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Waste deep in the big muddy

Has modern agriculture cleaned up its dirty runoff act?

Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013
USDA photo by Keith Weston
Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013

While I was in Iowa recently, Chris Jones, an environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, showed me this fascinating graph (based on this study). It basically shows how much dirt was in one of the main rivers flowing through Iowa's farmland over the last century:

Christopher Jones

It doesn’t look like much at first, but becomes more and more interesting as you study it. Because the span of time here is so long (1916 to 2009) and because changes in agricultural policy have had a big effect on the erosion of topsoil into rivers, you can see historical events reflected in these numbers.

That big peak in 1973? That came just after Earl Butz, then the secretary of agriculture, urged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farmers cut into marginal land, and then heavy rains followed in Iowa. The newly disturbed soil washed off the fields and into the rivers, creating the spike on the graph.

Read more: Food


How seeds could be our saviors — if we save them first

The seed vault "ark" in Svalbard, Norway.
Seeds of Time
The seed vault "ark" in Svalbard, Norway.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and Irish conciliator John Hume once observed that when people are divided, victories are not solutions.

The insight works just as well for modern agriculture as it did in the context of the Irish troubles, and Cary Fowler, an evangelist for seeds, repeats the observation part way through the new documentary, Seeds of Time. “Victories and solutions are not the same thing,” Fowler says, “and, I think, too often people try to win without actually looking to create solutions.”

The documentary, directed by Sandy McLeod, is a portrait of Fowler -- one that also provides an object lesson in what it looks like to search for genuine solutions.

It’s a welcome change in tone. As eaters have moved farther from the places where their food grows, a lot of the media about farming has taken the form of exposés, alerting us to the hard realities of agriculture. There's a place for exposés, but if we spend all our time talking about the people who are doing agriculture wrong, we may forget that no one has figured out a way to truly do it right.

Read more: Food


Tomatoes could be giving you BO

Can we just pen a quick love letter to tomatoes? Zesty dried ones. Juicy organic ones (bonus: they’re healthier!). Fresh, naturally ripe heirloom tomatoes from somebody’s backyard or rooftop. YUMMM. So it’s kind of a bummer that they’re making us smell bad.

Get in my mouth.
Nova Skola
Get in my mouth.

According to a new article in Medical Hypotheses (so yes, it's hypothetical, although it's a peer-reviewed hypothesis!), Irish biochemist J.C.M. Stewart believes the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes is to blame. (Lycopene is a type of terpene, the chemical compounds that give essential oils and beer hops their smell. Red peppers, watermelon, and papaya also have lycopene in ‘em.) Turns out that terpenes mainly exit the body by squirting out your armpits.

Writes Stewart in his article’s abstract:

I propose that underarm odor is commonly caused by terpenes excreted via the axillary apocrine glands. I also show that these come from terpene and carotenoid-rich dietary sources including lycopene, tomatoes, orange peel and the glandular trichomes of tomato plants. These observations suggest that the axillary apocrine glands are a prominent excretory route for terpenes. Considering the quantities eaten, tomatoes are likely to be the main source of dietary terpenes, and underarm odor in turn.

Read more: Food, Living


Vetting antibiotics: How the FDA’s new rules look at hog’s-eye level

David Struthers
Joseph L. Murphy/ Iowa Soybean Association

We're about to enter the post-antibiotic era, in which perhaps the most transformative medical technology ever discovered becomes obsolete. We don't have good backups, and so officials are trying to do whatever they can to slow the speed at which bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance.

As part of that program, the FDA has told livestock producers that they can no longer use antibiotics as growth promoters. Official are still hammering out the final details, but we know that antibiotics for livestock will no longer be sold over the counter, and instead will require a prescription from a veterinarian.

What we don't know is whether the new rules will actually work. Will farmers comply? Are the regulations worded in such a way as to make a real dent in antibiotic use?

To explore these questions, I visited a veterinary clinic while I was in Iowa. I drove out to the town of Colfax and met with veterinary doctor Sarah Myers and hog farmer David Struthers.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: Can I drink coffee with a clear conscience?

Jill G

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Would you explain the environmental impact of my drinking coffee? I am a coffee fiend, and I am concerned that forests and the like are being decimated so I may have my several cups of joe per day.

Caffeinatedly Yours,
Regina M.
Mattapoisett, Mass.

A. Dearest Regina,

You’re in good company with your jones for caffeine: With 83 percent of Americans reporting they enjoy a cuppa now and then (which translates to 400 million cups per day!), coffee may as well be our national drug. But as you suspect, your daily joe has its dark side. If you’re not up for quitting the stuff -- sssh, they might revoke my Seattle residency for that -- let’s first take a look at the damage, then consider how we can sip more responsibly.

Read more: Food, Living


America could be vegan by 2050, says lady totally out of touch with America

Jack Lyons

First: I don’t hate vegans. I like vegans. I sleep with vegans. But the idea that America could go from 3 percent to 100 percent vegan in the next 36 years is the biggest pile of tempeh I’ve smelled in a while.

According to Ecorazzi, Kathy Stevens of Catskill Animal Sanctuary thinks the U.S. could be totally vegan by 2050. Here’s her reasoning:

  1. Meat consumption is on the decline, while interest in vegan food is on the rise.
  2. Supermarkets are adding new vegan products.
  3. Restaurants are becoming more responsive to vegans.
  4. The rich and powerful are throwing their money behind vegan startups.

Sure, 2014 might be, as some are decreeing, “the year of the vegan.” Jay-Z and Beyonce tried it. People are googling “vegan” more. Two years ago, U.S. beef consumption hit a 50-year low.

Read more: Food, Living


Forget bikes — get your lunch delivered by parachute


Sure, bike messengers and delivery cyclists are cool, but what if your lunch floated down from the sky, Hunger Games­-style? Thanks to Jafflechutes, eaters in Melbourne recently got their sandwiches delivered by parachute, and the pop-up, float-down eatery is headed to New York City next.

The triangular ("jaffle") sandwiches come in cheese and tomato ($5) or ham and cheese ($6), although word is they’ll make you a vegan one if you ask nicely. After placing your order via Paypal and selecting a time, you stand on a taped X outside a certain address and wait for your sammie to gently float down from the building where it was made.

It doesn’t always work -- a test run got lost in a tree. (Thankfully, it was a Murakami novel, not an actual sandwich. WHEW.) The Jafflechute team discourages sandwich recoveries, but one hungry person climbed halfway up a pole to rescue a jaffle anyway:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Want to go back to the land? Read this farm confession about pig sperm first

That's some pig.

Have you recently found yourself humming "Wide Open Spaces" and looking up vacant farmland? Before you ditch your one bedroom for room to make a big mistake, you might want to read Modern Farmer’s section Farm Confessional. Think of it as a rural version of xoJane's “It Happened To Me” (known for being both salacious and eyeroll-worthy), but instead of stripper librarians and fake cancer, you hear from manure haulers and hesitant ranchers.

This week's Farm Confessional takes a seedier turn when we hear from a pig semen catcher. Sabrina Estabrook-Russett was a vet student getting experience in pig husbandry, and although she’d inseminated pigs before (as one does), she'd never witnessed the, er, receiving end of things. What happened next nearly took Estabrook-Russett from Farm Confessional material to "It Happened To Me" territory:

A few months ago I spent one of those beautiful Scottish summer mornings watching a 450 kilogram pig ejaculate into a coffee Thermos that was being held at an appropriate ‘catch-all’ angle by a bearded Slovenian man. ...

None of the ejaculating took me by surprise, but what happened after the release was uncharted territory. Emerging victorious with the cheesecloth-lined Thermos, the Slovenian brought it to me, proud of his harvest, bursting at the seams to tell me all about it ...

“We test by ALL the senses: see, touch, smell, taste. You want taste?”

Read more: Food, Living


When in drought, Californian salmon take to the road


Spring is typically the time when salmon in Northern California hightail it to the Pacific via freshwater streams. But now that the usual thoroughfares are starting to dry up, thanks to this winter's epic drought, U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggest the salmon do what Californians do best: Take the freeway.

Despite the recent storms, the state’s snowpack is still critically low, and unless this year's April showers are more like April monsoons it’s likely that rivers will still be too warm and shallow for salmon to make it from hatchery to sea for their seasonal spring migration. To get them over this hurdle, as many as 30 million fish will be loaded up on tanker trucks and driven the three hours between hatcheries near Red Bluff to San Pablo Bay.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Un till: An Iowa farmer finds that less (plow) is more (profit)

Nate Johnson- Grist-11a

In writing about the next steps needed to build a more sustainable food system, I’ve been focusing on local and regional agriculture. But if we’re interested in sustainability, we should also be interested conventional farming. Because conventional ag is conventional -- that is, the norm -- improvements there have a big and immediate effect. So when the Iowa Soybean Association invited me to come talk with farmers in Des Moines, I got on a plane to see what people in that part of the world were doing to improve the environment.

On my first day in Iowa, I drove to the small town of Jefferson to meet David Ausberger, who has taken a special interest in conservation. Ausberger met me at the door of his three-story Victorian with a pair of ski pants and a bulky Carhartt jacket to supplement my thin California layers.

Ausberger grew up on the farm, but he had no obvious affinity for farming.  “I was never one of those guys wearing seed-corn hats and playing with tractors,” he told me, as we rumbled out of town in his big black truck, between fields of broken cornstalks patched with snow.