Blue Marble - November 2009

Wasted: 40 Percent of Food

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 7:19 PM EST

Americans, obviously, are eating more than ever before. A new study suggests we're also throwing away more than ever before. About 50 percent more per person since 1974.

According to the new calculations, food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and CO2 from decomposing food. In the US, it also accounts for:

  • More than one-quarter of total freshwater use
  • Some 300 million barrels of oil a year (~4 percent of total American oil consumption)

Until now, studies of food waste have depended on interviews with consumers and inspections of garbage. Neither is particularly accurate.

In this study, researchers analyzed the amount of food consumed by tracking average body weight in the US from 1974 to 2003. They assumed that exercise levels hadn't changed in that period (an admittedly conservative approach). They compared these data with estimates of the total food available in the US as reported by the USDA to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

The difference between calories available and calories consumed (what the researchers call the missing mass of American food) equals food wasted. Here's how it breaks down per person per day in 2003:

  • 3750 calories available
  • 2300 consumed
  • 1450 wasted

That's 39 percent of the American food supply that is never consumed by human beings. Multiply the individual waste by 300 million Americans and you get enough to feed the people of the Philippines.

The 39-percent estimate significantly exceeds the 27-percent estimate of the USDA, based on consumer and producer interviews.

The new study is out of the Laboratory of Biological Modeling, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, in Maryland. The paper is open access at PLoS ONE.

A little something to chew on as we head to Copenhagen.
 

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Fight Over Climate Aid Threatens to Derail Copenhagen Talks

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 4:38 PM EST

Less than a week before the Copenhagen climate conference begins, confidential documents reveal that the EU is pushing to use existing aid money, not new funds, to help poorer nations reduce emissions and adapt to climate change—a stance that NGOs say could derail the entire summit.

According to documents obtained by The Guardian, EU negotiators have removed lines from a proposed draft agreement that call for a new climate fund for poor countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The text says the EU "cannot accept" proposed language that would call for climate aid to be "additional to" and "separate from" other development assistance funds.

If climate funds were to come entirely from existing pools of money, that would pose a huge problem for international negotiations. The United Nations has estimated that poor countries need as much as $170 billion per year to adapt to climate change. That's $50 billion more than developed countries spent on aid last year.

Miss Tuvalu Takes on Climate Change

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 7:01 AM EST

This year's Miss South Pacific pageant isn't just about swim suits—it's taking on climate change. The slogan is "preserving our environment the Pacific way," and several contestants have spoken about the issue. Last Wednesday was  Polynesian Nite for the week-long competition, which means Polynesian nations, including, Tuvalu will be honored. Miss Tuvalu, Akelita Marisa, has been vocal about the threats that climate change poses to her home country—sea level rises, king tides, extreme weather, and erosion. The final crowning of Miss South Pacific happened last weekend, less than two weeks before the international climate talks in Copenhagen kick off.

In the current issue of Mother Jones, Rachel Morris has taken an in-depth look at how Tuvaluans are dealing with the impending threats of climate change. Morris traveled to New Zealand to speak with Tuvaluan immigrants and atoll island experts about how soon Tuvalu could be under water. Check it out here.

Warming Drives Civil War in Africa

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 8:11 PM EST

Guess what happens as climate warms in Africa? You get more war. About a 50 percent higher chance of war in unusually warm years.

Prior research has shown links between drought and conflict. But this is the first comprehensive study to finds strong links between civil war and temperature in Africa.

The reason seems to be mostly about food. African crop yields are extremely sensitive to even the smallest shifts in temperature—only 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees F) is enough to drive crop failures and that drives people to start killing each other.

(You think the same thing couldn't happen here?)

So where's Africa headed? Combining historical temperature trends with climate forecasts, the researchers predict a 54 percent increase in armed conflicts by 2030. That's an additional 393,000 war deaths if future conflicts are as deadly as current conflicts.

The paper is important enough that it's been made open access on PNAS.

The researchers' conclusions? On the eve of Copenhagen, lead author Marshall Burke of UC Berkeley told the BBC:

"Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate."

Want to calculate how much your Thanksgiving turkey is contributing to civil war dead in Africa? A recent study estimated Britains' annual turkey dinners add 51,000 tons of C02 to the atmosphere each Christmas. That's the equivalent of 6,000 car journeys around the world. Or some unknown number of war dead.

Seitan turkey, anyone?
 

Cute Endangered Animal: Mouse Lemur

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 1:45 PM EST

These little "darlings" (as Stephen Fry has called them) are tiny and cute enough that even their big-screen versions, like Mort in Madagascar, aren't quite as endearing as the real thing. Predictably, mouse lemurs were bred on the highly biodiverse island of Madagascar, home to some of the world's weirdest, coolest, adorable-ist, and endangered-ist animals. Seventy percent of the animals on Madagascar are found no where else on Earth. The country has dozens of species of lemurs, many of which are endangered due to specialized or restricted habitat on the Texas-sized island of Madagasacar, and the ususal factors: poaching, export as exotic pets, and habitat destruction by logging, agriculture expansion, or human developments. For the mouse lemur specifically, the biggest threats are slash-and-burn agriculture, and predation by carnivores (native and invasive).

The golden-brown mouse lemur, pictured above, is about 10" long (including tail) and weighs about 1.5 oz. The golden-brown lives only in a nature preserve in northwestern Madagascar and unlike other lemurs, it prefers leaping rather than walking to get around tree canopy. Golden-browns live in groups, though there is no alpha and females are not arranged in the harem system like some primates. Instead, scientists say, these tiny primates prefer a "multifemale" arrangement that results in a "promiscuous mating pattern." Meaning, these lemurs mate with whomever, and whenever, they feel like it. Group members communicate with one another through olfactory signals, as well as high-pitched vocalizations called "trills" or "chirps."

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday November 24

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 7:33 AM EST

New Rules: The debate on new mammogram guidelines is driven by a vocal minority.

Heart Matters: An Indian surgeon's cheap, well-done open-heart surgeries is making waves.

Congress Cares: Healthcare bill requires reps to use new federal health exchanges.

Fish Story: Frozen salmon is better for the environment than fresh. [The Oregonian]

Nice Try: West Virginia commerce body doesn't want healthcare unless it can have coal too.

Money Talks: Clean coal group only spends $.02 on R&D for every dollar of profit.

Paying Pharma: Malpractice settlements have made Big Pharma even less reform-friendly.

Nonsense Labels: This "Ecosense" insecticide is greenwashing at its weirdest. [Consumerist]

WWHRD?: Democrats and others are wondering what Harry Reid will do to the bill.

Cost of Care: The Senate's healthcare bill isn't perfect, but it's not breaking the bank either.

Obama's Carbon Goal: White House to release carbon reduction goal, pre-Copenhagen.

Hot in Here: New study shows global temps could rise even higher than expected. [Al Jazeera]

Counting Carbons: Investors want companies to estimate cost of climate change.

Inertia is Powerful: Weatherizing a home reduces carbon, but people are too lazy to do it.

 

 

 

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Escolar's Sushi Swindle

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 7:01 AM EST

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.

Don't Let it All Unravel

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 7:05 PM EST

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.

Uranium Contaminates Nevada Wells

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 1:13 PM EST

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."

Econundrum: 4 Tips for Less Thanksgiving Waste

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 5:59 AM EST

Thanksgiving is here. Family! Friends! Food! Leftovers! Garbage. This year I'm going to try really hard not to make a trough of stuffing so immense that half of it ends up in the compost bin.

A new study from the British anti-food-waste group Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that the average British household produces 463 pounds of avoidable food and drink waste per year, the packaging, shipping, distribution, and cooking of which creates the equivalent of 1,764 pounds of CO2. That's about the same as all the members of a household flying from NYC to Charleston, South Carolina, or a quarter of the emissions produced by a household's yearly driving miles.

The problem isn't unique to Great Britain. In his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart writes that 50 percent of all food in the US is wasted—enough to feed all the hungry people in the world three times over. Stuart aims much of his criticism at industrial food wasters—farms, warehouses, supermarkets, and restaurants. But he has a few smart recommendations for consumers who want to reduce household food waste, too. Lesson #1: Expiration dates are not always what they seem.

When you're doing your thanksgiving shopping, keep in mind Stuart's smart tips for decoding dates:

  1. Understand the difference between "best before" and "use by" dates: "Best" is merely a suggestion, while "use" refers to bacteria growth and safety.

     

  2. "Sell by" dates are "meant to help shop staff manage stock, and should be completely ignored by consumers," Stuart writes.

     

  3. Be very, very wary of dates on packaged produce. "Anyone can tell when a piece of fruit has started to go wrinkly, and decide for themselves whether it is fit to eat."

     

  4. Keep your house cool. In addition to saving on your heating bill and reducing your energy use, some foods stored outside the fridge (especially fats like butter and oil) will last longer.