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Upping the steaks: How grass-fed beef is reshaping ag and helping the planet


Bartlett Durand is the rare local-food entrepreneur who has no trouble turning a profit: Durand’s Black Earth Meats processes and sells grass-fed beef, and these days grass-fed beef sells like crazy.

Located near Madison, Wis., Black Earth is an abattoir, an old-fashioned butchery containing everything from a slaughterhouse to a retail store. Its sales have doubled in four out of the last five years. Durand expects them to jump again this year, from $6 million to $10 million. Orders have poured in so swiftly that, in addition to artisan butchers, Black Earth had to hire a “chef liaison” to translate orders into cow anatomy.

“Chefs have been trained in the box beef codes and don’t always know where the meat comes from on the animal,” Durand explains. “A chef will say, ‘I want a filet de round.’ My butcher will say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Grass-fed beef, like “filet de round,” is a concept that eludes people outside the beef industry. So a little background is in order.

In the months after birth, a calf drinks the rich milk of its mother. Once weaned, it might be lucky enough to follow mom around the pasture for a little while, munching grass -- but sooner or later, it is customarily sent to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, a process somewhat like tossing an animal on a full-tilt assembly line. Cows left to fatten in the field are the ones that become “grass-fed beef.” They gain the same weight, but more slowly, taking up to 14 months more, and yield a leaner beef. Some farmers of grass-fed beef are purists and leave the cow in the pasture till the day it dies. Others “cheat” by giving the cow a month or two of grain at the end, but in the comfort of the barnyard, not a 10,000-head feedlot. Durand sells both kinds.

Durand is a trim 45-year-old who has deep roots in agriculture. His grandfather was a geographer who studied milksheds. “I was a vegetarian in college because of how meat was raised and handled,” Durand recalls. When he married into a farm family, he started helping out and ultimately quit his job as a lawyer to pursue food full time.

In the $79-billion beef industry, his company is miniscule. Four giant companies control 80 percent of the beef market. “A really big kill for us would be 50 cows in one day,” says Durand. “A small packinghouse processes 1,500 to 3,000 a day.”

Yet his business has the customers to grow. Black Earth buys cows from 78 farmers. To keep up with demand, Durand must convince them to raise more cows on grass alone. He must also lure new farmers to the field. And farmers, though intrigued, are justifiably wary. Is grass-fed beef a fad among chefs and yuppies destined to peter out, or a major new market?

Read more: Food


Attack of the leafy greens: Is your lunch plotting against you?


According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single food most likely to make you sick isn't ground beef or ground turkey but rather ... leafy greens! In other words, the “good for you” stuff. Dang.

In the 10 years between 1998 and 2008, produce caused 42 percent of food-borne illnesses, according to the study, with leafy greens alone accounting for 23 percent. Most of the produce-related illness was norovirus, which for most people is a nasty, messy, but brief experience. Produce was also the cause of 41 percent of hospitalizations and 24 percent of the deaths from food-borne illness -- though as a group meat, dairy, and eggs were responsible for more of each.

But before you toss the contents of your produce drawer into the compost heap, let’s consider a few things.

Read more: Food


Humans have already set in motion 69 feet of sea-level rise

Last week, a much discussed new paper in the journal Nature seemed to suggest to some that we needn’t worry too much about the melting of Greenland, the mile-thick mass of ice at the top of the globe. The research found that the Greenland ice sheet seems to have survived a previous warm period in Earth’s history -- the Eemian period, some 126,000 years ago -- without vanishing (although it did melt considerably).

But Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box isn’t buying it.

At Monday’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., Box, who has visited Greenland 23 times to track its changing climate, explained that we’ve already pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide 40 percent beyond Eemian levels. What’s more, levels of atmospheric methane are a dramatic 240 percent higher -- both with no signs of stopping. “There is no analogue for that in the ice record,” said Box.

And that’s not all. The present mass-scale human burning of trees and vegetation for clearing land and building fires, plus our pumping of aerosols into the atmosphere from human pollution, weren’t happening during the Eemian. These human activities are darkening Greenland’s icy surface, and weakening its ability to bounce incoming sunlight back away from the planet. Instead, more light is absorbed, leading to more melting, in a classic feedback process that is hard to slow down.

“These giants are awake,” said Box of Greenland’s rumbling glaciers, “and they seem to have a bit of a hangover."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Dirty laundry: How long can one woman go without washing her clothes?

dirty socks

Recently, a friend of mine raised the kind of question that stops you in your tracks, opens your eyes, and makes you take a good, hard look at life as you know it -- a question that poses a fundamental challenge to values that date all the way back to childhood. Namely: How often do you really need to wash your clothes?

She was specifically concerned about her 2-year-old’s seemingly sparkly clean T-shirts. “There are days when his entire outfit is spotless,” she mused. “I feel weird putting it in the washer, but then I wonder if I’m being a negligent mom.”

Huh. Before this illuminating question, I confess I hadn’t really thought about it. Of course you wash most of your stuff after wearing it, right? Otherwise it’s gross ... right? Dirty? I mean, “the great unwashed” is not a compliment.

But then again, who says I do need to launder my '90s-era No Doubt Tragic Kingdom tour T-shirt after just one afternoon sitting at a desk? Could some kind of detergent mafia be operating in the shadows of my laundry room right this minute?

If I’ve learned anything as the Greenie Pig, it’s that assumptions -- that you need shampoo, say, or that there’s something wrong with enjoying a donut straight from the trash -- should always be challenged. So I set out to find out just how many wearings my apparel could stand, and, by proxy, how much water and energy I could save by delaying the spin cycle.

Read more: Living


The cost of not using renewable energy

A clever new study [PDF] from the World Future Council attempts to do something I haven't seen before: quantify the cost of not using renewables.

The idea is pretty simple. When we use finite fossil fuels to generate energy, rather than the inexhaustible, renewable alternatives, we make those fossil fuels unavailable for non-energetic uses (think petrochemicals) in the future. In other words, when we burn fossil fuels for energy, we are needlessly destroying valuable industrial capital stock.

You can read the paper for more on methodology and assumptions. The paper uses current market values for fossil fuels rather than attempting to predict future prices, so the estimates are likely conservative.

Here's the conclusion:

Protecting the use of increasingly valuable fossil raw materials for the future is possible by substituting these materials with renewables. Every day that this is delayed and fossil raw materials are consumed as one-time energy creates a future usage loss of between 8.8 and 9.3 billion US Dollars. Not just the current cost of various renewable energies, but also the costs of not using them need to be taken into account. [my emphasis]

Got that? Every day we use fossil fuels for energy, we steal $9 billion from future people who will need those fossil fuels for non-substitutable industrial uses.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Life in the fast lane: In the D.C. area, carpooling ‘slugs’ ride fast and free

HOV-3 lanes allow cars with at least 3 people a fast route to the city.
HOV-3 lanes allow cars with at least three people a fast route to the city.

It’s a Wednesday morning like any other, and Vicky Manalansan is speeding down the freeway toward Washington, D.C., in her silver minivan. Riding in her backseat are two complete strangers she picked up at a suburban commuter lot.

Smartphone-wielding techsters in San Francisco might call this “ridesharing,” but in the D.C. area, where carpooling has been an accepted way of life for decades, they call it “slugging.” Each day, an estimated 10,000 commuters in northern Virginia hitch rides this way. Passengers get a free ride; drivers get a free pass to use the special “HOV-3” routes, open only to cars holding three passengers or more.

“With the price of gas, and this traffic here,” Manalansan says, gesturing to the jammed lanes of 395, “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” During the almost two decades she’s been doing this, she says, slugging has reduced her commuting time by more than half.

Lee Morehouse / Dr. Suess

Carpooling is nothing new. In the United States, it began during World War II as a money- and resource-saving device. Likewise, sharing cars with strangers predates all those ridesharing apps by decades. Northern Virginia’s dedicated HOV-3 lanes along 395 were constructed in 1969, and commuters have picked up strangers ever since.

Slugs were so named by bus drivers trying to distinguish between carpoolers and people standing in line for the bus, much as they once kept a vigilant eye out for fake bus tokens -- known as "slugs." There are also slugging systems in San Francisco, Houston, and Pittsburgh. And, internationally, Jakarta has HOV-3 lanes to help with its intense traffic, though that system is not without flaws.

But slugging was born in the nation’s capital, and it continues to thrive here. The D.C. area has the second-busiest traffic during rush hour in North America, according to a November 2010 report by NAVTEQ. To avoid the congestion, approximately 13 percent of D.C.-area commuters carpool in some fashion. The number is even higher -- 18 percent -- in Virginia’s Fairfax County, where slugging began.

Read more: Cities


Colbert skewers the climate fatalism caucus

The Colbert Report had a wicked segment on climate change last night:

The first conservative line of defense against climate action is outright denial that climate change exists. The second is that the climate is changing, but it's not our fault and won't be so bad and isn't worth worrying about. Both those are getting tougher, what with all the crazy weather and increasingly shrill warnings from scientists, so it looks like cons are now falling back to their third line of defense: there's nothing we can do about it. This can take the shape of the "sophisticated objection" I wrote about earlier. Or it can take the shape of the rather-less-sophisticated "China! China!" stuff Colbert so artfully skewers.


The unsophisticated reply to the ‘sophisticated objection’

Ever since climate change entered U.S. public consciousness -- let's date it to James Hansen's 1988 testimony to Congress -- one objection to national climate legislation has remained steady: It will hurt our country without benefiting the climate. If we raise the price of fossil-fuel energy, carbon-intensive industries will simply migrate to other countries, possibly even emitting more carbon there. We'll hobble ourselves economically for no net reduction in carbon. "It's called global warming, not American warming!" (A related argument is sometimes made about investing money in cleantech RD&D: Other countries will enjoy the benefits -- the "spillover" effects -- of our investments without any of the costs.)

This objection was the substance of the famed Byrd-Hagel Resolution, signed by 95 U.S. senators, which said that the U.S. would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol as long as developing countries were exempt from carbon targets. It has been a reliable go-to for those fighting off climate legislation ever since.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, Harvard law professor (and former head of Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) Cass Sunstein has rebranded this old chestnut the "sophisticated objection" to climate action. Now that science rejectionism has become the baseline position on climate in the GOP, I guess anything short of outright obscurantism counts as sophisticated.

Sunstein's arguments against it (he believes the U.S. should act unilaterally on climate if necessary) are also fairly familiar: first, that American action is a necessary precursor to international action; second, that regulation spurs cleantech innovation; and third, that many actions we could take unilaterally already pass a cost-benefit analysis based on the widely accepted social cost of carbon.

Over at National Review Online, Reihan Salam has rounded up (and written) some interesting responses to Sunstein. Kudos to Salam, by the way, for being the rare conservative to take climate seriously. I hope he prompts some internal NRO discussions.

The first is from Oren Cass (er, no relation to the other Cass), one of Mitt Romney's top domestic policy advisers in the 2012 campaign. In it, he addresses Sunstein's third argument. He says:

This argument doesn’t answer the Sophisticated Objection, it ignores the Objection altogether. If carbon emissions actually had a quantifiable, linear, ton-by-ton cost then the Sophisticated Objection would make no sense because the value of action at home could be measured independent of what action was or was not taken abroad. If we gain the same benefit every time we reduce emissions by another ton, why would we care what China does? But of course, as Sunstein acknowledges by taking the Objection seriously in the first place, this is not how climate change works.

The entire premise of the Objection is that climate dynamics are extraordinarily non-linear and that the climate change threat is not susceptible to mitigation at the margin. The best science available today attempts to estimate the amount of warming associated with a given level of carbon in the atmosphere, and to determine the thresholds at which such warming is likely to trigger severe and irreversible effects on climate systems. On their current trajectory, global emissions blow through these thresholds; blowing through them by a little bit less does not have much value.

Cass is onto something important here. Many of the damages scientists fear most from climate change are nonlinear -- that is, pressure on an biophysical system builds and builds until it "snaps" suddenly into a new steady state ("suddenly" relative to geological time, that is). Cass is right: If one of those "tipping points" is going to be triggered at, say, 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, there's no value at all in a policy that hits 560 instead of 580. If you tip, you tip; irreversible is irreversible.

Read more: Climate & Energy


The secret to the sharing economy: ‘You don’t want the drill — you want the hole’


Neal Gorenflo had his come-to-Jesus moment with the sharing economy in a parking lot in Brussels.

It was June of 2004, and Gorenflo was well on his way to becoming a bona fide suit. He had worked in the telecommunications business and for an investment bank. Now he was on a strategy team for the global shipping company DHL, up for a promotion, and on a business trip in Belgium -- and he just couldn’t live with himself.

“On the surface everything looked great,” Gorenflo says. “But I felt disconnected from my community and my potential and my loved ones. I went for a jog outside my hotel. I projected myself into the future and I saw a mountain of regret. I stopped in the parking lot of this industrial warehouse and I started to cry.”

That was the breaking point, Gorenflo says. He ran back to his hotel room, resigned from his job on the spot, and vowed to “make a world where people felt like they were part of something meaningful.” He didn’t call it the sharing economy then, but it turns out that’s what he was after, and with a little work, he found it.

Neal Gorenflo.
Neal Gorenflo.

Fast forward almost nine years and Gorenflo is founder and publisher of Shareable, a website dedicated to promoting the sharing economy in all its forms, from car sharing to tool lending libraries and even pet sharing. Shareable is a one-stop shop for everything from the scoop on Jellyweek (sorry, you missed it) to a guide to sharing your wi-fi without sacrificing privacy or bandwidth -- and it is, itself, the product of a whole lot of sharing.

I spoke with Gorenflo for Grist’s series on the sharing economy.

Q. What did you do after you quit corporate America in 2004?


Missing the point of the cap-and-trade defeat

It's a baffle. While reanalyzing the cap-and-trade fight and responding to Theda Skocpol's controversial paper on it, my esteemed colleagues Bill McKibben, David Roberts, Joe Romm, and Eric Pooley have evidenced some sharp, and sharply worded, differences with one another. But all appear to agree that one big reason cap-and-trade “crashed and burned” on Capitol Hill, as Pooley phrased it, was the lack of public support: If only there had been a vibrant popular movement out in the country demanding serious action on climate change, things might have ended differently. For the record, I suspect this is true (though I also agree with Romm that other key reasons for cap-and-trade's failure were outside of environmentalists' control, particularly the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate imposed by filibuster threats from climate change-denying Republicans).

"no new coal" protest
Rainforest Action Network
Activists in front of the Texas Capitol.

But here's what I don't get. There actually was a popular movement out in the country demanding serious action against climate change during Obama's first term. In fact, this movement was not only demanding action, it was winning it big time. I'm referring to the grassroots movement that helped to prevent the construction of 174 (and counting) new coal-fired power plants, thereby imposing a de facto moratorium on new coal in the United States. Blocking construction of these plants -- and therefore of the greenhouse gases they would have emitted over their 40-plus-year life spans -- limited future U.S. greenhouse gas emissions almost as much as the cap-and-trade bill would have done. (And this calculation assumes that cap-and-trade would have worked as well as proponents claimed, hardly a sure thing considering how weakened the bill was during congressional horse trading.)

This popular movement called, and still calls, itself "Beyond Coal." And although it was spearheaded nationally by the Sierra Club, it was populated and led by local and regional activists. Most of these activists hailed from, and kicked ass in, supposedly red states in the South and the Midwest, where most of the battles over proposed coal plants played out. Crucially, this movement was not comprised solely of the usual environmental suspects. Its leaders deliberately reached out more widely, and collaborated as equals with, a range of citizens: farmers who didn't want coal plants fouling their agricultural vistas, air, and water; doctors and nurses who knew that burning coal kills at least 13,000 Americans every year while causing tens of thousands of additional heart attacks and asthma afflictions; youth who understood that coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels and thus is a dire threat to their futures; public officials, some of whom feared the climate impacts of burning coal but all of whom recognized that coal produces the kind of local air pollution that could discourage other businesses from bringing headquarters, jobs, and economic activity to their jurisdictions; and many more.