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Critical List: Oil industry clinging to subsidies, Monsanto continues world takeover

Oil industry leaders will testify before Congress today. Their message: Cutting oil subsidies is discrimination! Expand oil and gas production, instead, because that’s somehow good for everybody. And, anyway, oil companies pay more than enough taxes, if you ask the oil companies. If you ask anyone else, they pay a lower rate than the average American. The U.S. is already expanding offshore oil production: Shell just received permission to start a new drilling project in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing could possibly go wrong with offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, right? Renewable energy projects, on the other hand, …

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Government-backed corn ethanol lurches on, paving a road to nowhere

During the Bush II administration, I used to groan that the closest thing we had to a concerted policy response to climate change was the federal government's slew of goodies for corn-based ethanol. It was a monumentally depressing situation, because propping up corn-derived fuel is expensive and (despite industry hype) doesn't actually do much, if anything at all, to mitigate climate change -- but contributes actively to ecological disasters like the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone." Now, two years into the Obama administration, we still have no concerted policy response to climate change, and the corn ethanol program abides, sucking …

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Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture

In last week's New York Times Magazine, the science writer Gary Taubes argues forcefully that a range of chronic health problems -- heightened rates of obesity, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer -- can be blamed on overconsumption of refined sweetener. It isn't just the surge of empty calories that sweeteners provide that's making us sick, Taubes argues; it's also -- and mainly -- the way our bodies process them. Taubes acknowledges that the science around sugar metabolism isn't fully settled. But he brings highly suggestive evidence to bear, and I find it convincing, with a couple of …

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How some Iowa farmers keep the land fertile, while others salt the earth

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a new study out about the sexiest subject ever -- soil erosion! Wait, don't go, this is important: Topsoil takes forever to make, so as it washes off of fields, it's literally taking our ability to feed ourselves with it. Previously, scientists had estimated that Iowa fields were losing five tons of topsoil per acre per year -- little enough, it was thought, that it could be replenished naturally. But the EWG's new study suggests that in some single storm events, as many as 100 tons of topsoil per acre are washing off of …

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Should some pesticides be banned to protect bees? A USDA scientist dances around the question

Photo: Maury McCownAs I reported in January, the USDA's top bee researcher, Jeffrey Pettis, has publicly revealed that he has completed research showing that Bayer's blockbuster neonicotinoid pesticides, used on million of acres of crops across the country, harm honeybees even at extremely low doses. The revelation was significant because a growing number of U.S. beekeepers are worried that Bayer's pesticides might be the key culprit in colony collapse disorder -- the strange annual die-off of significant portions of the U.S. honeybee population. In December, a leaked document showed that EPA scientists had declared insufficient a previously accepted Bayer-funded study …

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The American diet in one chart, with lots of fats and sugars

This is a non-interactive version of the chart. Also check out the interactive version, by Civil Eats and the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism News21 course.Over on Civil Eats, Andrea Jezovit has put together a terrific interactive chart on the U.S. diet. Using USDA data for "average daily calories available per capita, adjusted for spoilage and waste," it tracks our eating habits since 1970, separating our foodstuffs into basic categories: grains, dairy, vegetables, fruits, proteins ("meat, eggs, and nuts"), added sugars, and added fats. For me, the most interesting categories are the latter two. They represent what could be called …

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Farmers in U.S. running out of land

Despite planting record amounts of corn and soybeans this year, U.S. farmers are sitting on unexpectedly small stockpiles of both crops. Meanwhile, the demand for corn is crowding out use of land for other crops, including cotton. The USDA reports underscored that U.S. farmers are reaching the limits of arable land in the world's biggest crop exporter … Spring wheat sowing, while among the biggest in decades, could yet shrink. A Reuters analysis suggests that this year could see the largest corn harvest in U.S. history, and yet food prices are forecast to rise 3.5 percent, threatening unrest in countries …

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Country cousins and city cousins

It’s the ‘burbs, stupid: on the Ezra Klein/Tom Vilsack dustup

Carried away: Ezra Klein and Tom Vilsack ride an imaginary "raft of subsidies." This week, an interesting -- and, I think, bizarre -- argument broke out between Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The topic was whether rural residents deserve what Klein called a "raft of subsidies," when in fact, "we still need cities." Klein's contributions to the debate were widely hailed as "brilliant" and Vilsack's were widely deplored (see here and here); but I was left wondering what precisely the two were arguing about -- and whether either one of them actually knew what …

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Berry patch

USDA chief flatters industrial ag while Obama honors its greatest critic, Wendell Berry

A year and a half ago, I complained that President Obama's food and ag policy was "giving me whiplash," because the administration seemed to keep zigzagging between progressive change and the agrichemical status quo.   Since then, a definite pattern has emerged: The administration puts real policy power behind the status quo -- see, for example, the recent deregulation of controversial genetically modified crops -- and deploys what the political scientists call "soft power" (usually through Michelle Obama) to hector people to eat a little better and chide corporations to clean up their junk food a bit. Two events last …