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.

After the deluge

As Midwest floods recede, what’s being washed into the groundwater?

Flooded road in eastern Iowa. Photo: Dan Patterson Things are grim in Iowa, arguably the epicenter of global industrial food production. If Iowa were a nation, it would be the globe’s second-largest corn producer, behind only China. The state leads the U.S. [PDF] in the production of corn, hogs, and eggs, and ranks number two in soybeans. In short, it’s a rotten place for a massive, flood-inducing early-summer deluge. Of the state’s 99 counties, 24 have been declared disaster areas by the federal government (the state has designated 83 counties disaster zones). Thirty-six thousand people have been displaced. Sixteen percent …

Icky disease afflicting Alaskan salmon

Alaska’s prized wild salmon are suffering from a disease that scientists suspect of being boosted by — you guessed it — global warming. The emergence of Ichthyophonus as a threat to king salmon has coincided with a steady warming of Yukon River water over the past few decades, which scientists say has welcomed cold-averse parasites northward. “Climate change isn’t going to increase infectious diseases but change the disease landscape,” says federal marine ecologist Kevin D. Lafferty. “And some of these surprises are not going to be pretty.” Literally: Fish infected with “ich” become covered in white, pimply spots, smell funky, …

Minimizing meat

The great Mark Bittman on how to push meat off the center of the plate

I’m no vegan. I believe that the only truly sustainable agriculture involves raising crops along with animals. I also adore the globe’s cooking traditions, most of which involve integrating meat and/or dairy products with vegetables, grains, and spices. And yet, I’m appalled by this fact, from the USDA: In 2005, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) amounted to 200 pounds per person, 22 pounds above the level in 1970. Two hundred pounds per year works out to more than half a pound per person every day. That’s got to be out of balance — for our bodies and …