If you're not a foodie, eating raw fish seems like a risky endeavor even when it's labeled properly. But researchers from Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History found this week that high-profile sushi restaurants have substituted tuna with escolar, a fatty bottom feeder that can cause diarrhea and a clear intestinal discharge (seriously gross stuff), without telling their customers. The investigation is part of an effort to collect the "DNA barcodes" of all fish species so that a consumer can determine what they're about to eat within a matter of minutes.

As Bonnie Tsui reports for the current issue of Mother Jones, this is part of a decades-long sushi rebranding campaign. As the fishing industry noticed the remarkable increase in price for popular fish—the value of blue fin tuna shot up more than fiftyfold between 1970 and 2008—they decided to rebrand other unwanted species. Here's an example:

Meanwhile, catches and value of Patagonian toothfish—once considered an undesirable tuna bycatch—have skyrocketed since it first hit US plates in the late '70s, thanks largely to a rebranding campaign by the industry to market the fish as a delicacy. They gave it a new name: Chilean sea bass. It worked so well, Chilean sea bass is now overfished itself.

Read Tsui's piece for more on escolar and the fishing industry's ploy to market gross bottom feeders as delicacies.

US Army Pfc. Stephen Martin cleans his weapon inside a small shelter at an observation post near Combat Outpost Munoz in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Nov. 15, 2009. Martin is assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith.)

Need To Read: November 24, 2009

Today's must reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow Mother Jones on twitter! You can check out what we are tweeting and follow the staff of @MotherJones with one click.

A couple of weeks ago Fred Kaplan speculated that President Obama might be planning to pursue a tribe-centered counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan rather than one centered on the central government in Kabul.  Today, after reading Dexter Filkins' piece in the New York Times that describes an effort already underway to co-opt local militias, Kaplan doubles down:

The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces — whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier — to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.

Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban — and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.

....There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree.

....Obama is likely to announce his decision — on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require — soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes.

I first heard about Gant's paper via email from Wagster, who wrote about it in a post earlier this month:

Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach — a tribal engagement strategy — that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally — not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.

Kaplan says flatly that if Obama's eventual strategy doesn't look a lot like Gant's, "it is almost certain to fail."  And even if it does, it might still fail.  But at this point, the tribes are pretty much our only hope.

I am, as I've said before, skeptical about deepening our engagement in Afghanistan at all.  But the absolute minimum requirement is a strategy that's notably different from the one we've been following for the past seven years, a strategy that's done little except pour ever more troops into the country while simultaneously losing ever more control.  This might be the one. We'll probably know in another week or so.

I'm one of the many who can truly say that knitting keeps me sane. So this animation about the state of our world appeals on two fronts, with double the terrifying power. Don't Let It All Unravel appears, among other places, on Facebook's The Ice Bear Project.

The White House will announce soon whether President Barack Obama will make an appearance at the Copenhagen climate summit in December.

The administration also expects to be able to announce a target for US emissions reductions before the meeting. The figure will likely fall somewhere between the targets set by the House climate bill (which mandates a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020) and the Senate measure (which calls for a 20 percent reduction over the same time period.)

Whether Obama shows up at the summit or not, the administration is working hard to convince observers that his administration has already made significant progress on the climate front, despite Congress' failure to enact legislation before the international talks begin. "We have done more than anyone could have ever expected us to do in a relatively short time frame," a senior administration official told reporters on Monday. "[Obama's] turning around an ocean liner and he has done an extraordinary amount to turn that ocean liner around."

 

On to Copenhagen

The latest news from the White House:

The US will announce a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before next month's UN climate summit, according to a White House official.

The target is expected to be in line with figures contained in legislation before the Senate — a reduction of about 17-20% from 2005 levels by 2020.

This is no big surprise: 17% is the figure in Waxman-Markey and it's close to the figure in the various Senate bills.  Overall, it's a pretty modest target, but Obama could hardly pledge anything more under the circumstances.  At least it's something.

(I think this is going to be my motto for the next four years: "At least it's something."  Kinda sad, isn't it?  But at the moment we're still pretty plainly not willing to face up to reality on a whole bunch of different fronts.  So we do what we can.)

New testing has revealed that drinking water wells in the town of Yerington, Nevada are contaminated with uranium released by a nearby copper mine. Early this year, I covered the mine, originally opened in 1941 by the Anaconda Copper Company, as an example of how outdated federal mining laws have left behind a toxic legacy. There are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the US and cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion. In Yerington, fears of groundwater contamination long ago convinced 150 families to stop drinking from their taps. The company that most recently ran the mine, Arimetco, went bankrupt in 1997, leaving taxpayers to foot part of an environmental bill that could reach $50 million. (Meanwhile, Arimetco's former CEO now runs International Silver, Inc., which is seeking to mine 1,300 acres of federal land in California's Mojave Desert.)

A mining reform bill that is currently stalled in the US Senate would impose stricter national bonding requirements on mining companies. Yet as it stands, says Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, mining poses a risk not just to rural outposts like Yerington, but also to the burgeoning metropolis of Las Vegas. Its water supply could be at risk of contamination from mining on any of the more than 1,200 uranium claims staked along the Colorado River (the Obama administration recently halted new claims in the area). Federal mining rules need to change, she says, not to punish miners, but to protect people who live near mines. "To begin to look at the law and ask, 'How does it function in a Western setting with far more cities, with much greater stress on water supplies?' I think, is highly appropriate."

Quote of the Day

From Ezra Klein, on the likely course of healthcare reform:

I once heard an activist say that leadership is the process of managing your constituency's disappointment. If that's accurate, then the next few months are going to offer ample opportunities for leadership.

Yep.  The opt-out public option is almost certainly toast, and we'll end up instead with something closer to Olympia Snowe's trigger idea — assuming we even end up with that much.  And there's no telling what other amendments are going to get tacked on and then make it through the final conference report.  Whatever happens, though, it's not going to be pretty.  Watching sausage getting manufactured never is.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece about Devi Shetty, an Indian heart surgeon who is revolutionizing the practice of heart surgery:

Dr. Shetty, who entered the limelight in the early 1990s as Mother Teresa's cardiac surgeon, offers cutting-edge medical care in India at a fraction of what it costs elsewhere in the world. His flagship heart hospital charges $2,000, on average, for open-heart surgery, compared with hospitals in the U.S. that are paid between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the complexity of the surgery.

....Then there are the Cayman Islands, where he plans to build and run a 2,000-bed general hospital an hour's plane ride from Miami. Procedures, both elective and necessary, will be priced at least 50% lower than what they cost in the U.S., says Dr. Shetty, who hopes to draw Americans who are uninsured or need surgery their plans don't cover.

A few notes: Shetty runs a for-profit business, not a charity.  He makes money at these prices.  And although a big part of his lower prices has to do with the generally low cost of living in India, his mass-production techniques have reduced prices more than 50% even compared to other Indian hospitals.

But although this may be cheap medicine, there's nothing cheap about his results: outcomes at his hospitals are at least as good as they are at the best American clinics, and probably even better.  It's the kind of thing someone ought to be trying here.  The whole story is worth a read.