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i'm not crying!

Which is sadder, factory-farmed animals or the carnivores who eat them? The Onion weighs in

eating-meat-gross-messy-onion
The Onion

We’ve all heard about the graphic, stomach-turning violence of animal flesh being ripped apart by ... people’s teeth? That’s the point of an Onion piece that totally nails the grossness of being carnivorous in the language of a factory farming expose:

[M]any [are] voicing their revulsion at images of spare ribs having their muscle tissue noisily yanked from the bone, cold cuts being ingested whole, and one particularly chilling episode in which a pulled pork sandwich is jarringly pulverized by slashing incisors as a combination of grease, saliva, and tangy St. Louis-style barbecue sauce oozes out and collects in sizable pools on a chin and shirtfront.

With the same vocabulary activists use to shame industrial meat, The Onion expresses faux dismay at dimly lit, unsanitary living rooms and the killing floor that constitutes your neighborhood Arby's. Meanwhile, an accompanying video apes the suffering of factory animals by "exposing" the pain that traumatized, bloated meat-eaters endure:

Read more: Food, Living

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Guilty as chard

Are you a terrible gardener? This brilliant tool could change your life

What if I told you there's a gardening system so simple you didn't need to worry about buying or planting seeds, figuring out watering logistics, or weeding? Instead, all you'd have to do is take a deep breath and push a starter ball of parsley into its pre-marked slot. The UrbMat wants to make gardening that easy.

animated-new-urbmat-info-graphic
UrbnEarth

The UrbMat is marketed both as a gardening intro for busy people living in small spaces and as a fail-safe learning experience for tiny, clumsy-fingered children. I'm sure toddlers appreciate any excuse to play in the dirt, but I think we all know it's the dumb-thumbed adults among us who are dropping the wilted lettuce and moldy carrots to do the slow clap. 

Read more: Food, Living

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Vermont will label genetically engineered food

vermont-label

Vermont is the first U.S. state to require the mandatory labeling of food produced using genetic engineering. Maybe I shouldn't get ahead of myself -- it's not official yet, but the state House and Senate passed the bill with overwhelming majorities (114-30 in the House, 28-2 in the Senate), and the governor has said he looks forward to signing it.

The law requires retail products to have a label by July 2016 if they contain genetically engineered ingredients. Enforcement of the law will go through the state attorney general's office, said Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the bill. The bill also prohibits the use of a "natural" label on foods that contain genetically engineered elements. The rule will primarily affect processed foods -- such as cereal and bread -- where it can be difficult to impossible for the producer to know whether the ingredients, like corn starch and sugar, are GE or not.

This makes things interesting. Several New England states have been tiptoeing around the issue, passing or considering labeling laws that only kick into effect when enough other states join them, so they might collectively defend against food-industry lawsuits. At the same time, the food industry is working on a federal law that would lay out the ground rules for voluntary labeling of GMOs, while also nullifying state labeling rules. Each side has been eyeing the other, and quietly fortifying its position. Now it may get very noisy.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin elliptically alluded to the fact that the state could be sued over this law. On his Facebook page he wrote: "There is no doubt that there are those who will work to derail this common sense legislation." Which makes it sound like he's prepared to defend the law in court.

It also ups the ante on the push for a federal voluntary labeling law. When there were no mandatory labeling laws on the books, it may have been a little easier to talk about the federal effort as a simple measure to insure that we had one standard across the entire U.S.. But now the fact that the legislation would also preempt and invalidate Vermont's law will have to become part of the conversation.

There's a whole swarm of issues surrounding genetically engineered food. If you think it's just about your right to know, or your right to inexpensive food, you might want to read my attempt to cut through the debate. I think there are some good reasons to label GMOs. But if I were in charge, there are plenty of other, more important measures of agricultural and nutritional quality that I'd choose to label first.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Milk & cookies

Tired of milking your cow? There’s a robot for that

cow farts
Shutterstock

Bursting at the teat, a cow at the Borden family dairy farm ambles over into a big metal cubicle. Like a car in a drive-thru wash, the cow stands still while a rotating brush sweeps under and wipes down her udders. Then the lasers take over, locating the cow’s glands to insert them into plastic tubes, which begin to suck out milk.

This isn’t a scene from a distant, twisted future: Turns out, these milk bots are the next big thing in dairy.

The New York Times reports:

Scores of machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy -- and manure-averse -- generation.

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Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables

When your produce gets wasted, it’s really a cry for help

veggies
ep_jhu

When Nick Papadopoulos looked at all the veggies that didn’t sell at the farmers market, he felt terrible. Papadopoulos is general manager of Bloomfield Organics, and he’d seen all the sweat, all the nutrients, all the coaxing and coddling that it had taken to persuade the land to produce this bounty. These were beautiful, well-proportioned, organic vegetables! And now they were bound for the compost heap. He sipped his beer and thought, there has to be a better way.

We end up throwing out a lot of the food we grow. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, we’re tossing 40 percent of our food, the equivalent of $165 billion wasted -- giant lakes of water, mountains of fertilizer, and megajoules of energy, all squandered.

If we’re interested in scaling up regional food systems, we’re going to need a lot more reasonably priced, locally grown calories. And one obvious place to go looking for those calories is among those foods valued so low that they rot, rather than selling in a nearby city. The question is, how do you get people to eat those unloved, unwanted veggies? In other words, how do you solve Papadopoulos’ problem?

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aw, nuts

Turkey’s nutty green idea for heating its eco-city? Pistachios

pistachios-flickr-madlyinlovewithlife
madlyinlovewithlife

Pistachios may be a lot of hard work compared to Cheetos, but at least their shells could double as heating fuel. That is, if authorities give the OK for their use in a planned Turkish city.

The new eco-city will be built in southeast Turkey’s Gaziantep region, with housing for 200,000 people. The heat’s gotta come from somewhere, so why not from nature’s snack wrapper? Writes Gizmodo:

The region exported 4,000 tons of pistachios last year -- just think about how many shells that is. The pistachio shells could be burned for biogas that is then used for heat, providing up to 60 percent of the city's heating needs.

Here's more background from AFP:

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Corn waste-based ethanol could be worse for the climate than gasoline

corn growing in stover
Ron Nichols, USDA
Young corn growing in the residue of the previous crop.

A lot of carbon-rich waste is left behind after a cornfield is stripped of its juicy ears. It used to be that the stalks, leaves, and detrital cobs would be left on fields to prevent soil erosion and to allow the next crop to feast on the organic goodness of its late brethren. Increasingly, though, these leftovers are being sent to cellulosic ethanol biorefineries. Millions of gallons of biofuels are expected to be produced from such waste this year -- a figure could rise to more than 10 billion gallons in 2022 to satisfy federal requirements.

But a new study suggests this approach may be worse for the climate, at least in the short term, than drilling for oil and burning the refined gasoline. The benefits of cellulosic biofuel made from corn waste improve over the longer term, but the study, published online Sunday in Nature Climate Change, suggests that the fuel could never hit the benchmark set in the 2007 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires that cellulosic ethanol be 60 percent better for the climate than traditional gasoline.

The problem is that after corn residue is torn out and hauled away from a farm field, more carbon is lost from the soil. This problem is pervasive throughout the cornbelt, but it's the most pronounced in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, owing in part to the high carbon contents of soils there.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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The secret life of Rust Belt beekeepers

secret_bees-hallie-bateman
Hallie Bateman

Deep in the defunct industrial zones and backyards of Buffalo, N.Y., there’s a buzz developing -- quite literally, in the form of secret beehives. Across the city, a small network of under-the-radar beekeepers has formed. They keep hives in backyards, vacant lots, and even on garage roofs.

“Two years ago, I was just kind of wandering around one of the smaller, cottage neighborhoods that we have here, and I noticed one woman with all this bee art covering her garage,” says Alexandra Farrington, a beekeeper in Buffalo. “I asked her if she kept bees. First she asked if I was a cop, and then she said, ‘Well, if you promise not to tell ... yeah, I’ve got a few hives on the roof of my garage.’”

While Buffalo has no laws explicitly banning the practice of beekeeping, many neighbors view the critters as a public nuisance. Keepers worry that enough complaints might add up to local legislation that would prohibit beekeeping or severely regulate it. “That’s usually how things go,” Farrington says. “People start to complain, and then the laws are revised and regulations are put into place.”

Farrington and her fellow Buffalonians aren't alone. In cities across the United States, more and more urbanites are taking it upon themselves to create habitats for bees. Urban beekeeping is not only a crucial component of a city dweller's fully functional homestead -- offering both fresh honey and crop pollination -- it's also a response to growing concerns over colony collapse (just this month, the New York Times reported that commercial beekeepers are losing roughly a third of their colonies each year). As the urban beekeeping trend grows, so does the rift between well-intentioned, hyperlocal food producers and neighbors who aren't down with all the buzz.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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Pampas and circumstance

This Argentinian ranch sticks to the gaucho way of raising beef

cows
Perennial Plate

In 2012, Jessica Weiss wrote a story for Grist on factory farms replacing grass-fed beef in Argentina. In Argentina, beef isn't just a food; it's a lifestyle. We were inspired to seek out a ranch that's sticking to traditional methods. Join us as we explore La Dos Hermanas Ranch, where they maintain the tried-and-true ways of raising grass-fed beef in Argentina.

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License to till

Now available: 29 flavors of open source seeds, sans patents

quinoa
Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho

There's been an argument going on for at least 100 years over seeds. Should they be free? Or should the people who develop them control, and profit from, their use? If they were shared, we'd have a more fluid development of agricultural technology, because all plant breeders could experiment with the best stuff. On the other hand, maybe breeders wouldn't want to engage in the hard work of experimenting if they couldn't sell their inventions for lots of money.

It used to be that those who bred new varieties of plants shared them freely, in part because it was almost impossible to control them: As soon as someone buys one of your new tomato seeds, he can use it to make a hundred more.

As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told NPR reporter Dan Charles, plant breeders used to have a code of ethics that mandated sharing:

"If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us," he says. "That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us."

All that changed after seed companies began producing hybrids, which lose their superpowers if you try to grow more of them, and as cash-strapped universities have begun patenting more and more of their seeds. But on Thursday the Open Source Seed Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the first set of seeds with an open-source license. It is distributing 29 varieties, including broccoli, celery, kale, and quinoa.

Read more: Food