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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

gmos
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.

Read more: Food, Living

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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

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Chicken tender offer

A meat giant gobbles up another meat giant

tyson-chicken
Tanya Patrice

We live in the era of meat mergers. In recent decades animal-farming companies, gobbling up competitors, became giants. Then those giants merged. Now, a meat titan is coming back for seconds.

The New York Times is reporting that Tyson has been successful in its hostile-takeover bid for Hillshire Brands. Measured in dollars, the $6.1 billion purchase is the largest consolidation in the industry ever -- though other mergers have meant more when measured in terms of impact on farmers and consumers.

Anti-trust experts say the deal won’t create an illegal monopoly, according to Reuters, because the two companies don’t directly compete. Hillshire is in the business of selling meat to us: It owns Jimmy Dean (sausages), Ball Park (hot dogs), Sara Lee, Aidells, and others, controlling 32 percent of the breakfast sausage market, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tyson is in the business of producing meat: It owns slaughterhouses and packing plants -- though it also sells to eaters.

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Airbnb thinks your apartment would make a great illegal bistro

enthusuastic-cook
iStockphoto

Airbnb, the outfit that brought you strangers-sleeping-in-your-bed-while-you’re-at-your-cousin-Maura’s-wedding-in-Connecticut is at it again! This time, the company wants you to make people you don’t know dinner, and pay Airbnb for the privilege. Where do I sign up?

Reuters’ Gary Shih summed it up this way:

Airbnb is encouraging hosts to throw dinners for strangers as part of a new pilot program in its home city. The company would take a cut of the proceeds, similar to how it makes money from its core business of letting people list spare bedrooms or homes on its website.

The startup began inviting hosts in San Francisco to participate in the dining pilot on Tuesday. A listing for one of the pilot dinners charged $25 per person for a three-course meal.

Marissa Coughlin, an Airbnb spokeswoman, said the company is "always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences" and declined further comment.

Why did she decline to comment, you wonder? Maybe because the whole set up is completely against the law.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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Fish are great at fighting climate change. Too bad we’re eating them all.

fish-hero
Hallie Bateman

Climate change may be screwing with your seafood, but it turns out your seafood has been fighting back.

Fish, like Aquaman, might not seem to have a lot of relevance in the world-saving department. Never mind that the world is 99 percent ocean by habitable volume: We're up here in the 1 percent of living space we care about the most, and they're stuck breathing through gills and riding around on sea-ponies.

But in a DC Comics-worthy plot twist, a new study shows that fish have been doing a lot more world-saving than we thought, by way of sequestering carbon to stave off climate change -- which on the danger scale is up there with supervillain plots like blocking out the sun or moving the moon. The catch (har) is that we can't eat all our fish and have them save the world, too.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food