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Hubble brag

Smile! Satellites can see your illegal fishing from space

fish-satellite
Hallie Bateman

If a fish falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it … wait, is that not how it goes? Let’s put it this way: If a fishing boat illegally scoops up a load of fish in the middle of the ocean and no one is there to see it, it’s still illegal -- but until now there has not been much anyone could do about it.

It turns out that satellites a few hundred miles above earth are a lot better at surveying the high seas than, say, a lone Coast Guard boat with a spyglass, especially in the most remote waters where fishermen may be used to acting with impunity -- ignoring quotas, transferring fish from ship to ship, dumping bycatch, even changing the vessel's name between ports like a Shakespearian youth slipping casually into drag. Thanks to new projects in high-powered satellite surveillance, it may be possible to put an end to pirate fishing once and for all.

This is good news for, let me see, about a billion people.

Illegal fishing takes as much as 26 million metric tons of fish from the sea every year, or about 1 in 5 fish sold, for a grand theft of $23.5 billion total (or, to put it yet another way, almost 16 times the GDP of Belize or a mere seventh of the market value of Facebook). That's money that doesn't go to the fishermen who play by the rules, while lawbreakers put pressure on already overfished stocks like tuna and swordfish. And while illegal fishing has been getting a lot of press -- notably, President Obama issued a memo on the subject last month -- it's hard to make a real dent in it without some serious international cooperation. Ships need to be traceable as they travel from one country's maritime oversight into another's, and enforcement needs to be stern enough that the risks of fishing illegally outweigh the rewards.

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Eden Foods pulls a Hobby Lobby

This organic food company is refusing to pay for employees’ birth control

Eden Food cans

Just because a company is organic doesn't mean it's progressive. Exhibit A: Eden Foods.

Like Hobby Lobby, Eden Foods sued the Obama administration to try to get out of providing contraceptive coverage for its employees. Eden Foods is a Michigan-based business that bills itself as "the oldest natural and organic food company in North America." It is solely owned by Michael Potter, a Catholic who refers to birth control pills as "lifestyle drugs" and likes to whine about "unconstitutional government overreach." (More crazy quotes from him below.)

In Eden Foods Inc. v. Kathleen Sebelius, filed in federal court in March of 2013, the company claimed its religious freedom was being violated by the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employee health insurance cover birth control. The suit argued that "contraception or abortifacients ... almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices.” In October, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided against Eden Foods, ruling that a for-profit company cannot exercise religion.

But then, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that family-owned, "closely held" companies can use religion as an excuse to flout the birth control mandate. Eden Foods is one of a few dozen "closely held" for-profit companies that have filed suit over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. On July 1, the Supreme Court ordered the 6th Circuit Court to reconsider its decision against Eden Foods and another plaintiff with a similar case.

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A shameless foodie & her ranching dad sit down for a medium-rare opportunity

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Brady Minow Smith

This article is a followup to a piece on why mid-size farmers and foodies to get along

I was waiting in the security line at the Helena airport on my way back to Seattle when I noticed the TSA agent squinting at the x-ray machine screen. A smile slowly crept across her face and she motioned over another agent. She pointed at the screen and the pair erupted into giggles. “Mind if we take a look inside your bag, ma'am?” she said as my backpack emerged from the machine. She pulled out the bundle of plastic and butcher’s paper and asked, “Is this what I think it is?” I responded with a sheepish grin: “I’ll split it with ya, if you let me keep it.” Polite smile. “It’s all yours,” she replied, sliding the frozen T-bone steak back to me.

My family loves beef -- especially our own. I can taste sweet notes of alfalfa that we spend all summer watering, growing, and cutting; the meadow grasses we pasture our cattle on provide their own subtle herbaceous flavors. Our pride goes beyond flavor. My father, along with our whip-smart ranch manager and his hard-working daughter, work seven days a week on the Lazy T Ranch to raise 450 head of cattle. Their dedication is best enjoyed medium rare, and I love it most after a day of throwing words out into the void that is the internet.

So yes: Whenever I go home, I’ll pull a Jon Tester and haul our meat through airport security and in coolers in Subarus over mountain passes. As I make that geographical transition, from the quiet hum of our ranch to my bustling Capitol Hill neighborhood, I most acutely feel the pinch of being caught between my heritage and city life. This leads me to daydreaming in country songs and wondering whether we can connect these two worlds -- for myself, the food movement, and the country at large. Are my loves of our family ranch and that of my profession mutually exclusive? And, more importantly, is there a way to bridge the gap between foodies and mid-size farmers before the latter disappear? I decided to ask my ranching father.

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Hacking the climate

California ranchers tackle the climate crisis one pasture at a time

marin cows
Mustafa Alami

John Wick’s battered blue jeans, wire-rimmed glasses, and plaid work shirt make him look like a stereotypical rancher, but he is not. He’s a philanthropist, and he runs cattle on his 540-acre ranch in Northern California not for money or beef production, but instead to try to promote native grass species by mimicking grazing habits of the elk herds that once roamed these hills. Through more than a decade of experimentation on his ranch, Wick has stumbled upon what may turn out to be a groundbreaking discovery: He’s found a way to manage grasslands that can curb climate change, while …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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The rat came back

Retracted Roundup-fed rat research republished

lab-rat
lculig

A paper based on an experiment led by the scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini -- which became a lightning rod in the genetic engineering controversy and was eventually retracted -- has been republished in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

The paper suggests an association between tumor growth in rats and the consumption of Roundup-resistant corn, or Roundup itself. Its publication unleashed a flood of photos showing horrifically tumorous rats.

Back in December, I wrote that the retraction was unwarranted. Sure the study's sample sizes were far too small to show anything definitive, but many other experiments -- including some suggesting the safety of genetically engineered foods -- have used the same methods. Retracting this paper without applying the same level of scrutiny to those other papers was clearly a double standard.

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Soil sorcery

The secret to richer, carbon-capturing soil? Treat your microbes well

Microbes
Kelsey Amelia Bates

Imagine if someone invented machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere -- machines that were absurdly cheap, autonomous, and solar powered, too. Wouldn't that be great? But we already have these gadgets! They’re called plants.

The problem is, plants die. So there’s one hurdle remaining: We have to figure out how to lock away the carbon in dead plants so that it doesn’t just return to the atmosphere. The obvious place to put that carbon is into the ground. And so, for years, scientists and governments have been urging farmers to leave their crop residue -- the stalks and leaves -- on the ground, so it would be incorporated into the soil. The trouble is, sometimes this doesn’t work: Farmers will leave residues on a field and they won't turn into carbon-rich soil -- they'll just sit there. Sometimes, the whole process ends up releasing more greenhouse gasses than it locks away.

This has left people scratching their heads. But now a simple idea is spreading that could allow farmers to begin reliably pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into their soil.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Make Me Care: Can ranchers and foodies be friends?

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Howdy! In this week's Make Me Care, we're taking a slightly different tack. Instead of interviewing another writer, I'm talking to my ranching father about the food movement and sustainability. I recently wrote a piece about why foodies and mid-size farmers need to learn to get along. It's clear my dad and I both already care -- but can we find common ground? We weather shoddy rural internet and rascally barn cats to find out. Watch the video now!

On Monday, I'm publishing a broader essay on our ranch and what I found out from talking to my pops. (The actual interview ran an hour. Someone buy the editor all of the beers.) Stay tuned! 

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The thin edge of the veg

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

vegetarian
Shutterstock

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
Shutterstock

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