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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


USDA says crops will do better but food prices will do worse

Maybe not growing crops, but growing in value regardless.It's more cold comfort for drought-stricken farmers this week, and I don't mean the snow.

USDA chief economist Joe Glauber was all sunshine this Thursday in announcing that normal spring weather is expected to improve corn and soybean yields by huge percentages over last year's tiny drought-stricken crops. Bigger yields mean tinier prices -- Glauber said corn would be down about a third from last year, soy would drop more than a quarter, and wheat would be down about 11 percent.

From the South Dakota Argus Leader:

The recovery should send prices for most oilseeds and grains sharply lower, providing a much-needed reprieve for livestock, dairy and poultry producers struggling with high feed costs, and relief down the road for consumers who have paid more for food at their local grocery store. ...

“The critical factor that people will be following is weather,” Glauber said at the department’s annual outlook forum. “While the outlook for 2013 remains bright, there are many uncertainties.”

Way to bury the lede, Glauber. No matter how many times Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says "American agriculture is quite resilient," there still remains the fact that American agriculture is also in crisis, and forecasters are expecting more hot and dry weather this year.

Read more: Food


Tar Sands Blockaders tell their own story in a new documentary

If this past Sunday's Forward on Climate rally showed a lot of love for President Obama, it showed even more for the nonviolent direct action going down in East Texas. Throughout the day, activists blockading construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline received big support from even the most law-abiding demonstrators.

But though their civil disobedience might seem mainstream within the climate movement, the blockaders are taking some seriously big risks out there, and a new documentary shows just how big. The nearly hour-long film by Garrett Graham was produced in collaboration with the blockaders and includes footage they shot themselves, from some places where journalists might fear to tread lest, you know, pepper-spray, choke-holds, etc.

You can watch the whole thing right here:


Pipeline companies will get a $7 billion tax break through 2016


There are people in Washington, D.C., right now scratching their heads and writing memos and trying to figure out how on earth we might possibly avoid budgetary doomsday, the sequestration that will lop some $1.2 trillion out of the federal budget over the next decade. Again, this is only happening because Congress tried to threaten itself. It's like you threatening to rob yourself by holding a gun to your head and then trying to figure out how to keep from being robbed.

But while all of this is happening, something else is going on in Our Nation's Capital™: Pipeline companies are getting an even larger tax break than expected. From Bloomberg:

A tax break used by oil and gas pipeline companies such as Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP (KMP) will cost the U.S. government $7 billion through 2016, about four times more than previously estimated, Congress’s tax scorekeepers said this month.

The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation quadrupled its cost estimate for exempting the fast-growing “master limited partnerships” from corporate income tax in the year ended in September to $1.2 billion from $300 million. The annual cost will rise to $1.6 billion by fiscal 2016, the committee said.

$7 billion. $1.6 billion a year. Tack on the estimated $4 billion in tax breaks the oil industry receives each year, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.


Environmental, conservative, media organizations rank our lovable Congress

This place.
This place.

It is awards season, everyone! For cool people (well, cooler people than me) that means it's time for the distribution of Grammys and Emmys and Oscars and Whatevers. For other people, it's awards and accolades strewn upon Capitol Hill, meaning the various ratings of members of Congress by media entities and advocacy organizations.

It is, as I have analogized previously, like the trophies given out at the end of a season to kids in a youth basketball league, except some of the awards come from the coaches and others come from fawning parents. Like youth basketball awards, these accolades will sit on shelves in the corners of rooms for a few years and eventually be thrown out.

Anyway, here they are.

The League of Conservation Voters

Every year, the LCV ranks how members of the House and Senate vote on issues related to the environment. How did those august bodies fare this year, LCV?

From an environmental perspective, the best that can be said about the second session of the 112th Congress is that it is over. Indeed, the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives continued its war on the environment, public health, and clean energy throughout 2012, cementing its record as the most anti-environmental House in our nation’s history. …

The good news is that while the U.S. House voted against the environment with alarming frequency, both the U.S. Senate and the Obama administration stood firm against the vast majority of these attacks. There are 14 Senate votes included in the 2012 Scorecard, many of which served as a sharp rebuke of the House’s polluter-driven agenda.

Very, very surprising, I'm sure you'll agree.


Louisiana may see the highest-rising seas in the world

As Hurricane Katrina approached, many Americans for the first time learned about New Orleans' precarious, below-sea-level orientation. The city is described as "bowl-like," rimmed by levees and natural structures that might not hold back surging storm water -- and might make drying out nearly impossible. It turned out that the analogy was imperfect. New Orleans is more like a TV dinner tray, and only the Ninth Ward ended up flooded.

Image (1) katrina-new-orleans_h528.jpg for post 22404

After Katrina, anyway -- a category 3 storm when it hit. But as sea levels continue to rise, and warming promises bigger storms, New Orleans' complete submersion may be inevitable. From The Lens:

Stunning new data not yet publicly released shows Louisiana losing its battle with rising seas much more quickly than even the most pessimistic studies have predicted to date. ...

Southeast Louisiana -- with an average elevation just three feet above sea level -- has long been considered one of the landscapes most threatened by global warming. That’s because the delta it’s built on -- starved of river sediment and sliced by canals -- is sinking at the same time that oceans are rising. The combination of those two forces is called relative sea-level rise, and its impact can be dramatic.

Scientists have come up with four scenarios of sea-level rise, ranging from .2 meters (8 inches) to 2 meters (about 6.5 feet). They're using the mid-range figure, about 4.5 feet, to make local projections of relative sea-level rise.

For example, tide-gauge measurements at Grand Isle, about 50 miles south of New Orleans, have shown an average annual sea-level rise over the past few decades of 9.24 millimeters (about one-third of an inch) while those at Key West, which has very little subsidence, read only 2.24 millimeters.

For decades coastal planners used that Grand Isle gauge as the benchmark for the worst case of local sea-level rise because it was one of the highest in the world. But as surveying crews began using more advanced instruments, they made a troubling discovery.

Readings at a distance inland were even worse than at Grand Isle. “For example,” Osborne said, “we have rates of 11.2 millimeters along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain -- the metro New Orleans area. And inside the city we have places with almost [a half-inch] per year.


Meet Ernest Moniz, who may or may not be the next secretary of energy

Everyone is excited about rumors that President Obama will name Ernest Moniz to run the Department of Energy. Reactions range from "Who is Ernest Moniz?" to "What happened to the other guy?" to "Who was the other guy?"

Well, we are here to answer those questions! (The first one, anyway; we've answered the other two before.) Since you live a fast-paced lifestyle, always on the go, we've broken it up into bite-sized pieces, one bit of info at a time. You are welcome in advance.

Who is Ernest Moniz?

Well, he might be the next secretary of energy -- if Obama nominates him and if the Senate approves him. It is possible that in two months time he will be of very little interest to you, having not been confirmed. Or he will be of very little interest to you because he was confirmed, but you, like most Americans, are fairly indifferent to the office of secretary of energy.

But you knew that. So here's who he is, as articulated by Reuters, which appears to have been first with rumors of his imminent nomination.

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Ha ha. Sounds great! We will come back to this part, obviously.

At MIT, Moniz led intensive studies about the future of coal, nuclear energy and natural gas, and he helped attract funding and research momentum to energy projects on campus.

People familiar with Moniz's work said, if chosen, he would bring his own energy and pragmatism to the job. …

Moniz earned kudos for a pragmatic approach toward using research to find ways to reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels and transition to cleaner forms of energy.

We'll come back to this, too.

What does he look like?

Well, he looks like this:


But more evocatively, he kind of looks like a Founding Father who teaches high-school English in New Hampshire.


How the junk food industry has encouraged us to eat ourselves to death

The latest New York Times Magazine features a lengthy report on the horrifying ways in which processed food purveyors are sneaking tasty but disease-causing extras into our snacks.

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The piece, adapted from Michael Moss' forthcoming book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, is well worth devouring. In it, Moss tracks the development of consumer-friendly products such as Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper and Lunchables from research and development in the late '80s to the obesity epidemic of our modern times. Moss writes:

So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

Does it surprise you that food giants Kraft, Pepsi, and General Mills use extensive research-and-development processes designed to find a consumer's ideal "bliss point"? Does it surprise you that said "bliss point" is a combination of way more sugar, salt, and fat than any of us would load up on a plate otherwise? Does it surprise you that this makes those corporate food giants a huge ton of cash?

None of these things surprised me. Moss' piece is scary, and these corporations' tactics are extraordinary, but they seem right in line with the marketing ploys that have shaped our well-padded American lives for the last three decades. What did surprise me was the story of Jeffrey Dunn.


Farmers markets stand to benefit the poor the most

Farmers markets sometimes get a bad rap for catering to the moneyed set, as though only the well-to-do like to buy their produce in a pleasant, social, outdoor environment, direct from the source.


It turns out that's all a bunch of compost. Low-income shoppers are actually the real farmers-market power users, buying bigger shares of their groceries at the markets than at other stores compared to middle- and high-income shoppers, according to a new report from the Project for Public Spaces.

Read more: Food


Oil company executive swears at analyst, tries to get recording off the internet

Encana is a Canadian oil and gas company that's seen its share of troubles in recent years, as oil and gas companies are wont to do. One of its wells in Colorado exploded last August, killing a worker. In 2009, the EPA found evidence that its fracking fluid was contaminating water in Wyoming. In December, we learned that Encana has a permit from the EPA to do a little aquifer polluting, prompting a bit of blowback for both company and agency.

Encana executives, therefore, will be forgiven for feeling a little frustrated. They're just trying to drill up oil and gas and sell it at a profit while letting your lungs and the atmosphere incur the cost of the pollution, is that so wrong? So when a reporter asked executives a question they found insulting, one responded more colorfully than would be generally recommended. From Reuters:

Encana Corp, Canada's largest natural gas producer, apologized on Thursday because one of its executives cursed after an analyst asked about whether new Canadian investment rules would prohibit its takeover by foreign state-owned entities.

When asked the question by Canaccord Genuity analyst Phil Skolnick, interim CEO Clayton Woitas said: "The answer would be no." Then, in a whispered comment that was clearly audible on a replay of the call, someone can be heard saying, "fucking asshole."

The good folks at Boing Boing got ahold of audio of the comment in question.

Clearly the company is obsessed with gas-filled orifices.

A fucking gashole in Pennsylvania
A fuckin' gashole in Pennsylvania.


International cops are on the pirate fishing case

pirate flag

Pirate fishing is an entertainingly named but actually terrible scourge of the oceans.

"It leaves communities without much needed food and income and the marine environment smashed and empty," according to Greenpeace, which has estimated that there are upwards of 1,000 illegal industrial-scale fishing ships at sea. "Pirate fishing compounds the global environmental damage from other destructive fisheries. Because they operate, quite literally, off the radar of any enforcement, the fishing techniques they use are destroying ocean life." The practice is rampant in Central America and parts of Europe and Africa.

But now the super-intimidating international policing ubergroup INTERPOL is convening for the first time ever to talk about policing these pirates at next week's International Fisheries Enforcement Conference in Lyon, France. "High-level Chiefs in the field of fisheries law enforcement are invited to join together with the aim of sharing expertise and strategies to prevent and combat fisheries crime," says INTERPOL.

Read more: Food