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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Study questions eco-benefit of vegetarian diet; we question study

I feel like the world is constantly conspiring to get me to eat bacon. That was my first thought when I saw this new study from France claiming that a plant-based diet is not actually the planet-saver we all thought. (My second thought was: WTF, I don't want to eat bacon.)

The study followed nearly 2,000 diners who self-reported their meals to scientists at the National Research Institute of Agronomy in Marseille; the researchers then tried to determine how much greenhouse gas was emitted in production of the most commonly consumed foods. Let the fuzzy math ensue! Reuters reports:

Overall, about 1,600 grams of carbon dioxide were emitted for every 100 grams of meat produced. That's more than 14 times the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during the production of fruit, vegetables and starches. It's also about 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas as that generated by fish, pork, poultry and eggs.

That gap narrowed, however, when the researchers looked at how many grams of carbon dioxide were emitted per 100 kilocalories (kcal) -- a measure of energy in food.

The most greenhouse gas -- 857 grams -- was still emitted to produce 100 kcal of meat, but it was only about three times the emissions from a comparable amount of energy from fruit and vegetables.

Wait wait, hold on, Reuters -- the lede of your article says that a plant-based diet "might not be the greenest in its environmental impact." Now you're telling me it's only three times better? Oh, wait, and now you're telling me it's no better at all?

Read more: Food


N.Y. town board sued for banning discussion of fracking at meetings

City government meetings are boring and tedious and deal with boring, tedious things -- zoning, ceremonial items, paying a city's bills. Most also allow time for the public to comment, which almost always entices the local gadflies and cranks to show up and share whatever's on their minds. And it's often the most interesting part of the meetings.

Nonetheless, the town board of Sanford, N.Y., got tired of one particular topic coming up in public comments: fracking. Speaker after speaker would rail against the practice, which is currently banned in the state. The town board reached its limit last fall, voting to ban any further comment from the public on the topic.

In spirit, we can appreciate the frustration. In practice, however, we would strongly encourage elected officials to remember that public meetings don't exist for their convenience. To help remind the Sanford board of that fact, local residents (with the support of the Natural Resources Defense Council) are suing. From the Associated Press:

"If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interests?" said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Kate Sinding as her group announced the U.S. District Court lawsuit. NRDC and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy filed the lawsuit on behalf of town residents who are members of their groups.


Your ‘sustainable’ fish may not actually be sustainable, like, at all

MSC fish label
Here's the Marine Stewardship Council label, FWIW.

Never mind knowing what kind of fish you're eating -- even when you do know, you still probably don't have all the deets on just how green it is.

Nearly 90 percent of the world's fisheries are either overexploited or almost overexploited. At some point this year, we'll eat more farmed fish than wild fish worldwide, a milestone for fish farms and a scary prospect for the food system and eviscerated oceans.

In a recent poll commissioned by NPR, nearly 80 percent of respondents said it's important or very important to them that the seafood they buy is sustainably caught. But how can they really know? There are dozens of different sustainable seafood guides, advisory lists, labels, and certifications.

When McDonald's recently switched to fish products approved by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), it celebrated the change with packaging proclaiming sustainability. But the Alaskan pollock McDonald's is serving isn't considered a best choice by all fish-watch groups, and some environmentalists say the whole MSC rating system isn't all it's cracked up to be. From NPR's three-part series on the topic:

"We're not getting what we think we're getting," says Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Centre. She says the consumer, when purchasing seafood with the blue MSC label, is "not buying something that's sustainable now."

If the label were accurate, Fuller says, it would include what she says is troubling fine print: The MSC system has certified most fisheries with "conditions." Those conditions spell out that the fishermen will have to change the way they operate or study how their methods are affecting the environment — or both. But they have years to comply with those conditions after the fisheries have already been certified sustainable.


North Dakota’s red-hot, frack-fueled economy is starting to slow down

A fracking rig in North Dakota.
Lindsey Gee
A fracking rig in North Dakota.

Remember that massive economic boom in North Dakota? That was so early 2012.

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson outlines the state's slowdown at the end of last year. He starts with this graph:

Click to embiggen.
Derek Thompson/Atlantic
Click to embiggen.

This chart tells two stories about America's little petro state. First story: At the beginning of 2012 (much like in 2011 and 2010), North Dakota's stratospheric job creation numbers made even the next frothiest states look like they're were suffering a post-Soviet-breakup depression. Second story: Something happened in the second half of 2012. North Dakota's economy fell back to earth. …

You might say, don't be unfair, North Dakota never could have kept up its 2011 rate!, and I might respond, you're right. If the U.S. had experienced Dakotan growth across 2011, we would have added about 400,000 jobs per month, and that's just absurd.


Test drive of Tesla sedan leaves New York Times stranded

Tesla is Silicon Valley's car. The company's head of product design, Elon Musk, went from rethinking online payments as a cofounder of PayPal to rethinking automobiles. Tesla's first vehicle was an electricity-and-testosterone-powered roadster; recently, it added a sedan (electricity only).

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a review of the sedan by John Broder. His test drive, a haul from the outskirts of D.C. to Boston, could have gone better. From "Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway":

The Model S has won multiple car-of-the-year awards and is, many reviews would have you believe, the coolest car on the planet.

What fun, no? Well, no.

The problem was power. The electric car, like a regular car, needs to be refilled. But unlike a regular car, you can't refuel every few miles. Broder's trip was meant to highlight two new charging stations between the cities, spaced within the range of a full charge of the car. Ideally. As Broder discovered, that wasn't his experience -- something for which the cold weather may have been partly to blame.

As I crossed into New Jersey ..., I noticed that the estimated range was falling faster than miles were accumulating. At 68 miles since recharging, the range had dropped by 85 miles, and a little mental math told me that reaching Milford would be a stretch.

I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic. I turned the climate control to low -- the temperature was still in the 30s -- and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour (the speed limit is 65). Buicks and 18-wheelers flew past, their drivers staring at the nail-polish-red wondercar with California dealer plates.

Broder's trip ended on the back of a flatbed truck in Connecticut. But the story didn't.


2013 will be a banner year for farm profits, according to analysis that ignores the drought

2012 was a brutal year for American farmers. The massive drought meant that the Department of Agriculture paid out $15 billion in crop insurance; prices of staple crops skyrocketed as yields plummeted.

It appears, however, that this was the darkness before the dawn. A new estimate from the USDA suggests that 2013 will be the most profitable year for farmers in four decades. From The Wall Street Journal:

The Department of Agriculture projected in a report Monday that net farm income in the U.S. will reach $128.2 billion in 2013—the highest since 1973 when adjusted for inflation and the highest on record on a non-adjusted basis.

The rosier outlook is driven by expectations farmers will grow more corn and soybeans after last year's drought. Analysts predict increases in production will more than offset any price declines and rising costs, with the agency seeing corn stockpiles rising by more than 2 billion bushels.

The forecast also reflects a continued boom in the farm belt initially fueled by rising global demand for grains and increased mandates for corn-based ethanol.

And the first thing those farmers will do is repay the USDA for its crop insurance outlays in 2012, I assume. After all, it was God who made a farmer, not the USDA.

farm city
Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Minnesota mayor doesn’t see why he can’t also run a sand-mining advocacy group

An auditorium in Red Wing, Minnesota
An auditorium in Red Wing, Minn.

Congratulations, Dennis Egan, on your new job as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, an organization that advocates for the industrial use of sand, particularly in fracking. But, while we have your ear, maybe we should talk about your other job as mayor of Red Wing, Minn.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

At an intense City Council meeting attended by about 50 people who applauded the harshest rebukes of the mayor, two City Council members directly asked Egan to resign as mayor or step down as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. He steadfastly refused either option, saying he has no conflict of interest that can't be managed on a case-by-case basis by recusing himself from city action on sand-mining issues.

"I deeply care about Red Wing,'' said Egan, who was elected in November to a four-year term before he went to work for the sand council.

In an AP article, the honorable mayor notes that he signed a ban on frack sand mining in the city before he took the second job with the advocacy group. Interestingly, the prospect of sand mining in Red Wing is not the only point of concern for the city council. Again from the Star-Tribune:

Council President Lisa Bayley said Egan's post with an industry that has encountered public opposition in its plans to expand sand-mining operations in Minnesota has taken a negative toll on the city and could hurt economic development.


Shell retreats from the Arctic, sending its battered vessels to Asia for repair

You know how in movies there's sometimes a moment after some cataclysm in which the protagonist sits up in bed or steps out of a doorway, rubs his eyes, and the sun is shining? All around him are crumbled buildings and cars missing doors, but he looks up and the air is still and the sun is out and you, the audience, understand that something has changed. The terror is behind us.

Well, sit up in bed and rub your eyes. From the Times:

In another blow to its Alaskan Arctic drilling program, Royal Dutch Shell said on Monday that it had decided to tow its two drill vessels there to Asian ports for major repairs, jeopardizing its plans to begin drilling for oil in the icy northern seas next summer.

The new potential delay in drilling does not necessarily doom Shell’s seven-year, $4.5 billion quest to open a new oil frontier in the far north, but it may strengthen the position of environmentalists who have repeatedly sued to stop or postpone exploration that they claim carries the risks of a spill nearly impossible to clean up. ...

For drilling to proceed, two vessels are needed, one to stand by to drill relief wells in case of a blowout. It would be difficult to find other suitable ships for drilling in the Arctic.

The Kulluk during happier times.

The two vessels Shell is sending out for repair are the Kulluk -- which ran aground in December, damaging its hull -- and the Noble Discoverer -- which escaped its moorings and almost ran aground, but needs fixes to its propulsion systems.


Here’s one more thing you can share: Kids

We've written a lot over the past month about the sharing economy -- how people are using apps and technology that make it easy to share cars, bikes, homes, couches, offices, tools, pets. More sharing = less resource use = all-around goodness.

two parents and one kid
Kid-sharing: so much better than kid-hoarding.

And now the latest addition to the list of shareable items: kids. Yes, people are using websites and Facebook pages to find like-minded people with whom to share children. From The New York Times:

[A] new breed of online daters [is] looking not for love but rather a partner with whom to build a decidedly non-nuclear family. And several social networks, including,,, and, as well as Modamily, have sprung up over the past few years to help them.

“While some people have chosen to be a single parent, many more people look at scheduling and the financial pressures and the lack of an emotional partner and decide that single parenting is too daunting and wouldn’t be good for them or the child,” said Darren Spedale, 38, the founder of Family by Design, a free parenting partnership site officially introduced in early January. “If you can share the support and the ups and downs with someone, it makes it a much more interesting parenting option.”

The sites present what can seem like a compelling alternative to surrogacy, adoption or simple sperm donation.


It’s fast-food fish season — and no, it’s not sustainable

Marine Stewardship Council

McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich was originally introduced in 1962 to appeal particularly to Catholic customers who eschew meat every Friday during Lent, which lasts for about 40 days. This year, McDonald's will have new Fish McBites on hand, too. But it's not just Lent, which begins this Wednesday, that's been a boon for fast-food fish. From Time:

In recent months, fast food establishments have demonstrated a taste for chicken. Poultry has reached a new level of popularity among fast food restaurants and diners alike because it’s a cheaper and healthier alternative to beef (or at least it’s perceived to be so). Chicken is also easily prepared in bite-size portions (nuggets, dippers, McBites, etc.), making it a perfect fit for the rising culture of on-the-go snacking.

If one affordable, quick, and healthy (or at least healthier) snack proves to be a hit with customers, fast food restaurants are sure to see if similar offerings can succeed as well. That’s why we’re seeing a big push for fish lately.

And it's not just McDonald's.