Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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7 Great Environment Longreads From 2015

| Mon Dec. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST

From California's nut boom to the green guru of professional sports, it's been a great year for longreads about the environment here at Mother Jones. In case you missed them (or you just want to read 'em again), here are some of our favorites, in no particular order:

  1. "Invasion of the Hedge Fund Almonds," by Tom Philpott. In California, farmers are converting their farms to almond, pistachio, and walnut orchards at a breakneck pace—and Wall Street firms are buying them up. No wonder, since these nuts are extremely valuable right now. That's because they're the health food du jour, both here and in China. There's just one problem: Tree nuts suck up more water than practically any other crop. So how can there be a nut boom during the worst drought in California's history? Tom Philpott has the fascinating answer.
     
  2. "How the Government Put Tens of Thousands of People at Risk of a Deadly Disease," by David Ferry. Valley fever, a potentially fatal fungal disease, recently reached near-epidemic proportions among the Golden State’s prisoners. The illness is endemic to California's Central Valley—which also happens to house a high concentration of state prisons. African American and Filipino people are particularly susceptible to the fungus, yet correctional officers repeatedly ignored recommendations to transfer these vulnerable prisoners away from Central Valley facilities. The results were nothing short of tragic.
     
  3. "Bark Beetles Are Decimating Our Forests. That Might Actually Be a Good Thing," by Maddie Oatman. Ever-worsening infestations of pine beetles have killed large swaths of forests in the Western United States. As climate change intensifies, the beetle carnage is only expected to increase. The US Forest Service maintains that the only way to stop the marauding bugs is by thinning: cutting down trees to stop the beetles' progress. But entomologist Diana Six, who has devoted her career to beetle ecology, thinks the beetles may actually know more than we do about how to make forests resilient in the face of big changes ahead as the planet warms.
     
  4. "This May Be the Most Radical Idea in All of Professional Sports," by Ian Gordon. If you've ever been to a pro sports game, you may have noticed that most are not exactly green operations. In addition to the mountains of beer cans, Styrofoam nacho trays, and peanut shells, there's the giant energy cost of powering a stadium, and all the carbon emissions that go with it. Sports execs considered all of that an unavoidable cost of doing business—until a charismatic scientist named Allen Hershkowitz came onto the scene a decade ago. Since then, thanks to Hershkowitz and his Green Sports Alliance, at least 28 venues have started using some kind of renewable energy and 20 stadiums have been LEED certified, while the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball have all made major changes to reduce their environmental footprints. So how did Hershkowitz do it?
     
  5. "Does Air Pollution Cause Dementia?," by Aaron Reuben. Scientists have long known that air pollution causes and exacerbates respiratory problems—such as asthma and infections and cancers of the lungs—and they also suspect it contributes to a diverse range of other disorders, from heart disease to obesity. But now cutting-edge research suggests these particles play a role in some of humanity's most terrifying and mysterious illnesses: degenerative brain diseases.
     
  6. "This Scientist Might End Animal Cruelty—Unless GMO Hardliners Stop Him," by Kat McGowan. Scientist Scott Fahrenkrug has big plans to make life for millions of farm animals a whole lot better. Through a technique called gene editing, Fahrenkrug's company has made dairy cows that can skip the painful dehorning process—because they don't grow horns in the first place. He's created male pigs that don't have to be castrated because they never go through puberty. He's tweaking the DNA of a few high-performance cattle breeds so they're more heat tolerant and can thrive in a warming world. Fahrenkrug's ultimate goal is animals with just the right mix of traits—and much less suffering. But many people see genetically modified foods as a symbol of all that's wrong with the industrial food system. Fahrenkrug will have to convince them that it offers the surest and fastest route to more ethical and sustainable farming.
     
  7. "Heart of Agave," by Ted Genoways. In Mexico, fine tequila is serious business. That's in part because over the last 25 years, US imports of pure agave tequila have doubled—with the greatest leap coming in the super-premium division, where sales of high-end tequilas have increased five times over. The billion-dollar market has become so lucrative that George Clooney, Sean Combs, and Justin Timberlake each have their own brands. All that growth has pushed growers to plant vast monoculture fields and deploy the products of American agrichemical companies, like pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. But that could soon change: Journalist and author Ted Genoways tells the story of the rogue Mexican optometrist who has started an organic tequila revolution—and how his radical ideas are catching on.

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A Food Giant Wanted to Squash Eggless Mayo. It Just Lost.

| Thu Dec. 17, 2015 3:50 PM EST

In the great mayo wars of 2015, there is finally a winner.

For those who haven't been following the scandal-filled sandwich spread controversy, a bit of background: It all began in 2013, when the egg-alternative food startup company Hampton Creek launched a vegan mayonnaise-like product called Just Mayo, which soon became Whole Foods' most popular mayonnaise.

Read our past coverage of the hackers trying to make fake eggs better. Ross MacDonald

So popular was Just Mayo, in fact, that in November 2014, Unilever, parent company of market leader Hellmann's, sued Hampton Creek for false advertising and unfair competition. The food giant argued that Just Mayo, because it contained no eggs, "damages the entire product category, which has strived for decades for a consistent definition of 'mayonnaise' that fits with consumer expectations." Unilever dropped the lawsuit about a month later "as consumers heaped scorn on the company for what they viewed as a frivolous lawsuit," the food industry news site Food Dive reported.

Nevertheless, in August of this year the FDA ruled that Hampton Creek couldn't call its product mayonnaise. "The use of the term 'mayo' in the product names and the image of an egg may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise," the FDA said in a statement.

Then, in September, internal emails from the American Egg Board surfaced. They showed that the industry group had tried to stop Whole Foods from selling Just Mayo—and that Egg Board members were really worked up over Hampton Creek. From the Guardian:

More than one member of the AEB made joking threats of violence against Hampton Creek's founder, Josh Tetrick. "Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?" asked Mike Sencer, executive vice-president of AEB member organization Hidden Villa Ranch. Mitch Kanter, executive vice-president of the AEB, jokingly offered "to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit."

Egg Board CEO Joanne Ivy retired early in the wake of the episode.

While all that was going on, Hampton Creek was working with the FDA on a compromise, and today, the company announced that it will be allowed to keep the name Just Mayo, as long as it makes its eggless-ness even clearer on the product label. The AP's Candice Choi reports:

The changes include making the words 'egg-free' larger and adding 'Spread & Dressing.' An image of an egg with a pea shoot inside will also be smaller.

Now, all this hoopla over a "spread and dressing" and its picture of a pea-shoot-bearing egg might seem ridiculous, but keep in mind that this business played out against the backdrop of a devastating avian flu outbreak that hobbled the egg industry. What's more, in April two former egg industry executives were sentenced to jail time for their connection with a 2010 salmonella outbreak that is thought to have sickened as many as 56,000 people.

All those egg woes aside, there's another reason behind egg purveyors' massive freak-out: At least according to writer Rowan Jacobsen, unlike most other eggless mayonnaise products, Just Mayo actually tastes good.

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