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Tom Philpott's Posts

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Et tu, publishing?

High-end book printing races to the bottom.

While we're on the topic of shocking revelations regarding high-profile green types, check out what I found out when reviewing two great, sustainable-minded books for Grist. The books, Michael Ableman's Fields of Plenty and Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's Hungry Planet, are big, beautiful, and lavishly illustrated, with powerful photographs and printed on really, really nice paper (especially Fields). Thus I was stunned at their relatively paltry price tags: $40 for Hungry, $35 for Fields. I found the answer to this riddle inside their dust jackets: One was printed in China, the other in Singapore. The fossil-fuel energy embedded in …

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Two new photo books focus on food

In the valuable new book Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, author Michael Ableman rambles across the country in a VW van, visiting small-scale farmers to talk with them at the table and in the field. Vine and dandy. Photo: Chrissi Nerantzi. Not surprisingly, he encounters an array of colorful characters, including Bob Cannard, a celebrated Northern California micro-scale organic farmer. Whereas most farmers -- even organic ones -- work mightily to beat back weeds, Cannard exults in his. In fact, he's trying to obliterate the distinction between weed …

Read more: Food, Living

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WSJ on corn, ethanol, and subsidies

WSJ says cutting subsidies would make ethanol more viable. Oh really?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday on "How Brazil Broke Its Oil Habit." The article attempts to draw lessons for the U.S. from the Brazilian experience, where sugarcane-based ethanol supplies 18 percent of the transportation market. The author, David Luhnow, seeks to apply "lessons from the sugar fields of Brazil to U.S. cornfields." The first problem I see here -- and more scientifically sophisticated Gristmillers like biodiversivist and greenstork are invited to weigh in here -- is that sugarcane seems a much more efficient way to create ethanol than corn. Ethanol is just alcohol, right? The process of …

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Archer Daniels Midland: The Exxon of corn?

ADM is doing for soil what Exxon has done to air

Amid all the hoopla over President Bush's State of the Union address, Archer Daniels Midland's quarterly report (PDF), released Tuesday, got little attention outside of Wall Street -- where it drew cheers, sending ADM's share price to an all-time high. At the company's conference call with analysts, the Wall Street Journal reports, John M. McMillin of Prudential Securities "likened [Archer Daniels Midland] to Exxon Mobil Corp., which just announced its own record-breaking profit and jokingly suggested the company might be called upon to explain its profits." Actually, McMillin's comparison isn't all that comical. Just as ExxonMobil clawed its way to …

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Down on the farm

Why the global food system isn’t kind to local farmers

Recently, I've come across two articles that pungently demonstrate the place of small-scale farmers in a global economy geared toward long-distance trade. The first, a Salon-published excerpt from Charles Fishman's recent book The Wal-Mart Effect, explores what the U.S. love affair with $5/pound salmon means for Chile. (Prepare to click through a few ads to get to the story.) The other, a NY Times piece, depicts high-level hand-wringing in China over rural "land grabs by officials eager to cash in on China's booming economy." (Thanks to Tyler Bell for alerting me to the Salon piece.)In Wal-Mart fish cases across the …

Read more: Food

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Mr. World-Is-Flat

Why Tom Friedman makes a dubious green.

My man David Roberts has been quite impressed by the recent writings of NYT uber-pundit Thomas Friedman. Friedman is a crude but effective writer, and I'm glad to see he's enlisting his thunderous arsenal of platitudes in service of conservation, etc. Undeniably, he makes some good points. But I fear that the world's problems are a bit more complex than can be dreamt of in Friedman's neoliberal philosophy. The hyper-globalized system of trade that he breathlessly champions may itself be too energy intensive to be sustained -- even by "green" energy. Why should the global south gear its productive capacity …

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Gardeners: Man the green barricades in LA

Why greens should join forces with gardeners to face down the bull dozers in LA.

Even though I abandoned Brooklyn for the Appalachians, I'm no sentimental pastoralist. I'm a long-term disciple of the great urban theorist (and champion of cities) Jane Jacobs. Human history since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago has been a history of cities. Cities are the future; as David Owen's superb article "Green Manhattan" (PDF) shows, they may be our only hope. The trick is to create agricultural systems within and just outside of cities, minimizing the ruinous effects of long-haul freight transit, slashing the fossil-fuel inputs embedded in food production, maximizing availability of fresh delicious food, and boosting local …

Read more: Cities, Food

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Rural crackdown in China

Village riot highlights stress between development and rural land in China.

Like all rapidly developing nations, China is ripping into its countryside to develop industry and Western-style infrastructure (e.g., superhighways). Over the weekend, cops cracked heads in a village in south China, not far from Hong Kong. Here's how the NY Times article on the story opened: A week of protests by villagers in China's southern industrial heartland exploded into violence over the weekend with thousands of police officers brandishing automatic weapons and using electric batons to put down the rally, residents of the village said today. The lead emphasizes that the riot took place in an "industrial heartland." A few …

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Is industrial food driving us nuts?

A UK study links dietary change over the past 50 years with rising menl-illness rates.

I've written a lot about the environmental depredations built into our industrial food system. Over in Britain, researchers are making a link between the ubiquity of processed food and rising rates of mental illness, BBC reports. Here's the BBC: The report said people were eating 34% less vegetables and two-thirds less fish - the main source of omega-3 fatty acids - than they were 50 years ago. Such changes, the study said, could be linked to depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer's disease. Sounds perfectly plausible to me. Then again, maybe my ability to reason has been …

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Food as commodity

How the UN’s FAO tacitly supports environmentally and socially ruinous commodity agriculture

This post originally appeared on Bitter Greens Journal. In business terms, a commodity is a useful item, produced in bulk, with no characteristics that distinguish it from others of its kind. What brand of DVD player do you own? Few people know. DVD players have become a commodity; they're all pretty much the same. In commodity markets, prices tend to drop over time. Personal computers, for example, have steadily fallen in price over the past 15 years. Remember when "IBM or Macintosh?" meant something? Now it's "PC or Mac," and PC controls upwards of 90 percent of the market. In …

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