Blue Marble

There Might Be Fracking Wastewater on Your Organic Fruits and Veggies

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in the USDA's organic food safety program.

The US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly ban petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells—a practice that is increasingly common in drought-stricken Southern California.

"No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater."

As I reported last month, oil companies last year supplied half the water that went to the 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County's Cawelo Water District, farmland that is owned, in part, by Sunview, a company that sells certified organic raisins and grapes. Food watchdog groups are concerned that the state hasn't required oil companies to disclose all the chemicals they use in oil drilling and fracking operations, much less set safety limits for all those chemicals in irrigation water.

A spokesman for the USDA's National Organics Program confirmed that it has little to say on the matter. "The USDA organic regulations do not directly address the use of irrigation water on organic farms," said the spokesman, who asked to be quoted on background, "but organic operations must generally maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality."

Of course, that's easier said than done. USDA organic regulations do not require farms to perform water quality tests, and irrigation water is not evaluated as an input by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets products used on organic farms. Calls placed to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic farms in California, were not returned.

Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in a food safety program that otherwise strictly controls what farmers can apply to their land. Notably, the organics program does prohibit the use of sewage sludge-based fertilizer, a product widely used on nonorganic farms that sometimes contains chemicals such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a bill that would require crops irrigated with wastewater from oil and gas operations to be labeled as such. "No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater," he explained in a press release.

That's especially true if their lettuce is labeled "organic," adds Adam Scow, the California director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch: "I think most people's logic would tell them that's not a practice consistent with organic standards."

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The FDA Just Approved "Viagra for Women"

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 7:35 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

More than 17 years after it ushered in Viagra, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first women's sex-drive drug, flibanserin, earlier today.  Sprout Pharmaceuticals will manufacture the drug, which they've named Addyi, and sell it to women with low libido, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

While the pill has garnered much attention under monikers like "pink Viagra" or "Viagra for women," its purpose and mechanism have little in common with the famous blue pill for men. The drug will not physically bring blood to parts of the body to assist arousal, but instead will alter chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.

Is this a victory for women after decades of being ignored by biased pharmaceutical researchers?

Well, not necessarily. As we reported in June:

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Not a great track record. Many health experts and academics doubt the existence of HSDD and believe Big Pharma is fabricating a disorder and exploiting gender imbalances to create a new market. Private investors staked some $50 million on flibanserin's approval, according to Forbes.

The FDA's decision came after two prior rejections of the drug because of side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, and fainting. On the bright side, consumers of Addyi ready to jump into bed will be relieved to hear that the side effects have apparently been diminished.

California Is on Fire. This Map Shows Where.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 6:21 PM EDT
A wildfire burning near Clearlake, California, earlier this month.

On August 17, 2013—two years ago today—a deer hunter near California's Yosemite National Park ignored a campfire ban and burned trash from his dinner. The embers blew into dry brush, starting the third worst wildfire in the state's history. All told, the Rim Fire, as it came to be called, burned 257,314 acres in and around Yosemite.

No wildfires of that scale have occurred since, but, thanks to drought and climate change, California is far from out of the woods. In fact, in 2015, 4,382 wildfires have already scorched a total of 117,960 acres, more than double the five-year average for this time of year. Firefighters have finally controlled the largest two fires, in Northern California's Jerusalem Valley, but not before the blazes razed nearly 100,000 acres. 

The map below, made by California's wildfire fighting agency, Cal Fire, gives a sense of where these fires are occurring. To read more details about each fire and how much of it is contained today, click on the map's fire icons or see Cal Fire's ongoing reports here

And California isn't even the state with the most acres burning right now. A blaze in Idaho has consumed more than 200,000 acres so far. In Alaska, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres this year. This map from the research organization Climate Central shows where wildfires are occurring nationwide:

Your Meat-Eating Habit Is Killing More Than Just Cows

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 5:15 AM EDT

The earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and die-offs are happening more quickly than ever before. In a little over a century, the world has said goodbye to more than 400 species—and many biologists believe this is just the beginning. Scientists predict that in the next 35 years, as many as 37 percent of the world's species could go extinct, if current trends continue.

While we know that climate change is a major culprit in the loss of biodiversity, some researchers now believe burgers might also be to blame. In a new report, a team from Florida International University cited the land degradation, pollution, and deforestation caused by rising global demand for meat as "likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions," and the problem is only expected to get worse.

The world's most biodiverse areas are also the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years.

"It's a colossally important paper," Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, who studies how human diets affect the environment, told Science Magazine:

Researchers have struggled to determine the full impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity, Eshel says. "Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot."

Meat consumption has increased globally by 24 percent since the 1960s, mostly fueled by high demand from wealthy countries like the United States. Each year the number of livestock—specifically cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo—increases by 25 million, requiring more space for both housing and feed production. Cattle, which require vast amounts of feed and produce the potent greenhouse gas methane, are expected to grow in number by more than 1 billion by 2050.

The world's "biodiveristy hotspots," areas biologists have identified where many species flourish, have already been reduced by nearly 90 percent in size and are now restricted to only 2 percent of the Earth's land surface. What's worse is that these biodiverse areas are the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years. Researchers have predicted an additional loss of as much as 50 percent of land to livestock production.

Though Americans are already eating less meat than they used to, the researchers emphasized the continued need to cut back, especially because of how much meat ends up going to waste: Thirty percent of food—or $48 billion worth—is wasted in the United States each year, pushing up demand for meat production. "To support a future with lower animal product food demands," they write, "would drastically reduce habitat and biodiversity loss, fossil fuel energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, while providing highly nutritious diets that greatly improve human health."

Los Angeles Just Found an Awesome Way to Fight the Drought. It Involves Balls. Here Is a Video.

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 4:40 PM EDT

On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Los Angeles found a ballsy way to fight California's unprecedented drought:


LA just completed a project at the LA Reservoir to save 300 million gallons of water by deploying shade balls on its surface, saving our city over $250 million dollars while keeping our water clean & safe.

Posted by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday, August 10, 2015

There are now 96 million "shade balls" floating on the surface of the LA Reservoir. They're made of plastic, the same kind of polyethylene that gallon-sized milk jugs are made of, so they don't pose a threat to the drinking water, according to the LA Times. They're designed to keep water from evaporating and are expected to conserve 300 million gallons per year. And at a cost of $35 million, they're about $250 million cheaper than the alternative, a tarp-like covering.

So, saving California from the drought just takes leadership from someone with a pair of…sorry I'll just stop now.


Here's Another Vital Conversation That Donald Trump Is Ruining

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Donald Trump
Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Over at Vox, David Roberts investigates Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's views on climate change and finds that they are thoughtful, nuanced, and carefully grounded in science.

Kidding, kidding. Trump's proclamations on climate change are as sweeping, bombastic, and asinine as his shocking claim that Mexican immigrants are a bunch of rapists. Here are a couple of typical tweets:

Trump thinks cold weather in the US in winter disproves the demonstrable fact that global average temperatures have been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution. Roberts' pithy conclusion is that Trump's opinions are wrong, but, "They are, for the most part, mainstream Republican positions." That depends on how you look at it. Rejecting climate science is the norm among Republican politicians. (Republican voters are more evenly split between climate science acceptance and denial.) But Trump's specific approach to climate change represents a more rare and particularly disturbing species of climate science denialism.

Most other Republican presidential candidates do not actually deny that the Earth is getting warmer. Rather, they hem and haw about whether humans and greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of it, and to what extent. Here are some examples:

Jeb Bush: "I think global warming may be real…It is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately manmade."

And Rick Perry: "I don't believe man-made global warming is settled in science enough."

And just yesterday, John Kasich: "I think that man absolutely affects the environment, but as to whether, what the impact is…the overall impact—I think that's a legitimate debate."

They argue that the science of human-induced climate change is incomplete, but they accept that warming is measured by data and that NASA's temperature readings are accurate.

Some more extreme conservatives, like Ted Cruz, question whether the data actually even shows the Earth is warming. The more mainstream way of doing this, which Cruz did in his appearance at the Koch brothers' recent confab in California, is to selectively and misleadingly present very specific facts in order to create a false impression. The more fringey, conspiracist approach, which Cruz also engaged in at that event, is to claim that the temperature measurements are being manufactured by scientists with an agenda. Cruz said, "If you look at satellite data for the last 18 years, there's been zero recorded warming…They're cooking the books. They're actually adjusting the numbers."

That's pretty out there, but less so still than Trump because Cruz does accept that one would establish warming by measuring the temperature, and by doing so not just on one day in one place, but all over the Earth for years. Trump doesn't selectively present the data or assert that it's been rigged, he just ignores it. If it's cold outside in New York in the winter, Trump says, then there is no global warming. His problem is twofold: He does not understand the difference between weather (still often cold in New York in the winter) and climate (gradually warming on average over the entire Earth), and he does not respect the difference between data and anecdote. Trump is hardly unique in this regard—remember Senate Environment Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his snowball—but Trump is the only top-tier Republican presidential candidate who subscribes to it.

So the fact that Trump is in first place in the GOP presidential polls, with more than twice as high a percentage as his nearest competitor, Jeb Bush, reveals some alarming things about a large segment of the Republican voter base (not smart) and the prospects for reaching consensus on the need for climate action (not good).

Trump isn't merely another extremist who rejects climate science. Trump isn't really a conservative at all. He's a reactionary populist who has elevated ignorance to a political philosophy. Call it ignorantism.

Even if Trump hadn't said anything about climate change in particular, his dismissiveness toward objective fact-finding processes would bode ill for the environment. Government policies—economic, public health, environmental—require an accurate measurement of data to inform policymakers who write laws and regulators who enforce them. And a plurality of the Republican electorate currently supports a presidential candidate who does not accept that data, rather than personal anecdote, is how one measures empirical fact.

Despite the widespread opinion that Trump performed poorly in the first Republican debate last week, the only poll to come out since shows him still in the lead with 23 percent of Republican voters. The same poll shows 29 percent of respondents saying Trump did worst in the debate. But a lot of Republicans find his buffoonery and belligerent ignorance compelling.

Even though Trump will not be the GOP nominee, whoever it is will need to keep Trump's supporters on board. And all those climate hawks hoping the GOP will stop being "the party of stupid" will be disappointed.

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9 Supermarket Staples That Were Created by the Military

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 5:05 AM EDT

Go down an aisle in your supermarket and pick up a packaged item. Chances are, the contents of that can, bag, box, or pouch were designed in a US military building in the suburbs of Boston.

According to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's insightful new book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Current), the effort to nourish faraway GIs with portable, nonperishable, and edible (if not tasty) food has shaped the landscape of our modern food system. How so? Since World War II, the US military's well-funded food science lab in Massachusetts, the Natick Center, has dominated the development of new food science and technology to create meals with longer shelf life, better flavor and texture, and more convenient packaging. But the Natick Center doesn't keep its findings to itself. It partners with private corporations (à la ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Tyson, and Unilever, to name a few) to produce this food for the general public, as well. It's a win-win for both sides: Corporations get a leg up on the latest and greatest processing and packaging techniques, and the military is ensured a massive supply of rations if war ever breaks out.

If you are feeling queasy about eating food originally created for soldiers, you better watch out: Just about any processed food with a shelf life of more than a couple of days probably has its origins in the Natick Center. Below we outline a few of the biggest military food breakthroughs that you can find in your local grocery store or bodega:

  • Canned food: The effort to preserve meat for troops in combat began in the United States in earnest during the Spanish-American War, but it took years before the military understood the science of germs, bacteria, and how food spoils, and could successfully can meat and other perishables.
  • Energy and granola bars: After trying trying in vain during World War II to create a chocolate bar that wouldn't melt, the army developed a fortified fruit bar that was sweet and of "intermediate moisture." The "fruit bar" evolved into the granola bars and energy bars found in every grocery store and gas station today.
  • Packaged, boneless meat: Meat is expensive, especially when you need to feed an entire army. Thus the development of restructured meat: taking the ignored meat chunks and scraps and creating a new, longer-lasting meat. Now many Americans prefer restructured nuggets, patties, and slices over fresh meat from the bone.
  • Sliced bread: Making bread is labor-intensive, and the product goes stale and moldy quickly, which is a problem for feeding soldiers who spend days and weeks far from kitchens with ovens. So military food scientists came up with anti-staling additives to make shelf-stable bread, which, after World War II, entered households everywhere, becoming the best thing since, well…
  • Dehydrated cheese: Soldiers had such a huge appetite for cheese during the world wars that suppliers had difficulty packaging and shipping enough to meet demand. So the Natick Center went to work to find a better way process cheese for troops. The result? Dehydrated cheese powder. Now it's found everywhere from the cheese packets in our mac 'n' cheese to the Cheeto dust stuck to our fingers.
  • TV dinner packaging: In its search for more flexible packaging resistant to changes in temperature and pressure, the Natick Center had a breakthrough when it combined the flexibly of plastic and the vapor-resistance of foil. This led to the plastic and foil "retort pouches" used for everything from heat-and-serve TV dinners to juice pouches, sauce packets, squeeze yogurts, and pet food.
  • "Fresh-squeezed" juice and smoothies*: Ever wonder why the "fresh-squeezed," unpasteurized bottles of fruit and vegetable juice in supermarket coolers last so long without spoiling or making you sick? It turns out their long shelf life owes itself to a military-invented food technology called high-pressure processing. Essentially, pressure is applied to foods at such a high volume that it breaks the bonds holding together bacteria molecules. This process is also used for salsa, guacamole, and "100 percent natural, no preservatives" cold cuts.
  • Packaged, prewashed salad: To transport fresh greens to troops, the military developed a way to package produce that controlled oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slowing down ripening and spoilage.
  • Instant coffee: A freeze-drying process initially used for transporting blood and vaccines to battlefield medics during World War II was repurposed as a way to make familiar foods long-lasting and lightweight. That's how we got instant coffee, as well as the fruit bits in your cereal, the vegetables chunks in your instant noodles, and cake mix—convenient, long lasting, tasty, and brought to you by the US military.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the kind of juice that undergoes high pressure processing.

Scott Walker Thinks Obama’s Climate Plan Will Jack Up Your Electric Bill. He’s Wrong.

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 3:48 PM EDT

Today President Barack Obama released the final version of his signature climate plan, which sets new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Each state has a unique target, custom-built for its particular mix of energy sources. Each state also has total freedom to determine how exactly to reach the target. But the rules are clearly designed to expedite the closure of coal-fired power plants, the nation's number-one source of CO2 emissions.

It took less than a day for the first legal challenges to the plan to emerge from coal interests. The news rules also attracted some pointed criticism from leading Republican presidential contenders, including Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Here's what Walker had to say on Twitter: 

Neither of those predictions is likely to come true. Cries about job loss and high costs always accompany new environmental regulation. In the case of the Clean Power Plan, as the rules announced today are known, the fear revolves around the image of coal plants around the country going dark. Folks get laid off from the plant, there's less electricity on the grid, so the price of electricity goes up, so factories can't afford to pay their workers, so they lay them off…you get the idea.

But as I've reported in the past, that view of the plan is misguided for two reasons. The first is that Obama's new rules, while an important and historic milestone in the annals of climate action, really aren't much of a departure from the direction that the energy market is already going. As our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate points out, many states are already well on their way to achieving the new carbon targets simply because, for lots of reasons, making tons of inefficient energy from dirty old coal plants just isn't economically feasible anymore. So you'd be hard-pressed to pin any particular lost job in the coal industry on Obama alone.

The second reason Walker and his ilk are off-base is that they focus too heavily on the coal-killing aspect of the plan, without also considering two equally vital aspects: (a) The building of tons of new energy supplies from renewables, and (b) big improvements in energy efficiency, which will allow us to use less power overall.

It's true that by the time the plan takes effect, electricity prices will have risen steadily, as they always have for as long as we've had electricity. Because electric utilities typically have monopolies over their service area and prize reliability over affordability, power costs don't naturally fall over time in the way that the costs of other technologies do. But even though electric rates will probably go up, monthly electric bills are likely to go down, thanks to efficiency improvements. The exact calculus will be different in every state, but to take one example, the Southern Environmental Law Center projected that in Virginia, the Clean Power Plan will lead to an 8 percent reduction in electric bills. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, savings like that add up to $37.4 billion for all US homes and businesses by 2020. The NRDC also projects that the plan will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the energy efficiency sector, as homeowners, businesses, factories, etc. invest in upgrades that enable them use less power.

In any case, the solar industry alone already employs more than twice the number of people who work in coal mining. Making the energy system more climate-friendly is as much about juicing the clean energy industry as it is dismantling the coal industry.

The HPV Vaccine Prevents Cancer. So Why Aren't Most Teens Getting It?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 1:37 PM EDT

According to latest National Immunization Survey, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday, around 60 percent of teenage girls and 78 percent of teenage boys haven't received all three of the recommended doses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which helps prevent reproductive cancers and genital warts caused by the virus.

One in every 100 people infected with HPV will develop genital warts, and 23,000 are diagnosed with HPV-caused cancers each year.

Administered through three shots over a six month period, the vaccine protects against the most common types of the highly contagious virus, which is spread through sexual contact. Health officials recommend that adolescents receive the shots between the ages of 11 and 12 to boost the chances for immunity prior to any sexual activity, but the survey showed that 40 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 hadn't received even the first dose.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease—most people will contract one of the 40 strains at some point in their lives. Seventy-nine million people in the United States have HPV, and an additional 14 million people are infected annually. Many people don't even know they have the virus, and it often goes away on its own.

But not everyone is so lucky: One in every 100 will develop genital warts and 23,000 are diagnosed with HPV-caused cancers each year. According to the CDC, the vaccine prevents almost all pre-cancers and warts caused by the virus in both males and females. Since the first HPV vaccine was developed in 2006, the vaccine has helped reduce HPV infections among teenage girls by 56 percent—even with vaccination rates as low as they are.

Michele Bachmann claimed that the vaccine was "very dangerous" and caused "mental retardation."

Still, many parents are deciding to pass. A study published in Pediatrics in 2013 showed that the reasons most cited included unwarranted fears about vaccine safety and disbelief that their kids would be sexually active. Despite it's proven safety and effectiveness, the vaccine has become a politically divisive issue. In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry was the first in the country to order a mandate, sparking outrage from the religious right. During a 2011 debate, Michele Bachmann claimed that the vaccine was "very dangerous" and caused "mental retardation," and Rick Santorum called vaccine mandates, "just wrong."

HPV vaccine uptake has not kept pace with that of other adolescent vaccines and has stalled in the past few years. In 2012, only about one-third of 13- to 17-year-old girls received all three recommended doses. These levels fall considerably short of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2020 goal of having 80 percent of 13- to 15-year-old girls fully vaccinated against HPV. Immunization rates for U.S. boys are even lower than for girls. Less than 7 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 completed the series in 2012. This low rate is in large part because the ACIP recommendation for routine vaccination of boys was not made until 2011. However, it is even lower than what was observed for girls in 2007—the first year following the recommendation for females—suggesting that concerted efforts are needed to promote HPV vaccination of males. - See more at:

The National Cancer Institute has called for an "urgency of action" in closing vaccination gaps , citing that current vaccine rates are falling short of the US Department of Health and Human Services Goal for 80 percent coverage among 13 to 15 year old girls by 2020.

Though the focus is more often on girls, men are at also risk for HPV-caused cancers, including throat cancer, which may soon replace cervical cancer as the most common caused by the virus.

The survey did show there had been big gains in some parts of the country—Illinois, Montana, North Carolina and Utah all averaged increases of roughly 20 percent—which health officials say is an encouraging sign.

"The large increases in these diverse parts of the country show us it is possible to do much better at protecting our nation's youth from cancers caused by HPV infections," Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement released with the report. "We are missing crucial opportunities to protect the next generation from cancers caused by HPV."

Watch Activists Dangle Off a Portland Bridge to Block Shell's Arctic-Bound Ship

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 1:59 PM EDT
Greenpeace activists watch Shell's MSV Fennica return to dock after apparently impeding it from returning to the Arctic Thursday morning.

Update 7/31/15: Thursday evening, Shell's MSV Fennica made another attempt to pass through protestors on Portland's Willamette River. This time, the icebreaker was successful; the Fennica is now on its way back up to the Arctic. The video below shows the dramatic confrontation between the ship and the environmental activists:

Environmental activists have taken to kayak, chain, and even rocking chair to slow down Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic this summer. For the past two days, they took their protest to a new extreme. Early Wednesday morning, around a dozen Greenpeace activists rappelled off a bridge over the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. to stop a Shell ship stationed there for repairs from returning to the Arctic. This morning, it appears they caused the ship to turn around after it tried to rejoin Shell's fleet in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.

The ship, called the MSV Fennica, went all the way up to the Arctic only to find a 39-inch-long gash in its side. The damage was so serious, the ship had to travel all the way back to Portland for repairs. The Fennica is an icebreaker, but also carries Shell's capping stack, needed to stop an underwater well leak; Shell can't begin its exploring until the Fennica and its equipment is back and functioning in the Arctic.

In an effort to stop it from rejoining Shell's fleet in the Chukchi Sea, and delay the oil giant's drilling plans there, Greenpeace organized protestors to dangle from Portland's St. John's bridge and physically stop the ship from traveling down the Willamette River and back out to the Pacific. We reached out to Shell to confirm if the protestors have affected the Fennica's schedule, but have not heard back.

Below, we collected some Twitter photos of the dramatic protest: