Don’t throw out the biochar baby with the bathwater

When penning his stinging rebuke of biochar and all who support it, George Monbiot not only threw out the baby with the bath water but blew up the bathroom just to ensure no one ever considered bathing again. Admittedly he got in a few good blows but the rest just blows hot air. Biochar is simply the charcoal that remains after burning any kind of biomass in a closed oven with limited or no oxygen (pyrolysis). The gases and oils that are emitted are either captured for energy production later or co-fired in the process, maximizing the output of heat. …

It's the calories, stupid

NYC’s attack on salt misses the forest for the trees

Diet dilemmas Photo: George D Thompson In his most recent column the NYT’s John Tierney — a conservative political columnist turned “skeptical” science columnist — objects to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to reduce New Yorkers’ salt intake. He compares the proposed new policy to a mandatory experiment in which residents are unwitting (and possibly unwilling) participants. …Why bother with consent forms when you can automatically enroll everyone in the experiment? And why bother with a control group when you already know the experiment’s outcome? The city’s health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, has enumerated the results. If the food industry …

Fishing for trouble

Bittman takes a bite out of the ocean

Endangered species for sale Photo: MaRonin47 I’m a big fan of Mark Bittman. I’ve been reading him since his Cook’s Illustrated days in the early ’90s; I consider his weekly “Minimalist” column in The New York Times invaluable; and several of his cookbooks sit, stained and dogeared, on my shelf. Bittman made a career by slicing through pretensions about cooking as an art best left to professionals or the leisure class. Long before it became fashionable, Bittman demonstrated that cooking from scratch can be a quotidian activity. All it takes, he has preached again and again, is a few decent …

Rot-gut liquor

Amid a sea of troubles, ethanol now has an antibiotics problem

Hard times for corn fuel Photo: Todd Ehler I’ve been writing for a while now about problems with distillers grains, the leftover mash from the corn-ethanol process. A third of the corn that goes into ethanol winds up as distillers grains. Finding a high-value use for this “coproduct” is absolutely vital to the corn ethanol project. The fuel’s energy balance is paltry — that is, it delivers little net energy compared to how much is consumed producing it. Even the studies that credit the fuel with a positive energy balance, like this one from the USDA, acknowledge that it’s pretty …

Playing with fire

Did Obama screw up ag subsidy reform?

Over the weekend, the NYT detailed the trials and tribulations of the Obama administration’s attempts to trim farm subsidy payments of a certain size: Among the audacious proposals in President Obama’s budget was a plan to save more than $9.7 billion over a decade by putting strict limits on farm subsidies that are disbursed regardless of market conditions or even whether the land is actively farmed. But Mr. Obama’s grand ambitions have run into political reality. The budget outlines approved by the House and Senate on Thursday night do not include limits on farm subsidies at all, and even champions …

Catching up on food news after two weeks in the fog of travel, speechifying, and redesign

After two weeks in the fog of travel, speechifying, movie screenings, and redesign, I’ve missed commenting on a bunch of important stuff. I’ve emerged extremely energized by the potential of our new food “kingdom” — a place to dive deep into all sorts of issues relating the food we eat to the health of the planet. Now to work. • On Ethicuren, the excellent Elanor Starmer has a great backrounder on the furor around HR 875, the House food-safety bill that would, according to internet lore, ban organic farming and lock up even home gardeners. (I weighed in on HR …

Heirloom tomato debate

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that George Will keeps repeating his half truths to deny the degraded state of the climate, but what exactly Scientific American was thinking with this article about how heirloom tomatoes are “hardly diverse and are no more “natural” than grocery-store varieties” is a mystery to me. Except that sacred cows make the best hamburger, maybe. Open pollinated tomatoes are definitely more diverse than their hybrid descendants thanks to traits bred for or discovered over generations (the 10 extra special genes mentioned right in the article itself), and having been developed this way via selective breeding rather than hybridizing technologies, …

Back to the future

Toward a less efficient and more robust food system

Produce at a farmer’s market in North Carolina Courtesy RICHIR on Flickr Editor’s Note: This is a version of an address delivered before the High Country Local Food Summit on March 26, in Boone, N.C., organized by Appalachian State University’s Sustainable Development Department. The High Country is a three-county region in the mountains of western North Carolina. I’ve been asked to talk about how to create a robust, diversified food system here in the High Country. Now the High Country is a largely rural area, constructed around a relatively small town called Boone. But I’m going to start by doing …

Whole Foods [hearts] Chilean grapes

Photo taken in the produce section at Whole Foods Martet in Seattle, March 31, 2009.

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