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Wall Street and ethanol cause starvation, say scientists

Today's supervillains are soooo boring. If only they'd wear tights and touch entrapped damsels’ hair in a way that made us uncomfortable, we'd be up for patriotically pistol-whipping them, Captain America style. Instead we find out that Wall Street and ethanol -- a diffuse network of trading computers and a colorless inebriant, respectively -- are the reason billions are going hungry in the developing world. How are we supposed to launch a hideously expensive vendetta-war against that? The takeaway from Brandon Keim's excellent writeup of a study conducted by researchers at New England Complex Systems Institute is that if you …

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Where do your 42 pounds of corn syrup come from?

You know how people say Americans are gross? Americans are gross. An average one of us eats 42 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup each year. GOOD points out that that's the same weight as six newborn babies (Austin Powers was prescient). I think at this point, we all know corn syrup is bad, even when it's called "corn sugar." But it sneaks into everything. That bag of sliced bread I bought at the store yesterday? Corn syrup. That tonic water I mixed with gin this past weekend? Corn syrup. And while it's all well and good to intend to eat …

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FDA: It's corn syrup, now shut up and own it

The Corn Refiners Association has noticed that "corn syrup" is becoming kind of a dirty word. They could improve the product, perhaps, but that would be hard, so they decided to just rename it "corn sugar." But the FDA, which is in charge of things like what counts as "sugar," is having none of it.  So far, the FDA hasn't yet ruled on whether HFCS can be called "sugar," but in the meantime the corn refiners decided to just go ahead and do it because it sounded good. They've been comparing corn syrup to sugar in all their ads, despite …

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In battle between fuel and food, food is losing worse than ever

Despite the backlash against ethanol in the U.S. and biodiesel in the E.U., global production of biofuels was up 17 percent in 2010. That's 27.7 billion gallons of liquid fuel for the year. (For reference, the U.S. uses 137 billion gallons of gasoline per year, though that's not directly equivalent because biofuels include biodiesel, and ethanol contains slightly less energy than regular gasoline.) What's driving this bumper crop? High oil prices, "which encouraged several large fuel companies, including Sunoco, Valero, Flint Hills, and Murphy Oil, to enter the ethanol industry," according to the WorldWatch Institute. Same thing's happening in Brazil, …

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Monsanto fail: GMO crops are losing their pest control powers

Monsanto crops bred to thwart western corn rootworms, which love eating corn roots, are no longer are doing their job. The rootworms developed a resistance to the natural pesticide the crops produced and are chowing down. The alternatives for farmers: buy other genetically modified seeds (which will totally work forever!); spray nastier insecticides; abandon the economic model of monoculture and GMO crops. Guess which one's going to happen. Maybe which two out of three. Scientists are already working on a new way to make buggies regret they ever thought for a second about eating corn: it's called RNA interference, and …

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Does this wind turbine make McDonald's ass look green?

If you saw this on top of your local McDonald's, would it make you more likely to pull over for a burger and fries? I have to admit that it would work on me. Not enough to actually buy a salmonella puck and a cup of corn sugar, but maybe I'd try a salad. Or, you know, one of those new "healthy" Happy Meals. This wind turbine sits atop an experimental "green" McDonald's in Achim, Germany. On the one hand, it's a cynical ploy to make us feel all right about eating some of the least sustainable food on the …

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Ethanol is now a matter of national security

Battle-corn: A tank prepares to refill on cheap biofuels. Opponents of using food for fuel, I've got good news and bad news. First the good: It appears that Congress is finally willing to kill two of the ethanol industry's main government supports -- the 45-cent-per-gallon ethanol tax credit worth about $6 billion per year, and the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. Now the bad: The Obama administration (which has been as aggressive an advocate for ethanol as any corn-state Senator) isn't going to let the ethanol industry down -- even if it means using federal dollars to ensure that 40 …

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Why the Senate ethanol vote doesn't matter much

Photo: Daniel LeiningerCross-posted from Mother Jones. I have a really bad idea. Let's push farmers to plant as much as they possibly can of our most ecologically devastating crop. Maybe we'll even get them to plow up some erosion-prone grasslands to do so. Then we'll take a huge portion of the bounty (say, 40 percent) and subject it to a Byzantine, energy-intensive process that will turn it into something (barely) suitable for internal-combustion engines. (Never mind that internal-combustion engines, powering private pods over roads always in need of extravagant maintenance, are a rotten way of converting energy into mass locomotion.) …

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How industrial agriculture makes us vulnerable to climate change, Mississippi floods edition

An "ephemeral gulley" that carried soil and agrichemicals from an Iowa farm toward the Gulf of Mexico during a 2010 storm. Photo: Environmental Working GroupNancy Rabalais, marine scientist and executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, is probably our foremost authority on the vast, oxygen-depleted "dead zone" that rears up annually in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by fertilizer runoff from large Corn Belt farms. (I interviewed her for my podcast last year.) In a report on the PBS Newshour blog, Rabelais delivers some bad news: Floods in the Mississippi River watershed this spring are washing tremendous amounts of …

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What we know — and don’t know — about the safety of eating GMOs

GMOs ahead: Proceed at your own risk.Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? The conventional answer is "yes," and it's not hard to see why. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy seeds quickly conquered U.S. farm fields. Today, upwards of 70 percent of corn and 90 percent of soy are genetically modified, and these two crops form the basis of the conventional U.S. diet. Nor are they GM technology's only pathway onto our plates. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. cotton is now genetically engineered, and cottonseed oil has emerged as a …