Blue Marble

Do Your State's Hospitals Serve Big Macs?

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Would you like fries with your hospital stay? If so, you're in luck: Many hospitals house fast-food restaurants. Some even offer delivery to patient rooms. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) isn't wild about this phenomenon and made this map, which shows the US hospitals with fast-food chains inside them:

Image by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Of the 208 hospitals—most of them public—that PCRM investigated in its report, 43 had fast-food chains inside, mostly McDonald's, Wendy's, and Chick-Fil-A. PCRM staff dietitian Cameron Wells told me that some of the fast-food joints have contracts that require them to give a certain percentage of their profits to their hospitals, "meaning the more unhealthful food the restaurant sells to patients and their families, the richer the hospital gets," she said. 

Six of the fast-food-serving facilities in the report were children's hospitals. One of those, Children's Hospital of Georgia, offers delivery service from McDonald's straight to patients' beds. "Seeing this in a children's hospital—that's the most vulnerable population," Wells says. "Fast food is not going to help children get better."

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For the First Time, California Is Enforcing Water Restrictions

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 2:48 PM EDT

Today, California Governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the state's history. The announcement follows a drought of more than three years, which has officials worrying that Californians may have only one year of drinking water left.

The regulations require California cities to decrease water use by 25 percent, though, crucially, only requires agricultural users to report their water use and submit drought management plans. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of California's water usage. (For more drought background, check out our past coverage on agricultural water use—almonds are the biggest suck—and municipal water use.)

From the press release:

The following is a summary of the executive order issued by the Governor today.

Save Water

For the first time in state history, the Governor has directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. This savings amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, or nearly as much as is currently in Lake Oroville.

To save more water now, the order will also:

Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments;
Direct the creation of a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with more water and energy efficient models; Require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use; and
Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

Increase Enforcement

The Governor’s order calls on local water agencies to adjust their rate structures to implement conservation pricing, recognized as an effective way to realize water reductions and discourage water waste.

Agricultural water users – which have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off – will be required to report more water use information to state regulators, increasing the state's ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water under today’s order. Additionally, the Governor’s action strengthens standards for Agricultural Water Management Plans submitted by large agriculture water districts and requires small agriculture water districts to develop similar plans. These plans will help ensure that agricultural communities are prepared in case the drought extends into 2016.

Additional actions required by the order include:

Taking action against water agencies in depleted groundwater basins that have not shared data on their groundwater supplies with the state;
Updating standards for toilets and faucets and outdoor landscaping in residential communities and taking action against communities that ignore these standards; and
Making permanent monthly reporting of water usage, conservation and enforcement actions by local water suppliers.

 

Why Leftover Pasta Might Be Healthier Than Fresh

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Last week, lovers of rice rejoiced when the Washington Post reported on a simple trick to improve the nutritional value of the food. According to researchers in Sri Lanka, all you have to do is add a fat (they used coconut oil) to the cooking water, cool your rice over night, and voilà!—up to to 50 percent of the calories (a cup of rice contains about 200 when cooked conventionally) are gone.

It works by converting the white rice—which made mostly of digestible starch—into one that is indigestible, or "resistant," meaning that it's eventually excreted instead of metabolized by our bodies. The researchers found that adding fat and then allowing the rice to cool changed the composition even after the rice was reheated.

With diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity rates rising around the world, this simple tweak to a dietary staple for billions could be a major boon to public health. And it's just one example of how chemistry can be put to work in the kitchen. Here are five more ways to improve foods' nutritional content through cooking:

The study participants who had the reheated pasta instead of fresh reduced spikes in blood sugar by 50 percent.

1. Use the heating/cooling method on other carbs too: The BBC reported last year that pasta might be healthier when eaten as leftovers. Researchers from the University of Surrey found that eating cold pasta resulted in smaller spikes in glucose than eating freshly cooked pasta. These results were even more pronounced when the pasta was reheated: The study participants who had the reheated pasta instead of fresh reduced spikes in blood sugar by 50 percent. A previous study in 2009 also showed that freshly cooked legumes, cereals, and tubers had significantly higher levels of resistant starch after multiple cycles of heating and cooling. The resistant starch in peas, which had the most dramatic change, increased by 115 percent. Resistant starch consumption has been linked to improvements in gut functioning, insulin sensitivity, increased satiety, and even decrease in fat accumulation.

2. Turn down the heat: Chances are you are already well aware that fried foods aren't doing good things for your health. But according to the FDA the downsides of frying aren't just calories and fat—the high temperature is a problem too. When certain foods are subjected to high temperatures (anything above 248 degrees Fahrenheit), one byproduct is a compound called acrylamide, a possible carcinogen that also has been linked to nerve damage at high levels. French fries and potato chips have high amounts of acrylamide, but the chemical is also produced in many home-cooked foods including toast, potatoes, and even coffee. To mitigate your exposure, soak potatoes in water for more than 30 minutes before cooking, don't over-brown your bread, and refrain from frying your food. Dark-roast coffee may have less acrylamide than light, an FDA report suggests.

3. Don't forgo frozen: Fruits and vegetables found in the freezer aisle can sometimes be more nutritious than fresh ones on the shelf. As my colleague Kiera Butler reported last year, before being frozen, produce undergoes a process called blanching that stops the enzymes that would otherwise cause the vegetables to lose color, texture, and nutrients. Because this process happens soon after harvest, frozen vegetables sometimes retain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than the fresh ones that have to travel to the grocery store. Blanching might also make certain vitamins more digestible.

4. Marinade meats: Meat marinades do more than enhance flavor and texture—they prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are dangerous chemicals created when meats are cooked at high temperatures. These compounds have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. While there are noted benefits from marinades with lemon juice or vinegar, a study published last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that when you marinade meat with beer, the carcinogenic potency is greatly reduced. Black beer had the best results, reducing PAHs found in pork by 53 percent.

5. Use your microwave: Yes, that's right—the microwave has been redeemed. Because it cooks food quickly without exposing it to high levels of heat, the microwave can preserve nutrients when cooking vegetables. A 2003 study by Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University showed that, compared to boiling, microwaving retained more water-soluble vitamins in turnip greens, and another done in 2008 by the University of Tsukuba in Japan found that the microwave was one of the best cooking options for preserving antioxidants in peppers. Researchers also found that chemicals called glucosinolates—which may fight cancer—actually increased after red cabbages were microwaved. The American Institute for Cancer Research also recommends precooking meat in the microwave before putting it on the grill to reduce the cancer-causing HCAs and PAHs mentioned above.

Here's What President Obama Just Promised the World in the Fight Against Climate Change

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 11:26 AM EDT

This morning, hours ahead of a looming deadline, the United States released its formal submission to the United Nations in preparation for global climate talks that will take place in Paris later this year. Known as an "intended nationally determined contribution," the document gives a basic outline for what US negotiators will pony up for an accord that is meant to replace the aging Kyoto Protocol and establish a new framework for international collaboration in the fight against climate change.

The US submission offered few surprises and essentially reiterated the carbon emission reduction targets that President Barack Obama first announced in a bilateral deal with China in November: 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The document then gives a rundown of Obama's climate initiatives in order to demonstrate that the US goal is attainable with policies that are already in place or are in the works. Chief among those policies is the Clean Power Plan, which sets tough new limits for carbon emissions from the electricity sector, with the aim to reduce them 30 percent by 2030.

 

With today's announcement, the United States joins a handful of other major polluters, including Mexico and the European Union, in formally articulating its Paris position well in advance. In a series of earlier UN meetings over the fall and winter, negotiators stressed that setting early delivery dates for these pledges was important so that countries will have time to critique each others' contributions in advance of the final summit in December. But although the deadline is today, many other key players—including China, Brazil, Russia, Japan, and India—have yet to make an announcement.

Environmental groups' immediate reactions to the US submission were mostly positive.

"The United States' proposal shows that it is ready to lead by example on the climate crisis," World Resources Institute analyst Jennifer Morgan said in a statement. "This is a serious and achievable commitment."

At least one leading Republican offered an equally predictable rebuttal, according to the Associated Press:

"Considering that two-thirds of the US federal government hasn't even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The World's Worst Climate Villain Just Showed Us Exactly How to Stop Global Warming

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 6:30 AM EDT

There was a somewhat surprising announcement this week from a country with one of the world's worst climate reputations: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office declared that his government is committed to signing on to the next major international climate accord, set to be hammered out in Paris later this year.

In a statement, the PM's office said that "a strong and effective global agreement, that addresses carbon leakage and delivers environmental benefit, is in Australia’s national interest."

I have no idea what "carbon leakage" is. Presumably it's something similar to carbon dioxide emissions, which are the leading cause of global warming. (Update: Carbon leakage is "the term often used to describe the situation that may occur if, for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses were to transfer production to other countries which have laxer constraints on greenhouse gas emissions," according to the European Commission.) Regardless, the announcement is a welcome sign from an administration that was recently ranked as the "worst industrial country in the world" on climate action.

The Paris summit is meant to elicit strong commitments to reduce carbon pollution from all of the world's leading economies, so it's a good thing Australia is willing to play ball. The country gets 74 percent of its power from coal (that's nearly twice coal's share of US energy generation). Australia has the second-largest carbon footprint per capita of the G20 nations (following Saudi Arabia), according to US government statistics.

Whether or not Australians liked their carbon tax, new data show it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions.

But let's not get too excited. Although Abbott hasn't yet specified exactly what kind of climate promises he'll bring to the table in Paris, there's good reason to be skeptical. Here's why: In the run-up to the talks, developed countries are keeping a close eye on each others' domestic climate policies as a guage of how serious they each are about confronting the problem. It's a process of collectively raising the bar: If major polluters like the United States show they mean business in the fight against climate change, other countries will be more inclined to follow suit. Of course, the reverse is also true—for example, the revelation that Japan is using climate-designated dollars to finance coal-fired power plants weakens the whole negotiating process. That's one reason why President Barack Obama has been so proactive about initiating major climate policies from within the White House rather than waiting for the GOP-controlled Congress to step up.

So, on that metric, how are Australia's climate policies shaping up? It looks like they're going straight down the gurgler.

Almost a year ago, Australia made a very different kind of climate announcement: It became the world's first country to repeal a price on carbon. Back in 2012, after several years of heated political debate, Australia's parliament had voted to impose a fixed tax on carbon pollution for the country's several hundred worst polluters. The basic idea—as with all carbon-pricing systems, from California to the European Union—is that putting a price on carbon emissions encourages power plants, factories, and other major sources to clean up. Most environmental economists agree that a carbon price would be the fastest way to dramatically slash emissions, and that hypothesis is supported by a number of case studies from around the world—British Columbia is a classic success story. (President Obama backed a national carbon price for the US—in the form of a cap-and-trade system—in 2009, but it was quashed in the Senate.)

In Australia, the carbon tax quickly became unpopular with most voters, who blamed it for high energy prices and the country's sluggish recovery from the 2008 global recession. Abbott rose to power in part based on his pledge to get rid of the law. In July 2014 he succeeded in repealing it.

Now, new data from the Australian Department of the Environment reveal that whether or not you liked the carbon tax, it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions. And in the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis.

The new data quantified greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector (which accounts for about a third of total emissions, the largest single share) in the quarter from July to September 2014. As the chart below shows, emissions in that same quarter dropped by about 7.5 percent after the carbon tax was imposed, and jumped 4.7 percent after it was repealed:

oz carbon emissions
Tim McDonnell

It's especially important to note that the jump came in the context of an overall decline in electricity consumption, as Australian climate economist Frank Jotzo explained to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Frank Jotzo, an associate professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School, said electricity demand was falling in the economy, so any rise in emissions from the sector showed how supply was reverting to dirtier energy sources.

"You had a step down in the emission intensity in power stations from the carbon price—and now you have a step back up," Professor Jotzo said.

…[Jotzo] estimated fossil fuel power plants with 4.4 gigawatts of capacity were been taken offline during the carbon tax years. About one third of that total, or 1.5 gigawatts, had since been switched back on.

In other words, we have here a unique case study of what happens when a country bails on climate action. The next question will what all this will mean for the negotiations in Paris.

Scientists Can Predict Your City's Obesity Rate by Analyzing Its Sewage

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 6:10 AM EDT
The sewage of fat cities like Little Rock and Toledo is easy to distinguish from that of skinny ones like Denver and San Diego.

If someone were to ask you what distinguishes skinny cities from fat ones, you might think of the prevalence of fast-food joints, the average length of automobile commutes, or the relative abundance of parks and jogging trails. But there's also another, more underground factor: their sewage.

Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee collected raw sewage samples from the intakes of municipal wastewater treatment plants in 71 cities around the country. Their results, published last month in mBio, the American Society for Microbiology's open-access journal, showed that the microbial content of that sewage predicted each city's relative obesity with 81 to 89 percent accuracy.

The finding actually isn't all that surprising, says lead author Ryan Newton, a visiting professor at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. Other studies have shown that bacterial imbalances in your intestines can lead to metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. Newton's study, however, is the first to demonstrate that those microbial differences also play out across entire populations, even after our poop gets flushed, mixed together, and sent through miles of pipes.

The UWM study was enabled by computing advances that have allowed scientists to rapidly sequence microbial populations and look for patterns in the results. Other researchers are using similar techniques to look for correlations between gut bacteria and a wide range of health conditions.

Scientists hope other data derived from sewage could help predict epidemics and track public health trends.

Newton isn't the only scientist who sees sewage as a promising place for data dives. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Underworlds project, which began in January, will study sewage for the presence of viruses such as influenza and polio; bacterial pathogens that cause cholera typhoid fever, and other diseases; and biochemical molecules ranging from antibiotics to illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Scientists hope the resulting data could help predict epidemics and track other public health trends within particular neighborhoods. 

As scientists gain a better understanding of the interplay between microbes and human health, they may eventually be able to look at municipal sewage to figure out which communities would be the best to target with public health campaigns designed to, say, get people to eat less sugar or more vegetables.

And just as important, sequencing sewage could eliminate the thorny problem of doing public health surveys. Unlike people, your poop can't lie about what you had to eat.

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Illegal Pot Farms Are Literally Sucking California Salmon Streams Dry

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 4:06 PM EDT
Outlet Creek watershed in Northern California's Mendocino County. Scott Bauer

Northern California pot farmers are using up all of the water that normally supports key populations of the region's federally protected salmon and steelhead trout.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a new study, published last week in the journal PLOS One, that examined four California watersheds where salmon and trout are known to spawn. In the three watersheds with intensive pot cultivation, illegal marijuana farms literally sucked up all of the water during the streams' summer low-flow period, leaving nothing to support the fish.

"The current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."

Author Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state department of fish and wildlife, estimated the size and location of outdoor and greenhouse pot farms by looking at Google Earth images and accompanying drug enforcement officers on raids. He did not include "indoor" grows—marijuana grown under lamps in buildings.

After visiting 32 marijuana greenhouses in eight locations and averaging the results, Bauer extrapolated his findings to all greenhouses in the study area—virtually nothing else is grown in greenhouses in this part of the country. The sites contained marijuana plants at a density of about one per square meter, with each plant (taking waste and other factors into account) using about six gallons of water a day. Overall, he calculated, pot operations within the study yielded 112,000 plants, and consumed 673,000 gallons of water every day.

And that is water the area's fish badly need. The Coho salmon population is listed as threatened under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts, and is designated as a key population to maintain or improve as part of the state's recovery plan. 

Bauer collected his data last year, at a time when California's drought had already become its worst in more than 1,200 years. When I spoke to him at the time, he told me that pot farming had surpassed logging and development to become the single biggest threat to the area's salmon. Now that that the drought is expected to extend into a fourth year, the same streams could run dry again this summer, and remain so for an even longer period of time.

Overall, the outdoor and greenhouse grows consume more than 60 million gallons of water a day during the growing season—50 percent more than is used by all the residents of San Francisco.

"Clearly, water demands for the existing level of marijuana cultivation in many Northern California watersheds are unsustainable and are likely contributing to the decline of sensitive aquatic species in the region," Bauer's study concludes. "Given the specter of climate change"—and the attendant rise of megadroughts—"the current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."

Japan Wants You to Believe That These Coal Plants Will Help the Environment

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 3:26 PM EDT
The construction site of a Japanese-financed coal plant in Kudgi, India

Japan is at it again. Back in December, the country got caught trying to pass off $1 billion worth of investments in coal-fired power plants in Indonesia as "climate finance"—that is, funding to fight climate change. Coal plants, of course, are the world's single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Today, the Associated Press discovered over half a billion more:

Japanese officials now say they are also counting $630 million in loans for coal plants in Kudgi, India, and Matarbari, Bangladesh, as climate finance. The Kudgi project has been marred by violent clashes between police and local farmers who fear the plant will pollute the environment.

Tokyo argues that the projects are climate-friendly because the plants use technology that burns coal more efficiently, reducing their carbon emissions compared to older coal plants. Also, Japanese officials stress that developing countries need coal power to grow their economies and expand access to electricity.

Putting aside Japan's assumption that developing countries need coal-fired power plants (a view still under much debate by energy-focused development economists), the real issue here is that there isn't an official, internationally recognized definition of "climate finance." In broad strokes, it refers to money a country is spending to address the problem of climate change, through measures to either mitigate it (i.e., emit less carbon dioxide from power plants, vehicles, etc.) or adapt to it (building sea walls or developing drought-tolerant seeds, for example). But there remains little transparency or oversight for what exactly a country can count toward that end.

The reason that matters is because climate finance figures are a vital chip in international climate negotiations. At a UN climate meeting in Peru late last year, Japan announced that it had put $16 billion into climate finance since 2013. Likewise, President Barack Obama last year pledged $3 billion toward the UN's Green Climate Fund, plus several billion more for climate-related initiatives in his proposed budget. Other countries have made similar promises.

Each of these commitments is seen as a quantitative reflection of how seriously a country takes climate change and how far they're willing to go to address it, and there's always pressure to up the ante. And these promises from rich countries are especially important because in many cases the countries most affected by climate change impacts are developing ones that are the least equipped to do anything about it—and least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that caused global warming in the first place. But the whole endeavor starts to look pretty hollow and meaningless if it turns out that "climate finance" actually refers to something as environmentally dubious as a coal plant.

These numbers will take on increasing significance in the run-up to the major climate summit in Paris in December, which is meant to produce a wide-reaching, meaningful international climate accord. So now more than ever, maximum transparency is vital.    

Should Your State Be Able to Ignore the Nation's Most Important Pollution Law?

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 1:20 PM EDT

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a bold solution for any state that doesn't like President Barack Obama's flagship plan to slash carbon emissions: Just ignore it. The new rule, issued under the Clean Air Act, aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to devise a plan to cut the carbon intensity (pollution per unit of energy) of its power sector. By simply ignoring the mandate, McConnell reasoned, states could delay taking steps like shuttering or retrofitting coal-fired power plants until the rules get killed by the Supreme Court (even though the chances of that happening are pretty remote).

Last week, McConnell justified his unusual suggestion that state regulators deliberately ignore federal law by arguing that the rules themselves are illegal. And yesterday, he took his campaign to a new level by introducing—on behalf of GOP co-sponsors Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah)—an amendment to the Senate's massive budget bill. It would allow any state to opt out of the rule if that state's governor or legislature decides that complying would raise electric bills, would impact electricity reliability, or would result in any one of a litany of other hypothetical problems. The amendment could get a vote later this week.

Meanwhile, over in the House, Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have introduced a bill along essentially the same lines, which is set to to be debated by the Energy and Power Subcommittee, which Whitfield chairs, next month.

Republicans are pitching these proposals as necessary steps to protect Americans from the power-hungry, climate-crazed Obama administration. But if passed, they might do more to protect the interests of coal companies. In fact, the Portman amendment introduced by McConnell explicitly allows states to opt out if the rules would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity"—in other words, if they require the early retirement of any power plants. The apparent justification is that in order to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency, states will have to quickly implement sweeping changes to their power system that could leave residents with expensive, unreliable power.

In reality, many energy economists (not to mention utility companies themselves) have found that the range of options states have to comply with the EPA—such as mandating better energy efficiency and building more renewable energy—are more than enough to keep the lights on and bills stable, while simultaneously burning less coal. (Meanwhile, regardless of any new EPA rules, coal is already on a precipitous and probably irreversible decline thanks largely to the recent glut of cheap natural gas.) 

Both bills also work on the assumption that the rules grossly overstep the EPA's authority by extending beyond coal-fired smokestacks to the whole power system. That question is likely to be at the heart of the inevitable court battles over the rule. But as leading environmental lawyer Richard Revesz testified to a House committee this month, wide-reaching plans like this have been successfully implemented under the Clean Air Act for other pollutants like sulfur and mercury throughout the legislation's 40-year history. 

In any case, giving states the option to opt out of federal air quality rules essentially undermines the entire premise of the Clean Air Act, probably the most powerful piece of environmental legislation ever passed. As Natural Resources Defense Council policy chief David Doniger put it yesterday: "These bills would force us back to the dark days half a century ago when powerful polluters had a free hand to poison our air, because states were unwilling or unable to protect their citizens."

Our Meat Obsession May Kill Us. But Not How You Think.

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The world is using more antibiotics than ever before—and showing no signs of stopping. A new analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science predicts that worldwide consumption of the drugs will grow 67 percent by 2030. Over the same period of time, in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the authors expect that antibiotic use will double.

The reason for the dramatic increase in antibiotic use, say the authors, mostly has to do with the planet's ever-increasing appetite for meat. Since the 1970s, meat producers have been dosing livestock with regular, low doses of antibiotics. For reasons not entirely understood, this regimen helps animals grow bigger. In the United States, 80 percent of all antibiotics already go to livestock, and the practice is becoming the norm the world over. This map shows the current global antibiotic consumption in livestock (in milligrams per 10 square kilometer pixels):

Map courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

As the middle class in the developing world grows, demand for meat—and use of the antibiotics to grow that meat cheaply and quickly—is expected to rise as well.

To get a sense of how quickly our global appetite for meat is growing, take a look at China. There, livestock producers are buying record amounts of corn and soy to feed a growing number of animals:

Jaeah Lee

As antibiotic use skyrockets, experts expect that germs will evolve to resist them. That's scary, considering that some of the same drugs we use on livestock are also our best defense against infections in humans. And suberbugs, several recent studies have shown, can and do jump from animals to people. In fact, another recent study predicted that antibiotic resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050. 

There's also evidence that antibiotics might soon stop working the way that meat producers want them to: A recent analysis concluded that the drugs are no longer making pigs bigger.

The good news: Despite loose federal regulations around antibiotic use on farms, American consumers are beginning to favor meat grown without drugs. And manufacturers are taking notice: Earlier this month, McDonald's pledged to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics, and Costco quickly followed suit.