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Is the Anthropocene a world of hope or a world of hurt?

Ben Mabbett

Is it possible that a world swarming with humanity, warmed by our fumes, and depleted by our carelessness could in any way be good?

Last year, some 30 people, including the ethicist Clive Hamilton and the journalist Andrew Revkin, attended a seminar in Washington, D.C., on the Anthropocene -- a term denoting a new geologic epoch, dominated by human influence. Hamilton noticed that some of the participants seemed optimistic, even excited, about the advent of the Anthropocene. "I was astonished and irritated that some people who were scientifically literate were imposing this barrier of wishful thinking between the science and future outcomes for humanity," he said. Hamilton had just written a book, Requiem for a Species, arguing that people squirm away from the bleak reality of climate change.

Months later, Revkin sent this video of a talk he'd given to the people who had attended that seminar. It was entitled "Seeking a Good Anthropocene," and Hamilton -- seeing this idea that he objected so strongly reprised -- decided to write a rebuttal (actually two).

This debate has been brewing for years, and each side tends to caricature the other's position. Suggest there's a reason for hope and you are called a delusional techno-utopian; if you say there's an imperative for humility, you are framed as an anti-technological doomer.


Put a label on it

GMO labeling initiative heads to the ballot in Oregon

Steve Rhodes

More than enough Oregon voters have given their signatures to get a GMO-food labeling initiative on the ballot in November, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Three New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont -- have all succeeded in passing labeling bills through their legislatures in the past year, but in the rest of the country, legislative efforts as well as ballot initiatives have so far failed.

California was the first state on the West Coast to try a ballot initiative, in 2012. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Then Washington tried a ballot initiative in 2013. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Now, to complete the coastline, Oregon is cuing up its own ballot initiative.


The rat came back

Retracted Roundup-fed rat research republished


A paper based on an experiment led by the scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini -- which became a lightning rod in the genetic engineering controversy and was eventually retracted -- has been republished in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

The paper suggests an association between tumor growth in rats and the consumption of Roundup-resistant corn, or Roundup itself. Its publication unleashed a flood of photos showing horrifically tumorous rats.

Back in December, I wrote that the retraction was unwarranted. Sure the study's sample sizes were far too small to show anything definitive, but many other experiments -- including some suggesting the safety of genetically engineered foods -- have used the same methods. Retracting this paper without applying the same level of scrutiny to those other papers was clearly a double standard.


Soil sorcery

The secret to richer, carbon-capturing soil? Treat your microbes well

Kelsey Amelia Bates

Imagine if someone invented machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere -- machines that were absurdly cheap, autonomous, and solar powered, too. Wouldn't that be great? But we already have these gadgets! They’re called plants.

The problem is, plants die. So there’s one hurdle remaining: We have to figure out how to lock away the carbon in dead plants so that it doesn’t just return to the atmosphere. The obvious place to put that carbon is into the ground. And so, for years, scientists and governments have been urging farmers to leave their crop residue -- the stalks and leaves -- on the ground, so it would be incorporated into the soil. The trouble is, sometimes this doesn’t work: Farmers will leave residues on a field and they won't turn into carbon-rich soil -- they'll just sit there. Sometimes, the whole process ends up releasing more greenhouse gasses than it locks away.

This has left people scratching their heads. But now a simple idea is spreading that could allow farmers to begin reliably pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into their soil.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


How can we break the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers?


This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers. 

The calculus that drives farmers off the land, and drives the documentary Dryland, is simple and inexorable. Historian Keith Williams lays it out halfway through the movie: Think of the farmer cutting wheat by hand, then zoom forward in history, past the farmers harvesting with teams of horses, past the first tractors, past the first combines (so called because they combined the reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one machine), to the air-conditioned, satellite-guided modern combine. “Well, that same change has really altered the farm size, which means the farm can grow,” Williams says. “More capitalization, they can get more equipment. All of this translates into more acreage per farm. But that also means fewer farmers.”

More efficiency, more land, fewer farmers. It’s also the calculus that has given us cheap food. Cheap food relies on ridiculously cheap grain. One farmer in the film notes that he bought a loaf of whole wheat bread for the same price that he sold an entire bushel of wheat.

Dryland, directed by Sue Arbothnot and Richard Wilhelm, is a wistful documentary -- lots of long shots on beautiful empty fields, empty storefronts, empty streets, rusting equipment -- and rightfully so. The way of life it captures is contracting, ratcheting in on itself, leaving small towns that are unable to support businesses, and schools without students.

Read more: Food


Ubuntu for aubergines? Apache for patchouli?

Open-source seeds: While they spread shoots, they plant ideas

Open Source Seed Initiative

Does this seem fair? A plant breeder at a public university manages to grow a long-necked broccoli that, for easy cutting, stands tall above its leaves. Then a company that has used his creation to breed a slightly different broccoli submits it for a patent, claiming ownership over the very idea of long-necked broccoli.

So far, the company, Monsanto subsidiary Seminis, has failed to persuade the U.S. Patent Office to grant it a broad "utility patent.” But Seminis has appealed. If it succeeds, the original breeders, who shared their seeds freely, could be barred from working with their own seeds.

Surely there’s a better way.

This story launches Lisa Hamilton’s beautifully written piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review on open-source seeds: Linux for Lettuce. It’s the kind of longread that both deserves and demands the sort of focus that's hard to achieve if you are connected to the internet.


Growing pains

Organic farming is so much harder than just getting stoned and picking tomatoes

Celery harvest at New Morning Farm.
Sarah Bay

This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers and part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers. 

Arlo Crawford's memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is an inside look at one of the iconic organic farms that sprang up in the 1970s, Pennsylvania's New Morning Farm. I spoke with Crawford about his unique perspective: He grew up in the middle of the back-to-the-land movement, but never felt compelled to join it. Here's a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Q. Where did the title come from? A Farm Dies Once a Year -- I was worried right up to the end that the farm was going to fail.

A. Well, it will one day, but don’t hold your breath. That title came from the first essay I wrote about the farm. I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’

There’s a lot of books about farms that aren’t by farmers, and a lot of the time the farmer has the least voice. You go to Whole Foods and see these pictures of farmers, and these people have struggled their whole lives to put vegetables on your plate. The farm shouldn’t be put aside by the marketing.


Resistance is fertile

How we can fight back against herbicide-resistant superweeds

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture
A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed, one of the plants that has gained glyphosate resistance.

There’s a clear scientific consensus that heavy use of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup and other brands of herbicide -- has sped up the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. And it’s reasonable to assume that crops genetically engineered to work hand in glove with glyphosate (like Roundup-resistant soy) are part of the problem, contributing to the popularity of the weed killer.

Now crops genetically engineered to work with other herbicides -- such as dicamba and 2,4-D -- look like they will soon come on line. The seed companies' answer to the Roundup-resistance problem is: Let's just fall back on older herbicides. An editorial published by the journal Nature recently criticized this plan. If we do the same thing with dicamba and 2,4-D that we did with glyphosate, the editorial argued, history is likely to repeat itself.

This got me wondering what we should do, then, so I started calling weed scientists. I ended up talking with three from around the country. They all agreed on the basic premise.


Buzz feed

Bees and butterflies get a boost from the feds

Jack Wolf

After bailing out automakers and Wall Street bankers, the U.S. government  has now rolled out a pair of programs to assist a more sympathetic recipient: insects. There’s finally a bailout for the bee and butterfly bankruptcy!

U.S. farmers have gotten better and better at controlling weeds in their fields, and that’s been a disaster for monarch butterflies. Monarchs rely on one specific field plant: milkweed. They can’t survive without it. The population of both milkweed and monarchs have taken a tumble with the rise of effective weed control, via the herbicide glyphosate and GMO crops that tolerate glyphosate.

At the same time, honey bees have been dying off because of the mysterious colony collapse disorder, and many native bee populations are foundering.

Read more: Food, Politics


All-natural selection

When will the vague “natural” food label die?

Hallie Bateman

Do we really have to tell you that the “natural” label on foods is pretty much meaningless? If so, you should also know that unicorns are mythological, not extinct.

OK, so the USDA has some rules about what can be called natural, but it just applies to meat and eggs, and is pretty loose. And, sure, I’ve heard company representatives explain their corporate definition of what’s natural, but frankly, it’s easier to believe in unicorns.

You can buy all-natural Cheetos, all-natural butter flavor granules, and all-natural, um, whatever the heck this is.

Of course, there’s a reason marketers keep slapping the "natural" label on things: It works.