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Sudan’s Worsening Food Crisis

South Sudan faces the worst food crisis in the world – and it’s about to dramatically worsen. The need for aid is urgent and growing.

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These maps of California’s water shortage are terrifying

Just how bad is California’s water shortage? Really, really bad, according to these new maps, which represent groundwater withdrawals in California during the first three years of the state’s ongoing and epochal drought: J.T. Reager / NASA Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe maps come from a new paper in Nature Climate Change by NASA water scientist James Famiglietti. “California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers of total water per year since 2011,” he writes. That’s “more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually — over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley.” Famiglietti uses satellite data to measure how much water people are sucking out of the globe’s aquifers, and summarized his research in his new paper. More than 2 billion people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source, Famiglietti writes. Known as groundwater (as opposed to surface water, the stuff that settles in lakes and flows in streams and rivers), it’s also the source of at least half the irrigation water we rely on to grow our food. When drought hits, of course, farmers rely on groundwater even more, because less rain and snow means less water flowing above ground. The lesson Famiglietti draws from satellite data is chilling: “Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned.” The Central Valley boasts some of the globe’s fastest-depleting aquifers — but by no means the fastest overall. Indeed, it has a rival here in the United States. The below graphic represents depletion rates at some of the globe’s largest aquifers, nearly all of which Famiglietti notes, “underlie the world’s great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity.” J.T. Reager / NASA Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe navy-blue line represents the Ogallala aquifer — a magnificent water resource now being sucked dry to grow corn in the U.S. high plains. Note that it has quietly dropped nearly as much as the Central Valley’s aquifers (yellow line) over the past decade. The plunging light-blue line represents the falling water table in Punjab, India’s breadbasket and the main site of that irrigation-intensive agricultural “miracle” known as the Green Revolution, which industrialized the region’s farm fields starting in the 1960s. The light-green line represents China’s key growing region, the north plain. Its relatively gentle fall may look comforting, but the water table there has been dropping steadily for years. All of this is happening with very little forethought or regulation. Unlike underground oil, underground water draws very little research on how much is actually there. We know we’re siphoning it away faster than it can be replaced, but we have little idea of how long we can keep doing so, Famiglietti writes. He adds, though, that if current trends hold, “groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades.” As for regulation, it’s minimal across the globe. In most places, he writes, there’s a “veritable groundwater ‘free for all': property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater.” And the more we pump, the worse things get. As water tables drop, wells have to go deeper into the earth, increasing pumping costs. What’s left tends to be high in salts, which inhibit crop yields and can eventually cause soil to lose productivity altogether. Eventually, “inequity issues arise because only the relatively wealthy can bear the expense of digging deeper wells, paying greater energy costs to pump groundwater from increased depths and treating the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within aquifers,” Famiglietti writes — a situation already playing out in California’s Central Valley, where some low-income residents have seen their wells go dry. In a reporting trip to the southern part of the Central Valley this past summer, I saw salt-caked groves with wan, suffering almond trees — the result of irrigation with salty water pumped from deep in the aquifer. All of this is taking place in a scenario of rapid climate change and steady population growth—so we can expect steeper droughts and more demand for water. Famiglietti’s piece ends with a set of recommendations for bringing the situation under control: Essentially, let’s carefully measure the globe’s groundwater and treat it like a precious resource, not a delicious milkshake to casually suck down to the dregs. In the meantime, Famiglietti warns, “further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others.” This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food

Continue reading These maps of California’s water shortage are terrifying

Scary maps show how bad California’s water shortage is

Just how bad is California’s water shortage? Really, really bad, according to these new maps, which represent groundwater withdrawals in California during the first three years of the state’s ongoing and epochal drought: J.T. Reager / NASA Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe maps come from a new paper in Nature Climate Change by NASA water scientist James Famiglietti. “California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers of total water per year since 2011,” he writes. That’s “more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually — over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley.” Famiglietti uses satellite data to measure how much water people are sucking out of the globe’s aquifers, and summarized his research in his new paper. More than 2 billion people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source, Famiglietti writes. Known as groundwater (as opposed to surface water, the stuff that settles in lakes and flows in streams and rivers), it’s also the source of at least half the irrigation water we rely on to grow our food. When drought hits, of course, farmers rely on groundwater even more, because less rain and snow means less water flowing above ground. The lesson Famiglietti draws from satellite data is chilling: “Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned.” The Central Valley boasts some of the globe’s fastest-depleting aquifers — but by no means the fastest overall. Indeed, it has a rival here in the United States. The below graphic represents depletion rates at some of the globe’s largest aquifers, nearly all of which Famiglietti notes, “underlie the world’s great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity.” J.T. Reager / NASA Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe navy-blue line represents the Ogallala aquifer — a magnificent water resource now being sucked dry to grow corn in the U.S. high plains. Note that it has quietly dropped nearly as much as the Central Valley’s aquifers (yellow line) over the past decade. The plunging light-blue line represents the falling water table in Punjab, India’s breadbasket and the main site of that irrigation-intensive agricultural “miracle” known as the Green Revolution, which industrialized the region’s farm fields starting in the 1960s. The light-green line represents China’s key growing region, the north plain. Its relatively gentle fall may look comforting, but the water table there has been dropping steadily for years. All of this is happening with very little forethought or regulation. Unlike underground oil, underground water draws very little research on how much is actually there. We know we’re siphoning it away faster than it can be replaced, but we have little idea of how long we can keep doing so, Famiglietti writes. He adds, though, that if current trends hold, “groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades.” As for regulation, it’s minimal across the globe. In most places, he writes, there’s a “veritable groundwater ‘free for all': property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater.” And the more we pump, the worse things get. As water tables drop, wells have to go deeper into the earth, increasing pumping costs. What’s left tends to be high in salts, which inhibit crop yields and can eventually cause soil to lose productivity altogether. Eventually, “inequity issues arise because only the relatively wealthy can bear the expense of digging deeper wells, paying greater energy costs to pump groundwater from increased depths and treating the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within aquifers,” Famiglietti writes — a situation already playing out in California’s Central Valley, where some low-income residents have seen their wells go dry. In a reporting trip to the southern part of the Central Valley this past summer, I saw salt-caked groves with wan, suffering almond trees — the result of irrigation with salty water pumped from deep in the aquifer. All of this is taking place in a scenario of rapid climate change and steady population growth—so we can expect steeper droughts and more demand for water. Famiglietti’s piece ends with a set of recommendations for bringing the situation under control: Essentially, let’s carefully measure the globe’s groundwater and treat it like a precious resource, not a delicious milkshake to casually suck down to the dregs. In the meantime, Famiglietti warns, “further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others.” This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food

Continue reading Scary maps show how bad California’s water shortage is

Inside New York’s Most Powerful Diner

Michael Bloomberg, Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon—with a little Clint Eastwood on the side.

Continue reading Inside New York’s Most Powerful Diner

This company invented a better soda can. Why isn’t anybody buying?

Earlier this month, Novelis — the largest aluminum recycler in the world — opened up a brand new $260 million plant in Germany and set up shop to make the “evercan,” a beverage can sourced from 90 percent recycled aluminum. Despite being cheaper to make and way better for the environment, Big Beverage doesn’t seem so stoked on the idea of the evercan just yet. None of the globe’s top beverage companies — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, MillerCoors and the like — have approached Novelis about their evercan. In fact, the company has only one major customer so far, Red Hare Brewing Co., a craft brewer based in Marietta, Ga. So what’s the deal? Marc Gunther from The Guardian reports that cans made from recycled aluminum require as little as 5 percent of the energy it takes to make virgin aluminum from bauxite — the element from which aluminum is derived. Major automakers are starting to turn to Novelis for aluminum — like Ford, which is taking the whole closed-loop system even further by selling its leftover scrap aluminum back to Novelis to recycle all over again. So why aren’t soda companies jumping on board? Part of the issue lies in the reluctance of some companies to commit to a single aluminum supplier. Other companies, like Coca-Cola, focus more of their efforts on PET (short for polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles, not cans, Gunther writes: At first glance Coca-Cola would seem like the most obvious major evercan customer, since the firm has pledged to increase recycling of bottles and cans and use more recycled and renewable content in packaging … The Coca-Cola system (which includes the Atlanta-based drinks company and bottlers around the world) has made major investments in bottle-to-bottle recycling technology for PET, as well as introducing “plantbottle”, a PET container made from sugar cane and sugar cane waste. Drinks in PET plastic account for about 60% of its global sales. Scott Vitters, who leads Coke’s sustainable packaging efforts, told me by phone that PET bottles have one obvious advantage over cans: they are resealable and thus extremely convenient for on-the-go customers. “Glass, metal, fountain and PET all meet different consumers’ needs”, Vitters said. Of course, some aluminum bottles are resealable as well. There’s no easy solution to get more major beverage companies to jump on the recycled can bandwagon, Gunther writes. Sure, lassoing one major brand, like Coca-Cola, could help influence other big-names to embrace the evercan. But there also needs to be a greater push from the aluminum, beverage, and waste industries to amp up recycling efforts so that companies like Novelis have more to recycle, he writes. Due props to Novelis for introducing a recycled can that’s greener than most. And Big Bev, you should give the evercan a closer look. Heck, you’re giving us all gout and type 2 diabetes; delivering our sugary drinks in more sustainable aluminum is the least you could do.Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food, Living

Continue reading This company invented a better soda can. Why isn’t anybody buying?

Sorry, but your shrimp platter didn’t come from the Gulf

We already knew about the mangroves. We knew about the bycatch and habitat destruction. Heck, we knew about the whole SLAVERY thing, but that didn’t stop us from gobbling shrimp scampi like they’re going extinct. And, still, we hoped there might be a better way. Now, clearly sensing we might need another deterrent to stop eating ALL THE SHRIMP all the time, the world sent us some new bad news about the tasty, tasty crustaceans: They’re probably not what you think they are. In a report released Thursday, ocean-advocacy group Oceana conducted a survey of 111 restaurants and grocery stores across the U.S., and found that more than a third of the sampled shrimp were vaguely labeled, or else mislabeled entirely. The confusion begins with the fact that there are 41 species of shrimp sold in the U.S., but any of them may just be labeled as “shrimp.” It deepens when it turns out that many of those labeled “Gulf” or “wild-caught” were really a species of farmed shrimp. It’s easy to prawn off these crustaceans as more valuable versions of themselves when more than 90 percent of the U.S. shrimp is imported, and only a small percent of that is ever inspected. Still, the depth and variety of deception is shrimply staggering. Consider this from the Guardian: Unexpectedly, some of the shrimp that were identified in the survey were genetically unknown to science, and one sample taken from a bag of frozen seafood even turned out to be a banded coral shrimp — a species renowned on reefs and coveted as a ‘pet’ shrimp by aquarium enthusiasts, but certainly not as food. “It’s one of the things you look for on a reef,” Warner says. “How it ended up in a bag of salad-size shrimp, I have no idea.” New York had one of the highest rates of shrimp-fraud, with 43 percent of samples misrepresented — but no one got off scot-free. The only possible way to feel WORSE about eating shrimp is to go eat 101 of them at Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp promotion. That’s REALLY going to hurt.Filed under: Business & Technology, Food

Continue reading Sorry, but your shrimp platter didn’t come from the Gulf

This fishy crime landed a man in prison

From the sordid food crime files, a new tale! Basically, Brooklyn fishmonger Alan Dresner sold $500,000 of illegally caught fluke between 2009 and 2011. For those not in the know, fluke — besides being an Ebert-approved film about a talking dog and a kind of parasitic flatworm — is a fish more commonly called summer flounder. Seafood Watch gives the Atlantic stocks a “Good Alternative” rating, based on a well-managed population with some potential for bycatch or overfishing. That’s where the “illegal” part of this food crime comes in. Dresner’s flounder were caught by Anthony Joseph, a Long Island fisherman with a flagrant disregard for catch quotas. Scooping up excess fish under the false pretenses of a program intended for scientific research, the fisherman instead baited wholesalers like Dresner with the promise of plenty of fish. In return, Dresner filed over a hundred false dealer reports that concealed Joseph’s, uh, flexible interpretation of the law. But when you get tangled up in risky fishery business, sometimes you get caught — to the tune of four months in federal prison: Dresner, identified only as ‘Fish Dealer X” in the original case (“Fish Dealer X” is definitely your next band name, FYI), pled guilty to one count of wire fraud. In addition to his prison sentence, he’s also on the hook for $510,000 in restitution, a $6,000 fine, and a $15,000 donation towards the preservation of local fluke habitats. Ouch. And while Joseph was convicted on even harsher terms in April, a special agent on the case called Dresner out as a crucial enabler in this crime:“[T]hese dealers created the market for these illicit, unreported fish, and their willingness to conspire with the harvesters of these fish to not report them completely undermines the system of trying to obtain the best available science to manage this fishery.” Oof. Salt in the wound, right?Filed under: Food, Living

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Millennials, Monsanto wants to be your hipster friend

Who knows what it is about millennials that makes them so … significant when it comes to the marketing ploys of big companies. Maybe because there are 80 million of us, and we’re all potential consumers. Somehow, though, millennials have become the generational equivalent to Shaft — always flying under the radar and impossibly cool. Which is why Monsanto recently made the decision to hire a young, hip, connected foodie as its “Director of Millennial Engagement.” Or, in other words, “Director of Making Monsanto Look Less Evil to Young People.” The new director is Vance Crowe, a 32 year-old who has been schmoozin’ with foodies and young farmers with handlebar mustaches on behalf of the Big Ag company since June. But the over-studied generation has become more of a product than a group of people — and the more the word is used, the more it becomes rusty, old, and, well, just plain uncool. So, as the term millennials becomes more and more convoluted by businesses scrambling for their love and affection, how does The Director himself define them? Here’s Vance in an interview with NPR food writer Eliza Barclay: Millennials are looking to how they’re going to fit into the economy and culture, and they have a new set of ideas that need to be incorporated into all aspects of global life. We use the term “millennial,” but it really has to do with new ideas out there, and listening to them. And when it comes to getting to know those ideas firsthand, how does The Director of Hangin’ with the Cool Kids do it? One of the first things I did on the job was ride along with a Monsanto seed salesman. He is in his 30s, and has a big handlebar mustache and college education on breeding corn. He took me around and introduced me to farmers he’s been selling to. Many of the farmers were 50-plus years old, but they had a son or nephew learning from them. These are the millennial farmers who grew up on the farm and went away to school. When they come back to the farm, they’re pushing limits with more technology, and different ideas about cover crops. Monsanto is a veteran punching bag, and often the face of Big Ag. Though it has been named one of 2014’s top 25 best places to work in the world, the company has a long history of PR flubs. There are yearly marches against Monsanto, and it carries the popular hashtag #monsantoevil like an albatross. If I’m at all representative, I might add that this millennial grew up with the presumption that Monsanto was a super-villain. Crowe’s job may just be impossible.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food, Living

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Yes, candy is evil, but denying yourself on Halloween will only make you healthy and boring

Candy is bad for you and often unethical. It’s not even very satisfying. But here’s the thing: My mouth loves it. One sentence into writing about candy, my salivary glands are spilling slobber. I’m craving a king-size Kit-Kat, or at least a bite of Krackle. Last week, the Huffington Post blog alerted us once again to an ancient evil long practiced by the mega-confectioners that rule Halloween: Candy, like nearly everything that comes in a package, is made with lots of palm oil, a.k.a. orangutan blood. You probably know pervasive palm products arrive in our homes thanks to rainforest habitat hack-downs and horribly treated workers. But! Buying less candy is NOT the answer. Why not? Because — as fellow Gristfellow Eve Andrews reminded us in an story about the absurdity of lamenting toast’s environmental impact — conscious eating does not equal life hating. The palm oil news (newsflash: not news) is disappointing but far from surprising. These days, candy makers serve up more tricks than treats. They trick well-intentioned buyers with meaningless green labels and fat-free candy corn. A few years back, Hershey’s got caught tricking foreign students into a “summer work and travel” program that’s effectively a summer of slavery in the company’s packing plants. Earlier this week, funny guy John Oliver brilliantly reminded us how the sugar industry sneaks sugar into, well, everything, exacerbating our well-documented health problems. His point, though, was one Grist made four years ago, with a piece called “In defense of candy“: The problem is not sweets, it’s the candification of the rest of our food — from high-fructose corn syrupy drinks to mountains of sweetener in all types of secretly sugary packaged foods (like”healthy” granola bars and freezer pizza). So: Big Candy is about as evil as the rest of Big Food, but candy itself is most definitely not the problem. And even if it were, we’re not about to forego gobblin’ up Gobstoppers in our goblin suits this Hallow’s Eve. Giving out bullshit-healthy “treats” like Nutri-Grain bars is a good way to get your house TP’ed. Taking the actual-health-food route isn’t any better: It’s Halloween. (Ask your dentist if anyone likes her better for handing out baby carrots.) Which all begs the question: What sweets do we buy for trick-or-treaters (and then inevitably keep for ourselves to snarf all evening and into the next week)? Spendy ethical chocolate, perhaps from a fair-trade cooperative? Soulless vegan M&M knockoffs? Home-cooked almond joy? These are all yummy options for the mindful sweet-tooth, but is your 7-year-old neighbor in a Batman costume really going to notice he’s eating a carefully crafted eco-candy in the three-second interval between grabbing the wrapper and emptying its contents directly into his esophagus? The HuffPost article misses the mark. After painstakingly describing the myriad threats palm oil poses to life and the climate, Diana Donlon of the Center for Food Safety earnestly touts a list of less tricky treats that won’t cost the planet as much, but will probably cost your wallet more than you want to spend on candy. The solution isn’t to deny ourselves what we love and then spend wads of money on things we don’t love much more but enable us to emit smug out our buttholes. And the solution is definitely not to boycott candy. We all have sugar addictions to feed (guilty as charged). Allow me to pontificate for one moment: In the fight for a more ecological and fair economy (and food system), voting with our puny candy change does not do much to destabilize the status quo. In fact, shitty candy is the exact right place for Big Sugar. Better to enjoy your once-a-year-binge. Or hell, fuel up on partially hydrogenated palm kernels any old time for a sugar-powered protest against deforestation and human rights abuses — or a transparent food system that doesn’t coddle Big Sugar. In fact, leave the candy aside (or in my mouth): A better celebration of Halloween might start by not contributing to the $350 million Americans spend on brand-new costumes for pets. But I’ll save that for next Halloween (or tomorrow). Until then, check out all the great ideas from Grist’s guide to a green ‘ween. Just remember: No handing out pumpkin hummus to trick-or-treaters, you ignorant hipster. Filed under: Food, Living

Continue reading Yes, candy is evil, but denying yourself on Halloween will only make you healthy and boring

The New Yorker food issue, ranked by kale factor

In the New Yorker food issue, the word “kale” appears in 83 percent of the feature stories — including the fiction. Writer John Lanchester got his mention in while coining the term “compulsory kale,” a phrase which feels deeply right. If kale is compulsory, even in magazine features, then the trend must be past its apogee: What is compulsory cannot also be surprising, subversive, and delightful. That’s just one of the insights into our culinary state that emerges when you focus the collective thinking power of the New Yorker staff on food! Here’s my summary guide to the whole issue — annotated to indicate how many times each piece uses the “K” word. “Shut up and eat“: John Lanchester on the excesses of food fixation Key point: In a very real, but non-physical way, we are what we eat. Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go — about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. This is why it’s all but impossible to talk about GMOs or (fine!) kale without also talking about their metaphorical meanings. We are really talking about identity. In fact, when we talk about either of those things, the metaphor usually obscures the reality. This frustrates farmers and scientists, and leads to strange food fads, but: Underlying it, however, is that sense of food as an expression of an identity that’s defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice. For most people throughout history, that wasn’t true. The apparent silliness and superficiality of food fashions and trends touches on something deep: our ability to choose who we want to be. “Bakeoff“: Adam Gopnik on the cronut (and the pretzel croissant) Key point: Honest, pragmatic food (and people, and ideas) never inspire zealotry. Sanity is always soporific. This is why mildly reformist social democrats, however sterling their records of success, rarely make the face of the currencies they have saved. The truth will not set us free. It is too tedious to do that. The truth is a cup of coffee and a boiled egg on plain white toast. Fantasy is a croissant in love with crystal salt, or, better, a fried and filled croissant sold in the early morning and costing hours in lost sleep. Also: [S]o many prized tastes, from white truffles to durians, sit right on the edge of being slightly sickening. “Floating feasts“: David Owen on feeding cruise ships Key point: A large number of people confined in close quarters eats an ungodly amount of food: a metric ton of lobster per trip; 600 pounds of French fries a night. This is what those fries look like while still frozen: Piled on a counter to his left were a dozen bags the size of pillows. “That’s about five minutes’ worth,” [executive chef Lorenzo] Dearie said. Think of the implications for feeding a more affluent world — where every city is essentially an oversized cruise ship. “Against the grain“: Michael Specter on gluten Key point: It may be that the culprit behind whatever part of “gluten intolerance” is real is certain carbohydrates in bread, and not gluten at all. Another key point: Gluten has been marketed as a health food (seitan), and gluten-free versions of processed foods are often more unhealthy than the originals. People seem to forget that a gluten-free cake is still a cake. “Elite meat“: Dana Goodyear on the “sustainable meat” company Belcampo (no kales!) Key point: Belcampo CEO Anya Fernald doesn’t want her meat to be elite; she wants regular Americans to buy high-end meat … less often. Belcampo … in a country flooded with three-dollar-a-pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, wants to restore meat to its status as a luxury: delicious, expensive, and rare. (Also see Darby Minow Smith’s piece on this.) We live in a time of overindulgence and asceticism: Cronuts and cruise-liner fare excess leads to gluten-free repentance, which in turn becomes an overindulgence in gluten-free junk food. The possibility that Belcampo offers is alluring: We could trade this binge and purge cycle with a steady reliance on higher quality and smaller portions. But maybe the correct approach is to stop trying so hard to have a correct approach. As Lanchester writes, “If shopping and cooking really are the most consequential, most political acts in my life, perhaps what that means is that our sense of the political has shrunk too far — shrunk so much that it fits into our recycled-hemp shopping bags.” I, at least, want to be more than what I eat. Filed under: Article, Food

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How to eat local during the zombie apocalypse

Admit it: You’ve been watching too many horror movies this week — which means you’ve probably also been planning your survival strategy for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. Familiar questions include: ‘Hit the gun shop with all the other trigger-happy humans, or hunker down through the initial bloodbath to clean up on melee weapons like axes and golf clubs?’* ‘Gather a crew of cautiously loyal friends or go lone wolf?’* and the inevitable: ‘To boat or not to boat?’* But while stockpiling ammo and antibiotics is all well and good, have you thought much about your menu? With probable months of blood-soaked terror ahead of you, you’re going to want to make sure you’re not facing the interpersonal and existential stresses of the apocalypse on beer nuts and Twinkies. Just in time for these seasonal visions of hangry undead to set in, Modern Farmer’s Cathy Barrow comes to our rescue with a how-to guide for stocking your own plague bunker with home-canned local goodies: Friends would wander into my basement and gasp. They snickered. They questioned my sanity. Lined up against three walls, the heavy-duty steel shelves packed with jars of home-canned food looked like the contents of a fallout shelter. Or the home of a hoarder. “What do you do with all this food?” and “I see you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse!” And I’m OK with that. Because I live with the security that my pantry is filled with food that comes from farmers I know, in jars that can sustain us all winter long. (Well, farmers you USED to know, who are almost all certainly dead or disembowling someone now.) Almost as staggering: Barrow processes a whole 300 pounds of tomatoes every year to last her through the winter, as well as corn, beets, soup, jams, relish, chutney, and even fish. Yeah, you heard that right: “It’s ridiculously straightforward — pack a jar with raw fish, cover with water or olive oil and pressure can.” Now there’s a nutritious and shelf-stable snack I would eat and/or cower behind any day. And while Barrow makes it all sound easy, I know that surviving post-apocalyptic horror scenarios is hard work. For example, this one time, I made blueberry jam. I spilled a lot of it, burned my hand, and in the end it filled about three-quarters of a jar. That would have made for a pretty miserable (and short) zombie stake-out, but now I know I can do better. If the future necessitates severing countless undead heads from ditto torsos, I at least want to know that, at the end of a hard day’s wetwork, I can sit down to a dinner table that offers seasonal delights, locally grown and thoughtfully harvested sometime before The Fall. Basically what I’m saying is “pressure canner” is now right on my Halloween preppers list, right after “chainsaw-bayonet rifle.” — Answers: *Hunker, obviously — nothing crazier than a horde, alive or undead. *Neither! Trick question. Find a friend you can trust to keep watch while you sleep, but don’t hesitate to take the kill shot if/when the time comes. *Boat. Always boat.Filed under: Food, Living

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Watch Mark Bittman talk almond milk, hamburgers, and more

We have a game we like to play with famous visitors to Grist World HQ. It’s called Vs., and it goes something like this: Famous person sits down. Gristers present visitor with two related words or ideas or songs. Gristers then force visitor to choose one over the other — and explain why he or she chose it. Visitor squirms, Gristers giggle, repeat. It’s fun! For the latest Vs., our guest is esteemed New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. You may know him from such books as How to Cook Everything, Vegan Before 6 P.M., or his latest, How to Cook Everything Fast. Almond milk vs. dairy milk? Cooking your own hamburger vs. buying a prepackaged salad? Organic vs. integrated pest management? We’ve piqued your interest enough! Just watch the video.Filed under: Food, Living

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If you don’t kill your own meat, at least watch The Slaughter

If you are an environmentally conscious foodie looking for a Halloween horror film, I’ve got just the one for you. From the start, The Slaughter — a 15-minute short film directed by Jason Kohl — is filled with foreboding. The Slaughter is about the father-son relationship on a small, outdoor hog operation. It’s no spoiler to say that something bad is going to happen; we know from the title that death is coming, and Kohl keeps a subtle undercurrent of anxiety running throughout. I like this film because it’s a corrective tonic to the triumphalism of food culture. When people gather around the table it’s only natural to celebrate and delight in our food. But we should also be aware that, no matter how scrupulously correct our food choices are, there are always tradeoffs. After considerable wrestling with the morality, I’ve chosen to eat meat from animals who were not made to suffer during their life. But even in the best-case scenario, meat-eating — mine or anyone’s — does require slaughter. Agriculture is hard, and messy, and sometimes brutal. That’s a big part of why we are so alienated from our food these days: Deep down, we don’t want to confront those hard realities and tradeoffs. Obviously there’s a huge difference between animal agriculture, where killing is part of the picture, and horticulture. But even vegetable farming leads to hard choices and agonizing uncertainty; just read Arlo Crawford’s sweet book, A Farm Dies Once A Year, or this funny, angry, expletive-laced rant by organic farmer Claire Boyles. The only thing that seemed off to me in The Slaughter was a final confrontation between father and son. (I won’t spoil it; suffice to say that there’s an unusual sort of trauma at the end.) The strength of the rest of the film is that it simply dramatizes the usual trauma of farming, the normalized, everyday pain that we try not to see. For me, watching this film was a reminder: Farmers do our dirty work, and for that they deserve our thanks. If we don’t like the realities of agriculture, farmers will gladly accept our money to produce different foods — tofu, or vat-grown meat, perhaps. But no matter what foods we choose, there will be tradeoffs — good and bad — in the mode of production.Filed under: Article, Food, Living

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Food expiration dates are garbage. Here’s a new label that’ll make you think before you toss.

Food expiration dates are for wussies. No seriously, they’re really not that important. Dates on labels like “best by,” “best-before,” or “enjoy by” are actually just guidelines from food manufacturers advising retailers when they think their food will be the tastiest. More often than not, most food is edible for days or weeks after the suggested date on a label. That means most of us are probably throwing away hard-earned groceries. We toss about 40 percent of all the food we buy, or more than 20 pounds per person each month. Cue Bump Mark, a new food label meant to safeguard against unnecessary tossing. The label is made of four different layers from top to bottom: plastic film, a layer of gelatin, a plastic bump sheet, and another piece of plastic film. As the food inside the package starts to decay, so does the gelatin in the label. By the time both the food inside and the gelatin have expired, all that’s left on the label is the layer of bumps. As long as the label is still smooth to the touch, the food is still OK to eat. The Washington Post reports: “Because gelatin is a food, the same things affect it as the food inside a package,” explains London-based designer Solveiga Pakstaite, a finalist for the James Dyson Award. “It has an interesting property that when it expires, it turns back into a liquid. I couldn’t just use any natural substance — it had to be one that changes its state.” By changing the concentration of gelatin, the designer can match the label to specific foods. A weak concentration breaks down faster, and works for foods such as milk and meats that don’t last as long. For any given food, the label can be adjusted to degrade at exactly the same rate. “You can actually adapt this to any kind of product,” Pakstaite says. Pakstaite, who is currently looking for a commercial partner to back Bump Mark, predicts that her food label of the future will probably cost a bit more than a standard sticker. A slightly more expensive label seems like a small price to pay, though — especially given that in America alone, the amount of food we throw out tops $165 billion each year and is responsible for about a quarter of our methane emissions once it starts rotting in a landfill. It’s enough to make you think twice before cleaning out the fridge.Filed under: Food, Living

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Should meat be a luxury?

Mom and dad, cover your eyes. Now that my cattle-ranching parents aren’t reading, I’ll say it: Americans eat too much meat. We’ve gone from eating four ounces of meat twice a week in 1920 to eating 4.4 to 6.9 ounces a day, according to a recent New Yorker article. To keep up with demand, the U.S. brims with monstrous factory farms. And that’s not healthy for animals, humans, or the planet. So, how to solve meat overconsumption? You could approach meat as a sometimes-treat and utilize less-popular cuts and organs like tongue. Meat-as-luxury, an idea as old as time, has been applauded by many food thinkers. But Dana Goodyear’s aforementioned article “Elite Meat” does an excellent job of showing how that looks on the ground. Goodyear profiles Anya Fernald, the co-founder and CEO of Belcampo, a company that includes a sustainable farm, a slaughterhouse, butcher shops, and restaurants. At $15.99 a pound for skinless chicken breasts, the resulting meat is pricey — but that doesn’t keep Belcampo’s products from flying off the shelf. The story of Belcampo gets at a critical food movement tension. On one hand, Fernald wants meat to be a luxury that we can’t overconsume. On the other, she wants to go beyond competing with hipster butcher shops. “I want to be the next Safeway,” she says. (Yo, Fernald, have you been to a Safeway? Pull up a bucket of potato salad and think this through.) While it’s clear Fernald wouldn’t mind distancing herself from the hipster moniker in general, the piece includes choice bits like this: In Italy, Fernald had met and married an Italian named Renato Sardo; pregnant with Viola, she lived on tofu skin and could barely look at a picture of meat, much less eat the real thing. Developing the burger for Belcampo’s first shop, she forced herself to sit for tastings, eight burgers at a time, sometimes twice a week. She averted her eyes, took small bites, and spat into a napkin. Now she is back on meat, but she and Sardo have separated. He makes artisan pasta. Aw, Anya, you’ll never relate to the average American if you’re spitting beef like wine and sharing custody with a cool pasta maker. Just put on the Enya and make peace with your hip self, already. Fernald also characterizes vegetarianism as a phase for new foodies in their early 20s. This isn’t just patronizing — if someone’s concerned about industrial meat and can’t afford silk wrap dresses, vegetarianism is a much better solution than saving up for a $12 burger. The story is full of tech company comparisons and cool kids. Here’s that food movement you ordered, Mr. Berry: “[M]y Uber driver posted a link to Belcampo on his Pinterest page,” [Fernald] said cheerily. I don’t mean to poke too much fun at a business that, on the whole, I’m glad exists. But my favorite moment in the story comes when Belcampo retail president and oversized-glasses-wearer Bronwen Hanna-Korpi tries to get the blue-collar workers at the slaughterhouse to eat headcheese: At eleven-thirty, a rush of plant workers came in holding Playmate coolers and packs of Marlboro Reds, wearing “Sons of Anarchy” and Budweiser gear. As they lined up in front of the microwave, Hanna-Korpi tried to explain headcheese to them. “It sounds disgusting, but it’s delicious,” she said. A man in a tank top looked at her skeptically and squirted some ketchup on his spaghetti. Hanna-Korpi appealed to Glenn Gonzales, a manager in charge of packing operations, who had been in the morning’s meeting. “Eat some headcheese, Glenn,” she said. “Nope,” he said, smiling and shaking his head, as he filled a white hot-dog roll with yellow mustard and layered on some Oscar Mayer bologna. “That headcheese will sit here,” a receptionist said. “It’s funky-looking.” And therein lies the rub. Our food system is messed up, and a lot of us care about it. Fernald wants to make sustainable meat less of an “insider’s club,” but you know what they say about good intentions and headcheese. America may be a melting pot, but Oscar Mayer bologna and artisan headcheese is one sandwich I will not eat. Ten pounds of meat a month is a perk of working at Belcampo, and that’s a great start. But until we can make big changes palpable to the rest of the country, this will all remain just that: elite meat.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food, Living

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Rent Is Killing the Restaurant Capital

Exorbitant rents, the rise of Brooklyn, lazy millennials. NYC is having its worst year in restaurant closures, and only one thing is certain: its epicurean reign is in trouble.

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John Oliver’s takedown of the sugar industry is pretty sweet

Last night, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight got a jumpstart on this week’s news: SUGAR!!! (Brought to you by the makers of Halloween™.) And instead of making fun of obese, diabetic, candy-gobbling Americans — which is easy, considering that we’ll spend a total of $2.2 billion on the stuff this Halloween — he slammed the high-powered industry behind those spooky diabetes and obesity rates. For a treat, Oliver offers up a video clip of the sleepy president of The Sugar Association, for instance, arguing that there’s been “plenty of science that exonerates sugar, that clarifies sugar does not contribute to obesity or diabetes.” Problem is, as Oliver points out, what little of such science there is usually comes from researchers who are paid gobs of money by totally unbiased groups like the Corn Refiners Association. These kinds of groups are precisely the ones battling a new FDA proposal for an “added sugar” label, too, given how freaking much sugar is snuck into regular, non-Halloweeny foods. (“Look at Clamato juice,” Oliver says. “‘The Original Tomato Cocktail With Clam.’ They clearly thought, ‘Let’s improve the taste by adding sugar.’ Instead of thinking, ‘Let’s improve the taste by removing the clam.’”) Point is, this clip is awesome, and we heart you, too, John Oliver — especially for that brutally honest description of the circus peanut.Filed under: Article, Food, Living

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Gluten Is the Least of Your Problems, America

Americans, who—in general—are not scientists, or even very literate, are nevertheless convinced that they must eat “gluten-free” food in order to, uh, [something about health]. Spoiler: if you think this, you are probably wrong! Read more…

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How can we get power to the poor without frying the planet?

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus must sail his ship through the Strait of Messina, between two terrible dangers. On one side, in a cave in the rocks, is a six-headed, sharp-toothed monster named Scylla. On the other side, an overhang of rocks where “the waves and whirlwinds of fire are freighted with wreckage and with the bodies of dead men.” There lies the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis. As we pilot our ship through the 21st century, humanity faces its own narrow strait, its own Scylla and Charybdis. On one side is the many-headed monster of energy poverty, with its attendant ill health, backbreaking labor, and wasted potential. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, “nearly 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity and more than 2.6 billion people rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking, which causes harmful indoor air pollution.” (According to the World Health Organization, solid-fuel indoor cooking kills about 4 million people a year.) This exclusion of a third of humanity from the benefits of modern life ought to be seen as both a tragedy and a crisis. Beware Scylla! On the other side there is climate change, “waves and whirlwinds of fire,” which on our current trajectory threatens to flood, parch, starve, and uproot millions of people this century and possibly render the planet hostile to human life for centuries to come. Beware Charybdis! The dilemma, of course, is that steering away from one side seems to bring us closer to the other. Do we get modern energy to as many people as possible, as cheaply and quickly as possible, even if it means investing billions more in large, long-lasting fossil-fuel assets (and the mining and drilling needed to fuel them)? Or do we push for the lowest-carbon, most sustainable energy path, even if it means a slower upward trajectory for the global poor? Which danger is worse? Which course is the most ethical? This is the signal moral issue of our time, an incredibly difficult and complex set of interlocking problems, with facets and uncertainties too numerous to count and stakes too high to fathom. We’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives. Above all, it seems to me to call for some humility. There are uncertainties and risks every which way. The dilemma has been the subject of renewed debate in recent months. In this post, I’ll set out the broad contours of that debate. In a follow-up post, I’ll explain which way I lean, and why. — How much energy access? The U.N. has, alongside its Millennium Development Goals — indeed, necessary to the attainment of those goals — a program called Sustainable Energy for All. It is a plan to extend energy access to everyone who lacks it. According to the U.N., it will cost “$41 billion per year over the next five years, or just 0.06 percent of global GDP” and “require only a modest increase in carbon dioxide emissions.” Easy peasy! Bazilian & Pielke Jr., “Making Energy Access Meaningful”However, as Morgan Bazilian and Roger Pielke Jr. note, the U.N.’s definition of energy access, at the lowest threshold, “equates to 50-100 kWh/year per person, or about 0.5 percent of that consumed by the average American or Swede, and 1.7 percent of the average Bulgarian.” That’s a pretty paltry level of access, enough to run a few light bulbs and a radio, maybe. No wonder it won’t increase carbon emissions much — it won’t increase energy use much. According to work done by Bazilian, bringing the entire global population that lacks energy access up to the level enjoyed by Bulgaria (on the low end of developed countries) would cost $17 trillion, and of course entail many, many more gigatons of carbon emissions. Even the little bump up envisioned by the U.N. may increase demand more than it expects. As Catharine Wolfram and colleagues conclude in a 2012 study, when people move out of poverty they start buying energy-consuming products and appliances, which represent a comparatively large and enduring bump in consumption. Long story short, Bazilian and Pielke Jr. say, by “energy access” the U.N. is referring to a lower level of energy use than can be justified, practically or ethically. Why not just start with the U.N. goal of minimal energy access and build upwards from there? They dismiss that strategy: The sorts of policies that would make sense to get large numbers of people over a low and arbitrary threshold are very different from those that will underpin sustained growth in economies and consumption. Consider that we do not label people who live on more than $1 per day as having “economic access” and address policies toward achieving a $1.25 level, thus still leaving them desperately poor. Everyone understands that $1.25 a day is still not nearly enough. In energy, we often lack such conceptual clarity. To get this argument in greater depth, see “Our High-Energy Planet,” a report from the Breakthrough Institute. It focuses on growing urban areas in the global South and, as you can imagine, advocates for large, central-station power plants — nuclear, hydro, natural gas, coal — and heavy grid infrastructure, which it claims are the only way to satisfy the energy demands of a modern society (which will eventually involve per-capita energy use 50 to 100 times greater than the minimum defined by the U.N.). What about the danger of climate change posed by fossil-fueled development for several billion more people? On that, there is much handwaving, along with ritualistic invocations of the word “innovation.” This is the perspective, basically, that encourages global policy to steer away from Scylla, even at risk of drifting closer to Charybdis. (Bill Gates is also in this camp, as is Bjorn Lomborg, as are any number of natural gas boosters.) — Access to what energy? The symmetrical “other side” of this debate would presumably advocate for deliberately keeping the poor in energy poverty in order to avoid climate danger. Indeed, conservatives (and Breakthrough) often inveigh against this perspective. But as far as I can tell, it is almost entirely a straw man. I have literally never met an advocate for it. I’m sure if one trolls the internet long enough one can find cranks praising the nobility of poverty or celebrating “die-off.” But there is no organized social or economic constituency with any political power that adopts that perspective. Instead, in practice, the other perspective focuses on finding ways for poor countries to leapfrog the fossil-heavy development path taken by today’s rich countries, directly onto a more sustainable, low-carbon path. (Jamais Cascio has a nice little “Leapfrog 101” intro on the late, lamented Worldchanging). As an example, people frequently cite the way the rural poor in India and China got cell phones long before anyone came to string land lines. The question is whether energy can do what cell phones did. Leapfroggers tend to be fans of addressing energy poverty through distributed low-carbon energy solutions that do not require a centralized grid — solar panels, solar hot water heaters, biodigesters, batteries, microhydro, microgrids, and the like. They are skeptical that the grid will be extended to poor rural areas any time soon and believe that distributed energy can provide an initial and substantial step up. For an example of this thinking, see the Sierra Club’s recent report, “Clean Energy Services for All,” which is bullish on the growth potential of off-grid and microgrid solutions: Sierra Club, “CES4All“As you can see, the Sierra Club expects non-grid solutions to expand much faster than the grid and quickly serve more households, especially if they receive even a fraction of the foreign capital investment going to fossil fuel plants. (For much, much more detail on how distributed solutions can be implemented in Africa, see the World Bank report, “From the Bottom Up: How Small Power Producers and Mini-Grids Can Deliver Electrification and Renewable Energy in Africa.”) Breakthrough responded to Sierra Club’s report with characteristic dismissiveness. Its complaint is that the Club’s plan seeks to enable the poor to consume around 10/kW a year, “0.15 percent the electricity of the average Californian,” which is “a vision of, at best, charity for the world’s poor, not the kind of economic development that results in longer lives, higher standards of living, and stronger and more inclusive socioeconomic institutions.” Breakthrough and its allies frequently use this kind of language, about how the U.N., the Sierra Club, and other distributed-energy advocates are aiming to solve global warming “on the backs of the poor,” offering them little but subsistence. (This kind of rhetoric is gleefully echoed by coal companies, which are busy yet again trying to reposition themselves as advocates for the global poor.) I do not think this critique is particularly fair (more on that in my next post). But I do think it’s fair to say that this perspective treats dangerous climate change as something absolutely to be avoided, a fixed point around which to structure development strategies rather than just one more variable. It encourages global policy to steer away from Charybdis, at risk of drifting closer to Scylla. (UC Berkeley’s Dan Kammen is in this camp, as is Oxfam, as are any number of entrepreneurs and businesses selling off-grid solutions in the global South.) — So where does that leave us? When the goddess Circe advises Odysseus on his coming journey, she says of Charybdis: See that you be not there when she is sucking, for if you are, Neptune himself could not save you; you must hug the Scylla side and drive ship by as fast as you can, for you had better lose six men than your whole crew. This would be a rather mercenary way to frame humanity’s challenge in the 21st century, but it is not entirely wrong. With climate change there is a credible threat of harming not only people alive today but generations to come — all future generations, for centuries. There are long-tail risks that could sink the entire human ship, outcomes that must be avoided at almost any cost. Obviously, avoiding those risks should first and foremost be the responsibility of wealthy countries, which ought to shoulder the bulk of the cost. But those risks must also inform global development strategy, since the rise of the global poor will the single biggest driver of energy and emissions this century. The existential risks counsel trying, at least, to leapfrog rather than replicate the energy system industrialized countries have now. Or so I think. But obviously I need more than a metaphor to make the case; I’ll discuss the dilemma in more detail in my next post. For now, I’m curious what you think, not just about the details but about the larger moral quandary. How should these risks be weighed? Share some wisdom in comments.Filed under: Article, Food

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No, sorry, but Peru is not organic-food heaven

I recently got an email from a reader asking me to check out a story entitled “Everything Is Organic & Non-GMO In Peru And Food Prices Are Insanely Cheap. This Is How.” The reader asked me to investigate — although he also acknowledged that the piece was mostly a rant which, in typical internet fashion, didn’t actually explain the “how” promised in the headline. But still, I was intrigued. It’s always worthwhile to look beyond our own system, and our cultural blinders, for alternatives. So I got in touch with Maximo Torero, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute who specializes in Latin America and teaches at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru. The problem with the assertions in that headline, Torero told me, is that they were pretty much all wrong. “The prices in Peru are pretty high,” he said. “If you are middle class in Lima, for instance, going out to restaurants is equivalent to going out in Washington D.C.” Perhaps you might be able to get an occasional deal at a farmers market, just like in the U.S.; but overall, it’s not cheaper. The average Peruvian household spends nearly 30 percent of its income on food, compared to less than 10 percent in the U.S. People are much more likely to go hungry in Peru than in the U.S., and more than 40 percent of pre-school children suffer from anemia there. Is everything organic? I asked. He chuckled. “No, not much at all.” But he said, it is true that Peru has put a moratorium on the use of GMO seeds. So: one for three. A more accurate headline might have been: “Everything is Non-GMO in Peru, Food Prices Are High, and Kids are Anemic. This Is How.” The reason I think it’s worth fact-checking a rant on a dubious website (aside from the fact that I love giving readers what they ask for) is that I keep bumping into the conviction that if we could just get rid of biotechnology, we’d see a wonderful flowering of alternative agriculture. In fact, that was the basis of the debate I encountered when I started this series: Do we choose biotechnology or agroecology? The example of Peru makes that divide look pretty irrelevant. Peru is on a good trajectory: In 1990, 32 percent of the population was undernourished, and now that’s down to 12 percent. Banning GMOs in 2013 hasn’t had a big effect, either positive or negative. When I asked Torero what Peru was doing right, he talked about social programs. The state is feeding pre-school kids. It’s providing breakfasts to older kids in school. It has a program to pay poor families when they send their children to school, to remove the pressure for children to enter the workforce. The country has a solid macro-economic financial policy and has plenty of money to sustain programs like these. Peru’s economic growth hasn’t been spread evenly across social classes, Torero said. The real key to ending hunger would be to reduce inequality by insuring that the poor have access to services like education and health care, so they can benefit from the growth. Brazil has done a better job with that, he said. The problem with this stuff is that… it’s boring. (How many readers tuned out somewhere around “macro-economic financial policy”?) It’s a lot more exciting to claim you’ve discovered utopia, along with one simple solution for getting there. But genuine solutions almost always involve a tedious real-world slog, rather than a quantum leap into an alternative paradigm. This does, however, touch on an important and generally unacknowledged undercurrent in the debate over food production. I think that people are actually gesturing vaguely at a larger concern when they talk about choosing between biotechnology and agroecology: They worry that the groundwork developing countries are laying today — the infrastructure, industry, and laws they are putting in place — will lock them into the same form of agriculture that we have in the U.S. But let’s save the question of technological lock-in for another post.Filed under: Article, Food

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