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Hay, Girl

Farming is full of shit, blood, and stubborn fields. How’s that for romantic?


Real talk? That hay would be itchy as hell.

For the last few years, farming has enjoyed perhaps unprecedented levels of urban adoration. But two excellent articles recently popped up to warn us of the dangers of romanticizing farming.

Sarah Searle muses for Modern Farmer on the trend of farm-based weddings and agrotourism in general. While that extra bit of income from holding weddings can really make a difference for some farmers, "we’re incentivizing farmers to use their limited resources to perpetuate a romantic stereotype that consumers enjoy, rather than to spend money on functioning, sustainable (but perhaps not magazine-beautiful) models of local farming." Plus, some once-working farms "have found they can fare better offering a carefully curated version of farming to those willing to pay for it."

Shells of farms and farmers preoccupied with dancefloor assembly do not a sustainable, hardy food system make.

Over at The Guardian, Beth Hoffman hits hard on how little we actually know about the journey from farm to fork:

Read more: Food, Living


Caribbean coral reefs will be lost in 20 years — unless they can be protected

parrot fish

Most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear within the next 20 years unless action is taken to protect them, primarily due to the decline of grazers such as sea urchins and parrotfish, a new report has warned.

A comprehensive analysis by 90 experts of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at nearly 100 Caribbean locations since 1970 shows that the region’s corals have declined by more than 50 percent.

But restoring key fish populations and improving protection from overfishing and pollution could help the reefs recover and make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change, according to the study from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the United Nations Environment Program.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Hacking the climate

Meet the gleaners — fighting hunger and climate change at the same time

Team with Recovered Food Nov
Food Shift

Dana Frasz was first introduced to widespread endemic poverty while volunteering in Southeast Asia more than a decade ago. The malnourishment she encountered, especially among children, left a deeper impression on her than the beautiful landscape.

Returning home to Maine, and while attending college at both the Rochester Institute of Technology and Sarah Lawrence College, Frasz found herself acutely aware of the tremendous variety and quantity of food everywhere she went – and yet, much of it was being thrown away.

Hallie Bateman

“Witnessing tray after tray of perfectly good food being dumped down the garbage disposal in my college dining hall is what brought me to want to learn and act on the issue on a larger level,” she says.

There was no lack of work to be done. The average American household tosses a quarter of the food it brings home. Retailers throw out bruised or misshapen produce and day-old baked goods. Catering companies are left with trays of untouched gourmet cuisine.

Those discards add up. The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food worldwide is wasted. In the U.S. alone, over 33 million tons of it was sent to landfills in 2010 -- enough to fill the Rose Bowl stadium every day for a year.

The environmental impacts of this wasted food are vast. Only 3 percent of food scraps in the U.S. are converted to compost. The rest go to the dump, where they rot and release methane, a greenhouse gas that second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to climate disruption.

If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, behind only China and the United States – and that’s not counting the greenhouse gases that were created during the production of all that uneaten food.

But Frasz, along with a growing number of individuals, nonprofits, and religious organizations have set out to stop this waste. They are gleaners, repurposing the unwanted food to feed hungry people, and fighting climate change at the same time.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Ask Umbra: What is the greenest party-drink vessel of all?

red cups

Send your question to Umbra!

Q.  Do you think it is better to use cups and bottled soda or canned drinks at a party? I recently hosted a graduation party and chose to use 2-liter bottles of soda and plastic (recyclable) cups. I set out Sharpies, so people put their name on their cups and reuse them. I know people tend to set a soda can down unfinished, misplace it, and get a new one, but I haven't tried Sharpies on aluminum!

Richland, Wash.

A. Dearest Ginger,

Your question, while timeless, certainly feels timely this week. Countless Americans are no doubt stocking up on BBQ fixin’s, flags, and fireworks from just over the border for this weekend’s 4th of July celebrations, so now is a perfect time to discuss our party drinking habits.

You have posed a classic either-or question, Ginger, but as is my wont with these queries, I’m going to start with an answer of “neither.”

Read more: Food, Living


Put a label on it

GMO labeling initiative heads to the ballot in Oregon

Steve Rhodes

More than enough Oregon voters have given their signatures to get a GMO-food labeling initiative on the ballot in November, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Three New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont -- have all succeeded in passing labeling bills through their legislatures in the past year, but in the rest of the country, legislative efforts as well as ballot initiatives have so far failed.

California was the first state on the West Coast to try a ballot initiative, in 2012. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Then Washington tried a ballot initiative in 2013. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Now, to complete the coastline, Oregon is cuing up its own ballot initiative.


Hubble brag

Smile! Satellites can see your illegal fishing from space

Hallie Bateman

If a fish falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it … wait, is that not how it goes? Let’s put it this way: If a fishing boat illegally scoops up a load of fish in the middle of the ocean and no one is there to see it, it’s still illegal -- but until now there has not been much anyone could do about it.

It turns out that satellites a few hundred miles above earth are a lot better at surveying the high seas than, say, a lone Coast Guard boat with a spyglass, especially in the most remote waters where fishermen may be used to acting with impunity -- ignoring quotas, transferring fish from ship to ship, dumping bycatch, even changing the vessel's name between ports like a Shakespearian youth slipping casually into drag. Thanks to new projects in high-powered satellite surveillance, it may be possible to put an end to pirate fishing once and for all.

This is good news for, let me see, about a billion people.

Illegal fishing takes as much as 26 million metric tons of fish from the sea every year, or about 1 in 5 fish sold, for a grand theft of $23.5 billion total (or, to put it yet another way, almost 16 times the GDP of Belize or a mere seventh of the market value of Facebook). That's money that doesn't go to the fishermen who play by the rules, while lawbreakers put pressure on already overfished stocks like tuna and swordfish. And while illegal fishing has been getting a lot of press -- notably, President Obama issued a memo on the subject last month -- it's hard to make a real dent in it without some serious international cooperation. Ships need to be traceable as they travel from one country's maritime oversight into another's, and enforcement needs to be stern enough that the risks of fishing illegally outweigh the rewards.


Eden Foods pulls a Hobby Lobby

This organic food company is refusing to pay for employees’ birth control

Eden Food cans

Just because a company is organic doesn't mean it's progressive. Exhibit A: Eden Foods.

Like Hobby Lobby, Eden Foods sued the Obama administration to try to get out of providing contraceptive coverage for its employees. Eden Foods is a Michigan-based business that bills itself as "the oldest natural and organic food company in North America." It is solely owned by Michael Potter, a Catholic who refers to birth control pills as "lifestyle drugs" and likes to whine about "unconstitutional government overreach." (More crazy quotes from him below.)

In Eden Foods Inc. v. Kathleen Sebelius, filed in federal court in March of 2013, the company claimed its religious freedom was being violated by the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employee health insurance cover birth control. The suit argued that "contraception or abortifacients ... almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices.” In October, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided against Eden Foods, ruling that a for-profit company cannot exercise religion.

But then, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that family-owned, "closely held" companies can use religion as an excuse to flout the birth control mandate. Eden Foods is one of a few dozen "closely held" for-profit companies that have filed suit over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. On July 1, the Supreme Court ordered the 6th Circuit Court to reconsider its decision against Eden Foods and another plaintiff with a similar case.


A shameless foodie & her ranching dad sit down for a medium-rare opportunity

Brady Minow Smith

This article is a followup to a piece on why mid-size farmers and foodies to get along

I was waiting in the security line at the Helena airport on my way back to Seattle when I noticed the TSA agent squinting at the x-ray machine screen. A smile slowly crept across her face and she motioned over another agent. She pointed at the screen and the pair erupted into giggles. “Mind if we take a look inside your bag, ma'am?” she said as my backpack emerged from the machine. She pulled out the bundle of plastic and butcher’s paper and asked, “Is this what I think it is?” I responded with a sheepish grin: “I’ll split it with ya, if you let me keep it.” Polite smile. “It’s all yours,” she replied, sliding the frozen T-bone steak back to me.

My family loves beef -- especially our own. I can taste sweet notes of alfalfa that we spend all summer watering, growing, and cutting; the meadow grasses we pasture our cattle on provide their own subtle herbaceous flavors. Our pride goes beyond flavor. My father, along with our whip-smart ranch manager and his hard-working daughter, work seven days a week on the Lazy T Ranch to raise 450 head of cattle. Their dedication is best enjoyed medium rare, and I love it most after a day of throwing words out into the void that is the internet.

So yes: Whenever I go home, I’ll pull a Jon Tester and haul our meat through airport security and in coolers in Subarus over mountain passes. As I make that geographical transition, from the quiet hum of our ranch to my bustling Capitol Hill neighborhood, I most acutely feel the pinch of being caught between my heritage and city life. This leads me to daydreaming in country songs and wondering whether we can connect these two worlds -- for myself, the food movement, and the country at large. Are my loves of our family ranch and that of my profession mutually exclusive? And, more importantly, is there a way to bridge the gap between foodies and mid-size farmers before the latter disappear? I decided to ask my ranching father.

Read more: Food


Hacking the climate

California ranchers tackle the climate crisis one pasture at a time

marin cows
Mustafa Alami

John Wick’s battered blue jeans, wire-rimmed glasses, and plaid work shirt make him look like a stereotypical rancher, but he is not. He’s a philanthropist, and he runs cattle on his 540-acre ranch in Northern California not for money or beef production, but instead to try to promote native grass species by mimicking grazing habits of the elk herds that once roamed these hills. Through more than a decade of experimentation on his ranch, Wick has stumbled upon what may turn out to be a groundbreaking discovery: He’s found a way to manage grasslands that can curb climate change, while …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


The rat came back

Retracted Roundup-fed rat research republished


A paper based on an experiment led by the scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini -- which became a lightning rod in the genetic engineering controversy and was eventually retracted -- has been republished in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

The paper suggests an association between tumor growth in rats and the consumption of Roundup-resistant corn, or Roundup itself. Its publication unleashed a flood of photos showing horrifically tumorous rats.

Back in December, I wrote that the retraction was unwarranted. Sure the study's sample sizes were far too small to show anything definitive, but many other experiments -- including some suggesting the safety of genetically engineered foods -- have used the same methods. Retracting this paper without applying the same level of scrutiny to those other papers was clearly a double standard.