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Just add compost: How to turn your grassland ranch into a carbon sink

cows grazing
Shutterstock

When UC-Berkeley ecologist Whendee Silver first heard about the idea behind the Marin Carbon Project, she was pretty skeptical. The group wanted her to study the land they were ranching to see if putting compost on grasslands might stimulate the landscape to siphon carbon out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into the soil.

“I doubt I could measure it,” she told the group, which had assembled at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. “And you won’t like the results if I can.”

John Wick and Lynette Niebrugge, soil scientist for the Marin Resource Conservation District
John Wick and Lynette Niebrugge, soil scientist for the Marin Resource Conservation District.

For years, ranchers have been drawn by the prospect of using their rangelands to soak up carbon. That would mean more grass, richer soil, and less planetary catastrophe. But hard science to support the idea has been lacking. Some range scientists suggested the idea was bunk.

Silver agreed to take on the project. Now, after five years of collecting data, she has been surprised by the results.

This is a guarded, cautiously optimistic thumps up, mind you.
Join Grist for an exploration of recent climate wins. This is a guarded, cautiously optimistic thumbs up, mind you.

“It was quite possible that we might have found that you can’t sequester carbon in the soil. But we saw that you can,” she said. “And we could have found that trying to measure carbon captured in the soil could have been like looking for needles in a haystack. But it’s more like looking for bricks in a haystack.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

gmo-arcimboldo
Grist / Shutterstock / Giuseppe Arcimboldo

About a third of the way through this series on GMOs, after a particularly angry conflagration broke out on Twitter, I asked my wife, Beth, if I could tell her what had happened. I was hoping to exorcise those digital voices from my head. Someone had probably accused me of crimes against humanity, shoddy journalism, and stealing teddy bears from children -- I forget the details, thank goodness. But I remember Beth’s response.

“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

Read more: Food, Living

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Looney tuna: Did anyone really pay $2 million for a fish?

tuna
Dennis Tang

Last year, a restaurateur bid nearly $2 million to buy the first tuna auctioned off at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. It made for a great story: Southern bluefin tuna are critically endangered, and there’s something grimly fascinating about watching humans hand over great wads of cash to eat a creature they’ve driven to the brink of extinction.

All that press increased demand. “People were lined up down the block and around the corner to get a taste of the million dollar tuna,” said Andrew David Thaler, a deep-sea biologist who blogs at Southern Fried Science. The story was perhaps a little too good to be true. After the first tuna is auctioned off, the rest sell for orders of magnitude less. Danny Bloom, a journalist who has worked in Japan, wrote that no money actually changed hands. He said this was what the Japanese call yarase: an entirely manufactured PR stunt.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Food industry’s secret plan for a GMO (non)-labeling law

GMO label sign
CT Senate Democrats

The captains of the food industry have decided it's time for a federal GMO-labeling law. Specifically, they're aiming for a labeling law that doesn't actually require labeling at all -- but does pre-empt all of the more stringent labeling laws now making their way through state legislatures. In other words, they want a voluntary-labeling law that stops states from enacting anything else. (Yes, food makers can already voluntarily label their products as non-GM.)

This story comes from Politico, where Jenny Hopkinson and Helena Bottemiller Evich got their hands on a leaked description of the proposed law.

This isn't exactly a surprise -- it's precisely what the Grocery Manufacturing Association had planned to do. And there's no telling yet whether politicians have an appetite for this law.

Read more: Food

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The dirt on the “Agent Orange” GMOs you’ve been hearing so much about

herbicide
Wikipedia

On Friday, the USDA recommended the approval of new, herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered corn and soybeans. A lot of the journalism covering this news focused on concerns that it would be an environmental catastrophe, and dwelled on the ominous-sounding fact that the herbicide in question, 2,4-D, was an ingredient in the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. Here’s what you should know about this news:

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Cereal numbers: Will GMO-free Cheerios capture a new market?

cheerios
Y'amal

Back in October, I listened in on a press conference in which activists announced that they were going to hammer on General Mills until the company agreed to label Cheerios as non-GMO. I have to admit, I thought nothing would come of it. The participants were asserting way too many dodgy claims for real journalists to take them seriously (you can listen here). I hung up part way through and I didn't see any coverage come from the event. But apparently someone more important than me was paying attention: General Mills just announced that it will guarantee its original Cheerios don't have any genetically engineered ingredients.

The company said it's not responding to pressure; rather, it's interested in the possibility that customers might "embrace" (i.e. buy more) GM-free Cheerios. Even if that's true, activists may have rallied enough interest to get General Mills' attention, and I suspect that the company wants to try labeling as an experiment. Will a non-GM label increase sales? Will customers pay a higher price? The answers to these questions will be valuable to the company in planning for the possibility of labeling laws.

Read more: Food

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Is gluten lobotomizing you?

farmer holding wheat
Shutterstock

In the past week both my mom (in California) and in-laws (in Florida) have mentioned the idea that gluten is eating our brains. That's a sure sign of a cultural phenomenon that deserves attention.

I've always thought of gluten as a symbol for the dietary hazards associated with highly refined flour. Those pulverized starches are like jet fuel: They burn hot and fast, and go into the bloodstream like they've been injected. There's a lot of evidence suggesting that people do better eating more complex carbohydrates. But now the symbol -- that is, gluten -- has begun to obscure the problem it symbolizes, and that seems like a bad thing. The appellation "gluten-free" is giving that jet fuel an aura of wholesomeness. Now food manufacturers are striping the gluten out of cookies and cakes in the hopes that you'll think they are a health food. Timothy Egan included "gluten- free" in his list of words to stop using in 2014. As he put it:

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20 GMO questions: Animal, vegetable, controversy?

plants-laboratory-gmo
Shutterstock

This is a slightly unusual end-of-the-year list. Instead of a selection of the best or worst news over the year, this is simply a bullet-point summation of what I’ve learned about GMOs in 2013. When I started this series, I proposed to cut through the debate by finding the facts that both sides agree upon. I also proposed to do this (back in July) “over the next few weeks.” Ha. Not only has this taken me much longer, I’ve also learned that this controversy has turned into something resembling trench warfare, where the two sides refuse to agree on anything, …

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A big win for small farmers (and the eaters who love them)

Small farmers like Congresswoman Chellie Pingree have a reason to smile.
Small farmers like Rep. Chellie Pingree have a reason to smile.

Last month, we suggested that people who like getting food from small, local farms might have an interest in speaking up about the new Food Safety Modernization Act. Many of those small farmers were worried that the law could put them out of business.

Today, Michael Taylor, the FDA official leading the process wrote, "You spoke. We heard you."

The FDA will make "significant changes" on precisely those points that worried farmers most (see those details in my first story). In a statement, Taylor wrote:

Based on our discussions with farmers, the research community and other input we have received, we have learned a great deal, and our thinking has evolved. Everyone shares the goal of ensuring produce safety, but, as we said at the beginning of the process, the new safety standards must be flexible enough to accommodate reasonably the great diversity of the produce sector, and they must be practical to implement.

"We will have to wait and see what the rules look like next summer, but it's clear the FDA has heard what we've been saying and took it seriously," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) in a press release. Pingree, a small farmer herself, pushed hard for revisions. “The farmers and consumers around the country who made their voices heard on this issue deserve a lot of credit for today's announcement."

Sometimes speaking up actually works! The noisy pig gets the slop. But even more important than speaking is listening. Kudos to Michael Taylor and the FDA for working so hard to find a way to make food safer without hurting farmers.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Block party: Are activists thwarting GMO innovation?

March_Against_Monsanto_Vancouver
Rosalee Yagihara

When I point out to a genetic-engineering enthusiast that the technology hasn’t lived up to its hype, I often hear the same rejoinder: “We’d have all sorts of amazing transgenics out there if it weren’t for the bans and oppressive regulations.”

So I set out to determine if this was true. Is there evidence that groups fighting against GMOs have thwarted good technologies that would otherwise make agriculture more sustainable? I asked several plant scientists if there were actual examples of projects that had been abandoned.

Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, emailed to tell me about the BS2 tomato. It has a gene that protects it from bacteria of the genus Xanthomonas. Here’s a lovely animation by Duc Phan Tran, explaining how Xanthomonas attacks a plant, and how resistance works:

By using the BS2 tomato, farmers could avoid spraying their fields with antimicrobial heavy metals. And, Folta said, the plants are shovel-ready. “BS2 tomato is alive and well at UF” Folta said.

But there’s no reason to try to get this tomato into the hands of farmers, Folta said.

“It costs too much -- [getting through the regulatory process would cost] $5-10 million on the cheap side,  takes too long, and then you just have the products smeared by activists that threaten whole industries if they consider adopting transgenic approaches.”

Read more: Food