Q.I always buy organically raised beef, when I do buy beef. I read that ground beef you get is a mixture of beef from different animals. How do I know the beef I am getting is, in fact, organically grown? Could it be mixed with other feedlot beef? Also, when it comes to processing the animal, how are the organically raised cows treated? Any better or different than if they were just regular cows?
Suzy P. Denver, CO
A. Dearest Suzy,
When I got your letter, I imagined you reading it aloud in with a suave accent: “I don’t always eat beef. But when I do, I prefer organic.” And well that you do: There are important differences between the lives -- if not the deaths -- of organically raised cattle and their conventional, feedlot-bound siblings.
On the moon, there's little gravity, little air, little water, and a whole lot of radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations. These are not ideal conditions for gardening. But NASA is going to try. It's designed a tiny habitat -- about as large as a coffee canister, according to NPR — that researchers think will allow plants to, if not thrive, at least exist on the moon:
The plant habitat that [plant scientist Bob] Bowman and his colleagues have designed contains seeds, as well as a nutrient-rich paper and enough air and water for the seeds to germinate and grow. The canister also has features that regulate light and temperature, and cameras that the researchers will use to track the plants' progress over five to 10 days.
The idea, of course, is that one day people will be living off-Earth for long enough periods that living off freeze-dried food will be unsustainable (and possibly cause space madness).
Asking for “unleaded” at the coffeeshop is no longer a joke. Fancy espresso machines in Berlin have been giving coffee addicts a shot of lead with their tall skinny mochachinos, a new study says.
Berlin’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment says the problem is primarily with plumbed-in, pump driven espresso machines -- the kind in cafés, not your Keurig at home. After these commercial espresso makers are cleaned for limescale -- that chalky stuff that builds up inside your kettle -- the super-strong cleaning agents react with coffee machine parts and release lead. LOTS of lead:
When a 2012 study came out suggesting that a certain type of genetically modified corn caused cancer in rats, many were skeptical. Since then, one scientific group after another has said that the study doesn’t tell us anything new. So on one level it was no huge surprise when the journal that had published this paper, Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracted it on Thanksgiving Day. But it was surprising, or at least illuminating, on another level: Retractions are usually reserved for deliberate deception or major mistakes; in this case, the reason for retraction was simply insignificance.
In a statement the journal publishers wrote: “Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.”
What does it mean that a “not incorrect” but “inconclusive” paper fails to “reach the threshold”?
Corn reproduction can be unruly, as I wrote here. It's hard to segregate different crop types. But if you are willing to accept a few illegitimate kernels, it is possible to maintain relatively isolated strains. It all depends on your tolerance for mixing: It's pretty easy to prevent 95 percent of crosses -- it's that last 5 percent that's tricky, and the last .01 percent is nearly impossible.
One of the people I’d wanted to talk to about the issue of intermingling genes was Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes of the University of Missouri. As an economist, Kalaitzandonakes is strictly concerned with the economic effect that errant pollen can have on a farmer. And what Kalaitzandonakes has seen in his experiments has made him optimistic for a future where many different types of corn -- genetically modified or no -- grow side by side without much mixing.
Most pollen falls near the stalk, and planting a barrier row of corn can help protect a field, he said. Furthermore, you can use time to isolate corn as well as space. The flowering times of the plants are fixed, so if you plant one corn a few weeks after another, they won’t crossbreed, even if they are side by side.
Of course, none of this matters if you want perfect purity: Sooner or later a grain of pollen will travel far enough to find a receptive tassel. But hardly anyone is asking for perfect purity. From those concerned that genetically modified seeds might have some unknown health risk, to those who want to make sure that their sweet corn doesn’t have blue kernels, most people allow a margin of tolerance.
On Nov. 8, the Food and Drug Administration announced that dietary trans fats would no longer be “generally regarded as safe,” a decisive step that will lead to banning trans fats from foods altogether. Excluding trans fats from the food supply will result in an estimated 20,000 fewer heart attacks and 7,000 fewer deaths each year. Trans fats have been part of the American diet for over 100 years and regarded as unsafe for two decades. The announcement led one thoughtful observer to see the development as reflecting how long the process of eliminating unhealthy foods from our diets can take. …
The monarch butterfly is a prime example of charismatic minifauna. Charismatic megafauna -- bears, sharks, wolves -- evoke feelings of awe, but there’s a subtle contradiction in sheltering species that sometime eat us. With charismatic minifauna, however, that contradiction disappears. It may be harder to empathize with insects, but nurturing them comes a bit more naturally.
People like Debbie Jackson, a conservation specialist with Monarch Watch, have been nurturing the insects for decades.
“I started this as a little girl the cornfields of the Midwest, just enjoying them,” she said. “Feeding the caterpillars on milkweed and watching them grow.”
Now monarchs are in trouble -- in part because there’s not much milkweed left in the cornfields of the Midwest.
“The numbers are astronomically horrible,” Jackson said. The monarch overwintering spot in the mountains of Mexico once hosted a billion butterflies. But just 3 million have shown up so far this year, she said.
There is one Thanksgiving that I will never forget. It took place at my Mother’s apartment on New York’s Upper Westside. It was the last Thanksgiving dinner that she hosted, and I was her only guest.
By then, permanently bedridden and unable to cook, mom ordered sliced turkey with all the fixings from a gourmet market. The catered meal was tasty, but lacked the home-cooked character of past feasts. What made this Thanksgiving memorable was not the food, but what happened after dinner.
During the elevator ride back down to the lobby, it suddenly occurred to me that there were people in the city who wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving that night. I was gripped by a strange (for me) impulse to feed somebody like that -- a quixotic desire for a lifelong bachelor who is barely capable of feeding himself.
You can imagine my amazement when I was met at the door of my mother’s upscale condo by a disheveled woman and her young daughter. “Give us a chicken dinner,” she demanded, as if sent there by divine central casting. In a state of mild shock, I shepherded the two of them to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered the fast-food version of a Thanksgiving feast. What surprised me was not their joy at this modest meal, so much as my own in providing it.
Republican caricatures of Al Gore notwithstanding, the former vice president was never a stereotypical woolly environmentalist. A practicing Southern Baptist, Gore attended divinity school and, though he opposed the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the military rather than protesting it. Gore rose in the 1980s as a moderate “New Democrat,” who was friendly to business, hawkish on foreign policy and, yes, excited about the possibilities of technological innovation. As vice president, he set about the earnest work of “reinventing government” to make it more efficient.
And so it is actually quite remarkable that, as Forbesreported in this week’s issue and The Washington Postconfirmed with a source close to Gore on Monday, he has gone vegan. Forbes merely tossed in a throwaway line referring to Gore as “newly vegan,” in a story about investors looking at ways of replacing eggs with plant-based formulas. The Post was unable to get any further details beyond confirmation from an unnamed Gore associate.
Perhaps, as the Post’s Juliet Eilperin suggests, Gore was worried about his health. Former President Bill Clinton, who was famously fond of McDonald’s, became a vegan in 2011. (He had a quadruple bypass in 2004.) Gore, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, put on a few pounds after leaving office.
But it seems likely that concerns about the environment, especially his top cause of climate change, played a role in Gore’s thinking.
Someday astronauts visiting the moon could toddle out of their space shuttle, harvest basil from their lunar garden, and sprinkle it over their 3D-printed space pizza.
NASA hopes to begin growing radishes, basil, and other plants on the moon in 2015. A two-pound "greenhouse" is planned to be delivered there using an uncrewed Google Lunar X-Prize mission. From New Scientist:
The aim is to find out if the crews of moon bases will be able to grow some of their own greens, a capability that has proved psychologically comforting to research crews isolated in Antarctica and on the International Space Station, NASA says.
Factors that could confound lunar plant growth include the virtual absence of an atmosphere and high levels of solar and cosmic radiation that bombard the moon's surface. So the space agency is developing a sealed canister with five days' worth of air, in which seeds can germinate on nutrient-infused filter paper. The idea is that water will be released on touchdown and sunshine will do the rest.
And NASA isn't hoping to take just agriculture to new heights -- it is working to bring food production into space as well, using 3D printing. From the agency's website: