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for whom the label tolls

Can we have our sustainable seafood and eat it too?

fish
Tyler Parker

You know the feeling: You're standing in front of the seafood counter, running down the list of evils you might be supporting when you buy one of those gleaming filets. There’s overfishing, but also pollution from fish farming, not to mention bycatch, marine habitat destruction, illegal fishing … and that's before getting to the problem of seafood fraud, and the fact that 1 in 3 seafood samples in a massive study by Oceana was served under pseudonym.

Programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch and the Safina Center’s Seafood Guide are helpful when it comes to sorting seafood’s angels from its demons, but only if you can be sure the red snapper you’re looking at is actually red snapper (hint: It probably isn't).

Meanwhile, third-party certification outfits -- the ones that slap their seal of approval on seafood that’s harvested responsibly -- are not without their flaws. In fact, the current demand for certified “sustainable” seafood is so high that it’s driving, you guessed it, overfishing. Someone get Poseidon in here because that, my friends, is what the Greeks called a "tragic flaw."

Still, these third-party groups may offer the best hope for ocean-loving fish eaters like myself, so it’s worth paying attention to how they operate. And while these certification programs are very much a work in progress, they’re getting better.

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Food fight

Eden Foods hit by backlash for fighting Obamacare’s contraception mandate

empty Eden cans

We told you recently that Eden Foods, a widely distributed organic brand, has sued the Obama administration over the requirement that companies cover contraception as part of employee health-care plans. As word has spread, outrage has spread.

More than 112,000 people have a signed a petition organized by progressive group CREDO Action:

Tell CEO of Eden Foods, Michael Potter:

"I won’t buy Eden products until you stop playing politics with women’s health and drop your attacks on birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act."

Some are tweeting out Eden-shaming selfies:

Read more: Food, Living, Politics

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Hackers hack monster burritos down to sensible size

BurritoGodzilla2
Tyler Parker | Justin Brown

“Burrito creep” is the sort of jargon you’re unlikely to hear unless you descend deep into a highly specialized world. In this case, that world is the food company Chipotle, and "burrito creep" is the term of art employees have come up with to describe a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon: No matter what they try, the burritos keep getting bigger. And the bigger they get, the larger the proportion that ends up in the trash.

Thanks to some creative thinking at the Food+Tech Connect Hack//Dining event in New York, there may be a solution to burrito creep -- one that gives eaters an incentive to control portions and cut back on the most carbon-intensive ingredients (like meat).

The point of these hackathons is to bring clever people together and set them loose on bite-sized food and sustainability problems. “The problems in the food industry are complex, and they aren’t going to be solved in a weekend,” said Danielle Gould, founder of Food+Tech Connect. “The point is to get new ideas into circulation, new people working on this, and to do rapid prototyping -- to actually make a real product in a weekend.”

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Oh, heck yes: Check out these farm tools for women

female-farmer.jpg
Shutterstock

When it comes to products designed for women, the field is full of bubblegum-colored toolkits and dainty pens. "Shrink it and pink it" tends to be the default philosophy of the men wearing ties (presumably uttered as they do Mel Gibson impressions around the boardroom table).

So what happens when the product designers have no Y chromosomes and don gender-neutral polar fleeces instead of suits?

You get Green Heron Tools and a batch of farming and gardening tools that are actually useful for women. Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger founded the business after farming for 20 years and noticing the tools didn't quite work for their bodies. Deborah Huso interviewed the pair over at Modern Farmer:

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Chinese company creamed for GMO corn thievery

thief
iStock

The FBI has captured members of a super-secret Chinese spy ring whose arsenal included false identities, corporate fronts, Cold War anti-surveillance techniques, Subway napkins and, perhaps most cruelly, Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn boxes. What were they after? Diplomatic communiques? Launch commands? Plans for the Death Star? No.

They were after corn.

And to think they used his own popcorn boxes to smuggle corn out of the country. Poor Orville’s bowtie must be spinning in his grave (assuming he was buried with a novelty spinning bowtie and a robust power supply).

Edvard Pettersson at Bloomberg has cob-bled together the whole seedy tale:

Three years ago, a security guard working for seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred came across something unusual on a road in Iowa: Just off the pavement, a man was on his knees, digging in a field.

Challenged by the guard, Mo Hailong claimed to be an employee of the University of Iowa who was traveling to a nearby conference. He jumped back in his car and sped away.

U.S. authorities would later accuse Mo, and five other Chinese nationals, of stealing corn seeds and attempting to smuggle them back to China.

A seventh defendant, Mo Yun, was arrested and charged Wednesday with stealing trade secrets for her husband's seed company -- the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company.

The details of the case, laid out by prosecutors, underscore the difficulty of safeguarding U.S. intellectual property, and the determination of some foreign rivals to acquire technology by illicit means.

The Chinese company is accused of stealing trade secrets worth an estimated $30-40 million, so you can understand why the feds were all ears. The arrests include that of company president Mo Hailong, better known as the Jason Bourne of Corn. If there’s a kernel of truth to the allegations, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a $5 million fine.

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Dumpster divine

At Chez Dumpster, every misshapen veggie gets its due

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 12.00.38 PM
Josh Treuhaft, Salvage Supperclub

An obscene amount of the food we grow gets thrown away. Some of it has to do with tough logistical issues (e.g., how do you make it feasible for a farmer to salvage those overripe plums?).

But a lot of our food is wasted because, to put it bluntly, we are ignorant and prejudiced. It's produce profiling: If the fruit or vegetable doesn't fit the established norm, it freaks us out, even when it's every bit as healthy and delicious on the inside.

These prejudices -- like most prejudices -- are deep, visceral, and totally irrational (experimental psychologist Paul Rozin has done really interesting work on this). So how do you work around them?

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This weed is taking over the planet. On the upside, it’s delicious

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture

Palmer amaranth: It's a fast-growing, tractor-busting, herbicide-defying weed. When you read about it in the news these days it sounds like the epitome of evil. But when I first heard of it, I did a double take because amaranth is also a food grain used historically throughout the Americas, by the Hopi in the north all the way down to the Inca in the south. Back in 1977, an article in Science called amaranth "the crop of the future." These days, you can find it on health-store shelves in breads and bars and cereals. OK, so those are different species …

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Marginalia

The 15 things I underlined in Dan Barber’s smart new book

danbarber

Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of great stories, larger-than-life characters, and descriptions that made me hungry. But if you strip away all that, what remains is a collection of delightful facts and ideas. These are the things that made me scribble stars in the margin:

1. Child “rearing begins, not at birth, or even conception, but one hundred years before the child is born.” That’s how long it takes to build the environment and community that child will live in.

2. "If you don't count corn sweeteners, we eat more wheat than every other cereal combined."

3. In the 1800s, the East Coast was America's breadbasket. "Gristmills dotted the countryside -- one for every seven hundred Americans in 1840."

Read more: Food, Living

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Vegetarians live longer, pollute less — and you no longer have to take their word for it

vegetarian
LoloStock

If you’ve ever had a herbivorous roommate, especially one with a thing for lentils, this may come as a shock to you, but vegetarians produce fewer greenhouse gases. A study by the Loma Linda Medical Center in California shows that a vegetarian diet reduces greenhouse emissions by a third. The vegetarians also live longer, giving them 20 percent more time to tell you they told you so.

Kathleen Lees at Science World Report has bean following the story:

Findings showed that the mortality rate for non-vegetarians was almost 20 percent higher than for vegetarians and semi-vegetarians. On top of that, switching to a vegetarian diet also helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in about a third less emissions compared to those on the non-vegetarian diets.

The United Nations Environment Programme cautioned that meat production of any kind could release greenhouse gases.

"The takeaway message is that relatively small reductions in the consumption of animal products result in non-trivial environmental benefits and health benefits," added Sam Soret, Ph.D., MPH, associate dean at Loma Linda University School of Public Health and co-author of the studies.

The Loma Linda study supports the findings of a similar British study we reported on last week, but benefited from an enormous sample size and a heterogeneous population set, consisting of 73,000 Seventh Day Adventists.

I imagine there is probably a golden mean where you eat enough less meat to reduce your carbon footprint, but still take in enough that you’ll die early if you really want to help out the planet, but I suggest you concentrate on the meat reduction and commensurate greenhouse gas reductions.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Ask Umbra: Is it safe to water veggies from my rain barrels?

rain-water-barrel.jpg
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Is it safe to use the water that comes off my roof into a rain barrel to water herbs and vegetables that we eat?

Ron
Jefferson, Md.

A. Dearest Ron,

Using sweet rainwater to nourish your burgeoning salad ingredients is just like a refreshing drink straight from a mountain stream. By which I mean – and if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing what I’ll call "the wilderness two-step" after indulging in the latter, you’ll know this already – proceed with caution. Both water sources may look clear, pure, and unequivocally healthy, but you never know what invisible intruders lurk within.

Rain barrels in general are unequivocally healthy for the planet. Simple systems designed to funnel rainwater from your roof into storage tanks, rain barrels relieve pressure on stormwater systems, reduce the energy used to treat and transport water, and save you roughly 1,300 gallons of tap water per summer. But you’re not the only one wondering about using that manna from heaven on your veggie garden, Ron.

Read more: Food, Living