Blue Marble

There's the Beef! KFC's New Meaty Chicken

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 5:06 PM EDT

KFC's saucy new grilled chicken is made with a marinade of "secret herbs and spices," one of which is "beef powder." Hmm, is beef powder an herb, or a spice? This revelation apparently has people up in arms, and the chicken chain El Pollo Loco has even made commercials about what they are calling false advertising. KFC's response? "Small amounts of beef flavors are commonly used in seasonings for many food products, for both restaurant and retail use."

True.

Remember in 2002 when McDonald's settled a lawsuit (for $10 mil) brought by Hindus and vegetarians for the beef fat in their fries (after they promised they only used vegetable oil)? That companies beef up their products is not surprising: Beef makes things tastes good!

When I read the ingredients in KFC's "better-for-you option for health-conscious customers" grilled chicken I actually get stuck on the MSG (twice, in the marinade and in the seasoning) and the partially hydrogenated oil. Sure, other fast foods are just as bad if not worse. But there are all sorts of things in foods that aren't advertised well for consumers. For example, both Wendy's and Burger King, list "spices" as an ingredient in their chicken sandwiches. Which isn't all that descriptive, maybe they're slipping us the beef as well.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

CO2 Highest in 2 Million Years

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

Quick hit: an article in the June 19 issue of Science reports that : CO2 in the atmosphere is now at its highest concentration in 2.1 millions years. Also, that more recent ice ages may have been caused by changes in the Earth's tilt toward the sun, not : CO2 levels. So even though carbon dioxide is higher, it doesn't mean it's going to plunge us back into a cooling trend.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday, June 18

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Jeez, can't believe it's the middle of June already. Yikes. Well, here's the list of stories from yesterday's Riff, Kevin Drum, and MoJo blogs that touch on Blue Marble subjects: 

Honesty FAIL: Healthcare CEOs tell the House just what slimy stuff they're made of.

Ovation deflation: Obama gets booed by doctors.

What Not to Bear: Some say the gay pride flag needs a makeover. Calling Stacy and Clinton...

Protest bonus round: A few sad people still offended by Letterman's joke, reject nth apology.

Palin's instincts: Kevin Drum admires Palin's political opportunism.

Did Sewage Sludge Lace the White House Veggie Garden With Lead?

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 12:25 AM EDT

In March, Michelle Obama delighted locavores when she planted an "organic" vegetable garden on the White House's South Lawn. For years, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other sustainable food activists had been pushing the idea as a way to reseed interest in do-it-yourself agriculture. Less than two months later, the National Park Service disclosed that the garden's soil was contaminated with toxic lead, and the plot's educational value took on a new flavor as the New York Times and other papers discussed how to make urban backyards that are laced with old lead-based paint safe for growing kale and cauliflower. But those stories might have fingered the wrong culprit. 

Starting in the late 1980s and continuing for at least a decade, the South Lawn was fertilized by ComPRO, a compost made from a nearby wastewater plant's solid effluent, a.ka. sewage sludge. Sludge is controversial because it can contain traces of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards (instead of dumping it in the ocean, as had been common practice) would be safe. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998, "but it's very clean poo."

 

Rainless in Seattle

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 6:21 PM EDT

Spring is traditionally a pretty wet season in America's quintessential rainy city, Seattle. But this year, the Emerald City has become famous for its rare dry spell.

The Seattle Times reports, "If the rain holds off today, Seattle will match the May-June record of consecutive rainless spring days set in 1982. While there have been reports of some very light rain in and around Seattle, no precipitation has reached Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where the National Weather Service measures rain levels. The record for consecutive dry days for May-June is 29."

As observers, all we can do is hope (and perform rain dances). For the record, I'm pretty sure that this drought hasn't been manufactured by the government.

Look on the bright side, no rain is better than acid rain...or is it?
 

Cash for Clunkers Passes

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

The much-debated war spending bill made it through the House last night. Altogether, the bill asked for $106 billion, including the orginal $75.5 billion that Bush requested for 2009. The bill included a little side project that might help solve one of Obama's biggest problems: how to save the car industry and the environment, simultaneously.

The "Cash for Clunkers" program sponsored by Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) intends to hand out $4,500 vouchers to people who bought cars that got 10 more miles-per-gallon than their old ones. Vouchers for $3,500 will go to consumers who made a 4 mpg improvement. Experts estimate that the program could create up to $1.5 million in car sales per year, but it's unclear how much it will do for the environment. "Light truck" owners will only be required to make a 5 mpg change to earn a voucher, even if their new car is a 16 mpg Hummer by GM. Cash for Clunkers is a good idea in theory, but we're not going to get anywhere if the government rewards people driving unapologetic gas-guzzlers for becoming only slightly more responsible.

Some Republicans opposed the program because it appears to be another handout to the failing auto industry, while Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) say it doesn't go far enough. Sound familiar?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Revive Chestnuts, Fight Climate Change?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 3:05 PM EDT

American chestnut trees had always thrived in forests, towns, and farmland in the eastern US—until the early part of the last century, when a chestnut blight, thought to have come from the far east, all but obliterated the species.

But the tree still looms large in the American imagination, and for good reason: It's beautiful, towering and leafy. It also grows quickly, and its durable wood makes good floors, tables, and fences. For years, groups like American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation have been working to revive the American chestnut. Now, it looks like a research team at Purdue University might have done it by creating a hybrid:

New efforts to hybridize remaining American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts have resulted in a species that is about 94 percent American chestnut with the protection found in the Chinese species. Jacobs said those new trees could be ready to plant in the next decade, either in existing forests or former agricultural fields that are being returned to forested land.

Beyond the obvious ecological and aesthetic benefits of the new chestnut, researchers point out that the tree could also help mitigate the effects of global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere. All trees do that of course, but the American chestnut would be particularly good at it, since it grows big quickly, explained a researcher:

"Each tree has about the same percentage of its biomass made up of carbon, but the fact that the American chestnut grows faster and larger means it stores more carbon in a shorter amount of time," Jacobs said.

No word yet on how the hybrid's chestnuts taste roasted, you know, over an open fire...

 

Hunters Overhunt Lions and Cougars

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 2:49 PM EDT

Sport hunters in the US and Africa are depleting lion and cougar populations. Why? Because wildlife managers respond to demands to control predators they believe threaten livestock and humans—rather than respond to demands to conserve the big cats.

The new study in PLoS ONE looked at lions and cougars killed by hunters over the past 15 to 25 years in Africa and the western US. The data suggest that management agencies routinely adjust quotas to control rather than conserve the big cats in areas where humans or livestock are believed threatened.

The reason sport hunting takes a significant toll on large felines is because replacement males routinely kill their predecessors' cubs, forcing female lions into estrus to improve their own mating opportunities.

The researchers confirmed this effect by comparing the impact of hunting on lions, cougars, leopards, and black bear populations. Male black bears don't routinely kill cubs of other males.

The results show that lion and cougar populations have suffered the greatest decline in places that sport hunting has been most intense in the last 25 years. Leopards are not as badly affected as lions and cougars, perhaps because they benefit from reduced numbers of lions. Black bears, by contrast, appear to be thriving despite thousands of bears killed by hunters.

The study results point to the need for new approaches to protect humans and livestock and to manage sport hunting without endangering vulnerable species. One possibility would be to restrict sport hunting to older males whose offspring have matured.

Or—radical thought—no hunting at all.

Combine this study with another recent investigation in PNAS showing that, in stark contrast with most predators, humans now exploit high proportions of prey populations and target large reproductive-aged adults. As a result, species hunted and fished by humans show particularly rapid and dramatic changes in phenotype (what an organism looks like as a consequence of the interaction of genetics and environment).

Average phenotypic changes in 40 human-harvested species were found to be much more rapid than changes in natural systems—outpacing them by more than 300 percent.

In fact species hunted or fished by humans now show some of the most abrupt trait changes ever observed in wild populations—rewriting the book on how fast phenotypes are capable of changing. The authors conclude that these changes (typically in the size of the animals and age of adulthood) can and do imperil populations, industries, and ecosystems.

Keep in mind we can't conserve ecosystems without their big predators, something I wrote about in GONE.
 

The Childhood Obesity Puzzle

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

What's making American kids fat? Some blame food deserts, while others implicate fast-food restaurants, lack of exercise, or poor parental eating habits. But a few recent studies seem to suggest that the childhood obesity epidemic may be more complicated than we thought.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that among kids under 13, burgers and fries are out, while yogurt, soup, and grilled chicken are in. This, she says, is good news:

To be sure, pizza, burgers, fries and kids’ meals are still the most popular items ordered by children; the percentage gains for items like soup and yogurt are from a smaller base. But the trends bolster an argument that children’s health researchers have made for years: if you offer more healthful food, kids will eat it.

But will they? Another recent study suggests that parental eating habits actually have little to do with kids' food choices. And according to a study released today by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, household proximity to fast-food restaurants doesn't have much bearing on whether a child is obese, either. (And get this: The Purdue researchers found that living near a gym or rec center was actually associated with weight gain.)

So, what to make of these counterintuitive findings? While any one of these factors might not explain childhood obesity on its own, it's also not realistic to think of them as existing in a vacuum. Instead, they act in concert, along with other variables, like genetics. It's not totally out of the question that a kid who is genetically predisposed to obesity might also live near McDonald's and watch his dad eat Quarter Pounders three times a week. A wholistic study that figures out which factors matter most, and how they interact—that's a tall order. It'd take a long time, and a whole lot of research power to boot.

Till that happens, is it really useful to isolate these variables? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, June 17

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 7:45 AM EDT

Stories on health, the environment, and science from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday:

Pay more, get less: Only about 1/5 of charter schools perform better than public schools.

Death and taxes: Musings on the taxes necessary for universal healthcare.

Grassley's tweets: A translation of tweets by 75-year-old senator Chuck Grassley.

Palin's pain: While Palin is complaining, real women are actually being raped in Africa.

Obama's 1st climate report: Press nearly wets itself in excitement.