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Ask Umbra: Is it safe to use newspaper as garden mulch?

Weeding Veg Patch Gardener from Overhead
iStockphoto

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am able to buy from our local newspaper company the ends of their rolls of newsprint. They are too small to be run through the machinery, so they are not printed on. I am considering using long strips of this unused newsprint as mulch in my vegetable garden, but I'm wondering if it will supply dioxins or other undesirable chemicals to the soil as it degrades?

Peter
Greensboro, N.C.

A. Dearest Peter,

What’s black and white and read all over, and protects your veggies from weeds? Newsprint, that liner of birdcages and bulker of papier-mache projects everywhere, is also often touted as a useful garden or compost additive. But is it really safe to lay the classifieds alongside your cucumbers?

Read more: Food, Living

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Resistance is fertile

How we can fight back against herbicide-resistant superweeds

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture
A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed, one of the plants that has gained glyphosate resistance.

There’s a clear scientific consensus that heavy use of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup and other brands of herbicide -- has sped up the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. And it’s reasonable to assume that crops genetically engineered to work hand in glove with glyphosate (like Roundup-resistant soy) are part of the problem, contributing to the popularity of the weed killer.

Now crops genetically engineered to work with other herbicides -- such as dicamba and 2,4-D -- look like they will soon come on line. The seed companies' answer to the Roundup-resistance problem is: Let's just fall back on older herbicides. An editorial published by the journal Nature recently criticized this plan. If we do the same thing with dicamba and 2,4-D that we did with glyphosate, the editorial argued, history is likely to repeat itself.

This got me wondering what we should do, then, so I started calling weed scientists. I ended up talking with three from around the country. They all agreed on the basic premise.

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Buzz feed

Bees and butterflies get a boost from the feds

bees
Jack Wolf

After bailing out automakers and Wall Street bankers, the U.S. government  has now rolled out a pair of programs to assist a more sympathetic recipient: insects. There’s finally a bailout for the bee and butterfly bankruptcy!

U.S. farmers have gotten better and better at controlling weeds in their fields, and that’s been a disaster for monarch butterflies. Monarchs rely on one specific field plant: milkweed. They can’t survive without it. The population of both milkweed and monarchs have taken a tumble with the rise of effective weed control, via the herbicide glyphosate and GMO crops that tolerate glyphosate.

At the same time, honey bees have been dying off because of the mysterious colony collapse disorder, and many native bee populations are foundering.

Read more: Food, Politics

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A rising tide of cash

Pesticide and GMO companies spend big to influence politics in Hawaii

money pile
Shutterstock

Hawaii has become "ground zero" in the controversy over genetically modified crops and pesticides. With the seed crop industry (including conventional as well as GMO crops) reaping $146.3 million a year in sales resulting from its activities in Hawaii, the out-of-state pesticide and GMO firms SyngentaMonsantoDuPont PioneerDow ChemicalBASF, and Bayer CropScience have brought substantial sums of corporate cash into the state's relatively small political arena.

Chemical conglomerates retaliate against local democratic control

These “Big 6” pesticide and GMO firms are very active on the islands, making use of the three to four annual growing seasons to develop new GMO seeds more quickly. The development of new GMOs by these pesticide and seed conglomerates goes hand-in-hand with heavy pesticide use in some of the islands' experimental crop fields, new data show.

Kauai County -- consisting primarily of the island of Kauai, known as Hawaii's "Garden Isle" and home to Waimea Canyon State Park -- passed a law in November 2013 that will require disclosure of pesticide use and GMO crops sewn by growers and create buffer zones around schools, parks, medical facilities, and private residences. The law is set to go into effect in August 2014.

Hawaii County banned GMOs altogether in November 2013, and a Maui County initiative to ban GMOs recently obtained enough citizen signatures to be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

Since experiencing these setbacks, the ag giants have retaliated in a big way. And they and other Big Ag interests have poured money into lobbying against GMO restrictions and backing GMO-friendly candidates (details below).

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Sport fishing

This fishy World Cup bracket ranks countries by their ocean goals

Pallet surgeon fish, symbolising Japan's national soccer team's "Blue Samurai", swim around a ball beside a goal at the Sea Paradise aquarium in Hakkeijima, west of Tokyo June 8, 2006.
Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa

With the World Cup rolling into its second week, you are probably already tired of the endless internet commentary but ... TOO BAD. Some of us are into it, and we've only got two more weeks to view the whole world through a football/soccer/spending-the-day-at-the-pub lens.

Since we've seen so much good news on the oceans this week, it seems only appropriate to match up the disparate but burgeoning American interests of marine health and European team sports (feel free to match this one up with a cool beverage, too).

Click to embiggen.
Upwell
Click to embiggen.

Read more: Food, Living

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to bee or not to bee

This is what your dairy aisle would look like if all the bees died off

Remember the last time we freaked out about what would happen if the world's pollinators suddenly perished? Someone get me a paper bag, because I'm starting to hyperventilate again.

To raise awareness about colony collapse disorder, a mysterious disease that started taking out entire beehives in 2006, Whole Foods brought the fight to suburban grocery aisle by showing us what our supermarkets would look like without any food that had been helped along by a bee. That's right: Your greek yogurt, butter, cream cheese, organic milk, and -- gasp -- ice cream, are in peril.

Whole Foods Market/PRNewsFoto  Huffington Post

Read more: Food, Living

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Could small, biodiverse farms help Hawaii grow enough food to feed itself?

Chris Kobayashi and Dimi Rivera in field.
Ian Umeda
Chris Kobayashi (right), her husband Dimi Rivera (extreme left), and a friend harvest taro on their 10-acre farm on Kauai. Kobayashi says transitioning to small-scale, agroeological farms will be a lot of hard work, but will lead to a vibrant local economy.

For Chris Kobayashi and her husband, Dimi Rivera, it all started with Japanese cucumbers. “In 1997 we said, ‘OK, let’s grow Japanese cucumbers, but let’s grow it organically,’” Kobayashi tells me as we walk around her farm in Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore. “You know, because they are crispy, crunchy, and yummy and you can eat the skin and everything,”

The couple knew that it would be a tough vegetable to grow. Cucumbers are prone to extensive damage from fruit flies in Hawaii. So they covered every single cucumber that came up with plastic bags. “We’d charge a dollar for each at the farmers market,” says Kobayshi. “We set up a sign on that said ‘Japanese Cucumbers, $1.’ We offered samples and people got hooked because it’s so crunchy. Then they started asking, 'Do you have any kale?' I was like, ‘Kale? What is that?’ So that’s how we started growing other kinds of veggies. It was just all an organic thing that happened. None of this was planned.” Today, Kobayashi’s family’s 10-acre Waioli Farm, named after the stream that runs beside it, grows produce using organic practices — mainly taro, which they supply to families and traditional poi (taro paste) makers on Oahu and the Big Island, but also some fruits and vegetables for their local farmers market stand.

Kobayashi, whose family has been growing taro commercially for generations, is a member of Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots citizen groups and food activists that promotes ecological food and farming in Hawaii. I met with her when I went to Hawaii to report on the growing citizens’ movement against the genetically modified seed industry in the islands. (Read my in-depth story on the issue here.) To be more specific, I met with her, and several other small-scale farmers on Kauai and Oahu, in an effort to understand whether there were indeed any viable alternatives to industrial-style farming in Hawaii. Could this remote island chain, which currently imports nearly 90 percent of its food, transition to growing enough food to feed itself though small-scale, agroecological farming?

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All-natural selection

When will the vague “natural” food label die?

cheez-e-puffz
Hallie Bateman

Do we really have to tell you that the “natural” label on foods is pretty much meaningless? If so, you should also know that unicorns are mythological, not extinct.

OK, so the USDA has some rules about what can be called natural, but it just applies to meat and eggs, and is pretty loose. And, sure, I’ve heard company representatives explain their corporate definition of what’s natural, but frankly, it’s easier to believe in unicorns.

You can buy all-natural Cheetos, all-natural butter flavor granules, and all-natural, um, whatever the heck this is.

Of course, there’s a reason marketers keep slapping the "natural" label on things: It works.

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Obama to create largest marine protected area ever, because bigger is better

ocean
Shutterstock

Say what you will about the U.S., when we do something, we do it supersized.

So when Obama decides to make a marine reserve, he doesn't just put your average patch of ocean off-limits to commercial fishing, energy exploration, and other shenanigans. No. It's a massive portion of the Pacific that more than doubles the total amount of protected ocean. In the world. From The Washington Post:

[T]he Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories.

“It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the pristine ocean,” said Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has researched the area’s reefs and atolls since 2005.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Why oh Kauai?

GMO giants’ pesticide use threatens rare Hawaiian species

Hawaiian honeycreeper
U.S. Geological Survey
An endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper.

WAIMEA, HAWAII -- Given its fragile and unusually rich ecology, the Hawaiian island of Kauai seems ill-suited as a site for agricultural experiments that use heavy amounts of toxic chemicals. But four transnational corporations -- BASF Plant Science, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta -- have been doing just those kinds of experiments here for about two decades, extensively spraying pesticides on their GMO test fields. As a result, the landscape on the southwest corner of the island, around the town of Waimea, has become one of the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

This poses serious risks for the people of Kauai, as I've documented, but even less noticed are the hazards posed to the unique flora and fauna of the island and the coral reefs just off its shores. Each of the seven highly toxic pesticides most commonly used by the GMO giants on Kauai (alachlor, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, methomyl, metolachlor, paraquat, and permethrin) is known to be toxic to wildlife, plants, or both.

Lysimachia daphnoides
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
An endangered flowering plant on Kauai: Lysimachia daphnoides, aka Pacific loosestrife.

The isolated geography of Kauai has fostered the evolution of a great diversity of birds, bugs, and plants. Kauai has more unique species -- species that live only on the island -- than anywhere else in the world, said Carl Berg, an ecologist and long-time advocate for clean water with the Kauai chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Berg and others fear that these endemic species are being put at great risk of extinction by exposure to the chemicals, though he says he has no idea the extent of the damage.