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Ask Umbra: Is my compost pile contributing to climate change?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Composting has become a basic tenet of sustainable living, but it is also under debate: How irredeemable is its methane bi-production? Is there any way for homeowners to process compost so that methane production is limited or eliminated?

Santa Rosa, Calif.

A. Dearest Adriana,

Backyard composting sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? You divert food scraps from the landfill and create an ultra-enriching soil booster that nourishes crops and gardens -- and you do it all right out the back door so there’s no fuel used in shipping. So where’s the catch? Well, under certain conditions, decomposing matter does produce methane -- a highly potent greenhouse gas 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. But here's the unequivocally good news: Your compost pile doesn’t have to. With the right management, backyard compost can indeed be methane-free.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Snails wearing sweaters might just be the best thing ever

Winter: The perfect time for drinking tea, binge-watching House of Cards, and knitting a sweater for a snail.

Katie Bradley usually sticks to crocheting cozy sweaters for tortoises, as an avid adopter of rescued tortoises -- she has seven. (You may have seen her handiwork here before.) But she had some leftover yarn and whipped it into an itty-bitty snail cozy. ADORBS:

Katie Bradley

You know, for when your snail is hanging out with your tortoise. It’s important that they match, after all.

Read more: Living


You might see fewer oil trains on the tracks, thanks to a new emergency order

Oil-hauling train
U.S. Department of Transportation

The rash of exploding railcars across North America was treated with a dash of regulatory tonic this week.

Citing an "imminent hazard" of explosion and fire posed by trains hauling crude, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring more thorough testing of oil before it's shipped. The department is especially concerned about oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, as it's been found to be particularly explosive. The order also bars shipping oil in weak railcars designed for less hazardous materials.

The move could slow train shipments of oil from the Bakken shale and from Canada's tar sands. Bloomberg reports:


Someone found the world’s oldest cheese, and it’s from 1615 B.C.

Not THIS someone, mind you.
Not THIS someone, mind you.

Everyone knows mummies were buried with their bling. But it turns out that bling was raclette, gouda, and pecorino, littered across their necks and chests as if making one last attempt to stuff some tasty goodness down before venturing into the afterlife.

That’s right: Researchers found the oldest cheese ever. It's even older than the crumbs under my bed -- this cheese has been preserved since about 1615 B.C. The cemetery where they discovered it is in a dry, salty desert in northwest China, where conditions basically freeze-dried the little snacks. Interestingly enough, the cheese is low-lactose:

The analysis also showed the mummies' cheese was made by combining milk with a "starter," a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

Read more: Food


Saline solution: When de-icing roads, we may want to pass on the salt

We're gonna need a lot of salt.
Boy Avianto

It’s no secret that Americans love salt. But our uses for it extend well beyond the kitchen: It turns out we dump so much of the stuff on our roads that a lot of it ends up in our freshwater rivers and streams. Thanks again polar vortex.

See, sodium chloride's not only our favorite rock to eat, it's still the best way to deal with slick sidewalks and streets in the face of the dreaded wintry mix. Salt is cheaper and just works better at unsealing the bond between road and pavement than alternatives like calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, or potassium chloride. After getting pounded with storm after storm this winter, municipalities in the Northeast and Midwest had little freak-outs when they thought they wouldn’t be getting enough of the stuff (you know things are getting desperate when towns turn to cheese brine, beet juice, or, heaven forfend, pickle juice for alternatives, not to mention when 80 tons of salt crystals mysteriously “disappear”).

Read more: Climate & Energy


The Onion takes on Monsanto

Victor Bayon

We don’t want your seed, Monsanto -- and yet you keep finding ways to make it more aggressive. Specifically, genetically modifying it to sue more organic farmers. Thankfully, that’s only true in the online pages of The Onion (SO far). America’s Finest News Source turned its funnymaker on everyone’s favorite GMO villain:

Agricultural biotech giant Monsanto unveiled its latest strain of genetically modified corn Wednesday, claiming that the new, hardier seed yields 400 percent more litigation against small independent farms than the company’s previous GMO products.

According to fake Monsanto spokesperson Richard Gringell:

Read more: Living


Cheers! Grist has a new class of fellows

From left: Amber Cortes, Eve Andrews, Samantha Larson

Back in October, we told you we were looking for a few good fellows. Well, we found ‘em. And we couldn’t be more jazzed.

Please welcome Amber Cortes, Eve Andrews, and Samantha Larson, the first class of the Grist Fellowship Program. Starting this month, our trio of budding journalists will dive deeply into timely topics, interview the green movement’s emerging innovators and provocateurs, and experiment with different storytelling techniques. In general, we expect the new fellows to add a little spark to what we do.

A writer and multimedia strategist, Amber previously brought her bright ideas to public radio stations including WNYC in New York and KUOW in Seattle. Eve is fresh off of her gig as research director at Food Tank, where she wrote about our food system from all angles. And Samantha reported on the inexact science of storm ratings, among other hot topics, for National Geographic.

If you’re interested in becoming a future fellow, stay tuned. The application process for fall 2014 fellowships will begin this March. Check the program page or follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

Read more: Uncategorized


Uber complicated: Rideshare legal battles heat up across the country

Alfredo Mendez

For several years now, the rideshare revoluton has promised a day when we could throw our car keys away for good. Companies like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber have succeeded in connecting available drivers and hip urbanites via sleek mobile apps, offering an alternative to car ownership and the potential for reduced gridlock. But some city and state governments have sought to put the brakes on ridesharing's rapid expansion -- resulting in regulation battles across the country. Until they get onboard, it remains to be seen whether the mustachioed car is here to stay or if it'll fade away like last year's waxed handlebar mustache.

In one corner: companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, often called Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs. The TNCs provide prearranged, app-based pickup services and continue to grow in popularity with the plugged-in, smartphone-using, it's-1-a.m.-and-I-need-to-get-home-from-the-bar crowd.

In the other corner: the highly regulated taxi and cab companies that are deeply invested in protecting their industry. These past few weeks, cities and states have been scrambling to strike a balance between the growing need for flexible urban transportation solutions and protecting the interests of the taxi and cab drivers. In Grist’s backyard of Seattle, the city council votes on a new ordinance today. Heck, even Macklemore has chimed in. [Update: A modified ordinance has passed, which seems to make no one happy.]

So far regulation has been stop-and-go for rideshare companies. California set the tone as the first state to approve a set of regulations in September, giving Uber et al much-needed legitimization and the impetus to face other regulatory challenges in New York City and Washington, D.C. But a recent wrongful death lawsuit in San Francisco has drawn attention to public safety concerns.

Below is a map featuring some of the most heated legal battles in cities and states across the country. Depending on your vantage point, some measures may seem more progressive than others. Click on the purple cars to get more information:


Bummer for anti-Keystoners: Report finds no conflict of interest, despite obvious conflicts of interest

Keystone protest
Michael Fleshman

Environmental Resources Management, the consulting firm hired by the State Department to review the potential environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, did all sorts of dodgy and deceptive stuff, but none of it amounted to serious rule breaking -- at least according to the State Department's inspector general.

The Office of Inspector General today published a report that found ERM did not violate the State Department's conflict-of-interest rules as it bid for the Keystone contract and wrote its study. Climate activists and environmentalists had requested the investigation by the inspector general, and now they're none too pleased with the results.

Last month, the State Department released the environmental impact study written by ERM. It found that Keystone would not have significant climate impacts, even though sections of the study actually contradict that top-level finding. Grist's Ben Adler recently highlighted the top three flaws with the study.

Bloomberg has compiled a handy list of questionable behavior by ERM:

Beginning in June 2012, ERM failed:

• to disclose a possible conflict of interest to the State Department until two months after it won the contract, as reported by ... Jim Snyder at Bloomberg News;

• to reconcile why ERM listed TransCanada as a client in its marketing materials the year before it began the Keystone contract, even though ERM and TransCanada had both told State that they had not worked together for at least five years;


Feds will help honeybees find food

A bee on pastureland

The U.S. government estimates that honeybees provide $15 billion worth of pollination services to America's farms every year. So it's throwing $3 million at them in the Midwest, announcing a new effort to help farmers and ranchers grow plants that furnish bees with healthier diets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will use the funds "to promote conservation practices that will provide honey bees with nutritious pollen and nectar while providing benefits to the environment." The pollen and nectar will come from such sources as cover crops and high-quality pastures.

It's another little step by the government to boost hives' chances of survival. Forcing bees to subsist on the pollen and nectar of crops alone can leave them sickly.

"It's a win for the livestock guys, and it's a win for the managed honeybee population," USDA official Jason Weller told Al Jazeera. "And it's a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you're going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops."

Read more: Food, Politics