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The thin edge of the veg

Going vegetarian can cut your diet’s carbon footprint in half

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The agricultural industry is a heavy global warmer, responsible for a tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But not all farm bounties are climatically equal.

New research reveals that the diets of those who eat a typical amount of meat for an American, about four ounces or more per day, are responsible for nearly twice as much global warming as vegetarians' diets, and nearly 2.5 times as much as vegans'.

That's because directly eating vegetables and grains, instead of inefficiently funneling them through livestock to produce meat, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced by farms and farm machinery. It also cuts back on the amount of climate-changing nitrous oxide released from tilled and fertilized soils, and, of course, it eliminates methane belching and farting by cows and other animals.

A team of British researchers scrutinized the diets of 2,041 vegans, 15,751 vegetarians, 8,123 fish eaters, and 29,589 meat eaters, all of them living in the U.K. They estimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with 289 types of food. Then they combined the data to determine the globe-warming impacts of those four diets, based on consumption of 2,000 calories a day.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Buzz kill much?

Just how friendly are your “bee-friendly” plants?

neonic
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We don't want to kill your bee-loving buzz, but if you buy "bee-friendly" plants and seedlings from Home Depot or similar stores, then you could be unwittingly killing the bees that you're trying to protect.

Friends of the Earth tested 71 garden plants with "bee-friendly" labels purchased from major retailers in the U.S. and Canada and discovered that 36 of them had been treated with bee- and butterfly-killing neonic pesticides.

"Since 51 percent of the plants that were tested contained neonicotinoid residues, the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high," states a new report detailing the findings. "Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees. For the samples with positive detections, adverse effects on bees and other pollinators consuming nectar and pollen from these plants are possible, ranging from sublethal effects on navigation, fertility, and immune function to pollinator death."

Déjà vu? You bet. The nonprofit published similar findings last year.

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Stands And Deliver

Farm stands turn your backyard kale into cold, hard cash

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Becky Warner

One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my friend Caitlin texted me an odd message. “My neighbors are having a really weird yard sale,” she wrote. “You should come check this out.” She’d walked out her front door one weekend morning in the Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford and found a table full of beets and chard set up in her neighbors' front yard. It was much like a roadside produce stand one finds in rural America -- except it was smack in the middle of a 3.3-million-strong metropolis. Turns out it happens every Saturday from May until Thanksgiving: Her neighbors are running a farm stand out of their front yard.

There are peas growing along the sidewalk, compost bins stacked along the side of the house, and raised beds in the back. On a table in the front yard lie bunches of spinach and fat radishes. Becky Warner, one of the farmers, stands on the sidewalk in muck boots and flannel. A guy walks up with a chubby Scottish terrier to pick up his CSA share. “Hank the tank!” Warner greets them. When a farm is this local, apparently you know your farmer and they know your dog.

Read more: Food, Living

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How can we break the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers?

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This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers. 

The calculus that drives farmers off the land, and drives the documentary Dryland, is simple and inexorable. Historian Keith Williams lays it out halfway through the movie: Think of the farmer cutting wheat by hand, then zoom forward in history, past the farmers harvesting with teams of horses, past the first tractors, past the first combines (so called because they combined the reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one machine), to the air-conditioned, satellite-guided modern combine. “Well, that same change has really altered the farm size, which means the farm can grow,” Williams says. “More capitalization, they can get more equipment. All of this translates into more acreage per farm. But that also means fewer farmers.”

More efficiency, more land, fewer farmers. It’s also the calculus that has given us cheap food. Cheap food relies on ridiculously cheap grain. One farmer in the film notes that he bought a loaf of whole wheat bread for the same price that he sold an entire bushel of wheat.

Dryland, directed by Sue Arbothnot and Richard Wilhelm, is a wistful documentary -- lots of long shots on beautiful empty fields, empty storefronts, empty streets, rusting equipment -- and rightfully so. The way of life it captures is contracting, ratcheting in on itself, leaving small towns that are unable to support businesses, and schools without students.

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Bee-ware!

Everything we know about neonic pesticides is awful

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Neonicotinoid pesticides are great at killing insect pests, which helps to explain the dramatic rise in their use during the past 20 years. They're popular because they are systemic pesticides -- they don't just get sprayed onto plant surfaces. They can be applied to seeds, roots, and soil, becoming incorporated into a growing plant, turning it into poison for any bugs that might munch upon it.

But using neonics to control pests is like using a hand grenade to thwart a bank robbery.

Which is why the European Union has banned the use of many of them -- and why environmentalists are suing the U.S. EPA to do the same.

The pesticides don't just affect pest species. Most prominently, they affect bees and butterflies, which are poisoned when they gather pollen and nectar. But neonics' negative impacts go far beyond pollinators. They kill all manner of animals and affect all kinds of ecosystems. They're giving rise to Silent Spring 2.0.

"It's just a matter of time before somebody can point to major species declines that can be linked to these compounds," said Pierre Mineau, a Canadian pesticide ecotoxicologist. "Bees have been the focus for the last three or four years, but it’s a lot broader than that."

Mineau contributed to an epic assessment of the ecological impacts of neonics, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, in which 29 scientists jointly examined more than 800 peer-reviewed papers spanning five years. Their findings are being published in installments in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, beginning last week with a paper coauthored by Mineau that details impacts on vertebrate animals, including fish and lizards. Here's a summary of highlights:

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No country for old men

Why the food movement and family farmers need to learn to get along, little dogies

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Nikki Burch

This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and  part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers. 

If I were still working the Smith family land, I’d be a fifth-generation Montana rancher. Instead, 628 miles, countless pairs of skinny jeans, and one internet job separate me from the family profession. Even after nearly a decade away, though, it doesn’t take much to take me back.

About a year ago, my boyfriend and I were clutching hands and whispering sweet nothings in a dive bar’s midnight air. When the jukebox switched to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the crowd and smell of stale beer faded away as I sat back, invisible hat in hand, to gaze at a hidden Montana horizon. My boyfriend glanced up from his beer to see his love-filled girlfriend transformed into a wistful, weatherbeaten Clint Eastwood squeezing back a horse-turd tear. “You’ve got to make me a mix of old country songs,” he said. “You don’t make mixtapes of songs like this,” Eastwood growled, squinting and drifting back to Hank Williams, Sr.

I’m gruff and conflicted when it comes to agriculture. While I love the farmers markets and food scene of Seattle, I miss our family cattle ranch, and the wheat farm my grandparents recently sold. I’ll dim the lights, massage my kale, and devour stories about food, but I feel a gulf between the world of the food movement and that of the mid-sized farms I grew up on and around. I watch countless cool-but-teeny urban ag projects pop up in cities across the U.S. that inspire but grapple with problems of scope. Meanwhile, Big Ag strengthens its hold and swallows up everything in the wide miles between -- where much of our food actually comes from, where I come from. And so, whenever classic country comes on, I get dust in my eye thinking of the red dirt roads and the disappearing, simpler life they lead to. But was it ever really so simple?

Read more: Food, Living

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Ubuntu for aubergines? Apache for patchouli?

Open-source seeds: While they spread shoots, they plant ideas

Open Source Seed Initiative

Does this seem fair? A plant breeder at a public university manages to grow a long-necked broccoli that, for easy cutting, stands tall above its leaves. Then a company that has used his creation to breed a slightly different broccoli submits it for a patent, claiming ownership over the very idea of long-necked broccoli.

So far, the company, Monsanto subsidiary Seminis, has failed to persuade the U.S. Patent Office to grant it a broad "utility patent.” But Seminis has appealed. If it succeeds, the original breeders, who shared their seeds freely, could be barred from working with their own seeds.

Surely there’s a better way.

This story launches Lisa Hamilton’s beautifully written piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review on open-source seeds: Linux for Lettuce. It’s the kind of longread that both deserves and demands the sort of focus that's hard to achieve if you are connected to the internet.

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A beetles invasion threatens your cup of coffee

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Mornings can be tough. Sure the cat puked on your pillow and the basement was flooded and some moron parked in the bike lane and today is your six month review and so it’s kind of a poopy day, but there’s one thing that keeps you going: Your good friend and most culturally acceptable addiction (ever notice they don't make these for heroin?) coffee.

Well not anymore, sucker!

Turns out there’s a tiny little beetle half a world away that hates you and wants your last shred of joy. Rajendra Jadhav of Reuters Africa has the scoop, which, instead of delicious coffee beans, is sadly full of hideous squirming segmented larvae. Enjoy!

It's 10 o'clock in the morning and a dozen workers are uprooting coffee plants, piling them in the corner of a field at M.G. Bopanna's plantation in southern India where they lie ready to be burned.

The plants are bursting with green cherries but inside their hard bark lurk destructive white stem borer beetles. The bushes have to be destroyed to prevent the tiny winged creature from threatening Bopanna's entire crop of arabica coffee.

The beetle, which bores through plants' bark and feeds on their stems, is thriving this year due to unusually warm weather and scant rains in arabica growing areas in India, the world's sixth biggest coffee producer.

If the hot spell continues and the pest continues to spread, India's coffee crop could fall to its lowest in 17 years when the harvest starts in October, pushing up global prices that are already rallying due to drought in top exporter Brazil.

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Growing pains

Organic farming is so much harder than just getting stoned and picking tomatoes

Celery harvest at New Morning Farm.
Sarah Bay

This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers and part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers. 

Arlo Crawford's memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is an inside look at one of the iconic organic farms that sprang up in the 1970s, Pennsylvania's New Morning Farm. I spoke with Crawford about his unique perspective: He grew up in the middle of the back-to-the-land movement, but never felt compelled to join it. Here's a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Q. Where did the title come from? A Farm Dies Once a Year -- I was worried right up to the end that the farm was going to fail.

A. Well, it will one day, but don’t hold your breath. That title came from the first essay I wrote about the farm. I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’

There’s a lot of books about farms that aren’t by farmers, and a lot of the time the farmer has the least voice. You go to Whole Foods and see these pictures of farmers, and these people have struggled their whole lives to put vegetables on your plate. The farm shouldn’t be put aside by the marketing.

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Just one catch

Why the locavore movement’s next big step is seafood

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Jeremy Keith

When conscientious omnivores swept the U.S. food scene with their locavore antics, the focus was largely on the land. But if local beets and beef are key for our farming system, surely our neighborhood oysters can do as much or more for our coasts, health, and appetites. That is, if we can learn to love them: While putting away more than 100 pounds of red meat and poultry a year, the average American only manages to swallow about 15 pounds of seafood. It wasn't always this way, says writer and proficient pescavore Paul Greenberg. Greenberg is the author of the acclaimed Four Fish, a look at four key food fish -- tuna, salmon, cod, and seabass -- as well as a new book, American Catch, out this week from Penguin Press.

“A lot of people have had really bad fish experiences -- and if you have a bad fish experience, chances are you’re not going to eat fish again,” Greenberg told Grist. In American Catch, Greenberg sets out to wake Americans up to the incredible wealth of local seafood that we export, undervalue, undermine, pollute, or otherwise ignore, while chowing down on tasteless tilapia or all-you-can-eat shrimp from farms in Asia. Something like 86 percent of America’s seafood intake is imported (most of that is farmed), while we send away most of our own wild-caught fish. For a country with 94,000 miles of coast, that’s literally crazy.

Greenberg builds his argument around a trio of American seafoods -- New York’s bygone oysters, Louisiana’s at-risk shrimp, and Alaska’s pristine sockeye salmon -- as the ghosts of seafood past, present, and future come to reckon with us seafood Scrooges. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow we'll all feast snout-to-tail on red snapper.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food