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20 GMO questions: Animal, vegetable, controversy?


This is a slightly unusual end-of-the-year list. Instead of a selection of the best or worst news over the year, this is simply a bullet-point summation of what I’ve learned about GMOs in 2013. When I started this series, I proposed to cut through the debate by finding the facts that both sides agree upon. I also proposed to do this (back in July) “over the next few weeks.” Ha. Not only has this taken me much longer, I’ve also learned that this controversy has turned into something resembling trench warfare, where the two sides refuse to agree on anything, …


Here’s where to go if you want to find a deformed frog

Steve Mierzykowski/USFWS

More than a decade ago, way back in 1995, a group of middle school students visited a wetland in Minnesota and found something kind of creepy: a population of deformed frogs, with missing or shrunken limbs. This wasn't just bad news for the frogs, as the Anchorage Daily News reports: "Scientists consider frogs to be barometers for the health of wetlands because they absorb liquid and gas through their skin, so they literally breathe their environment."

If there were frogs missing legs, that meant the wetland probably wasn't doing so hot. And the Fish and Wildlife Service started worrying this might be true, elsewhere, too. So the agency convinced Congress to fund "the largest national study of frog deformities ever conducted." Scientists visited 152 wildlife refuges across the country and checked out 68,000 frogs for general weirdness.

Read more: Living


Meet the senator from ExxonMobil who’s taking over the Energy Committee

Mary Landrieu
Energy Tomorrow

Mary Landrieu does not much care for the environment. During her three terms representing Louisiana in the U.S. Senate, she has amassed the lowest lifetime rating of any Senate Democrat from the League of Conservation Voters, just 49 percent.

And now she’s on the verge of taking over the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Last week, President Obama nominated Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chair of the Finance Committee, to be ambassador to China. There is no reason to think that Baucus -- a centrist, pro-business Democrat -- won’t get confirmed to the post. Once Baucus resigns from the Senate, Energy Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will assume the chairmanship of the far more powerful Finance Committee.

At first glance, Wyden’s ascension might strike environmentalists as good news. Wyden has a strong environmental record, and the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction includes important energy policies such as our massive wasteful subsidies for oil and gas drilling, and our comparably meager -- and constantly threatened -- subsidies for renewable energy development. But Wyden’s move means Landrieu is next in line to chair the Energy Committee.


One of the most popular holiday purchases on Amazon was an herb garden

miracle gro

Amazon's theory of Christmas is pretty much the opposite of Grist's: The more stuff people buy, the happier they are. But it is pretty fascinating to see, via Quartz, what America buys en masse in its annual fit of consumerism: cheesy jewelry (proving we still have bad taste), fancy ice molds (proving the cocktail craze has gone mainstream), art sets (proving we want our kids to be creative, even if art classes are being cut), and FitBits (proving that we don't move enough and sleep terribly).

And we're actually pretty encouraged by Amazon's most popular grocery item this year: the "Miracle-Gro AeroGarden kit," which lets people grow fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, chives, and dill in their kitchen year-round.

Read more: Food, Living


Guess who’s cashing in on fracking? The Amish

Anita Ritenour

Since the Amish are opposed to cars, electricity, and orgies, you might think they’d frown on money, too. Like, “Keep your wealth in hay bales” could totally be an Amish saying, or maybe “bonnets over Benjamins.”

But while greed and materialism aren’t part of an Amish paradise, nearly 40 Amish families in eastern Ohio are taking piles of cash from oil and gas companies. Chesapeake Energy and others are paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars, tax free, in order to drill on their property. (The families are moving to Pennsylvania or New York, as buying different property is required as part of the tax loophole.)

Those evil Amish! How dare they accept MONEY for their LAND, right? Not so fast, judgypants. Drilling is disrupting their low-key existence and even killing some of the li'l Amlettes, so no wonder they wanna get out:

[Many Amish in eastern Ohio] say the rapid development is encroaching on their pastoral way of life. Already this year, several oil trucks have been involved in fatal collisions with Amish horse-drawn buggies in the region's narrow and winding roads.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


McDonald’s warns its own employees not to eat “unhealthy” fast food

McDonald’s really cares about its workers! That’s why the internal McResource Line website dispensed lifestyle tips relevant to people scraping by on minimum wage -- like how much to tip your personal trainer or pool cleaner, and that you should “sing away stress.” And that you probably shouldn't eat McDonald's.

Tragically, McDonald’s just shut the site down. (Now NO ONE knows whether the pool boy will accept 20 percent!) The supersized straw that broke the camel’s back was a photo of an "unhealthy" meal -- much like one you’d get at the Golden Arches -- juxtaposed with a "healthier" meal of salad, water, and a sandwich. Yes, it seems even McDonald’s was admitting its food is awful for you:


Read more: Food, Living


These motion-activated streetlights could cut L.A.’s energy use by 40 percent


At night, brightly lit office buildings are depressing -- you know that either people are working too hard, or the building is wasting energy. Dutch mechanical engineer Chintan Shah looked at streetlights and saw a similar problem. Why light a path if no one’s walking or biking there? (Sorry, turtles. Guess you don’t count.)

His interest piqued, Shah did a little research and uncovered some staggering stats:

[J]ust keeping the city lights on costs Europe, alone, over 10 billion Euros each year and is responsible for more than 40 percent of a government’s energy usage. That’s 40 million tons of CO2 emissions generated through sources such as coal plants and wide-scale burning of other fossil fuels, which gives new meaning to the concept of “light pollution.”

So Shah’s company, Tvilight (think “Twilight” with a Count Dracula accent), created a retrofit for streetlights to dim them when people aren’t around and restore full brightness once a motion sensor is tripped. For the past two years, neighborhoods in Ireland and Holland have been implementing the system, and now it could be coming to Los Angeles (as well as parts of Germany and Canada).


Endangered species could be screwed by rising seas

Hawaiian monk seal
Fuzzy Gerdes
Rising sea levels could ruin this Hawaiian monk seal's favorite beaches.

Sea-level rise isn't just bad news for coastal-dwelling humans. It's also bad news for coastal-dwelling critters and plants, including one out of every six threatened and endangered species in the U.S. 

That's according to a Center for Biological Diversity analysis of federal data. From the new report:

Left unchecked, rising seas driven by climate change threaten 233 federally protected species in 23 coastal states. ...

The most vulnerable groups are flowering plants, which represent a third of all at-risk species, followed by anadromous fishes, birds, mammals, reptiles and freshwater mussels.

These species will be harmed as their habitat areas are submerged and eroded by rising seas. Saltwater intrusion also contaminates groundwater and causes the die-off and conversion of plant communities. ...

Faced with rising seas, coastal wildlife and their habitats will need to move inland to survive. However, because 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, much coastal habitat has already been lost to development, leaving species with few places to move. Without help, many species are at risk of being squeezed between rising seas and shoreline development.

Here's a list of five animal species most at risk from rising seas:

Read more: Climate & Energy


The climate champions of 2013


In a year that saw carbon pollution levels hit the milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere and brought record-breaking drought, fires, typhoons, and air pollution, it can be easy to forget there are climate champions out there, pushing back on those climate grinches. Here are a few of the climate heroes that made progress, inspired, or otherwise made an impact in 2013:

The Verb / Laura Owsianka

Naderev “Yeb” Saño

Three days after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall, Philippines climate negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño told the delegation at the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that his island nation had run out of time for failed climate negotiations. Saño vowed to go on a hunger strike until “clear progress was made.” Saño challenged climate change deniers and countries less impacted by the effects of global warming, saying, “I dare them, I dare them to get off their ivory towers and away from the comfort of their armchairs. I dare them to go to the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling sea ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water become scarce. … And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.”

Read more: Climate & Energy


Bike-powered coffee grinder combines two of our favorite things


Dan Hill and Dave Buonaguidi, British ad guys, noticed something that no one had ever noticed before, namely that young city-dwellers with disposable income -- oh, fine, we'll call them hipsters -- like bikes and like coffee. "There's a clear, often mustachioed, overlap between those who love great coffee and ride fixed-gear bikes to work every morning. We saw that as a brilliant opportunity."

And so they made a gadget called Gear Grinder. It attaches to a fixie bike frame, connects to the fixed sprocket of the rear wheel, and grinds coffee as you ride.

Read more: Living