Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Gay Marriage Seed Art at the Minnesota State Fair

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 11:12 AM EDT

There's lots to see and do here at the Minnesota State Fair. And most importantly, eat: It's before noon, and already I've sampled the (allegedly) world's smoothest ice cream, a Norwegian delicacy called potato lefse, and a mini donut. But the coolest thing I've seen so far is tucked away in a small room in the agriculture building: seed art. Minnesotans have painstakingly employed a variety of common seeds—flax, lentils, poppy, adzuki, millet, and sunflower, to name just a few—to create incredibly detailed artistic masterpieces. The themes are many: cute animals, aphorisms, and affirmations of Minnesota pride abound. A bunch have political messages; this November there are two controversial measures on Minnesota's ballot: a gay marriage ban and a voter identification requirement. Here are some of the ways that fair entrants expressed their opinions on these matters:

And here's a detail:

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Mood Lighting at Fast Food Joints Makes You Less Fat

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

Soft lighting and smooth jazz not only add romance to your fast-food dining experience, they also make you less likely to overeat, says a new study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Researchers transformed part of a Hardee's in Champaign, Illinois into a swanky fine-dining establishment. They left the rest of the restaurant as it was. The (very breathlessly reported) results:

Researchers hypothesized that participants in the fine-dining part would consume more as the relaxed atmosphere would cause them to linger longer and order more food than those in the fast food environment. Interestingly results showed that even though participants in the fine-dining area ate for longer than those in the main eating area they actually consumed less food! Those in the fine dining area were also no more likely to order extra food. Another surprising result is that even though participants in the fine-dining part ate less food they actually rated the food as more enjoyable, so changing the atmosphere can change food consumption and food satisfaction!

The fancy-pants diners consumed 18 percent less food than their casual counterparts. Classy!

Butterball Turkey Employee Admits to Animal Abuse

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Back in February, the nonprofit animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals posted a video documenting workers at a North Carolina Butterball turkey facility abusing the birds. (Warning: The video is extremely graphic.)

On Tuesday, reports Mercy For Animals, one of the workers caught on tape, Brian Douglas, pled guilty to felony cruelty to animals. His sentence, according to MFA:

Douglas will serve a sentence of 30 days imprisonment, followed by 6 months intensive probation and 36 months of supervised probation. Douglas was also ordered to pay $550 in fees and fines, and provide a DNA sample to the state, and will be subject to warrantless searches. Four other Butterball employees were also charged with cruelty to animals. Their cases are still pending.

The video shows Douglas and other workers kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. Pretty hard to imagine, especially if you've ever hung out with turkeys. My hens were some of the most endearing animals I've ever known. Read about my turkey adventures here.

CHART: What's a Polar Bear Worth?

| Thu Aug. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Via the excellent Jon Mooallem, a chart by the Canadian government (PDF) that (kind of creepily) sums up exactly how much a polar bear is worth:

Wash Your Organic Produce. No, Really.

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Bugs can easily carry bacteria onto organic produce.

This summer I've been on a blueberry tear. I buy a little container from the farmers market or supermarket and open it up as soon as I get home, popping the sweet little orbs into my mouth as I'm putting away my groceries. Only occasionally do I give rinsing them more than a passing thought. After all, I usually splurge for the organic kind. How bad could a little chemical-free dirt really be? Do I really have to wash my innocent-looking blueberries?

According to Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, the answer is an unequivocal yes, for several reasons. One is what the produce industry refers to as "pesticide drift": The wind can—and frequently does—blow chemicals from nearby conventional fields onto organic crops.* Pesticide contamination can also happen in the warehouse, since many produce companies use the same facilities to process organic and conventional products. In that case, companies are supposed to use the label "organically grown" instead of "organic," which can mislead consumers. "The labels are really confusing," Lunder says. "When people say they're transitional organic, there might be traces left in the soil. If you see no-spray, they still might be using synthetic fertilizer, for example."

But the main reason to wash organic produce is to get rid of germs. "Bacterial contamination is huge," Lunder says. You might remember, for example, that one of the culprits in the giant E. coli spinach outbreak of 2006 was bagged organic spinach.

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