Blue Marble - December 2008

Food News Round-Up

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 4:04 PM PST

As I was browsing the internet and reading e-mails today, I came across a number of interesting food-related headlines. Instead of blogging them all, I've put them in an easily digestible (no pun intended) format, below:

  • Tomorrow, Greenpeace will release a new version of their list of supermarkets ranked in order of seafood sustainability. At the top, Whole Foods. At the bottom, stores like Trader Joe's and Price Chopper that still stock "red list" animals like swordfish and Chilean sea bass.
  • A new gadget that looks like a Pixar character produces drinking water out of humid air.
  • Netflix is buying DVDs of a controversial animal rights documentary, despite the fact the film has no distributor. The documentary, Earthlings, was requested by so many Netflix users that the company decided to make an exception to their usual policies.
  • PETA's Bruce Friedrich, via the Huffington Post, raises some interesting points about a comprehensive food policy under Obama.
  • Vanilla-lovers may be in trouble. A nasty, orchid-killing fungus has broken out on the island of Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla beans.
  • Experts say just because a fruit is brighter, or tastes better, doesn't mean it's more nutritious.
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    Cell Phones Fry Memory

    | Fri Dec. 5, 2008 6:27 PM PST

    Rats exposed to mobile phone radiation for two hours a week for more than a year suffered memory loss. The findings may be related to earlier findings that microwave radiation from cell phones affects the blood-brain barrier.

    The team from Lund University in Sweden previously found that albumin, a protein that acts as a transport molecule in the blood, leaks into brain tissue when lab animals are exposed to mobile phone radiation. Now they find damaged nerve cells in the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus, the memory centers of the brain. Although the albumin leakage occurs directly after radiation, the nerve damage takes four to eight weeks to manifest.

    Furthermore, the team discovered alterations in the activity of a large number of genes after cell phone radiation—not in individual genes but in groups that are functionally related. "We now see that things happen to the brains of lab animals after cell phone radiation. The next step is to try to understand why this happens," says Henrietta Nittby. She has a cell phone herself, but never holds it to her ear, using hands-free equipment instead. . . The lab animals, lacking opposable thumbs, have no choice. Oh, wait, aren't we all lab animals, in our own special way?

    Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

    Cluster Bombs, Now Slightly Less Incredibly Depressing

    | Fri Dec. 5, 2008 10:49 AM PST

    Yes, the US still refuses to stop stockpiling the pretty, brightly-colored death toys colloquially known as cluster munitions. But isn't it nice to know that at least some of our NATO allies are smarter than that?

    From an observer in Oslo of the cluster munitions treaty signing this week: "We have heard a great deal about child soldiers, but what we are witnessing here is a children's peace. In the Oslo City Hall just one block from the Nobel Peace Center, I cannot help but wonder if it is time for children to be awarded the Peace Prize."

    Barring that, maybe kids can at least be awarded the right to play without danger on a former battlefield gone to grass.

    Parting Shots: Bush Administration Reverses Rule Protecting Grand Canyon

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 5:29 PM PST

    In an 11th hour move, the Bush Administration today reversed an old federal rule that would have allowed Congress to take action to protect the Grand Canyon from a rash of new uranium mining claims. Driven by renewed national interest in nuclear power, the number of uranium claims staked within five miles of the Grand Canyon has increased from 10 in 2003 to 1,181 as of this October. Rampant mining near the Canyon would threaten the water quality of the Colorado River, potentially jeopardizing the drinking water supply of millions of residents in Las Vegas and Southern California. Prompted in part by the concerns of local water agencies, in June the House Committee on Natural Resources invoked its right under the Federal Land Management and Policy Act to withdraw the mining claims. But the Bureau of Land Management refused to implement the order, and the Bush Administration's rule change today gives it official authority to thumb its nose at Congress.

    Ultimately, Bush's move will probably do more to increase his radioactivity with voters than it will to heat up the tap water in Las Vegas; the Obama Administration will certainly reverse Bush's reversal. But more important, the Grand Canyon flap underscores the hopeless antiquity of the nation's mining laws. The General Mining Law of 1872, which was written by Nevada's first senator and signed into law by President Grant, enshrines mining as the "highest and best use" on 350 million acres of federal land. It also allows mining companies to cart off public minerals without paying a cent of royalties. Efforts to reform the law began almost as soon as it passed and have failed at ever turn, including this year, when a reform bill was to have been introduced in the Senate but wasn't. But with Bush-era environmental horrors fresh on the mind, and public coffers emptied, expect that to change in the coming session.

    Will a Western Gross National Happiness Index Catch On?

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 11:42 AM PST

    Below is a guest blog entry by Hong Kong-based journalist Don Duncan.

    In Buddhist Bhutan, it is common wisdom that every creation requires destruction. That's hearteningly optimistic for the Western economists who descended on the tiny country for the international Gross National Happiness Conference last week.

    Gross National Happiness, or GNH, requires that advances be made on nine key fronts in order for national progress to be achieve—education, health, culture, community vitality, living standards, psychological wellbeing, the ecology, and balanced time use. All government policy making in Bhutan is guided by these principles.

    During the high capitalism of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and, more recently, free market fundamentalism, the doctrine met with incredulity and derision. Even if you can define national happiness, how on earth can you measure it?

    Gore: Clean Coal Doesn't Exist. But Should It?

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 10:06 AM PST

    During his campaign, Obama called for clean coal technology. His website promises to "enter into public private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." But on Thursday, Al Gore tossed a bucket of cold water on so-called "clean coal."

    He launched a new coalition called the Reality Campaign, a multimillion dollar ad campaign that seeks to convince the public that clean coal—at least for now—is a myth.

    Gore's goal is to counter claims that coal companies and the US Department of Energy have made about "a new generation of energy processes that sharply reduce air emissions...from coal-burning power plants," as the DoE puts it. Here's a recent ad from America's Power, a company that makes electricity from coal, that maintains clean coal technology can produce lower emissions than regular coal-burning power plants do now (which the coalition says are greater than emissions from all the cars and trucks in America):

    The problem is, according to the Reality Coalition, there's no such thing yet as "clean" coal. The coalition doesn't exactly say there could never be a clean way of burning coal in the future. But they do say that the myth that clean coal already exists today allows companies like Clean Coal Technologies Inc. to misrepresent their plants' impact on the environment and make a buck while doing so.

    Ultimately, there might not be a major disagreement between Gore and Obama on clean coal. Obama is only for it if it can be developed, and he acknowledges it's not here yet. The Gore campaign seems to be more concerned with now rather than later and trying to make sure that people know what Obama knows. The technology to burn coal cleanly has yet to be developed and implemented. Might Gore support clean coal technology if it ever does get off the shelf? Maybe he'll tell us that in the next ad.

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    Brazil Changes on Climate Change

    | Wed Dec. 3, 2008 5:01 PM PST

    The Brazilian government announced this week that it will curb Amazon deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade—an ambitious plan that will be formally presented at the UN climate change conference in Poland this week.

    Home to the world's largest area of tropical woodlands, Brazil lost nearly 4,633 square miles of forest between 2007 and 2008. That's roughly the area of Connecticut. Previous efforts to limit deforestation include a recent crackdown on soy production.

    Brazil's Environment Minister Carlos Minc said the plan should prevent 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted through 2018.

    America, take note.

    —Nikki Gloudeman

    More Genetic Tests: Still Creepy

    | Wed Dec. 3, 2008 9:41 AM PST

    There's another spit test out on the market, this one claiming to tell parents which kids have the genetics to be which kinds of athletes. I've got a bad feeling about this.

    What's going to happen is that kids of privilege will be tested almost from the cradle, with their helicopter-parents frog marching them toward whichever future seems the most successful. Twenty years later. And poor kids? Kids who'll never get to find out that they'd rather teach or dance than be the Olympian weight lifter their parents drove them to be?

    From Slate:

    Making Iraq Fertile

    | Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:42 PM PST

    446px-Alleged_location_of_Eden.jpg Iraq is flushing salinity out of millions of acres of land. The process should breathe new life into dirty rivers and dying soils. The idea is to restore "fertile" to the Fertile Crescent. You remember: the swath of once-fecund land arching from the Mediterranean across Iraq and down to the Persian Gulf—aka, the Garden of Eden.

    But centuries of irrigation and overuse have turned the farmlands of southern and central Iraq saline—aka, the Garden of Apocalypse. The problem derives from salt collecting in soil when farmers irrigate it with salty water or don't drain it properly. The end result is that Iraq is now so fallow the country imports virtually all its food, paying with oil profits. Much of the government's current budget is spent on food rations, reports Reuters. Making Iraq fertile suggests there might actually be a post-oil future for that nation.

    The plan is to pump out subterranean groundwater. The process—which has already worked in Australia—will take years. The work begins with a pumping station in Nassiriya sidelined for decades by the war with Iran, UN sanctions, and the war with the US. The project is further challenged by an ongoing severe drought and by 55,000 miles of crumbling drainage and irrigation channels. . . Suggestion: run the pumps on solar or tidal power and minimize that other problem too. And while we're at it, why not donate the sweat equity of those short-sighted Detroit CEOs? They've been part of the problem for long enough. They could toil in the desert and meditate on their manifold sins.

    Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

    Charge Your Cellphone By Talking

    | Mon Dec. 1, 2008 6:26 PM PST

    112px-Cell_phone_icon.svg.png Imagine a self-powered cellphone that charges by the pressure waves formed when you talk or walk. Researchers have found a certain type of piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size (specifically 21 nanometers in thickness). This suggests that disturbances in the form of sound waves could be harvested for powering nanodevices and microdevices of the future.

    Here's how it works. Piezoelectrics are (usually) crystal or ceramic materials that generate voltage when a form of mechanical stress is applied (think car cigarette lighters). It's an old technology now powering dance floors in Europe. Combine piezoelectrics with the strange, infinitessimally small nanoworld, where many materials change their properties dramatically (gold turns red, toxic, and liquid at room temperature; opaque materials like copper become transparent; insulators like silicon become conductors). Piezoelectric materials at 21-nm thick turn into power-harvesting titans.

    The findings could have potentially profound effects for low-powered electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. Many contain nano-sized components (1 nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter). All need a lot of recharging. But pressure-senstitive, self-powered piezoelectrics could harness energy from the sound waves in your speech or your walk. Free of charge takes on a whole new meaning.

    The research is published in Physical Review B, the scientific journal of the American Physical Society.

    Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.