Who's king now?

King Corn, meet Big Oil

Drilling for oil in a corn field: will Big Oil squeeze out King Corn?Back in March, Tom Philpott flagged some moves from Shell Oil and Valero Energy (the largest U.S. oil refiner) that indicated Big Oil was falling for biofuels. Now, the NYT shows Tom had it right with a piece detailing the increasing amount of money Big Oil is spreading around to biofuel startups. This comes despite Big Oil’s historical hostility to the ethanol industry. In fact, their objections to conventional ethanol might sound strangely familiar: For decades, the big oil companies and the farm lobby have been fighting …

The Victorian moralist

Nicholas Kristof on African hunger

Nicholas KristofNicholas Kristof, the much-celebrated columnist for The New York Times, is essentially a Victorian-style moralist. In a typical column, he alights on some harsh scene–a slum in an Indian megopolis, a dirt-poor village in Cambodia–and delivers a heart-wrenching report. He then prescribes an extremely narrow “solution” to the problem he has uncovered–one that typically leaves its root cause unaddressed (and, often, involves a heroic role for Westerners). His most famous campaign involves child prostitution in South Asia. In the literally dozens of columns he’s devoted to the topic over the years, I’ve never once seen him address structural poverty, …

Leverage on a bun

What the financial collapse can teach us about the food system

In a recent New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten published a lucid, entertaining essay on the financial collapse. Titled “The Death of Kings,” it focuses on the hedge-fund managers, stock gurus, and private-equity wizards who reaped billions from the credit bubble.Is Big Ag running the food system into the ground the same way Wall Street wrecked the economy?iStock Photo What were those people thinking? Turns out, Paumgarten relates that during the flush times, many in the world of finance had a “moment of clarity, an inkling of doom” about what was coming. “The sky was full of signs,” Paumgarten writes. For many, …

A mighty wind

Of cow burps, beef, and methane

My climate for a cow fart? Dear Checkout Line, I read recently that meat is a huge emitter of greenhouse gas–more than even cars! It got me to wondering–does that mean all meat, or just from animals grown on factory farms? For example, I know that cow farts and burps contribute lots of methane. But don’t grass-fed cows burp and fart, too? I guess my bottom-line question is, is any beef really sustainable, in greenhouse gas terms? Thanks, Beef-loving Ed Dear Beefy Ed, Count your blessings! If we blamed global warming on human flatulence, beer and Mexican food would be …

Can the Internet help small farms act big?

Wired Science has a good piece on the potential for tech startups to play a “disruptive” role in commercial food distribution. The post looks at several web services that are trying to replicate the restaurant supply chain system dominated by produce distribution giant Sysco and its ubiquitous trucks via a network of small farmers, iPhones and the Internet: The food supply industry is ripe for ‘disintermediation’ because of the internet,” said Alistair Croll, a startup consultant working with FarmsReach. In other words, middlemen beware: Food could undergo a transition like the one that swept through classified ads, air travel and …

Flu farce

Biotech industry group alights on La Gloria to test backyard pigs

Hogs in a CAFO. The good news is that bloggers and other hysterics aren’t the only ones taking seriously La Gloria, Mexico, as the possible origin of the swine flu pandemic. From an extremely interesting AP article: Scientists are returning next week to La Gloria, a pig-farming village in the Veracruz mountains where Mexico’s earliest confirmed case of swine flu was identified. They hope to learn where the epidemic began by taking fresh blood samples from villagers and pigs, and looking for antibodies that could suggest exposure to previous swine flu infections. The bad news is that the scientists aren’t …

Cooking the books

UPDATE: Washington State University reinstates freshman reading of ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’

Too hot for freshmen? EVEN MORE UPDATES: Now that the NYT has weighed in, I guess it’s fair to say this story broke through to the mainstream. I’ll spare you all the assurances from WSU that this Bill Marler-funded resolution proves that the driving issue really was financial. In my view, Marler graciously provided a fig-leaf to a university administration that was very much caught by surprise that anyone would have ever noticed what they’d done. There remain too many bits of evidence that the book was originally canceled due to political pressure. Indeed, Spokane’s newspaper even claims to have …

The corn jihad

House ag chief Peterson: Waxman-Markey is mine, all mine

Corn: more important than climate? I’ve been reporting on it for a while, but now it’s reaching fever pitch: Big Ag is getting downright jittery about climate change legislation. There’s no mystery about why: industrial agriculture spews out massive amounts of greenhouse gas. Any serious scheme for reckoning with climate change will deal harshly with Big Ag. So Big Ag will work to make any climate legislation as non-serious as possible. House Ag chair Collin Peterson (D.-Minn.) has been shrieking for days now (here and here) about the EPA’s recent proposed rules on the greenhouse gas footprint of ethanol, Big …

America's other first family

Lessons in fast-food greenwashing from The Simpsons

Sunday’s episode of the Simpsons begins with a wickedly good greenwashing story: Krusty learns from one of his lawyers that “studies show your Krustyburger is the unhealthiest fast-food item in the world.” “Worse than a double Krustyburger?” “Somehow, yes.” Krusty introduces a green campaign centered on the vegetarian Mother Nature Burger, made of “100-percent wheat-fed barley.” So brilliant. Also featured: Norwegian humor, immigration humor, monkey-smoking-a-cigarette humor.

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