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Better homes and gardens

The NYT on urban farming

Viewed through a wide lens, the world's troubles seem overwhelming: climate change, pointless war, spreading hunger, surging food and energy prices, etc. There's a tendency to seek big-brush answers to these vast problems, to ask: what's The Solution? Failing inevitably to find it -- much less implement it -- we plunge deeper into despair and political impotence. Of course, taking a broad view of the world is critically important. But that perspective may be better at providing fodder for analysis than it is at delivering real answers. Our problems may be so big precisely because we tend to think so …

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Corny weather

FT: Midwest rains threaten U.S. corn crop

Remember in February, when a fertilizer magnate raised the specter of widespread famine if any of the globe's big farming regions hit a rough patch this year? Here's what he said: If you had any major upset where you didn't have a crop in a major growing agricultural region this year, I believe you'd see famine. ... We keep going to the cupboard without replacing and so there is enormous pressure on agriculture to have a record crop every year. We need to have a record crop in 2008 just to stay even with this very low-inventory situation. Essentially, he's …

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Umbra on soil health

Dear Umbra, I asked about fava beans about two weeks ago, and have not had a response back. I have had no luck researching it myself, and would really appreciate a response. I asked at what point in the plant's life did it produce nitro for the soil? For fullest nitro replenishment, should I let the plant seed? Die off? If I pull the plant out, will the nitro stay in the soil? I thank you for your time. KLK Aptos, Calif. Dearest KLK, You'll notice that I answer two questions per week -- that's 5 percent of all of …

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Honeybee hives in U.S. seeing continued decline, survey says

Honeybee populations in the United States continued their decline last year, according to a survey of bee health by the Apiary Inspectors of America; U.S. commercial beekeepers saw the loss of 36 percent more hives than last year. "For two years in a row, we've sustained a substantial loss," said Dennis van Engelsdorp of AIA. "That's an astonishing number. Imagine if one out of every three cows, or one out of every three chickens, were dying. That would raise a lot of alarm." According to the survey, some 29 percent of the bee decline was caused by Colony Collapse Disorder, …

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Taking a pillow to a knife fight

Traditional print media and complex issues

On Saturday I received an email with a link to an article by Lisa Stiffler in Friday's Seattle Times. I'm going to use it to demonstrate how newspapers can muddy the water when it comes to complex issues. First, her article is a perfectly good one -- and a very typical one. You can't put a hyperlink on paper. You can't afford to waste space for footnotes. You are constrained by a word count. You also have to craft a story, keep it local, and do your best not to show whatever bias you may have (and we all have …

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EPA not super-interested in keeping rocket fuel out of drinking water

There is a "distinct possibility" that the U.S. EPA will pass on restricting perchlorate in the nation's water supplies, an agency official said Tuesday. Perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient that has been found at some 400 places in 35 states, can muck up normal thyroid function. But Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA assistant administrator for water, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he wasn't sure national regulation of perchlorate would do much good, and that the agency might simply issue an informational public health advisory. The Defense Department is responsible for much perchlorate contamination, so the Pentagon would …

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<em>BusinessWeek</em> drinks the ethanol-spiked Kool-Aid

The newsweekly uncorks a whopper in defense of crop-based fuels

The massive biofuel mandate embedded in the 2007 Energy Act, signed amid much bipartisan hoopla, is coming under heavy fire. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that two dozen Republican senators have formally asked the EPA to lower the mandate in response to heightened food prices (a power granted to the agency in the Energy Act). Perhaps not coincidentally, the food-processing giants now competing with biofuel plants for corn -- think Kraft and Kellogg -- have been sending hordes of lobbyists to Washington to badmouth corn-based fuel, the Journal reports. For its part, the Bush administration -- erstwhile champion of …

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Indian camels celebrate high oil prices

Rising oil prices have many Homo sapiens in a tizzy, but at least one species is celebrating high fuel costs: the camel. Finding it spendy to fuel their tractors, farmers in India are turning to ungulate power. "It's excellent for the camel population if the price of oil continues to go up because demand for camels will also go up," says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. That's good news for Indian camels, which have seen their population drop by more than half in the last decade. Camel supporters hope that pushing the animals' …

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More than money

Other conservation tools at stake in the Farm Bill, too

Although recent reports indicate that the new farm bill will provide a $4 billion increase for voluntary farmer conservation programs, there's more to the conservation policies in the bill than just money. Recent attempts by the conference committee to dramatically weaken the new Sodsaver provision are just one example of the one-step-forward, two-steps-backward approach to conservation the farm bill conference seems to be taking. The Sodsaver provision was designed to help limit the incentive that subsidy and disaster payments create for farmers to bring new, often environmentally fragile, land into production. The House and Senate versions of the farm bill …

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I read a letter to the editor, the other day, I opened, and read it, it said they was suckas

A trio of fine letters in The NYT today, taking Richard Cohen to task for his reflexive praise of sugar-cane ethanol.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food