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Tom Laskawy's Posts

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Don’t have a cow: Lab-grown meat inches closer to your plate

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Eh. Meat, shmeat. No, really. Shmeat. It’s the, um, hip term for lab-grown meat (as Kate Sheppard explained in Mother Jones, shmeat = a sheet of meat). Not exactly what you’d expect the marketing whizzes to come up with, but lack of a catchy name is hardly the biggest problem facing the developers of lab-grown meat. Making enough of it to feed to a human had been the biggest. But that milestone has finally fallen by the wayside.

Earlier this week, two curious gastronomes, Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler and American technology and food writer Josh Schonwald, ate a hamburger made of meat grown in a test tube by Dutch vascular physiologist Mark Post. The world’s most expensive hamburger, it cost $332,000 and was underwritten by none other than Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Yes. I’ll go there. Lab-grown meat should be forever be known as Brinburger. You’re welcome, internet.

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Fast food and furious: Restaurant workers are fed up with minimum wage

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Fast food workers are striking. That’s not a sentence I thought I’d ever write. While the strike “movement” dates back to November, a wave of walkouts this week has upped the ante considerably. In November it was New York City. Recent actions have taken place in Chicago, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Kansas City, and Detroit at chains including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeyes, and Long John Silver’s.

The main demand: higher wages of up to $15 per hour.

Many fast food workers earn close to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour -- below a living wage for the cities in which most of these workers live -- and what strike organizers refer to as “poverty wages.”

Restaurant owners respond that most of their minimum wage workers are young and don’t stay on the job for very long – and therefore, they don’t require higher wages. The companies are trying to play up the stereotype of the McJob as a transitional step to bigger and better things. But anyone who has ever set foot in a fast food restaurant knows that it’s not filled with budding entrepreneurs/musicians/artists waiting to move up the ladder.

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Real food: Not just for fancy people

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In a recent cover story in the Atlantic, David Freedman scolds writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman for their misguided, faddish, foodie ways. Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson has already pointed out some of the weaknesses in Freedman’s argument that better junk food is the key to solving the obesity epidemic, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on this notion, forwarded by Freedman and others, that real food is just the latest yuppie health fad.

There’s no question that the food movement (which isn’t simply made up of “foodies”) encompasses many fads. But Freedman and other critics tend to conflate Pollan and Bittman the recipe writers with Pollan and Bittman the policy crusaders. Just because they offer cooking suggestions does not mean that the core idea they write about is just a passing bubble.

Read more: Food, Living

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Turf war: In the battle for our crops, superweeds are winning

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No actual farmers were harmed in the taking of this stock photography.

Biotech crops, which represent almost all the corn, soy, and cotton grown in the U.S., have finally met their match. And it’s not (only) the millions of consumers demanding labels on food that contains genetically modified crops, or GMOs. As NPR reports, biotech’s super-nemesis is legions of weeds and bugs that have grown immune to the herbicides and pesticides that many of these crops require.

Generally speaking, GMO crops fall into two categories: Some are designed to be resistant to pesticides like Roundup, Monsanto’s all-purpose weed killer. This allows farmers to douse fields with Roundup, killing everything but the corn, soy, or cotton (most commonly) that they’re trying to grow. Other GMO crops actually exude chemicals such as Bt, a “natural” pesticide that kills many of the most damaging bugs.

The technology may or may not be deserving of the World Food Prize but it’s certainly been a huge business success. At least it has been -- until the weeds and bugs that these crops are engineered to withstand find ways to kill the crops anyway.

We at Grist have been tracking the scourge of superweeds and superbugs for years now. And whatever the merits of a debate over pros and cons of biotech, the facts on the ground suggest the underdogspests are winning.

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Republicans are happy to help corporate ag, but feed the hungry? Not so much

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"Thanks for nothing, GOP."

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are currently trying to divide two elements of national policy that have long been viewed as two sides to the same coin: supporting farmers and feeding the hungry. Because, you know, farming has nothing to do with food.

The move comes after the House failed to pass a farm bill in June. This mammoth piece of legislation, which comes before Congress every five years, is a big deal: It controls national farm and nutrition policy. But many Republicans opposed the House bill because they thought its massive $20 billion cut to the food stamps program (aka SNAP) was too small.

Apparently, we underestimated the depth of the House GOP’s hatred of poor people food stamps. It used to be “hold your nose and vote for it” hatred. But now it’s Bible-misquoting, poison-pill-amendment-sponsoring, throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater hatred. (Message for the House GOP: I do not think the “War on Poverty” means what you think it means.)

The House GOP's second-in-command, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is leading the charge to split the bill, but getting nutrition funding out of the farm bill is a longstanding priority of conservatives -- one conservative House Republican referred to the “unholy alliance” between the farm lobby and the anti-hunger lobby. The last thing in the world farmers should be worrying about is feeding people, right?

The irony, of course, is that American farm policy is now as much, if not more, about supporting fuel, feed, and fiber products -- corn and soy for livestock and ethanol, along with cotton for clothing -- as it is about food. This fact, however, is more coincidence than strategy as far as the House GOP is concerned.

No, mostly what we see is an odd disconnect: In a time of record farm profits and sky-high commodity prices, Republicans are, for the most part, willing to support farm subsidies and crop insurance benefits that mostly go to the largest, wealthiest farms. Corporate welfare is apparently fine. But actual welfare for actual poor people? Not so much.

Read more: Food, Politics

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When it comes to food, technology won’t save us

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Despite what Monsanto and a surprising number of science writers want you to think, GMOs aren’t the only high-tech game in town when it comes to food and agriculture. In fact, there are groups out there that are marrying technology and food that aren’t about inserting bacterial genes into plants and animals.

One such group, the New York City-based company Food + Tech Connect, held its second annual Hack/Meat brainstorming/tinkering session last weekend. The event was designed to “develop technologies that help bridge the divide between pasture and plate."

About 250 techy types, investors, meat producers, and farmers gathered on the Stanford University campus for a weekend of coding and design. Organizers presented the attendees with a series of challenges, and a panel of judges selected winners who shared cash and in-kind prizes valued at $125,000.

The winner was an intriguing concept called Farmstacker, which the developers describe as “an eHarmony or AirBnb” for farmers. As co-creator and farmer Kevin Watt explained to me, this service would facilitate multiple uses of the same land for different styles of farming. For example, Farmstacker could link up a grass-fed cow farmer with a pastured poultry farmer to “take turns” on the same field. First the cows graze and then, while the field recovers, the chickens can come in and hunt, peck, and fertilize. It could come in handy, considering that access to land is a big problem for farmers, especially young ones.

Farmstacker was one of the few apps to come out of the hackathon that focused on producers rather than consumers. Other award winners included an app to help “cow sharing” and a Google Glass app (built by engineers from Google) that lets you “scan” meat products at the supermarket to get ratings on GMO content or use of antibiotics.

Cool, right? But while access to land is an issue, and bringing farmers into the sharing economy is a great idea, these seem like small-bore solutions to big problems. Now to be fair, the Hack/Meat organizers never said they were going to solve the world's hunger crisis, but it raises some interesting questions about where our time and resources are best spent, and what the future of agriculture will look like.

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Junk food science: What kids see on TV can hurt them

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As New York City likes to remind us, kids can drink themselves fat on sugary drinks. But another popular drink option for kids, high-caffeine “energy drinks” such as Monster or Red Bull, has an even darker side: the possibility that you can drink yourself dead.

A handful of deaths that allegedly resulted from quaffing energy drinks, including that of a 14-year-old girl, led several senators last year to call on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate these drinks, something it does not currently do (although the agency did step in and restrict drinks that mix alcohol and caffeine, thanks to the infamous Four Loko malt beverage).

But now, energy drinks are coming under fire from an unexpected source -- doctors. At its annual meeting, the American Medical Association, an influential physician’s lobbying group, passed a resolution calling on the Federal Trade Commission to ban marketing of high-caffeine energy drinks to young people.

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Look who’s squealing now: GMO lovers freak over new study of sick pigs

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OK, everyone have a seat and take a few deep breaths. Go to your calming place. Ready? Good. Because I’m about to talk about a new study that suggests that eating genetically modified crops might not be the best thing for us.

OK, another deep breath. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Tom, didn’t we settle this issue already?” After all, as the “plant science” industry group CropLife -- you know, the one that hates First Lady Michelle Obama -- likes to say, “more than 150 scientific studies have been done on animals fed biotech crops and to date, there is no scientific evidence of any detrimental impact.”

You’ll remember, I’m sure, the recent brouhaha over a French study by scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that purported to find evidence that a GMO-based diet caused tumors in rats. Critics immediately raised significant questions about that study and the consensus quickly became that it was poorly conceived and executed. It was also the study that caused several science writers to conclude that anti-GMO sentiment was the moral equivalent of climate denial. Good times.

So is this new study [PDF], as the critics are already asserting, “L’affaire Seralini” redux? Let’s take a look.

Read more: Food

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Sugar low: Big Soda is losing the battle for American hearts and bellies

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Don’t tell the Coca-Cola Corporation, but according to a major new study, kids today are drinking less soda. And that’s not all. They’re drinking fewer sugary drinks overall -- a category that includes sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, flavored waters like Vitaminwater, and fruit drinks. Huzzah!

It probably has something to do with public ad campaigns like this latest from New York City:

Ouch!

Indeed, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has styled himself the Great [anti-]Soda Satan and he is probably pleased as punch about this latest news, despite the fact that his proposed ban on supersized sodas has been stopped, for the moment at least, by a beverage industry lawsuit.

The links between soda consumption and health risks like diabetes continue to grow stronger. This recent study from the U.K. found drinking one soda a day increases your diabetes risk by 22 percent. And of course, there’s plenty of evidence linking soda to obesity in general. So the drop in soda consumption here in the U.S. is likely a significant factor in the current slowing of the obesity epidemic, especially in cities that have put serious resources behind combating it.

The evidence for the drop comes in new research from doctors and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control that looked at consumption rates of sugary drinks between 1999 and 2010 among adults and kids. The work, which appeared in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, determined that kids now get 8 percent of their calories from these drinks, down from 11 percent back in 1999.

Read more: Food, Living

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No need to eat like a caveman — just eat your damn veggies!

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Rubbery, wishy-washy supermarket fruit and veggies got you down? You’re not alone. It’s the flipside of plants bred to produce bumper crops that can survive 1,000-mile cross-country treks and then look pretty on store shelves. Tasty? Not so much. But the problem goes deeper than a bouquet of blandness.

We’ve known for a while that our food has been dropping in nutritional content thanks to 50 years of this kind of thinking. The go-to source for this information is this 2004 study that found significant reductions in the amounts of little things like calcium, iron, phosphorus, and vitamins B2 and C in a wide range of fruits and vegetables, including corn, carrots, strawberries, and broccoli.

But it turns out that the effects on our food from the industrialization of agriculture pales in comparison to the effects on our food from the actual invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. While industrial agriculture has cut the amounts of nutrients in certain foods by as much as half, wild versions of common vegetables have hundreds or even thousands of times the phytonutrients and antioxidants of our current fare.

Read more: Food, Living