Flood money

Midwest woes a boon to fertilizer companies

The recent Midwestern floods have caused all manner of misery: Burst levies, lost homes, ruined crops, higher food prices, a gusher of agrichemicals and god know what else flowing into streams. One way to soothe the sting is to own shares in giant fertilizer companies like Potash Corp. of Saskatewan and Mosaic. These companies have seen their share prices jump over the past week. Investors may be bidding them up because the floods represent a sales opportunity. To maximize yield on what’s left of the 2008 corn crop, farmers will be scrambling to reapply fertilizer to make up for what’s …

Food Network star Alton Brown adds a pinch of sustainability to the pot

Alton Brown: Boy meets salmon. Photo: Studio Chambers The Portola Café and Restaurant, the fine-dining venue within the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is an airy, light-filled space surrounded by windows on three sides. The soothing, understated interior showcases a breathtaking view of Monterey Bay, where one can watch otters wrap themselves in kelp while cormorants swim and dive nearby. It is here that I have the chance to talk with Alton Brown, creator and star of Good Eats on the Food Network. Alton combines his background in film and video with his culinary training — he attended the New England Culinary …

Missouri mystery

Why are sperm counts so low in the show-me state?

Surrounded by agriculture powerhouses Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, Missouri sits at the southern edge of the heartland. Are the region’s titanic annual lashings of agrichemicals — synthetic and mined fertilizers, as well as poisons designed to kill bugs, weeds, and mold — leaching into drinking water and doing creepy things to the state’s citizens? And what about manure from the stunning concentration of concentrated-animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) that have sprung up in Iowa, et al, over the past 15 years? Elizabeth Royte, author of the important new book Bottlemania, showed in devastating detail in her Grist article last year …

Humans have a hand in Midwest flooding

Photo: Mark Hirsch How much responsibility do humans have for the floods disastrously deluging the Midwest? Of course the rain poured for days, but it fell on plowed-up prairies, drained fields, altered streams, no-longer-wetlands, and developed flood plains — all unable to absorb precipitation to the best of their natural ability. Between 2007 and 2008, more than 160,000 acres of Iowa land (mostly covered with deep-rooted, water-absorbing grasses) was taken out of a federal conservation-reserve program to be farmed (mostly for corn). Near St. Louis, Mo., nearly 30,000 homes have been built on land that was submerged by flooding in …

Rotten tomatoes

Latest health scare exposes a frayed food-safety net

Salmonella-infected tomatoes have made headlines over the course of the last week, but there's nothing new about the problem that tainted tomatoes reveal.This outbreak has put more than 25 people in the hospital and sickened hundreds, but it is just the latest in a long line of sickness and recalls. Salmonella in tomatoes, spinach, and lettuce, eColi in peanut butter, beef from downer cows; all throw into question the legitimacy of agency claims that the U.S. has the best food safety apparatus in the world. The facts are clear: after years of budget and staffing cuts, America's food safety net is frayed past the point of effectiveness.

Corn utensils not helpful without widespread public composting

As an alternative to non-recyclable plastic and Styrofoam, some restaurants have begun offering corn-starch-based utensils and takeout containers. But does cornware really provide a guilt-free way to eat your vegesustainorganaturalocal meal? Though touted as compostable, corn-based utensils can’t just be thrown into your garden; they don’t biodegrade unless professionally composted at high temperatures. Thus, customers who take corn utensils away from restaurants usually end up contributing to landfills anyway, since they’re unlikely to bring cornware back to the establishment to be dealt with properly. And trying to boil ‘em down yourself doesn’t work, as restaurant manager Casey Anderson can attest: …

Mother Earth's triple whammy

Why North Korea was a global crisis canary

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is reprinted here with Tom's kind permission. ----- Gas prices are above $4 a gallon; global food prices surged 39 percent last year; and an environmental disaster looms as carbon emissions continue to spiral upward. The global economy appears on the verge of a TKO, a triple whammy from energy, agriculture, and climate-change trends. Right now you may be grumbling about the extra bucks you're shelling out at the pump and the grocery store, but, unless policymakers begin to address all three of these trends as one major crisis, it could get a whole lot worse. Just ask the North Koreans. In the 1990s, North Korea was the world's canary. The famine that killed as much as 10 percent of the North Korean population in those years was, it turns out, a harbinger of the crisis that now grips the globe -- though few saw it that way at the time. That small Northeast Asian land, one of the last putatively communist countries on the planet, faced the same three converging factors as we do now -- escalating energy prices, reducing food supplies, and impending environmental catastrophe. At the time, of course, all the knowing analysts and pundits dismissed what was happening in that country as the inevitable breakdown of an archaic economic system presided over by a crackpot dictator. They were wrong. The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep North Korea's battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North Korea was able to go through fertilizer -- a petroleum product -- at one of the world's highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international energy rates became the norm for them too, the North Koreans had a rude awakening.

Oprah off the meat-free wagon

The all-powerful talk-show host ends her vegan cleanse

Well, Oprah is no longer a caffeine-free, sugar-free, gluten-free vegan. She says her “21-day cleanse” has been “enlightening.” I will forever be a more cautious and conscious eater. That’s my commitment for now. To stay awakened. Hopefully along the way she’s also enlightened some of her million-bajillion faithful followers.

Boon for bluefins

The European Union closes fishing season early

It's been said over and over again: Eastern bluefin tuna cannot handle the pressure they face from overfishing. These sleek and powerful fish are unlucky enough to be among the world's most coveted seafood species, and for years scientists have called for a moratorium as a last-ditch effort to save these genetically pure, irreplaceable creatures. While strict quotas have been in place for years, poor quota enforcement and illegal fishing have driven the bluefin to the brink of extinction. On Monday, the European Union ended the fishing season for most of the Mediterranean's purse seine fleet -- the ships that are responsible for 70 percent of the tuna caught in the Mediterranean. This move could save up to 100,000 bluefin this year alone.

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