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Cap-and-spade: Will California’s carbon market dollars go to organic farms?

Amber Karnes
When animals are grazed intensively (moved from one small area to the next in rotation), they're believed to help the soil absorb CO2.

It sounds too good to be true, but a groundbreaking bill passed in California last week that promises to do two important things at once: boost sustainable farming in the nation’s biggest agricultural state and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

You see, the Golden State is revving up to start its own carbon market (or "cap-and-trade" plan) and it kicks off next month. This plan is designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and will require power plants and large industrial facilities like oil refineries and manufacturers (and eventually fuel and natural gas distributors), to participate in a process of paying for their pollution (or, in some cases, selling credits they earn by not polluting).

This cap and trade program will result in new public funds that can be invested in activities that further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, as the state’s public radio affiliate KQED reports, revenues “are expected to reach into the billions of dollars by the end of next year.” And the bill that passed last week -- AB 1532 -- dictates what kinds of activities those dollars can be spent on. But here’s the coolest part: Sustainable and organic farming practices made the list!

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A ‘radical homemaker’ shares her secret to greener, more affordable meat eating

With her 2010 book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, author Shannon Hayes put forth a manifesto for a feminist, ecologically conscious way of living that rejected the dichotomy between home and work. Now, in her new book Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover's Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, readers will be let in on Hayes' approach to cooking, eating, and raising meat on her New York state-based Sap Bush Hollow Farm.

We spoke with Hayes recently about food waste, her old-fashioned approach to eating all parts of the animals, and how she believes it can solve a core dilemma for locavores.

Q. Can you say a little about your motivation to write Long Way on a Little? It sounds like your experience with food waste had a lot to do with it.

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Confined dining: A primer on factory farms and what they mean for your meat

Photo by Shutterstock.

By now, you know that not all meat is created equal. That familiar fable about Old MacDonald and his happy barnyard menagerie is a far cry from the cruel reality of factory farms, where cows, pigs, and chickens are crammed together in giant warehouses, fattened on grain, and pumped full of antibiotics, then rolled out to the slaughterhouse to become the next Big Mac or box of McNuggets.

In regulatory lingo, these meat factories are called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs. (Pronounced "cay-fo.") Here's everything you ever wanted to know about them -- and a few things you'd probably rather not know.

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Planting rebellion: How to reclaim our seed culture

Photo by Edible Office.

“In the course of getting a plate of food to our table, we’re paying a lot of attention to the farmer, the chef, the farmers market -- all of that is as it should be, but we pay very little attention to the thing that starts it all, the seed.” That sentiment comes from Janisse Ray, farmer and author of the new book The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.

And it’s true; for many of us, seeds are a mysterious, invisible piece of the food puzzle. While we’re busy thinking about how to fix our food economies, seeds often slip through the cracks. And we’ve lost an almost unfathomable amount of genetic diversity as a result; depending on whom you ask, anywhere between 75 to 95 percent of our fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost for good. Highly functional, often bland, hybridized and genetically engineered varieties have taken over the commercial market -- as opposed to the more delicate, complex heirloom varieties with stories and names attached, such as Dragon Tongue beans, Country Gentleman sweet corn, and May Queen lettuce -- and Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta now own over half of the world’s seeds.

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There’s arsenic in your rice — and here’s how it got there

Photo by Shutterstock.

Rice. It’s just one of the basics, right? Whether eaten on its own, or in products like pastas or cereal, this inexpensive and healthy food is a staple for Asian and Latino communities, as well as the growing number of people looking to avoid gluten.

Here’s the bad news (cue Debbie Downer sound effect): The food most of us think we have more or less locked down is shockingly high in arsenic. And arsenic, especially the inorganic form often found in rice, is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancer, and believed to interfere with fetal development.

According to new research by the Consumers Union, which took over 200 samples of both organic and conventionally grown rice and rice products, nearly all the samples contained some level of arsenic, and a great deal of them contained enough to cause alarm. While there is no federal standard for arsenic in food, according to the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, one serving of rice may have as much inorganic arsenic as an entire day’s worth of water. (They’ve also created a useful chart of various rice products, rice brands, and their arsenic levels.)

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Organic food: Still more than an elitist lifestyle choice

People who go to farmers markets in March probably aren't doing it for the romance or comfort. (Photo by Sarah Gilbert.)

It happens like clockwork; every few months, a rant against local and/or organic food appears in one of the papers of record. The author is nearly always an educated man who uses the words “elite” and “elitist” at least 175 times while defending today’s corporate food system and implying directly or indirectly that changes to the status quo -- which often inherently begin with those who can afford to make them -- should be seen as suspect at best, and downright damaging at worst.

There was James McWilliams’ 2009 book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and the whole array of anti-locavore screeds that accompanied it in the Atlantic and The New York Times. And among the many others that have come since were James Budiansky’s 2010 claim that locavores needed math lessons and Canadian academic and author Pierre Desrochers' recent book, which argues that “locavores do more harm than good.”

Then last week, Roger Cohen, a British columnist for The New York Times and its European counterpart, the International Herald Tribune, joined the chorus by calling organic food a fable. In the op-ed, which was prompted by a Stanford University mega-study which questioned the nutritional value of organic foods and topped the Times’ most-emailed list over the weekend, he took an all-too-familiar tone:

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.

Ah, there they are again -- those narcissistic, organic-eating straw men we all know and love. But Cohen doesn't stop there. He dismisses organic as an “effective form of premium branding,” compares feeding your child organic baby food to sending them to private school, calls it an “elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype,” and returns to the oh-so-familiar assertion that organic can’t possibly feed our growing population in the years to come. It’s along these lines that he cries out: “I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed.”

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Congress has three choices on the farm bill: Pass, renew, or flake

Image by Shutterstock.

As members of Congress return from their August recess, they have three options when it comes to the farm bill, the multi-billion-dollar bill that shapes everything from food assistance to farm subsidies to farm conservation. They can pass, renew, or flake.

Congress may still pass a new farm bill before the current bill runs out in September, but, frankly, the odds of this happening are awfully low. Though highly flawed, the Senate version of the bill -- with its significant but fairly equal cuts to farm subsidies, food stamps, and conservation programs -- has begun to look like an impossible dream. And, in the eyes of most sustainable food advocates at least, the version written by the GOP-controlled House is a straight-up nightmare.

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) -- the organization whose job it is to track every detail of this now-comically cumbersome process -- said in a recent post on its site, the bill could pass if "[it] gets debated and voted on the House floor, the Senate and House versions are melded into one, and the melded version makes it past both chambers before September 30” (read: three short weeks from now) or “the Agriculture Committee leaders conference the Senate version with the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, and the bill gets attached to a must-pass bill (such as a continuing resolution) in September.”

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Organic food might not be more nutritious, but you should eat it anyway

Photo by Maggie McCain.

By now you’ve probably seen the headlines proclaiming that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional ones. And, if you spring for the organic option at the store, you’ve probably assumed there’s hard evidence of the health benefits – so what gives?

Well, the headlines are all based on a Stanford University meta-analysis that combined data from 237 studies. But just because this mega-study has made such a big media splash doesn’t mean it tells the whole story.

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New guide helps you scrimp and save without eating toxic junk

Have you ever been shopping for groceries and wished someone would help you find the foods that are the least scary/gross/toxic/processed for the best price?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) -- the folks who brought you the Dirty Dozen list and the (awesome) Skin Deep Cosmetic Database -- have set out to do that. Good Food on a Tight Budget might just have the answers. EWG reviewed government surveys and tests [PDF] for nearly 1,200 foods. “We looked at food prices, nutrients, pesticides, environmental pollutants and artificial ingredients and picked the top 100 or so foods that ranked best on balance.”

The new guide zeroes in on whole foods -- because, well, most processed and packaged foods just aren’t a good use of money or calories. It breaks down your options by food groups -- fruit, vegetables, protein, fats and oils, grains, etc. -- and makes recommendations for the foods that offer the most bang for your buck. A continuation of EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, this guide offers some recommendations about what to prioritize buying organic, but it’s clearly written with an eye toward inclusiveness, so assumes that most don't have the budget for organic.

In the fruit category, for instance, the guide recommends bananas, watermelon, pears, and nectarines -- but points out that peaches are generally too toxic to be worth buying conventionally. And, while lettuce and collards are recommended for price, the guide makes a note that, in most cases, broccoli is a lower-pesticide choice than either.

Here are some of our favorite tips from the Good Food on a Tight Budget guide:

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These companies don’t want GMOs labeled in California

The campaign to stop GMO labeling in CaliforniaPhotos by Hugo Felix, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.

As the battle to get genetically engineered foods (or GMOs) labeled in California -- a battle that could very well have an impact on labeling nationwide -- heats up, Big Food and Big Ag are working in concert to push back to the tune of $25 million. The fight centers around Proposition 37, the ballot initiative from the Right to Know Campaign that will go to vote in November.

If it passes, the result would be no small change. As Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott wrote recently:

Since GM corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton (the oil part) are processed into sweeteners, fats, and other additives that suffuse the US food system, the initiative would require the labeling of something like 80 percent of all non-organic processed food sold in supermarkets.

As you can see in the chart below, The “Big 6” pesticide makers (BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, and Syngenta) are putting up big money -- especially Monsanto and Dupont (full name E. I. Dupont de Nemours).

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