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New July 2013

This Argentinian ranch sticks to the gaucho way of raising beef

In 2012, Jessica Weiss wrote a story for Grist on factory farms replacing grass-fed beef in Argentina. In Argentina, beef isn’t just a food; it’s a lifestyle. We were inspired to seek out a ranch that’s sticking to traditional methods. Join us as we explore La Dos Hermanas Ranch, where they maintain the tried-and-true ways of raising grass-fed beef in Argentina. Filed under: Article, Food, Living

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Now available: 29 flavors of open source seeds, sans patents

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There’s been an argument going on for at least 100 years over seeds. Should they be free? Or should the people who develop them control, and profit from, their use? If they were shared, we’d have a more fluid development of agricultural technology, because all plant breeders could experiment with the best stuff. On the other hand, maybe breeders wouldn’t want to engage in the hard work of experimenting if they couldn’t sell their inventions for lots of money. It used to be that those who bred new varieties of plants shared them freely, in part because it was almost impossible to control them: As soon as someone buys one of your new tomato seeds, he can use it to make a hundred more. As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told NPR reporter Dan Charles, plant breeders used to have a code of ethics that mandated sharing: “If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us,” he says. “That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us.” All that changed after seed companies began producing hybrids, which lose their superpowers if you try to grow more of them, and as cash-strapped universities have begun patenting more and more of their seeds. But on Thursday the Open Source Seed Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the first set of seeds with an open-source license. It is distributing 29 varieties, including broccoli, celery, kale, and quinoa. The license is pretty simple: It’s just a commitment to keep the seeds, and their derivatives, in the public domain. Instead of the pages of small print that comes with most patent use agreements, this is “almost like a haiku,” Goldman said. But, like the software-industry idea it borrows from, it also effectively commits those who use the seeds as raw material for new products to share those innovations under the same open-source terms. In other words, it’s contagious, in a good way. Jack Kloppenburg (who I’ve written about here) has been one of the main people pushing open source seeds. And Kloppenburg, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says this initiative is aimed at a larger problem. As with open-source software, these seeds are meant to encourage innovation and allow researchers to build quirky things for small markets. Bigger companies generally specialize their products for the biggest market. Here’s Dan Charles again: [Kloppenburg] says turning seeds into private property has contributed to the rise of big seed companies that in turn promote ever-bigger, more specialized farms. “The problem is concentration, and the narrow set of uses to which the technology and the breeding are being put,” he says. Kloppenburg says one important goal for this initiative is simply to get people thinking and talking about how seeds are controlled. “It’s to open people’s minds,” he says. “It’s kind of a biological meme, you might say: Free seed! Seed that can be used by anyone!” This doesn’t conclude the argument over seeds, by any means; it actually ups the stakes. Commercial seeds used to be naturally open source, and now they are overwhelmingly privatized. The Open Source Seed Initiative provides the opportunity to make what was an academic debate real again. For the moment, university scientists will probably be the main people to benefit from open-source seeds. But if you want some, you will soon be able to buy them from High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.Filed under: Article, Food

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

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In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn’t enough to secure approval. But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.” The promise of merely “scores” of jobs in a state with 8.9 million residents is a clue that job creation is not the real issue. One of Christie’s top cronies is involved in the proposal. The law firm of David Samson, whom Christie appointed as chair of the Port Authority, represents Rockland Capital, owners of the power plant that the Pinelands pipeline would supply with natural gas. As Wayne Barrett noted in the New York Daily News, “Christie … was so eager to help Rockland that his [Department of Environmental Protection] and Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to support the pipeline, paid for by rate increases, despite that the fact that … it would run underground through 15 miles of the million-acre Pinelands, the country’s first natural preserve and a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.” (Samson resigned from the Port Authority last month after the Bridgegate debacle and media reports that he is under federal investigation for lobbying for companies with business before the Port Authority.) The B.L. England power plant, which would be served by the pipeline, currently burns coal. Christie’s Democratic predecessors had forced it to sign agreements to reduce its pollution or switch to natural gas. The Christie administration gave it a reprieve until 2015. Switching from coal to gas could be beneficial to the climate — when burned, gas emits roughly half the CO2 that coal does (though that’s not so impressive compared to wind or solar). But in practice, natural gas drilling operations and pipelines often leak methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, which can neutralize any climate benefit. And beyond climate change, the pipeline would pose obvious threats to the local environment. Environmental critics say the proposal has such strong backing because the beneficiaries, such as Samson, are politically connected. “It’s not the jobs, it’s the power,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Tittel also speculates that Christie, seeking support from anti-environment conservatives in the Republican presidential primary, is trying to bolster his pro–fossil fuel bona fides. “The governor had been pro-wind until he went national,” says Tittel. “This [project] is in the middle of an area that was set aside for big wind farms. Cheap gas power will kill offshore wind.” The Christie administration did not respond to a request for comment. Environmentalists and neighbors would like to see the B.L. England plant shut down. Ironically, climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, makes its shoreline location especially precarious. “The power plant is in an area that floods with storm surges,” notes Tittel. And the plant is a blight on the shore. “It’s a big ugly smokestack in a scenic area, Ocean City, which is a tourist hub,” Tittel says. If you decommissioned the plant, Tittel argues, you could create more jobs with development of condos, hotels, and restaurants in the area. (Although any development in a future flood plain could be risky, power plants are especially vulnerable to a storm surge, as all of Lower Manhattan learned when it lost power for days after a transformer station on the East River got hit during Superstorm Sandy.) Unfortunately, New Jersey politicians are notorious for making these types of decisions on the basis of cronyism rather than empiricism. Christie’s latest heavy-handed tactic was to veto 5 percent raises for the Pinelands Commission staffers.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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Festival Walk slammed for poor maintenance after flooding

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Festival Walk shopping mall came under fire yesterday, accused of poor maintenance and a slow response to Sunday’s flood, as shopkeepers mopped up. The criticism came as the Observatory warned that heavy rain and squally thunderstorms would continue to affect Hong Kong and the region. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Here Are Some Sheep Storming the Louvre

You don’t really need context to enjoy a dozen sheep (and one sheepdog) running through the halls of the Louvre, but here it is anyway. Read more…

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Mexican gangs learn that lime pays (also crime)

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“I could just kill for a margarita right now,” you sigh, apparently ignorant of the fact that it is March, and the consumption of an iced beverage is nothing short of an act of insanity. It’s also probably the middle of the workday, so that in itself should be cause for concern in most circles. You’re also probably unaware that someone may have actually killed – as in, committed murder – for the limes that go in your hypothetical margarita. Cartels are invading the Mexican citrus trade, hijacking trucks, and forcibly taking over farms to sell the now-valuable fruit. Another day, another ring of organized criminals making the transition from eight balls to tasty treats! NPR reports that unprecedented rainfall in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Veracruz and a widespread bacterial infection in the state of Colima have resulted in minimal lime yields this year. As a result, farmers can charge a high price for their harvest, no matter the quality. The demand for delicious citrus fruit has not escaped the attention of former Mexican drug lords. Canadian CBC News reports that the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) cartel, an offshoot of the defunct but infamously brutal La Familia Michoacana, has been forcing farmers in the Tierra Caliente region to pay “protection taxes” to the cartel, which drive up lime prices even further. In some cases, the Knights Templar will seize citrus farms and take over production, sometimes killing farmers in the process. And according to NPR, lime producers are starting to hire security details to protect shipments of limes from organized hijackers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Knights Templar have been active in the region for years preceding this lime crisis, but it’s only provided further opportunity for them to profit. Organized crime in the Tierra Caliente region, which includes parts of Michoacán and Guerrero, has wreaked havoc on its agriculture. A recent evaluation by the National Chamber of Business, Services, and Tourism of Apatzingán, a central city in the Tierra Caliente valley, showed that the cost of restoring the local citrus farming industry alone would exceed $130 million (link in Spanish). Raúl Millan of Vision Import Group expressed surprise to NPR that customers are still buying up limes at prices that are double or triple what they normally are. Have you ever tried to separate the average American from her guac, Raúl? Come on. You know better.Filed under: Business & Technology, Food, Living

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Congress successfully took the wind out of wind energy’s sails last year

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America’s fossil fuel-smitten Congress helped China blow the U.S. out of the water last year when it came to installing new wind energy farms. A little more than 16 gigawatts of new wind capacity came online in China in 2013 — nearly half of the 36 gigawatts installed around the world. Compare that with a little more than 1 gigawatt that was installed in the U.S. — down alarmingly from 13 gigawatts the year before. That means American wind installations plummeted in a single year despite the falling price of wind energy, which is becoming lower than the price of electricity produced by burning natural gas in some parts of the country. Dude, where’s our wind? Well, the latest figures were calculated by Navigant Research, and it blamed a “politically divided Congress” in a new paywalled report for the faltering wind growth in the U.S. Congress allowed wind energy tax credits to blow away at the end of 2013 — so why would 2013′s installation figures be so bleak? According to the report, it was all about uncertainty. Lawmakers ”failed to extend tax incentives in time to positively impact the 2013 development and construction cycle.” (Needless to say, Congress, which failed to extend the tax credits amid fossil fuel lobbyist whining that the wind energy industry needs to stand on its own feet, failed to do anything about the billions of dollars in subsidies doled out to fossil fuel companies every year.) The new report contains some bleak news for those accustomed to reading about runaway growth in renewables. Less wind capacity was installed around the world in 2013 than had been the case in 2012 — the first time that such a decline has been recorded in eight years. Still, thing are looking bright — particularly for the emerging offshore wind sector. Thirteen new offshore projects added 1.7 gigawatts of capacity last year — up by 50 percent compared with 2012. And 6.6 gigawatts of new offshore capacity are currently under construction. The researchers forecast that the sector will rebound globally this year, with new installations expected to better last year’s effort by 30 percent. By the end of 2014, the researchers say wind energy will be meeting 2.9 percent of the world’s demand for electricity — a figure they expect to rise to 7.3 percent by 2018. Navigant ResearchClick to embiggen.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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This powerful app brings organic farming into the Candy Crush age

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FarmLogsScrew FarmVille. REAL farmers use FarmLogs. The app — which just snagged $4 million from investors — combines weather data, crop market rates, budgeting tools, and even tractor maintenance reminders into one powerful package. The intense work that is farming can’t be made easy with a few lines of code, obvi, but FarmLogs certainly helps. FarmLogsJesse Vollmar, who grew up on a farm, created the app with friend Brad Koch two years ago. (Vollmar was frustrated Big Ag wasn’t doing more to get farming up to speed in the digital age.) Since then, FarmLogs has spread to 130 countries, including 5 percent of American row farmers. Here’s part of Modern Farmer’s interview with Vollmar: “When you come into our product as a new farmer, you can start clicking on your field, and we already know the rainfall and crop history and what yield looks like for those fields,” says Vollmar. With this information, a budget for the season can be done in a matter of seconds, says Vollmar. “Agriculture really boils down to a science. It’s agronomy. And it can be optimized by applying data science.” FarmLogs especially useful on organic farms, Modern Farmer notes, because of all the record-keeping required to get the organic label. The app is definitely more utilitarian than entertaining, but we’d rather have organic produce than crushed candy any day.Filed under: Food, Living

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Farmers and eaters: Why can’t we be friends?

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A farmer from Iowa recently told me a story about visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. He chatted up foodsellers at the Ferry Building farmers market, visited the wine country, and met a lot of nice people. But he also noticed that whenever he told anyone that he was a corn and soybean farmer, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. Oh, that kind of farmer. In the Bay Area, saying “I grow corn and soy” is the real world version of saying Voldemort. This antipathy runs both ways, of course. Visiting Iowa, I felt a similar chill at times when I revealed that I was a California food writer. Another farmer asked me how I thought we should deal with the problem of people demanding organic foods. But I truly believe that we’re natural allies. The farmer and the eater should be friends! We all want the same thing: A sustainable system, one that provides fair compensation for food producers and makes the world a more healthy, delicious, and beautiful place with every bite. We should be breaking the path toward this goal together. And yet, instead of mutual respect, there’s acrimony, suspicion, and anger. Somehow we’ve gotten ourselves stuck, like a pair of feuding siblings, in a downward spiral where every attempt at good will comes across as an insult. For years farmers have been suffering under the crushing imperative from eaters to reduce prices. Farm customers never cared if the farmer had to cut down the old woodlot, or drain the pond where generations of kids have fished, or sell out to her neighbor; all they ever saw was a price sticker with a number on it. And in the past, we’ve just searched out the lowest number we could find. Now, that’s changing. People are starting to say, “You know, we really should be paying for the true cost of food.” The response from conventional farmers: “Pay more for food? That’s elitist.” Farmers complain that eaters are wildly misinformed, and ignorant to the realities of agriculture. And that, I have to say, is often true: If we’re not savvy, the money we’re willing to spend is liable to go to the slickest marketing illusion, instead of actually paying for healthier, more environmentally friendly food. But here again, farmers and eaters are united in their goals. Farmers want their customers to truly understand what they are doing on their farms. At the same time, eaters are practically breaking down the barn doors because we’re (finally!) desperate to understand what’s going on with our food. It seems like the solution would be to throw open those doors. Or we could just go the opposite direction and ban recording on farms, because, you know, whatever. Let’s review: Foodies want to pay a fair price for food, farmers want to earn a fair price. Farmers want people to understand what they are doing, and eaters are eager to learn. What exactly was the problem here? If we can take two steps back like this, it all seems obvious. But down in the trenches it’s much more confusing. People from my part of the world tend to like farmers, we just think that the conventional ones have been brainwashed and are in the thrall of giant agricultural corporations. And, in turn, conventional farmers tend to think that organically inclined eaters are basically good people who have been duped by a gigantic advertising apparatus. I want to suggest, very gently, that both are a little bit right. There are plenty of people out there who have literally bet the farm on expensive new equipment, who now must defend their form of agriculture — in opposition, if need be, to the best evidence. And there are plenty of eaters who become fixated on one particular chemical, or on GMOs, or on a fad nutrient, instead of looking holistically at what’s best for their health and the heath of the land. Yes, there’s a giant sloshing sea of misinformation, and yes, sometimes it seems as if eaters and farmers are more interested in confirming their prejudices than actually listening to one another. The first step here is the same one you’d have to take as feuding siblings: Someone has to swallow their pride. When someone from either side asks me how they can get the other to listen to reason, I always tell them they are asking the wrong question. If you want someone to listen to you, you first have to listen to them, and listen closely. This can be hard: Farmers and eaters are separated, not just ideologically, but also geographically — and that gulf is widest between the big coast cities and the big plains farms. It’s hard to start a conversation from 1,000 miles away. But it’s not at all impossible: There are a few conduits connecting thoughtful farmers to thoughtful eaters, and you happen to be reading one now. As an eater, I want my food dollar to go to good stewards of the land, to build strong towns full of healthy people, to make a greener, more delectable future. What I’d like to know from farmers is, how can I best support you to achieve those goals? I’m listening.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food, Living

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Protests near Cairo University leave one dead

Several also wounded at demonstrations sparked by Monday’s death sentences for alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

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Turkish court orders halt to Twitter ban

Access to Twitter expected to be restored within hours after court lifts last week’s controversial ban on platform.

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Bin Laden son-in-law guilty of terrorism

Suleiman Abu Ghaith is highest-ranking al-Qaeda figure to face trial on US soil since September 11, 2001 attacks.

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Ukraine centre stage in EU-US Brussels summit

Russian annexation of Crimea set to dominate trade talks between Obama and European leaders meeting in Belgian capital.

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Syrian rebels slowly advancing in Latakia

Clashes rage over another coastal town in northern province, days after rebels seized border crossing.

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MH370 search satellite spots 122 objects

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Possible plane debris field identified in development Malaysian officials call “the most credible lead that we have”.

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US labour contractor liable for abuse of Thai workers on Hawaii farms

<!– google_ad_section_start –> The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination labour laws, announced the ruling against California-based Global Horizons on Monday. The firm placed the workers at six farms across the state. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Washington mudslide death toll, now at 14, expected to rise

Death toll from devastating Washington state landslide remained at 14 Tuesday but was expected to rise, with many more people missing

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Gardening plots at train stations let you raise veggies while you commute

No one hangs out at a train station for fun. But Tokyo is apparently changing that. With community garden plots atop train stations, the city is solving two seemingly unrelated problems: Transit hubs can be ugly and industrial-looking, and city-dwellers often don’t have space to garden. Fast Co. For about $82 a month, Tokyo residents can grow veggies, flowers, and herbs at one of five train station gardens, or “Soradofarms.” Those with thumbs more black than green can get advice, help looking for pests, and weeding assistance. Tools and seeds are provided too. Not only does ripping up weeds sound therapeutic after a long day at work, but Fast Company says the spaces bring the community together, functioning almost like public parks. “For many, it’s just a place to come to relax,” writes Adele Peters. “[F]amilies come for picnics or to give their kids a little extra room to run around.” We can think of a few transit stops where a whiff of fresh lavender would do a world of good.Filed under: Cities, Living

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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Chocolate Artisan Truffles by Just Chocolate

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New July 2013