Briefly

Stuff that matters


Faster food

A new label could release a flood of organic food.

Farmers could get higher prices by going organic, and there seems to be more demand for organic food than there is supply. So why aren’t more farmers making the shift?

The highest hurdle is that growers have to use organic techniques — which often mean more work and lower yields — for three years before they can start getting those higher organic prices. As NPR’s Dan Charles writes, “For those three ‘transition’ years, you’d have the worst of all worlds: Low organic yields and low conventional prices.”

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has removed that hurdle — or at least lowered it — with a change of rules. Farmers will still have to go through the three-year transition, but during that period they can market their food as “transitional.”

That means you’re likely to start seeing labels in stores that say something like “Transitional Organic.” If all goes well this shift will allow a lot more people to get into organic farming, which should ultimately drive down prices.


the kids v. Trump

Trump’s lawyers tried (and probably failed) to throw out the kids’ climate lawsuit.

On Monday, a group of young people suing the U.S. government for willfully infringing on their constitutional right to a stable climate had their (initial) day in court. The oral arguments lasted about an hour at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Trump administration lawyers are trying to get the case thrown out on a technicality, alleging that the act of sifting through decades of documents in preparation for trial would cause the government “irreparable harm.”

In a nutshell, the youth are suing to establish new environmental protections on the basis of intergenerational equity. Their lead lawyer, Julia Olsen, called the lawsuit “this generation’s Brown v. Board of Education.”

Experts on climate law say there’s good reason to think the kids’ case will be allowed to proceed. Moments after Monday’s hearing, Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, tweeted that two of the three judges on the panel appeared worried that throwing this case out now would have wide-ranging repercussions.

Should the lawsuit move on, the next step will be the trial itself in February. The Trump administration’s lead lawyer, Eric Grant, has already called it the “trial of the century.”


nail in the tire

The warming Arctic could put a serious dent in wind energy production.

There’s a pretty steep temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator. But that difference — which fuels atmospheric energy, powering storm systems and the breeze — is shrinking, and it’s altering the distribution of wind energy resources around the globe.

This could put significant strain on wind power production in the United States, Europe, and Asia, a study published Monday in the journal Nature suggests.

The study shows that warming temperatures could result in a 17 percent drop in wind power in the U.S. and a 10 percent decline in the U.K. by 2100. On the upside, wind power in Australia, Brazil, and West Africa could actually increase.

China, for one, has already seen dips in wind power in some areas due to climate change.

In response to the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, many countries have adopted emissions reduction targets that incorporate wind power. But as the study’s authors point out, those assessments are based off of today’s climate, not the global atmospheric conditions of the future.


chicken out

Meat taxes are totally going to be a thing — someday.

To the delight of vegans everywhere, the Guardian reported on Monday that a tax on meat products is “inevitable.”

That claim comes from new analysis from Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return, a group that keeps investors up-to-date on trends in factory farming. It found that countries will likely start to place levies on meat — similar to ones that already exist on tobacco — to cut down on carbon emissions and health problems.

Raising livestock produces about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and demand is expected to drive meat consumption even higher. Governments in Germany and Denmark are already exploring the possibilities of a meat tax. In 2016, researchers found that a 40 percent tax on beef (plus 20 percent on dairy) would save 500,000 lives a year, and drastically reduce carbon emissions.

For the 39 percent of Americans who say they’re trying to eat more plant-based foods, a meat tax could be a helpful nudge in the reducetarian direction. For the rest of Americans … well, we don’t expect them to be thrilled about steak being 40 percent more expensive.

“It’s hard to imagine concerted action to tax meat today,” Rob Bailey, research director at London think tank Chatham House, told the Guardian, “but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years, I expect to see meat taxes accumulate.”


Where there's smoke

Farmworkers are risking their health to harvest produce near California wildfires.

The out-of-control fires have already burned up an area the size of New York City and Boston combined. Meanwhile, farmworkers are still working 8 to 10 hour days, often without protective gear to guard them against the wildfire smoke.

Health officials are warning residents to stay indoors or wear masks if they need to go outside. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health advised employers to take precautions to protect their workers, but the law doesn’t require them to provide masks or other protective equipment.

Volunteers with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy handed out thousands of masks to farmworkers in Southern California. “It’s a little bit of playing whack-a-mole as the smoke drifts north,” says Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at the alliance. “There’s definitely pressure in the industry to get those strawberries harvested before they get damaged by the ash.”

Breathing in smoky air can trigger asthma attacks, chest palpitations, and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Wildfire smoke also carries particles known to cause cancer.

Despite the risks, Zucker says many farmworkers have little choice but to stay on the job. “It’s a horrific choice to choose between the income that you need to keep a roof over your family’s head, and taking care of your own health and safety,” he says.


Bad EPA

Trump’s EPA eases off on the whole “environmental protection” thing.

The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to defend human health and the environment, but a New York Times analysis published Monday suggests that it hasn’t been doing a great job.

EPA enforcement data indicates that the agency has gone easier on polluters and been less strict about penalties under Trump compared to the two previous administrations. For example, under President Obama, the EPA ramped up demands that companies retrofit their factories to cut down on pollution. Those demands have petered out to a mere 12 percent of what was requested by the Obama administration.

Confidential EPA documents obtained by the Times also show that EPA enforcement officers around the country must now receive permission from Washington, D.C., before they can order air and water pollution tests — tests that are kiiiind of essential to keeping polluters in check.

That’s no accident. According to the report, the documents show that “the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt’s team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.”

The EPA released a statement on Monday that “there is no reduction in E.P.A.’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws.” That’s nice, but the facts state otherwise.


Patagonia Wars

This House committee has clearly picked a side in the national monument debate.

It’s not Patagonia’s.

The public lands dispute heated up on Monday when outdoor clothing brand Patagonia turned its homepage into a call to arms against President Donald Trump’s decision to significantly shrink two national monuments in Utah.

On Friday, the House Natural Resources Committee fired back at Patagonia, accusing the company of “hijacking the public lands debate” in an attempt to sell more products.

It seems highly unusual for a House committee to traffic in conspiracy theories, but, to its credit, Patagonia’s website did see record traffic following the company’s stand against Trump.

Anyways — the Natural Resources committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to consider legislation proposed by Utah Republican Chris Stewart that would turn the remaining parts of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument into a national park.

That means Grand-Staircase Escalante would no longer be preserved under the Antiquities Act for containing objects of historical, cultural, or scientific interest; instead, it would be protected for its scenic, educational, and recreational value.

Democratic State Senator Jim Dabakis called Stewart’s proposal a “sleight of hand, a trick” to divert attention from the plot to open up public lands for mineral extraction.