's every bit as healthy and delicious on the inside.

These prejudices -- like most prejudices -- are deep, visceral, and totally irrational (experimental psychologist Paul Rozin has done really interesting work on this). So how do you work around them?

Read more: Food