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Giving sustainable food businesses a needed push

The same thought popped into Cynthia King's head every time she walked by a vacant lot filled with dead grass, next to a church in her Berkeley, Calif., neighborhood: Why in the world aren't they growing something there?

Soon she had the idea for an "edible churchyard," reminiscent of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project. The concept evolved and is about to become a reality, as King plans to launch as many as six faith farms this year in collaboration with a local church and nonprofits. Congregations will have the final word on what to do with the food, but King now envisions a larger network of small urban farms being developed, including schools, homes, and nonprofits, where the produce grown in the gardens will be aggregated, distributed, and sold at a profit.

King says the idea may not have evolved if she hadn't attended an accelerator program from Local Food Lab. The company helps people develop business plans for food and farm start-ups that are both financially sustainable and environmentally responsible, with a big-picture goal of becoming the de-facto global resource for local food entrepreneurship. (Similar to incubators, which can last years, accelerators are usually intensive, boot-camp-like). For a $2,500 fee, Local Food Lab participants receive six weeks of mentoring and feedback on food and farm concepts that address sustainability challenges in the food system. They finish with a complete business plan and a chance to pitch their ideas to a group of investors and stakeholders on the final day.

Read more: Food

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Obama: Climate change is not a joke, Mitt

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the final session of the Democratic National Convention. Photo by Reuters / Eric Thayer.Obama: Climate change is not a hoax and not a joke. (Photo by Reuters / Eric Thayer.)

President Obama surprised and delighted climate activists by making a defense of climate action in his big convention speech on Thursday night.

... my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet -- because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.

Take that, Mitt Romney!

Obama also made a strong case for clean energy and efficiency:

You can choose the path where we control more of our own energy. After thirty years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas. We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries. …

We’re offering a better path -- a future where we keep investing in wind and solar ...; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy.

He still stuck to the "all-of-the-above" approach, lauding domestic fossil-fuel production:

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Stacey Champion took on the Tea Party — and won

Stacey Champion sits in a tree she helped save from the bulldozer. (Photo by Ross Hendrickson.)

Imagine living someplace where the political hijinks are so outlandish that people refuse to believe that they’re really happening. (Oh, right.) Stacey Champion lives in just such a place. It’s called Arizona.

“We have these extremist legislators -- some of the shit they say would blow your mind,” says Champion, an environmental consultant and PR specialist who lives in Phoenix. "'Al Gore created climate change' -- they really believe this stuff."

You laugh, but for those who care about the Grand Canyon State, it creates a conundrum: Recent proposals from Tea Party Republicans -- to raise money for the state’s schools by making the state the nation’s nuclear waste dump, for example -- have stretched the popular imagination to the breaking point.

People assume that such spectacularly bad ideas will run up against political checks and balances and die early deaths -- and often they do, even in Arizona, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. But sometimes they don't, and sometimes these proposals are pushed through in such a sneaky fashion that no one has a chance to shoot them down.

That’s where Champion came in.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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‘I, Party Cup': Help Grist make a crazy documentary

Let's put on a show!

All right, actually, a video. Online. About disposable red party cups.

That's right: Grist is partnering with filmmaker John Pavlus to produce I, Party Cup -- a documentary that asks: Who made this people's chalice such a ubiquitous part of our disposable world? Why'd they do it? And what can that tell us about the small decisions and little things that shape our world in big ways?

So: We need your help. We're funding this project on Kickstarter -- the innovative platform that's become, in a few brief seasons, a buzzing hive connecting creative artists and people who want to support their work.

Why should you support a film about a cup? I could just tell you. But listen to John, he'll do it better:

This is an experiment for us at Grist. We've cut our nonprofit teeth on our ability to mobilize contributions from supporters like you. But we're new to this crowdfunding thing and this is our first time on Kickstarter.

So give us a hand. Read more about the project. Review the dizzyingly delightful array of rewards we've lined up for our supporters. Become a backer yourself. Then tell your friends.

And wait, there's more: Every dollar you decide to contribute to support this project will be matched in the form of another dollar donated by an anonymous benefactor to support Grist's independent green news and advice.

Many thanks from all of us. Cry havoc, and let loose the Red Party Cups!

Read more: Living

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Is the ‘natural’ label 100 percent misleading?

What do Juicy Juice fruit punch, Tyson chicken, and Nature Valley granola bars have in common? They're all branded with the same mysterious, ubiquitous term: natural.

The natural label's takeover is not just anecdotal. In 2008, Mintel’s Global New Products Database found that “all-natural” was the second most used claim on new American food products. And a recent study by the Shelton Group [PDF], an advertising company focusing on sustainability, found that it's also the most popular. When asked, “Which is the best description to read on a food label?” 25 percent of consumers answered, “100 percent natural.”

Read more: Food

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Utilities beat back community solar bill in California

One of the big pieces of a future that makes sense is an energy system that involves clean power, less waste, more intelligence, and a wider distribution of economic benefits. (Think locally owned solar panels hooked into a smart grid.) I lump all that under the term "distributed energy" and have been making fitful efforts to track some of the battles going on around it.

The latest episode is a sad one. Last year in California, state Sen. Lois Wolk (D) set out to tackle a pretty simple problem: Access to distributed energy (mostly rooftop solar panels) is restricted to those who can afford it and own a suitable roof. About 75 percent of Californians don't fall into that category -- they either rent, don't have the equity, or have a shaded or wrong-facing roof. That's a huge market to be tapped.

So she put forward Senate Bill 843, which would allow customers in the service territories of the state's three big investor-owned utilities -- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) -- to "subscribe" to distributed energy projects (20 megawatts or less) anywhere in their territories. So, for instance, a condo co-op could get together and invest in a solar project covering a nearby parking garage. Or a congregation could get together and invest in panels for the top of their church. They would sign a contract with a solar developer and pay a monthly fee (wrapped into their power bill) for a portion of the energy produced. Under the legislation, up to 2 gigawatts of power could be financed this way across the state; no state money would be required.

According to a report by Vote Solar [PDF], in the process of adding 2 GW of distributed renewable energy, the program would create 12,000 new jobs, $230 million in state sales tax revenue, and $7.5 billion of economic activity in the state. The bill was backed by a broad coalition that included businesses, schools, nonprofit groups, and the Department of Defense.

Sounds good, right? But it didn't sound good to the big quasi-monopoly utilities, PG&E and SCE (SDG&E supported the bill). Late last week, they led a last-minute flurry of lobbying and killed it.

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Ed Markey, coauthor of big cap-and-trade bill, now lauds Obama’s ‘drill baby drill’ approach

Ed MarkeyClimate hawk Ed Markey defends Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy. (Photo by Martha Coakley.)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is more passionate about climate action than almost anyone else in Congress. He cosponsored the Democrats' embattled cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, the so-called Waxman-Markey bill. He was the first and only chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming up until Republicans took control of the House after the 2010 election. And he hasn't let up since losing his chairmanship; he's continued his tenacious fight for clean energy and against fossil fuels.

So it was disorienting to hear him wax enthusiastic about Obama's pro-drilling policies on Wednesday:

Let me say this because I think it’s important: When George Bush left office in January 2009, we as a country were 57 percent dependent on imported oil. Today we are 45 percent dependent on imported oil. That’s Obama drill, baby, drill! Why do I say that? We are at an 18-year high for oil production in the U.S.! Let me say that again: We are at an 18-year high for oil production in the U.S. right now! And we are at an 18-year low with greenhouse gas emissions [thanks to Obama’s push for] natural gas, wind, solar, and new vehicle standards.

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Big Dog touches on big issue: Bill Clinton nods to climate change in convention speech

Bill ClintonBill Clinton tells it. (Photo by Jason Reed / Reuters.)

In a barn burner of a speech Wednesday night, Bill Clinton became the first big-timer at the Democratic convention to make reference to climate change.

Here's what he said on global warming and energy, at least according to a transcript distributed ahead of time. (Clinton did a whole lot of ad-libbing -- his prepared remarks amounted to 3,136 words, while his delivered remarks added up to a whopping 5,895 -- but he pretty much stuck to the book on this part.)

The agreement the [Obama] administration made with management, labor and environmental groups to double car mileage over the next few years is [a] good deal: it will cut your gas bill in half, make us more energy independent, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and add another 500,000 good jobs.

President Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan is helping too -- the boom in oil and gas production combined with greater energy efficiency has driven oil imports to a near-20-year low and natural-gas production to an all-time high.  Renewable energy production has also doubled.

Clinton also whacked the Romney/Ryan budget as bogus and unfair, warning that it would likely chop funding for environmental protection, among many other things. And he delivered some killer lines along the way:

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Organic food might not be more nutritious, but you should eat it anyway

Photo by Maggie McCain.

By now you’ve probably seen the headlines proclaiming that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional ones. And, if you spring for the organic option at the store, you’ve probably assumed there’s hard evidence of the health benefits – so what gives?

Well, the headlines are all based on a Stanford University meta-analysis that combined data from 237 studies. But just because this mega-study has made such a big media splash doesn’t mean it tells the whole story.

Read more: Food

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The Anthropocene explained, game-show style [AUDIO]

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that humans have had such profound and far-reaching impacts on the planet that we have ushered in a new geologic age – the Age of Man, or, as Crutzen called it, the Anthropocene. The idea has been bouncing around the halls of academia ever since, and in the last few years, it has jumped from the ivory tower into popular literature and a few geek-tastic conversations over beer. The notion that humans now run this joint seems to have struck a chord.

Just getting up to speed? The team from the Generation Anthropocene podcast at Stanford University sat down in the recording studio and tried to explain everything in five short minutes. (It ended up taking seven, but who’s counting?) Just for fun, they did it game-show style.

Read more: Climate & Energy