Blue Marble

What Does "Natural" Mean?

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Last year, according to Nielsen, foods labeled "natural" generated $43 billion in sales. That's more than five times the figure for foods carrying an "organic" label ($8.9 billion). A new Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 people found that two-thirds of respondents believed  that a "natural" label meant that a food contained:

  • No artificial materials during processing
  • No pesticides
  • No artificial ingredients
  • No GMOs

More than half of those surveyed said that they specifically looked for a "natural" label on their foods.

There's just one problem: There are no real federal regulations around the word "natural."

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Weather-Sensitive Watering, and 4 Other Simple Fixes for California's Drought

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 6:01 AM EDT

There's been a lot of scary news on the drought front lately. In the midst of its third dry year in a row (and what's shaping up to be the driest in 500 years), California faces worsening wildfires and drinking water shortages. The state will likely have to rely on dirty and costly fossil fuels instead of hydropower for energy. Plus, because the state is the nation's largest agricultural producer and international exporter, California's crisis will have severe economic implications for the entire country, including raising the price of your favorite produce.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on water supply options that are now tapped out, and a recent survey showed that Californians are unwilling to invest in any new infrastructure or programs. Are we doomed?

Don't Believe Anything You Read About Pomegranate Juice

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 1:28 PM EDT
"SUPER HEALTH POWERS!" Or not.

In ancient Greek mythology, pomegranates symbolized death. They were certainly a source of grief for Coca-Cola on Thursday morning, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful can sue Coke for marketing a product that contains 99.4 percent apple and grape juice as "Blueberry Pomegranate."

And like many Greek myths, the Supreme Court decision is also rich with irony: POM is currently locked in a separate court battle over allegations that its own pomegranate juice marketing misleads consumers.

Both companies have relied on some pretty questionable rhetoric. Coke claimed that because the Food and Drug Administration had approved its juice label, it couldn't be sued under other trademark laws for misleading consumers. "We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as POM must think they are," Coke's lawyer Kathleen Sullivan told the Court in April—an argument that fell flat when Justice Anthony Kennedy responded, "Don't make me feel bad because I thought that this was pomegranate juice."

But as HBO's John Oliver has pointed out, POM isn't exactly a hero here. In September 2010, the Federal Trade Commission charged POM with falsely claiming that its products could prevent or treat a variety of medical conditions. According to the FTC, claims that POM juice has "SUPER HEALTH POWERS!... Backed by $25 million in medical research [and p]roven to fight for cardiovascular, prostate and erectile health" have no basis in reality.

POM has contested the FDA's complaint, but so far, judges have sided with the federal agency. The case has made its way to federal appeals court in Washington, where the judges don't seem particularly sympathetic. At a hearing in May, Judge Merrick Garland read one of POM's ads aloud and said, "I don't understand if you look at those two paragraphs how you can say that it's not misleading."

Watch Live: Can China Survive a Fracking Revolution? The United States Sure Hopes So.

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 4:22 PM EDT

China is on the brink of an energy revolution: fracking. And it's enlisting American energy companies to help implement the technology that blasts shale rock formations deep underground to unlock natural gas. For this event at the Asia Society in New York City, my colleague Jaeah Lee and I are debuting field reporting from a month's worth of exhilarating, exhausting travels deep into Sichuan province, to see China's first fracking wells for ourselves.

Watch the livestream of the event above to catch Jaeah and me discussing the big business of fracking in China—and its potential health and environmental costs. The other panelists are Orville Schell, the great chronicler of modern Chinese politics and society; Josh Fox, the director of the anti-fracking documentary Gaslandand Ella Chou, an energy analyst who is trying to work out how China can break its deadly addiction to coal.

Has This Chilean Architect Figured Out How To Fix Slums?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The Quinta Monroy houses in Chile. Residents start with the gray, concrete structure and foundations, then fill in the adjacent spaces with their own materials over time.

In the United States, we tend to think of the suburbs as the historic domain of the middle class. It's where the boomers went after fleeing the cities to accommodate their growing families (although the demographics of the suburbs are now changing).

But in Latin America, urban peripheries are less commonly populated by leafy suburbs for the rich than by slums for the poor. These shantytowns typically lack basic infrastructure like paved roads, sewers, and tap water. Living far from the city, residents are often forced to make long and expensive commutes.

But in the medium-sized Chilean port city of Iquique, one architect, Alejandro Aravena, had a solution: partial houses, located at the center of town, equipped with only the barest necessities—and space for residents to build on, bit by bit, as they can afford it. 

When they were first built fourteen years ago for about 100 families, Aravena's flagship projects, called the Quinta Monroy Houses, came with all the core necessities—a roof, a bathroom, a kitchen. With a little more than 300 square feet in floor space to start with, the houses were 25 percent smaller than the average public housing unit in Chile, but with an extra-wide foundation, residents had plenty of room to expand.

In his new book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, journalist Justin McGuirk writes that when Aravena first launched the project through his firm, Elemental, a number of critics were appalled. They argued that the government should provide complete houses, since incomplete houses require the occupant to perform manual labor. But where some saw a failure in the making, others welcomed change. In the 1970's, under Chile's socialist president Salvador Allende, the government prioritized building completed public housing, even enlisting a Soviet-made pre-fabricated house factory for the job. But despite the initial gusto, the government quickly ran out of the resources to continue. In three years, the slum population rose more than 130 percent.

After adding four bedrooms and an extra bathroom over six years, one resident believes his $400 investment is now worth $50,000.

Since the Allende period, the government has shifted to a hybrid market-government approach, giving subsidies to the poor to buy houses and land. At the time Aravena built Quinta Monroy, the government offered $7,500 per family—usually too little to buy a complete house, but just enough to make Aravena's stripped-down models affordable.

As residents expanded their houses, their value grew. One study (PDF), sponsored by the Finnish government, found that in its first two years, Quinta Monroy's 100 families had made an average of $750 in improvements per unit, doubling the size of their homes and raising the houses' value to an estimated $20,000 each. One six-year resident McGuirk speaks with says that after the subsidy, he spent just $400 of his own money to buy a basic Quinta Monroy house. But after saving up and adding four bedrooms and an extra bathroom, he estimates he has increased the value of his home to $50,000.

The Quinta Monroy houses
The Quinta Monroy houses before residents doubled their size with their own improvements Cristóbal Palma/Verso Books

It's hard to see a plan like this taking off in the United States, given our long permitting processes and strict building codes. And even in Iquique, some of the half-houses look similar to the shantytowns they were designed to replace: While some residents have transformed their homes into elegant structures with balconies and trim, "other add-ons look like slum shacks wedged between concrete houses," McGuirk says.

Still, other countries see promise in Aravena's idea. Already, Elemental has built and sold hundreds of half-houses in Chile, and it's testing the idea in Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. "These are places where Aravena can still make a difference," McGuirk says.  

SunnyD's New Teen Energy Drink Has More Calories Than Coke

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

From the people who brought you the "fruit-flavored beverage" SunnyD comes a brand new product: SunnyD X, a caffeine- and taurine-free energy drink just for teens. For now, it's available only in convenience stores in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. But Sunny Delight Beverages Co. said in a press release that it has big plans to market it at "venues and locations of interest to teens, such as concerts, sporting events, skate parks and beaches."

David Zellen, the company's associate marketing director, touted the beverage as "carbonated energy that is uniquely provided by a combination of three carbohydrates, as well as seven B-vitamins to help metabolize the carbohydrates into energy." He added, "Simply put, SunnyD X offers the energy teens crave without the ingredients moms tell us concern them, such as caffeine and taurine. It's a win-win."

Here's what he didn't mention: SunnyD X's mega-dose of sugar, a whopping 50 grams per 16-oz. serving. That adds up to a lot of calories: SunnyD X has 200 calories per 16-oz. serving, while an equal amount of Coca-Cola Classic has 187 calories and 52 grams of sugar.

I asked company spokeswoman Sydney McHugh whether the company was at all concerned about the teen drink, which contains just 5 percent juice, contributing to childhood obesity. "I can tell you that we chose to use sugar as a safer source of energy," she wrote to me in an email. Then, she pointed me toward a press release in which Ellen Iobst, the company's chief sustainability officer, bragged that the company had reduced its average calories per serving from 92 to 48 since 2007. "Socially, we need to be taking care of the communities where we do business and our employees," she said. "This is a way to help alleviate the obesity epidemic." Mind you, the calorie count in SunnyD X is more than quadruple that average.

Here's the nutritional information for SunnyD X's orange flavor. Check out the tongue-twisting list of ingredients, too.

Image from Sunny Delight Beverage Co.

HT Consumerist.

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Californians Want to Fix the Drought—Without Spending Any Money

| Sat Jun. 7, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Californians agree their state's drought is a big problem, but they're not enthused about spending money to alleviate it. That's one of the takeaways from a just-released University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll. Some other findings:

Big problem, getting bigger

Just prior to California's last gubernatorial election in November 2010, 46 percent of voters agreed that "having enough water to meet our future needs" mattered "a great deal." The proportion of people who care a lot about water issues has crept up a lot since then:

  • Last September, 63 percent of voters called the drought a "crisis or major problem."
  • 89 percent of voters call the drought a "crisis or major problem" now.
     

Save us some water, just don't send us the bill

Californians are notoriously tax averse, but even what may be the worst drought in 500 years is apparently not enough to get most voters to agree that the state should improve its water infrastructure: 

  • 36 percent of voters said the state should improve water storage and delivery systems, even if it costs money.
  • 52 percent said the state should address these problems without spending money, by taking measures like encouraging conservation.
     

Poorer people and Latinos are feeling harder hit

The poll found:

  • 11 percentof people making more than $50,000 annually said the drought had a "major impact" on their lives.
  • 24 percent of people making less than $50,000 annually said the same. 
  • 29 percent of people making less than $20,000 annually said the same.

It's worth noting that some of California's poorest people are Hispanic farm workers. While 25 percent of Latinos surveyed said the drought had a "major impact" on their lives, just 13 percent of people from other racial groups said the same. 


Climate denial

A recent study has linked the drought to climate change, but some Californians still aren't so sure about the connection. While 78 percent of Democrats said climate change was "very or somewhat responsible" for California's water trouble, only 44 percent of Republicans agreed. 

How Much Cleaner Will Obama's Climate Rules Make Your State?

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 2:15 PM EDT
Solar power can help Arizona make big mandated cuts to its carbon intensity.

Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out the centerpiece of President Obama's climate strategy—a plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's power plants. The main takeaway was that by 2030 the regulations will cut these emissions, the biggest single driver of global warming, by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels. But under the hood, things get a little more complex.

Rather than a consistent national standard, the proposed rule sets a different standard for every state, based on the EPA's assessment of what each state can realistically achieve using existing technology at a reasonable cost. The goal applies to a state's carbon intensity, the measure of how much carbon pollution comes from each unit of electricity produced in that state, rather than total carbon emissions. States like Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, rely heavily on coal power and have a higher carbon intensity than states like California that are more energy-efficient and have more renewable energy. By 2030, each state will be required to meet a carbon intensity target lower than where it is today; how much lower, exactly, depends on what the EPA thinks the state can pull off.

States will have broad leeway to devise individual plans to meet their targets, which could include installing air-scrubbing technology on plants themselves, adopting more robust energy efficiency standards, or switching from coal to cleaner sources like natural gas or renewables.

Here's a ranking of which states will have to shrink their carbon footprint the most:

required cuts
Tim McDonnell

Cops and Firefighters Could Soon Be Charged for Disclosing Fracking Chemicals in North Carolina

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 12:50 PM EDT

North Carolina lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would have made it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Under the version of the law that passed the state legislature on Thursday, the offense has been knocked down to a misdemeanor. But legal experts say the language may still allow companies to press criminal charges against individuals who disclose what they learn about fracking chemicals—including doctors or fire chiefs.

Known as the "Energy Modernization Act," the legislation is partly meant to establish protocols for firefighters and health care providers to access information about chemicals during emergencies. However, it also gives oil and gas companies the right to require emergency responders to sign confidentiality agreements. The previous version of the bill, which was introduced on May 15 by three Republican state senators—​including a member of North Carolian GOP leadership—called for fines and prison time as punishment for disclosing proprietary chemical formulas.

Following widespread public outcry, lawmakers have reduced the penalty to community service. But they failed to clarify confusing language from an earlier draft that might subject fire chiefs and health care providers to criminal charges. This provision could prevent emergency responders from speaking about their experiences with chemical accidents to colleagueseven when the information is relevant to emergency planning or patient care.

How much the public is entitled to know about chemicals injected into the ground during the fracking process to break up natural gas-rich shale formations is one of the hottest issues surrounding fracking. Most energy companies maintain that the information should be proprietary. Public health advocates counter that they can't monitor the environmental and health impacts without knowing what chemicals are involved.

Many North Carolina officials have come down hard on the side of industry. As Mother Jones has reported, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission, which is writing fracking regulations to complement the Energy Modernization Act, put off approving a near-final chemical disclosure rule because Haliburtona major player in the fracking industry​complained that the proposal was too strict.

The current version of the act sailed through the North Carolina legislature with no debate. Following the bill's passage last Thursday, Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters that he "absolutely" supports the legislation. This week, he's expected to sign the measure into law.

WATCH: This Thunderstorm Time Lapse Is Absolutely Nuts

| Mon May 19, 2014 11:29 AM EDT

Look! In the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...OH JESUS LORD GOD, NO, THE GATES OF ANOTHER DIMENSION ARE OPENING!

The Washington Post explains:

Fledgling low pressure forming downwind of the Rockies spun up a towering thunderstorm so imposing that the footage almost seems fake – as if from a sci-fi movie or another planet.

Pray! Confess thy sins, for the dark days are upon us!

Spectacular cannot even describe the time lapse video from this spinning supercell storm that blossomed in eastern Wyoming Sunday evening, near Newcastle.  The action really gets going about 55 seconds in.

It looks like Storm from the "X-Men" franchise and Thor from the "Thor" franchise teamed up and took the show on the road!

Anyway, have a nice day.