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Rachel Cernansky's Posts

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Chilling effect: How warmer winters could ruin fruit

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Think of your favorite fruits and you might think of the warm climates they tend to thrive in. Florida oranges, Texas grapefruit, California strawberries -- and grapes, figs, pears, and apricots. But here's the funny thing: Most fruit trees have to chill. Literally. Unless they’re tropical, trees have what are called "chilling requirements": They need winter temperatures to drop to within a certain range -- usually just above freezing -- and remain there for a set period of time.

This allows the buds to go into dormancy and tolerate harsh winter weather, and to reset themselves for the fruit production cycle to start again when spring comes around.

But what happens when they don’t go dormant because it doesn’t get cold enough outside? As you may or may not have noticed, perhaps depending on your age -- winters are getting warmer. If trees don't get sufficient chilling, they don't fruit. And as some researchers see it, the future of the planet's fruit and nut production is in peril. In fact, lack of chill time has already spelled trouble for U.S. farmers growing tree crops, including pistachioswalnuts, and cherries.

Insufficient cold makes for confused trees, says Eike Luedeling, a climate change scientist who has published studies on chilling requirements and fruit trees.

“You have the buds breaking irregularly and over a long time, so it's kind of staggered -- much longer than it should be -- and ultimately, it results in having a bad fruit set," he says.

Which crops will be affected, as weather patterns continue to change? For starters, Luedeling listed: apples, pears, cherries, walnuts and other tree nuts, pomegranates, and olives. But where exactly the list ends is hard to predict.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Will 2013 bring more rights for farmworkers?

Farmworkers weeding in the field by hand, San Joaquin Valley, California.
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Farmworkers weeding in the field by hand, San Joaquin Valley, Calif.

Farm owners and farmworkers may not always see eye to eye, but there's one thing on which they do — strongly — agree: We need change to our approach to immigration.

After years of ignoring the issue, Washington, D.C., has started to pay attention and may just be ready to act. President Obama has named immigration reform a top priority for his second term, House Speaker John Boehner feels “confident” that Republicans will agree to a comprehensive immigration bill, and if Obama’s expectations are met, we may see a proposal come out of Capitol Hill soon after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Farmworkers, exempt from some of the nation's most basic labor laws, like minimum wage and overtime pay, work in one of the most hazardous occupations in the country. They face risks from strenuous physical labor, often for long hours in extremely hot climates; pesticide exposure; and their work often involves dangerous equipment, often without proper training or safety measures.

Those are standard complaints, but because most farmworkers are undocumented — estimates range from about 50 percent to more than 80 percent in the U.S. — or in some cases employed through a guest worker program that doesn't get much government oversight [PDF], they are doubly vulnerable. Without immigration status, they have little or no leverage to speak out or fight against inhumane working conditions, and often lack any avenue for doing so.

Farmers, meanwhile, want reform because the current system for agricultural employment is failing them. As the anti-immigration climate has intensified over the last few years --  with programs like E-Verify, an internet-based system that lets employers do a background check on their employees -- farmers have felt threatened because undocumented workers are a population they depend on. The result is tangible; more and more farmers are complaining about a lack of workers.

"One thing that I've been told consistently by growers this year was that if you needed 30 people, you had 25. If you needed five crews, you had four," said Bryan Little of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “The result of that is you wind up losing productivity.”

Read more: Food

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Lunchroom justice: Students push for cafeteria workers’ rights

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Less than a year into her studies at Northeastern University, Cristina Suazo couldn't believe what she was hearing dining hall employees say about the conditions they were working in every day.

One woman talked about the sexual harassment -- a manager would come up from behind and grope her, Suazo recalls hearing, then walk away and go about the rest of his workday. "And she couldn't do anything about it because this was her manager," she remembers hearing.

As Suazo started to hear more stories of workers feeling disrespected or violated, or like their jobs were on the line for no good reason, she joined other students in a campaign, part of Real Food, Real Jobs, a national effort by Unite Here, to unionize dining hall workers. The goal was to convince Chartwell's, a subsidiary of the multinational Compass Group and the company that operates the university's dining services, to recognize the union and to negotiate a contract formalizing certain rights for the cafeteria employees. (Spoiler alert: They won recognition and are currently negotiating a contract.)

Kyle Schafer, a coordinator with Unite Here, said that union recognition is the most important step because then workers have a legal right to collective bargaining. Over the last two years, the Unite Here dining hall campaign has won union recognition or a contract for workers on 12 university campuses, including Georgetown University, Chicago State University, and Harvard Law. While each contract differs from campus to campus, they all bring to the table more affordable healthcare, mandated annual raises, and contract stipulations to maximize full-time work.

Read more: Food

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Is your cup compostable — or biodegradable? And why does it matter again?

Photo by kizzzbeth.

For all our environmental woes, the U.S. is making progress in one exciting area: The word "compost" is becoming a household term, while more and more cities are starting to implement wide-scale composting programs. And this shift is good for more than just our landfills. We Americans are pretty wasteful when it comes to food -- it's the single largest type of municipal solid waste that ends up in landfills -- and throwing it out with the trash leads to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that makes carbon dioxide look harmless.

But as composting becomes more popular, so do the companies trying to capitalize on the uptick: The number of packaging products marketed as compostable -- or with claims that people might equate with compostable, such as "biodegradable" or "plant-based" -- has exploded.

Like the natural foods market, where highly processed snacks with genetically modified ingredients can be called "natural," all the eco-marketing for food packaging is causing some confusion. There are cups made from corn, plates made from sugarcane, biodegradable dog poop bags -- but "bioplastics," as these are generally known, are not always truly compostable. Confused yet?

Here’s the tricky part: "Bio" often simply means the material will biodegrade in a short time frame compared with conventional plastic -- or break into lots of teeny tiny pieces of plastic. At the same time, some products are plant-based, but not compostable.

Read more: Food, Living

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Nothing small about it: Microloans give new farmers a needed boost

Nelida Martinez (right) with farm co-owner Lisette Flores. (Photo by Hilary McMullen.)

Nelida Martinez worked as a farm laborer for big conventional farms in California for almost 20 years. But after her son, Danny, was diagnosed with leukemia, she says, "I never wanted to work around chemicals again."

Martinez started selling vegetables from her community garden to help pay for her son’s treatment (he has since recovered), and then got hooked up with Viva Farms, a farm incubator program in Washington state’s Skagit Valley that helped her access land she could farm as if it were her own. Now, Martinez has a three-acre plot there, leases another two acres elsewhere, and sells more than 70 types of organic vegetables at a farmers market, where she also makes fresh tortillas and sells Oaxacan-style tacos.

Martinez wants to expand her business, but access to credit or capital isn’t easy to get if you’re not established. That’s exactly why she was chosen to participate in a new microloan program designed to help small and beginning farmers. Martinez is one of the first two bootstrappers to receive funding from the Farmer Reserve Fund, a project launched jointly by Viva Farms, Slow Money NW, and a local credit union. She has received $2,000 to use primarily for buying seeds and vegetable boxes. “The loan allows me to have more cash throughout the season while I wait to harvest my crops," she says.

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Power play: Can utilities turn energy efficiency into fun and games?

Big Fan: Simple Energy rewards power-conscious consumers with unlockable achievements. Click to embiggen.

At any given moment, Collin Faunce can see exactly how much energy he’s using in his house. When he turns on the dishwasher, his consumption spikes on the colorful head-up display on his computer monitor. If he and his wife, Erica, set the air conditioning just a few degrees higher, they can watch the dollars spared tick upwards in real time. They don’t have to wait for the monthly bill to understand their savings, and when a gadget siphons away precious energy, the Faunces can immediately identify the culprit.

“After about a week or two [of using the program], I could figure out which appliances were using how much energy and kind of plan accordingly after that,” said Faunce.

Welcome to our gamified future: where energy efficiency competes with Foursquare and Angry Birds for your attention. Winning brings badges and high scores, but it also translates into money saved for the consumer and a smarter grid for everyone.

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It’s even in gum!: Tips on avoiding plastic from expert Beth Terry

When Beth Terry saw a photo of an albatross with a rib cage full of trash, she decided to give up plastic. Today, Terry might just be the world's foremost expert on how to live without the stuff. And that's no easy task. Think about all the nooks and crannies of our lives that plastic has made its way into: food packaging, clothing, the protective box your favorite gadgets come in, even facial scrubs. And while there are all kinds of reasons to hate plastic, for Beth Terry, it's an issue of justice. "The more I learn about plastic, the more I realize that it's those most vulnerable on the planet -- whether it's animals or babies or poor people -- who are affected the most," she says.

Terry’s new book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too is published without plastic, all the way down to the glue. (If you're going to shop for it online, check out her website first to learn about buying from a place that has committed to shipping it without plastic.) We talked with Terry recently about plastic-free living, why the proposed alternatives to bisphenol A (BPA) might be worse, and the connection between cutting out plastic and building a local economy.

Read more: Food, Green Home

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Climate change could cause ‘zombie weeds’

This rice might look like the type farmers cultivate for food, but it's a weed. And as CO2 levels in the air rise, it might just take over. (Photo courtesy of The International Rice Research Institute.)

Climate change may be wreaking havoc on ecosystems and food supplies around the world, but there are also some things it's really great for -- like weeds.

According to research published last month in the journal PLoS ONE, weeds love carbon dioxide. Or, more precisely, they're learning to love CO2 because they can adapt quickly to most conditions. Crops grown for food, on the other hand, don't adapt because they're designed not to -- you want things like rice or wheat to have the same reliable taste, right? That's why farmers take great care when they're choosing the kinds of seeds they want to grow.

Now, thanks to climate change, that consistency is also a huge risk. The study in PLoS ONE, conducted by some forward-thinking researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), found that as CO2 levels rise, weeds fare better than their domesticated crop counterparts. That’s because the weeds adapted. But that’s not all: It turns out exposure to CO2 also makes them behave a little like zombies. In other words their weed-like qualities were also contagious (via gene transfer), and the actual crops began behaving more like weeds.

There's already concern about genetic contamination from GMO food crops to weeds. Now there's evidence that weeds could compromise food crops. (And we're not even talking about "superweeds," which are pretty scary in their own right because of their rapid growth and resistance to herbicides.)

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It’s getting easier for organic farms to get certified

Think mergers are only for big corporations? Not so these days. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth, two of the nation's largest third-party organic certifiers, announced plans last week to join forces and become a kind of supergroup of certifiers called -- you guessed it -- CCOF Tilth.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Standards, but there are independent organizations (accredited by the agency) who make sure that farms, food producers, and handlers are sticking to those standards by avoiding toxic pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, synthetic fertilizers, etc.

If the merger goes through, as it is likely to, CCOF Tilth will be the biggest game in town with nearly 4,000 farmers, ranchers, and processors under its charge. The organization will also develop a new label to accompany the name change.

Read more: Food, Organic Food

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Proposed law would keep California farmworkers from overheating

In most jobs, if you have to spend even part of your workday exerting yourself under the hot summer sun, you’re likely to have drinking water nearby. And, if you don't, you probably won't be penalized for going to find some. But for many farmworkers in California, the largest agricultural producer in the country, the freedom to hydrate isn’t always so straightforward.

Even as temperatures climb above 90 degrees F, many of the state's 400,000 farmworkers don’t have access to shade; or the water station is too far from where they are picking a crop, and they have to put off getting a drink. And since farmworkers are so frequently paid on a piece-rate basis rather than hourly, there's strong incentive to put off that drink, if available at all, for as long as possible.

It’s not that there aren’t laws requiring water and shade (there are), but if you're a worker on a California farm, you're not likely to see labor inspectors patrolling the fields, making sure all the rules are being followed and workers are safe, let alone comfortable.