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Warm up over a bowl of chili — while planning your spring vegetable patch

Editor's note: Welcome to the first installment of Chef's Diary, a new biweekly recipe column by Iowa-based chef Kurt Michael Friese. Follow the seasons with a professional chef -- and get tips for cooking at home. Seeds of our content. Photo: run dorkas run As the last of last fall's bounty comes out of the larder at my Iowa City restaurant, my wife Kim has been poring over seed catalogs, trying to shake the chill of a particularly nasty prairie winter. Eagerness to plant supplants many other priorities as she rifles through each newly arrived issue like a 12-year-old boy …

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Hurtling down a bridge to nowhere

Another study says cellulosic ethanol ain’t happening

As the case against corn-based ethanol firms up, we're hearing a drumbeat of claims that corn is only a bridge to a bright cellulosic future. In this vision, ethanol won't be distilled from corn grown on prime land but rather from stuff no one wants: plant "wastes," wood pulp, prairie grass, pocket lint. The latest such claim comes from Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at Cal-Berkeley. Flush with a $500 million grant from British Petroleum to develop biofuels from "alternative" sources, Chu recently declared that "We should look at corn as a transitional [ethanol] …

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Mexico to allow planting of genetically modified crops

Mexico has taken the last step toward finalizing rules that will allow genetically modified crops to be planted in the country. That has many farmers in the so-called birthplace of corn worried that GM varieties could contaminate their fields. Under the rules, GM corn wouldn't technically be allowed in certain areas of Mexico considered "centers of origin" for unique corn plants, but critics nevertheless remain concerned for crop biodiversity. "This is a step in the government's intention to bow to pressure from Monsanto to allow the contamination of Mexico's native corn," said farmer Victor Suarez.

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Conviviality is its own reward

Gathering around a table as environmental advocacy

Gazing over the muddy brown expanse that the abating snows finally revealed in mid-March, it has been hard for me to imagine the lush greenery and flavorful bounty that our gardens will yield in just a few short months. But even by the time you read these words, radishes and spinach will have sprouted again. The curly tendrils of spring's first sweet peas will be stretching, aching for a grip on a trellis and an arc of precious sunlight. The warmth will return, as it always does, and with it, the promise of a table full of delicious food surrounded …

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Grain drain

With global wheat stocks at all-time lows, a killer fungus looms

Remember awhile back, when a fertilizer magnate raised the specter of global famine? 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 need to have a record crop in 2008 just to stay even with this very low inventory situation. In that context, you hate to read stuff like the following, from the U.N.: A dangerous new fungus with the ability to destroy entire wheat fields has been detected in Iran, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported …

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Superweeds on the march

In Arkansas, state ag officials turn to Syngenta to solve problems caused by Monsanto

In the late 1990s, farmers in the Southeast began planting Roundup Ready cotton -- genetically engineered by Monsanto to withstand heavy doses of Roundup, the seed giant's own blockbuster herbicide. As a result, use of Roundup exploded -- and the farmers enjoyed "clean" (i.e., weedless) fields of monocropped cotton. But after a point, something funny happened -- certain weeds began to survive the Roundup dousings. These "superweeds" had somehow gained Roundup resistance themselves, much to the vexation of the farmers. Things have gotten so grim that the Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service called in a scientist from the U.K. to study …

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Meat Wagon: How now, mad cow?

‘Downergate’ reveals gaps in mad-cow testing and trouble in school-lunch sourcing

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. Remember those "downer" cows that got forced through the kill line and into the food supply in California's Westland/Hallmark beef-packing plant -- the ones caught on tape by the Humane Society of the United States? Rest assured, friends -- that was an isolated incident. Thus USDA assures us in a recent interview. Only ... not so much. For those who want to believe that downers don't make it into the meat supply, this was a rough week. First, Westland/Hallmark CEO Steve Mendell had to reverse …

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GMO: genetically modified organics?

Farmers and processors organize against genetic contamination

Here in the United States, upwards of 70 percent of corn and 90 percent of soy are genetically modified. Given that corn and soy end up in just about everything -- livestock rations (and thus meat, milk, and eggs), nearly all processed foods, and even our gas tanks, avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is tricky. One way is to shun all processed food and animal products, and simply eat fruit, non-soy veggies, and non-corn grains. (I assume U.S. fruits and veggies aren't GM, despite a recent, and likely erroneous, report to the contrary.) A less strenuous way, theoretically, would be …

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Legalizing hemp would help environment and economy, says report

The U.S. war on non-smokable hemp hurts the environment and the economy, according to a new report from the free-market-promoting Reason Foundation. To wit: Hemp fiber requires six times less manufacturing energy on average than polyester fiber, and requires less pesticides and water than cotton. Hemp can be used to make paper, fiberglass, and cement, generally with less energy use than alternative materials. It could make a lovely cellulosic biofuel, were cellulosic ever ready for the big time. And in case you needed a reminder, says the report: "Marijuana cultivated for drug value contains between 3 and 10 percent of …

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E.U. likely to cut subsidies for farmers

With crop prices through the roof and scientific concerns being raised about the greenness of biofuels, various European countries have cut back tax breaks and subsidies for farmers -- and now the European Union as a whole is planning to follow suit.