Send your question to Umbra! Q. I've been trying to eliminate preservatives and other food additives from my diet. Upon becoming more label aware, I've been shocked to discover how many foods contain "natural flavor.” Even butter contains it! I'm suspicious of how natural this flavor actually is! Do you have the scoop on natural flavor additives? Yours truly, Lindsay F. Seattle, WA A. Dearest Lindsay, Your question reminds me of one of my favorite old love songs, the one that goes “A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and butter is just cream that’s …
Earlier this year, a report was circulating from desk to desk in the White House. This document [PDF], from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, suggested that the United States was not prepared for the agricultural problems of the future: climate change, new pests, environmental degradation, and poor nutrition. Our Nation’s agricultural research enterprise is not prepared to meet the challenges that U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st century for two major reasons. First, PCAST finds that the proportion of Federal funding for agricultural research allocated through competitive mechanisms is far below the proportion in other agencies, …
For a long time I’ve been suggesting (as have scores of others) that environmentalists -- or activists in general -- aren’t necessarily their own best spokespeople; better to partner with doctors, local businesspeople, teachers, concerned parents, etc.
The problem? Environmentalism has been successfully cast as a fringe concern, not the basic, universal right of every man, woman, and child to have safe and healthy air, water, food, land, sea, and natural places -- not to mention economies based on security and sustainability not corporate profit and destruction.
But before I get too openly indignant about all this, thus giving myself away as a card-carrying greenie (whoops -- too late?), here’s more evidence that the environmentalist identity is not always compelling to those outside the choir.
It is puzzling that Monsanto’s Vice President Robert Fraley recently became one of the recipients of the World Food Prize for providing GMO seeds to combat the effects of climate change, just weeks after Monsanto itself reported a $264 million loss this quarter because of a decline in interest and plummeting sales in its genetically engineered “climate-ready” seeds. And since Fraley received his award, the production of GMO corn has been formally banned by Mexico, undoubtedly seen as one of Monsanto’s major potential markets.
The World Food Prize, offered each year on World Food Day, is supposed to underscore the humanitarian importance of viable strategies to provide a sustainable and nutritious food supply to the billions of hungry and food-insecure people on this planet. Ironically, what is engaging widespread public involvement in achieving this goal is not Monsanto's GMOs, but the great diversity of farmer-selected and heirloom seeds in many communities. Why? Because such food biodiversity may be the most prudent “bet-hedging” strategy for dealing with food insecurity and climate uncertainty.
Consumer demand in the U.S. has never been stronger for a diversity of seeds and other planting stock of heirloom and farmer-selected food crops, as well as for wild native seeds. One of the many indicators that the public wants alternatives to Monsanto is that more than 150 community-controlled seed libraries have emerged across the country during the last five years. And over the last quarter century, those who voluntarily exchange seeds of heirloom and farmer-selected varieties of vegetables, fruits, and grains have increased the diversity of their offerings fourfold, from roughly 5,000 to more than 20,000 plant selections. During the same timeframe, the number of non-GMO, non-hybrid food crop varieties offered by seed catalogs, nurseries, and websites has increased from roughly 5,000 to more than 8,500 distinctive varieties.
The impacts of climate change -- including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise -- are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation. These impacts are often most significant for communities that already face economic or health-related challenges, and for species and habitats that are already facing other pressures.
According to the administration, natural disasters cost the U.S. more than $100 billion in 2012. That includes damage from Superstorm Sandy, severe drought impacts on farmers, and the priciest fire season in recent memory. For the sake of our bank statements, if nothing else, it is time to invest in some real solutions.
When Kauai passed stringent regulations over transgenic crops, I made a big to-do, saying that the new law represented "an anti-GMO wave rising." Well, that wave has met a seawall in the form of Kauai's mayor, Bernard Carvalho, who vetoed it on Halloween.
Carvalho said he actually supports the spirit of the law, but thinks it that it conflicts fatally with other laws already on the books.
On Tuesday, the coal industry bused a few thousand miners from coal country into Washington, D.C., for a protest in front of the Capitol against the Obama administration's so-called "war on coal."
Speakers, many of them senators and members of Congress, and attendees interviewed by reporters complained that EPA restrictions on new coal-fired power plants would cost their community jobs. The complaints also pointed to secondary effects, such as higher electricity bills and reduced economic activity to support local businesses in states such as Kentucky.
Here's a typical line, from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.): “Keep your regulatory hands off the throat of the coal mining industry and our coal mining jobs."
Politicians who represent coal states like to pretend that all they want is for government to leave them alone to go their rugged individualist way.
But the truth is a lot less "don't tread on me" and a lot more "thanks for the handout."
The world is on the brink of the "largest bubble ever" in finance, because of the undisclosed value of high-carbon assets on companies' balance sheets, and investment managers who fail to take account of the risks are failing in their fiduciary duty to shareholders and investors, Al Gore and his investment partner, David Blood, have said.
"Stranded carbon assets" such as coal mines, fossil fuel power stations, and petrol-fueled vehicle plants represent at least $7 trillion on the books of publicly listed companies, and about twice as much again is owned by private companies, state governments, and sovereign wealth funds.
As the danger from climate change intensifies, and as rules on carbon and the introduction of carbon pricing in many parts of the world start to bite, these assets are expected to come under threat, from regulation and from the need to transform the economy on to a low-carbon footing. The "carbon bubble" has been identified by leading thinkers on climate change in recent years, but so far the findings have had little real effect on investor behavior.
Now Gore and Blood, the former U.S. vice-president and ex-chief executive of Goldman Sachs, who are partners in the Generation Investment Management firm, have brought forward a four-point plan that they say will protect future investors. They are calling on companies, investors, and regulators to identify the carbon risks in their portfolios; to demand of company managers and boards that the risks should be publicly disclosed; to diversify their investment portfolios to include low-carbon infrastructure such as renewable energy and electric vehicles; and finally to take their money out of fossil fuels and other high-carbon assets, or turn them into low-carbon assets -- for instance, by installing carbon capture and storage units on power stations.
What does this mean for environmental activists, who, like the rest of us, increasingly organize their lives over the internet? “I remember in the past we used to tell each other to wipe our phone’s contacts before protests,” says Joshua Kahn Russell, who has been organizing protests with the Ruckus Society for the last 7 years, and also works as Global Trainings Manager for 350.org. "I can't imagine activists doing that now, since the government and private companies have infinitely more access to our personal information that we freely provide through Facebook and other social networking sites."
If electronic surveillance is being used on environmental activists, there is not much sign of it yet. “We use everything from two-way radios to cellphones to internet to chat to Facebook to organize,” says Ramsey Sprague, a Texan who has worked with the Tar Sands Blockade. “We follow Basic Security Culture, which is just about being aware of what you are talking about, and who you are talking about it with.”
The most visible manifestation of surveillance in the environmental movement has been a rash of undercover agents. At times they have engaged in activities that blurred the lines between police work and entrapment; but for the most part, they’re a consistent enough presence that every experienced environmental group has a policy for dealing with them.
For Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, many of our problems today boil down to this: Through much of human evolution, our ancestors spent their days eating twigs and berries, chasing antelope, and being chased by things with big, nasty teeth; these days, the only things we chase are our double greaseburgers and fries -- and it's usually with 32 ounces of corn-syrup-laced soda. We're cavemen come to live in the city. Our bodies just aren't adapted for this stuff.
Those are my words, of course. Lieberman is much more eloquent and precise about the subject, which he's explored in great depth in his new book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Lieberman is the first to point out that modern living and technology have made our lives better in many ways. Still, a look back at where we came from can tell us a lot about where we're headed, he says -- and how we might alter that course for the better.
I caught up with Lieberman recently for a conversation that ranged from the paleo diet to Fruit Roll-Ups to the similarities between the obesity epidemic and climate change.