Food

Gulf dead zone: Not getting smaller

As fertilizer flows from the Midwest, a vast algae bloom thrives below the Mississippi

Every year since the early 1980s, a monstrous algae bloom has risen up in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by fertilizer runoff from Midwest farms. The nasty growth sucks oxygen from the ocean beneath it — snuffing out sea life even as climate change and other human-induced factors threaten the globe’s fish stocks. Ironically, as fish go belly up in the Gulf, the bulk of the corn and soy grown on Midwest farms ends up in feedlots to fatten the livestock that feed America’s ravenous appetite for meat. The writer Richard Manning described the irony memorably in the Winter 2004 …

As storms rage on the prairie, strawberries and rhubarb bring comfort

A bright spot in the storm. Gaia has been hard on us prairie-dwellers lately. A dear friend who’s the director of the area’s largest CSA lost her 102-year-old barn to a storm this weekend. Swelled with recent rains, the Iowa River has been raging, sloshing toward levels never seen before. Fortunately, my restaurant sits on high ground, so if the floods reach us here, you’ll see the animals lining up two by two and Kevin Costner frowning from the roof. We’re lucky, too, that many of the local farms that supply us are also keeping their heads above water, and …

Corn polls

New surveys suggest changing views on biofuels

Biofuel policy has made it to the polls. Yesterday, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit, non-partisan educational foundation based in Washington, D.C., released the results of a survey (PDF) conducted at the beginning of this month which claims to have found that most Americans -- "including those in the Farm Belt" -- want Congress to reduce or eliminate the mandated use of corn ethanol. In response to the key question, "What do you think Congress should do now?" with respect to the Renewable Fuels Standard (which last December raised the minimum volume of biofuels used in the United States from 7.5 billion gallons a year in 2012 to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, of which 15 billion gallons is expected to be supplied by "conventional biofuel" -- ethanol derived from corn starch -- by 2015), 42 percent of the participants in the survey thought that that the mandate should be eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use. Of the rest: 25 percent wanted the mandate to be partly eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use; 16 percent wanted it left unchanged; Six percent wanted it partly expanded to increase ethanol production and use; and 2 percent wanted it significantly expanded to increase ethanol production and use. Nine percent were undecided, didn't know what to answer, or refused to answer. Even among people living in the Farm Belt, 25 percent percent said they wanted the ethanol mandate repealed entirely, and another 30 percent wanted it scaled back.

Fumes from Minn. dairy force neighbors to evacuate

A giant dairy farm in Thief River Falls, Minn., is producing such noxious fumes that the state health department has advised nearby residents to evacuate. Excel Dairy’s emissions of hydrogen sulfide have been calculated at 200 times the standard allowed by Minnesota law; neighbors’ complaints include headaches, nausea, blurred vision, shortness of breath, and fatigue. “It’s so strong and so sour and so potent that it takes your breath right away,” says Jeff Brouse, who evacuated last week. “It’s so nauseous we’ve had neighbors throw up in their driveways.” Excel, which wants to add another 500 cows to its 1,500-cow …

Attack of the killer tomatoes, national edition

Tomato salmonella scare hits the big time

Insert everything I said in this post, except now the salmonella-tainted tomato scare has gone nationwide, whereas before, the FDA had been limiting its warning to Texas and New Mexico. Here is Associated Press: Federal officials hunted for the source of a salmonella outbreak in Connecticut and 16 other states linked to three types of raw tomatoes, while the list of supermarkets and restaurants yanking those varieties from shelves and menus grew. Meanwhile, over on Ethicurean, blogger Mental Masala points us to Safeway’s interesting new ad campaign promoting industrially produced tomatoes. The supermarket chain is hyping what it calls “ridiculously …

Vaccine, nut oil may cut cow belching’s contribution to climate change

The worldwide race to quell livestock belching is on! Earlier this month, New Zealand researchers came one step closer to developing a vaccine that would reduce the methane emitted from belching livestock. Ruminant livestock burp and fart significant quantities of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. “Our agricultural research organization … was able to map the genome … that causes methane in ruminant animals and we believe we can vaccinate against [that],” said New Zealand’s trade minister. On Tuesday, Japanese scientists said they demonstrated that oil from the shell of the cashew nut may cut …

Climate change, deforestation, erosion take toll on African landscape

A new United Nations atlas depicts alarming changes to Africa’s landscape. On a continent that produces a mere 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, significant landmarks are taking a hit from climate change: Lake Chad and Lake Victoria are shrinking each year, and Mt. Kilimanjaro could be snow-free by 2020. The deforestation rate in Africa is twice the world average, and the continent each year loses enough forest to cover the state of Maryland. Sixty-five percent of African farmlands are threatened by chemical damage and/or erosion; some areas are losing more than 22 tons of soil per acre each …

Cuba's urban-ag miracle

The U.S. media discover how food production works without access to cheap oil

The story is legendary in peak-oil circles: Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union pulled the plug on Cuba’s cheap-energy, cheap-food era. (See Bill McKibben’s feature piece on the subject here.) No longer would the fading superpower accept the tiny island nation’s sugar as payment for crude oil. From then on, only hard currency would do. It also halted food aid. In short order, gas and food prices spiked and people’s living standards tumbled. Next, a widespread shift from cars to bikes, and an explosion in community gardening. Recently, as our own cheap-energy era appears to be lurching toward its end, …

Meat Wagon: Filthy swine

U.S. officials dither while antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains creep into our pork supply

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. The good news is that people are earnestly trying to figure out if a deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria strain is infecting our nation’s vast supply of pork. The bad news is, they don’t work for a government regulator with the power to do something about it. Rather, they’re university researchers and journalists, whose only real power is the public outrage they can generate through their work. Prepare to be outraged by the work of University of Iowa professor Tara Smith and veteran Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew …

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