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Breastfeeding: Good for babies, the environment, and justice, too

breast-feed
Black Women Do Breastfeed

Last week, a bunch of people were bellyaching on the networks about Karlesha Thurman, the recent California State University Long Beach grad immortalized in a photo capturing Thurman breastfeeding her infant daughter during her graduation ceremony. When she posted the picture to the Facebook page “Black Women Do Breastfeed” (I know, here we are again, having to explain what we do and don’t do), some viewers went apoplectic. Thurman’s chiders were apparently offended that she dared to bare a breast while helping her daughter live. (You can read and see plenty of that vitriol at Buzzfeed.)

Thurman’s actions were not owed to a lack of home training or sluttiness, as some of her critics argued. The public breastfeeding was intentional. She was pregnant in her last year in college and delivered in her final academic semester. “She was my motivation to keep going,” Thurman wrote in an open letter about her daughter to her haters on Facebook, “so me receiving my BA was OUR moment.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Facebook was banning photos of breastfeeding, claiming they were vulgar. But Thurman is part of a movement to normalize public breastfeeding, resisting those who can only view breasts through a sexual lens. But breastfeeding is not only about resisting the policing of women’s bodies -- and in Thurman’s case, black women’s bodies, whose policing basically became codified during the slave trade. It’s also a health issue, an environmental issue, and a justice issue as well.

Read more: Food, Living

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Beekeepers are breeding a race of superbees at the Seattle airport

FlightPath_Rod Hatfield
Rod Hatfield

It's a sunny June day and I'm standing in a lovely meadow. Birds are singing, flowers are in bloom, and the temptation to lay out a blanket and have a picnic is strong. In fact, if not for the occasional roar of a 747 overhead, you would never guess that you were right next to one of the busiest airports in the country.

Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport boasts up to 855 takeoffs and landings a day. But just a few hundred feet away, thousands of teeny-tiny takeoffs and landings are also happening on a strip the size of a ruler.

Meet the superbees of Sea-Tac.

It's pretty clear by now that bees are in peril: Threatened by colony collapse disorder, their long-term survival is in jeopardy. So the Port of Seattle has joined forces with local nonprofit Common Acre to establish Flight Path, a project that will turn the unused green spaces on the south end of Sea-Tac into native pollinator habitat -- and in the process, produce a breed of bees that will be better suited for survival in the coming years.

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The Kauai Cocktail

GMO companies are dousing Hawaiian island with toxic pesticides

Waimea River on Kauai
Shutterstock

WAIMEA, HAWAII -- The island of Kauai, Hawaii, has become Ground Zero in the intense domestic political battle over genetically modified crops. But the fight isn't just about the merits or downsides of GMO technology. It's also about regular old pesticides.

The four transnational corporations that are experimenting with genetically engineered crops on Kauai have transformed part of the island into one of most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

For the better part of two decades, BASF Plant Science, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta have been drenching their test crops near the small town of Waimea on the southwest coast of Kauai with some of the most dangerous synthetic pesticides in use in agriculture today, at an intensity that far surpasses the norm at most other American farms, an analysis of government pesticide databases shows.

Each of the seven highly toxic chemicals most commonly used on the test fields has been linked to a variety of serious health problems ranging from childhood cognitive disorders to cancer. And when applied together in a toxic cocktail, their joint action can make them even more dangerous to exposed people.

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Climate change threatens America’s ‘king corn’

Drought-afflicted cornfield
Shutterstock

The days of "king corn" could be numbered as climate change brings higher temperatures and water shortages to America's farmland, a new report warned on Wednesday.

Nearly one third of U.S. farmland is devoted to raising corn and the country produces about 40 percent of the world's corn crop. But the $1.7 trillion industry -- the equivalent of Australia's GDP -- is under threat from water shortages, heat waves, and unpredictable rainfall caused by climate change.

"Corn is an essential input to our economy, and climate change, water scarcity, and pollution are a critical threat to that sector going forward," said Brooke Barton, director of the water program at the Ceres green investor network and author of the report.

The report amplifies warnings earlier this year from United Nations climate scientists and the National Climate Assessment that America's agricultural industry -- and specifically its corn crop -- was at risk from the high temperatures and water shortages anticipated under climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Here’s what happens when GMO antagonists get together for a friendly chat

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Grist / iStockphoto

In the days leading up to a panel discussion on GMOs put on by Climate One, I started getting nervous. I was slated to appear with Rob Fraley, head of technology for Monsanto; organic rice farmer Jessica Lundberg; and Andy Kimbrell, head of the Center for Food Safety. Monsanto has a hard-driving reputation, obviously, and when I’d last heard Kimbrell speak in person he’d been a veritable machine gun of tweet-worthy sound bites condemning industrial agriculture.

This was likely to be trench warfare, I thought, and I’d be in stuck in the middle, crawling through the barbed wire, with live fire rattling overhead.

But that’s not how it turned out. If anything the panelists were cordial to a fault, talking past each other and avoiding points of disagreement. Well, let me avoid false equivalence here: Kimbrell got his licks in (though more delicately than usual), and Lundberg was straightforward and clear (but she didn’t get much time to talk); Monsanto's Fraley stayed on message rather than taking up the debate.

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Genetically engineered lawsuit

Big Food is already suing Vermont over its GMO labeling law

food law
Shutterstock

A Vermont law that will require manufacturers to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients won't take effect for another two years, but industry groups are already attacking it in court.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed the bill on May 8, and a lawsuit against it landed on Thursday of this week, just 35 days later.

The suit was filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers. It argues that the labeling law exceeds Vermont's authority under the U.S. Constitution, and that it would be "difficult, if not impossible," for the groups' members to comply with the requirements by the mid-2016 deadline.

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Ford builds cars out of tomatoes while other companies play ketchup

vegetable-truck-in-parade
Larry Woo

When Ford Motor Company found out Heinz was looking for something to do with the waste byproduct from the over 2 million tons of tomatoes it uses each year, an idea took seed, and together the companies devised a saucy plan: Turn all that tomato waste into plastic for cars.

Ford is using the tagline, “You Say Tomato; We Say Tom-Auto.” Of course, puns like that are far below Grist's standards, but I think we can all agree the time is ripe for this a-peel-ing plan. If it works, Ford will paste its competition.

Also salsa.

Ford’s media center had this to say:

Researchers at Ford and Heinz are investigating the use of tomato fibers in developing sustainable, composite materials for use in vehicle manufacturing. Specifically, dried tomato skins could become the wiring brackets in a Ford vehicle or the storage bin a Ford customer uses to hold coins and other small objects.

“We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application,” said Ellen Lee, plastics research technical specialist for Ford. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.”

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Ask Umbra: Which is lighter on the land, wild game or farmed meat?

elk-butt
iStockphoto

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. We all know that a plant-based diet is the best way to cut carbon emissions in our diets. For meat lovers, chicken, fish, and meat substitutes often steal the spotlight when it comes to “if you have to eat meat.” But what about the carbon impact of wild game? How can you tell if it’s locally sourced, and what is the carbon footprint of, for example, antelope burgers or wild boar sausage?

Also, we keep hearing about bugs being in our future diets. Are there resources describing how to farm bugs at home, since I can’t exactly walk down the block and sample grasshopper tacos just yet?

Alex
Houston, Tex.

A. Dearest Alex,

No grasshopper tacos in Houston? Restaurateurs of America, have I got an opportunity for you!

You sound like a conscientious eater, Alex, as well as an out-of-the-box thinker. And I think you’re also spot-on in your hunch that opting for the reindeer ragout or the cricket soufflé over your typical feedlot beef is likely a much greener choice. Not only that, you’re even going the extra mile by looking for local sources for all these alterna-proteins. In short, I think I’d very much enjoy a dinner party at your house.

Let’s back up a minute. As you point out, wild game is currently riding a surge of popularity among eco-minded folks, primarily for what you’re not getting: no artificial hormones or antibiotics, no water- and fertilizer-guzzling monocrop grains to feed the animals, no cruel and stinky CAFOs. Plus, hunters I know often wax poetic about how killing your own dinner connects you to nature and your food like nothing else. Eaters, for their part, may like to imagine an elk frolicking through the forest, wild and free, before garnishing their hamburger buns.

Here’s the thing about wild game though, Alex: If you’re buying it at a restaurant, butcher shop, or online, it came from a farm. That’s right – U.S. farmers raise everything from bison and elk to reindeer and bear, and are allowed to market it as “wild.”

Read more: Food, Living

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Apocalypse chow

Want to know what the future tastes like? Eat some bugs

Welcome to the second episode of Grist Test Kitchen, where we taste green, wacky, and (hopefully) edible foodstuffs that may or may not be a part of a more sustainable future. After whetting our appetites with organic food-replacement drink Ambronite last episode, this time around we decided to channel some hakuna matata spirit and dig into the wild world of entomophagy.

To help us get in the mood, we invited the Bug Chef (science writer and edible-insect pioneer David George Gordon) to the Grist office to whip up a meal that would be both easy on the planet and on the palate. Hey, if he could make Conan O'Brien eat a cockroach, we figured he could get us to do just about anything.

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Meat Shmeat

This meat lover isn’t giving up on the test-tube burger

Cultured-Beef-01
David Parry / PA Wire

Isha Datar knows there are plenty of good reasons to stay away from meat. Like the facts that livestock production accounts for at least 14.5 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, sucks up massive amounts of water, and drives a heck of a lot of deforestation, just to name a few. But, despite all of this, scores of Americans still can’t get away from another, equally verified truth: Meat is dang delicious.

Isha Datar
Isha Datar.

So what’s a meat lover to do? Datar thinks New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of lab-grown meat alternatives (a.k.a. test-tube meat, cultured meat, or shmeat), is working toward the answer. As the group’s executive director, Datar believes that by taking animals out of the picture, cultured meat will allow us humans to get our fleshy fix while putting less of its burden on our planet.

It has now been almost a year since shmeat made its public debut, in the form of a $325,000 hamburger. But, costs aside, there's still a lot about the concept that sounds less than appetizing: After collecting cells from living animals, the cells are immersed in a nutrient bath, where they are left to grow into a sheet of tissue, which is then processed into a patty. Sounds more clinical than toothsome, right? Given the current romanticism of farm-to-table meals, will Americans be able to embrace a food product that's made from stem cells? 

Read more: Food, Living