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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USDA Gave Dough to Domino's, Too

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 3:16 PM EST

Yesterday I blogged about a USDA-funded Big Ag lobby group's efforts to discredit the EWG's list of most-pesticide-laden produce. Turns out the Ag lobbyists aren't the only industry group getting some love from the USDA: Via Civil Eats, I learned that Domino's new cheese-a-rific pizza (40 percent more artery-clogging goodness!) and attendant marketing blitz is the result of a $12 million campaign by a USDA-backed group called Dairy Management Inc.

Really, I must say, the Dairy Management Inc. site is worth a visit—it's a real window into the mammoth PR arm of the US dairy industry. Across the bottom of the homepage is a row of 14 buttons, which take you to dairy-cheerleading sites such as Fuel Up to Play 60 (about how you should eat more dairy so that you have the energy to exercise for an hour), ilovecheese.com ("the ultimate site for cheese lovers everywhere!"), and Innovate With Dairy (where the food and beverage producers can learn "new ways to use dairy ingredients in a wide range of on-trend product applications," from a scientists in lab coats, no less!).

But my very favorite little nugget of all is a site called Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!, which tells parents about the nefarious nutritionists who are trying to take away children's chocolate milk:

Concerned about the added sugars in flavored milk, some schools and activists are working to ban it from school menus, despite scientific evidence supporting its nutrient contributions to children's diets and recommendations from leading health professional organizations.

A cup of chocolate 1 percent milk has about 170 calories, compared to 120 in the unflavored version. Just saying. As Civil Eats points, out, the USDA is supposed to be curbing childhood obesity. And yet it's also funding a group that wants to cram more calories into milk, in order to make it more appetizing to kids. Hmm.

Read nutrition journalist Marion Nestle's take on the Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign here.

 

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Most-Pesticide-Laden Fruits and Veggies List Under Attack

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 5:30 AM EST

You know the Environmental Working Group's super-helpful list of the most-pesticide-laden fruits and veggies? Well, there's a Big Ag lobby group called the Alliance for Food and Farming that's trying to debunk it. And the USDA just gave the lobbyists $180,000 to aid their smear campaign, The Atlantic reports.

So exactly who's behind the Alliance for Food and Farming? According to SourceWatch, its board of directors includes honchos from the California Strawberry Commission, the California Tomato Farmers, the Produce Marketing Association, and the California Association of Pest Control Advisors, among other industry groups. The AFF's main argument: "Promotion of the 'Dirty Dozen' list actually makes the work of improving the diets of Americans more difficult because it scares consumers away from the affordable fruits and vegetables that they enjoy."

Riiiight. Considering that the EPA freely admits that pesticides can cause "birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects," it's totally boneheaded to suggest that raising consumer awareness about pesticides is making Americans less healthy. What's more, it's not like the Environmental Working Group is suggesting you give up on produce entirely and stock your fridge with Mountain Dew instead. In fact, EWG explicitly states that the list isn't meant to discourage people from eating their veggies. From the FAQ

Do all these pesticides mean I shouldn’t eat fruits and vegetables?

No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG's Shopper's Guide to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

The bottom line: The more you know about your food, the better. Period.

Here's a refresher on the EWG's "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15":

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.

Should You Shut Down Your Computer or Put It to Sleep?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Phew! You've made it through another day at the office. You're just about to don your coat and head out into the evening—but your computer's still on. Should you turn it off, or leave it in "sleep" mode? Some say it's better to shut down, since that way it won't be using any power while you're not around. But others say that the process of shutting down and starting up again uses more power than letting your machine sleep. Who's right?

First things first: Turning your computer off, then on again does not use more power than leaving it on in "sleep" mode. "That's a myth," says Bruce Nordman, an energy efficiency researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Another myth: Turning your computer on and off is bad for the machine. "In order to do any real damage, you'd have to turn it on and off far more frequently than anyone would ever want to," says Nordman. That said, trying to remember to shut down your machine every night isn't necessarily the most effective energy-savings strategy. Here's why.

Fifteen years ago, when computer manufacturers first experimented with sleep mode (it used to be called "standby"), the energy savings weren't very dramatic. Today things are different: According to energy efficiency expert Michael Bluejay, while in use, the average laptop requires 15-60 watts, while desktops use 65-250 watts, plus an additional 15-70 for the monitor. In sleep mode, however, most laptops use a measly two watts, and desktops with monitors use 5-10 watts, says Nordman. ("Hibernate" modes on some computers use even less energy—for a good rundown on the difference between various power management modes, check out Michael Bluejay's guide.) Because sleep settings use so little energy, Nordman believes that it isn't really worth making a big production out of remembering to shut down your computer every day: "Much more important to make sure that your computer is set to go into power-saving mode after a certain period of idle time."

Does Your Birth Control Really Turn Male Fish Female?

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 1:59 PM EDT

A few months back, I blogged about a pro-life group's weird environmental campaign. The American Life League basically said women should feel guilty about taking birth control because it ends up in rivers and "is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine."

Turns out that campaign is not only annoying, it's also based on faulty information. A new study from UC-San Francisco found that only a very small fraction of estrogen in waterways comes from oral contraceptives. Other sources include landfills, non-contraceptive pharmaceuticals, soymilk and biodiesel factories, but quite a bit comes from big farms. From Chemical & Engineering News:

The UC San Francisco researchers also found that runoff from large animal farms could contribute to waterway contamination, in part because – unlike household waste – livestock effluents are untreated. A study conducted in the United Kingdom estimated that even if only 1% of the estrogens produced by farm animals reached waterways, they would make up 15% of the estrogens in the water. The data suggest that animal farm runoff should be treated before being released into the environment, Wise says.

And considering the heavy antibiotic use on most factory farms, I'm guessing estrogen isn't the only thing going from farms into waterways.

Which Electronics Companies Recycle Best?

| Tue Oct. 19, 2010 4:44 PM EDT

Yesterday I reported on the environmental impact of new vs. refurbished computers. Refurbished computers won handily as the best choice for the planet (and your wallet). But what about when your electronic device is finally completely kaput? Best case scenario is that the company that you bought it from runs an excellent recycling program. But that's not always the case.

Today, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition issued a Green Electronics Recycling Report Card, evaluating companies on their programs for recycling their own products. The findings, according to a press release:

The highest marks go to Dell, Samsung, and Asus, but there were still some companies with failing grades, including Brother, Kodak, Lexmark, Philips, Funai, Epson, and RCA (now owned by Technicolor).  Samsung also got a “dishonorable mention” because of concerns about their occupational health record at manufacturing plants in Korea where many young workers have been diagnosed with blood cancers and several have already died.

One overall trend: Companies that manufacture printers get woefully low grades. That's because most printer makers only take their products back through mail-in programs, but according to the ETC, most people don't actually bother to mail back a product as bulky as a printer. So what's the solution? Store-based drop-off stations? Or, like the death of the compostable SunChips bag, does this say more about consumers than it does about companies?

Check out the report card here, and ETC's grading criteria here (pdf).

 

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