Blue Marble

Is This the Beginning of the End of Junk Food at Stadiums?

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Blueberries, avocados, and kale, fresh-picked for salads and small plates. Rows of water-saving aeroponic towers that grow as many as 44 veggie plants each. Fertilizer made from coffee grounds...at a baseball field?

That's right: Below the scoreboard at San Francisco's AT&T Park, a 4,320-square-foot edible garden space, the first of its kind in a sporting arena, will grow seasonal produce year-round while hosting outdoor classes on sustainability, urban farming, and healthy eating for Bay Area children. It also features a bar, dining tables, fire pits, and a sod farm (later harvested for use on the field) for picnicking fans. "We hope it really catches on with other parks," says Eric Blasen, cofounder of Blasen Landscape Architecture, the studio that designed the garden.

Giants outfielder Hunter Pence confirms that it is—at least among Giants team members. At the garden's grand opening on Tuesday, he said that at first his teammates made fun of his kale salads from the garden—until they tried them. Now they're a team favorite. 

So does a project like this have potential anywhere outside of San Francisco? For most Americans, a visit to the ballpark means hotdogs and pretzels, not flatbreads and kumquats. And the harvests will be small, only enough for "a fraction" of the stadium's needs, says Bonnie Powell, director of communications for Bon Appétit Management, an AT&T park food provider that helped launch the garden. "The main point of the garden is to be an educational one: how food grows, and that you can grow it even in small, challenging spaces."

The garden's designers hope those themes will resonate with the fans. "We'll have so much exposure," says Silvina Blasen, the other cofounder at Blasen Landscape Architecture. "I mean, I think they can seat 44,000 people on these bleachers. It should catch on."

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If You Think Climate Politics In the US Are Crazy, Wait Till You See What Just Happened in Australia

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 2:16 PM EDT

Hold on to your hats! Australia's already-bizarre carbon price adventures veered into the utterly surreal overnight.

Picture this: an eccentric billionaire mining baron, most famous outside Australia for commissioning a replica of the Titanic, appearing alongside the world's most recognizable climate campaigner and former US vice president, Al Gore, to announce Australia's relatively new carbon tax will be scrapped, and a new emissions trading scheme proposed, effectively screwing over the sitting conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, who is hell-bent on getting rid of carbon legislation altogether.

It's a big blow to a prime minister who said recently in Canada that he has "always been against" an emissions trading scheme, and believes fighting climate change will "clobber the economy."

For watchers of Aussie politics, it was a visual feast of weirdness. For US readers, imagine—I don't know—industrialist Charles Koch jumping on stage with writer and activist Bill McKibben and you're getting close.

Clive Palmer speaking at a press conference to unveil plans to build a an almost-exact replica of the ill-fated Titanic, in March 2013. Ben Cawthra/ZumaPRESS

Al Gore has shared a press conference podium, and political common ground, with many influential leaders in his time, but Clive Palmer must be among the most unexpected. The mining magnate's upstart political group, the populist center-right Palmer United Party (PUP), was elevated to the Australian political heavyweight class during last year's national elections, and is now on the verge of holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate, or upper house—a position that possesses outsized power to wheel and deal with a government intent on getting laws passed.

That has meant all eyes are on Clive, who owns a nickel refinery and large swathes of land laced with coal and iron ore, along with several jets and resorts: not the climate's most likely hero.

A bit of backstory: Abbott took office last year after campaigning relentlessly to "scrap the toxic tax" and do away with the other parts of the carbon price legislation introduced by former-PM Julia Gillard. The carbon tax would have finally transitioned into a fully-fledged emissions trading scheme in mid-2015. Since the election, Australia's conservative government led by Abbott has been gearing up to axe the entire package for good.

Under Tony Abbott's replacement plan, the package would be scrapped in favor of a policy called "Direct Action", which critics say will do little to address carbon emissions, and cost taxpayers a hell of a lot of money. The repeal will certainly pass the lower house, but getting Clive Palmer on side was crucial to its passage through the Senate.

Meanwhile, Clive Palmer, a fantastical maverick-type (an enormous Tyrannosaurus rex presides over one of his golf courses), appears to be enjoying his newly found political power, basically telling Abbott "not so fast." He has indeed agreed to axe the tax, but is now pushing instead to keep some form of emissions trading scheme (which his party will introduce). Palmer's emissions trading scheme would be toothless and non-competitive, at least at first, with the carbon price set to zero until Australia's major trading partners like China and South Korea effect similar schemes.

All of this is made even more baffling since Clive Palmer himself only recently rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April that "There's been global warming for a long time. I mean, all of Ireland was covered by ice at one time... so I think that's part of the natural cycle."

But at this week's performance, he made an incredible about-face:

"Australia has got an opportunity to set a standard which can act as a catalyst for the whole world, to set a fair framework which the world can follow," Palmer said. "As President Obama in the US has shown, great leadership and encouraging all countries to act, Australia needs to do its fair share." Palmer argues that without a trading scheme, Australian businesses will get left behind. Another motivation might be more personal: there's a long-standing distrust between Palmer and Abbott, the prime minister.

Gore, appearing alongside Palmer, fully endorsed what will effectively isolate Tony Abbott, the prime minister, calling Palmer's decision "an extraordinary moment."

"All of these developments add up to the world moving to solve the climate crisis," he said.

But climate change has washed Canberra's corridors of power in political blood for years, and it seems that no matter how hard Tony Abbott tries to finally put it to rest, there's no end in site, writes Lenore Taylor at The Guardian:

It is a dramatic, if slightly confusing, eleventh hour conversion to the climate change cause for Clive Palmer, millionaire would-be coal miner who... just two months ago didn’t seem to think global warming was a thing. After contributing to the downfall of three Australian prime ministers, two opposition leaders and seven years of bitter and acrimonious debate, carbon policy is now presenting yet another prime minister with some serious dilemmas.

How the Sweetener Industry Sugar-Coats Science

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Food companies have spent billions of dollars to cover up the link between sugar consumption and health problems. That's the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

sugar industry lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The industry's tactics—similar to those used by Big Tobacco in downplaying the adverse health effects of smoking—were explored by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens in the 2012 Mother Jones investigation "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies." But this latest report draws on some newly released documents submitted as evidence in a recent federal court case involving the two biggest players in the sweetener industry: the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association (the trade group for manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup). 

The report details companies' plans to bury data and to convince consumers that sugar is "fine in moderation." It also shows how trade groups hired independent scientists to cast doubt on studies that show the adverse affects of sugar consumption—and strategized to intimidate scientists and organizations who didn't tow the industry line.

For example: The researchers cite a 2003 letter, first obtained by Mother Jones, from the president and CEO of the Sugar Association to the director general of the World Health Organization. In the letter, the Sugar Association intimates that it will deny funding to the WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization if the groups don't pull a report that shows that added sugars "threaten the nutritional quality of diets." Another internal document claimed the action worked:

"We have been successful in getting the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) to oppose the WHO Diet and Nutrition Report 916 calling for 10% consumption of sugar, we have been successful in getting the U.S. WHO representative Dr. Steiger to express major concerns with Report 916 and call for edits to the initial draft of the WHO Global Strategy recommending to limit sugar intake."

Sure enough, when The World Health Assembly (the WHO's decision-making body) released its global health strategy on diet and health in 2005, the study in question wasn't referenced once.

General Mills sugar lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The report's authors hope that the new findings will influence the ongoing battle over school lunches eaten by 32 million children each day. In 2013, both General Mills and the Sugar Association weighed in on proposed lunch standards, dismissing the connection between sugar and health problems. According to the report, "the USDA adopted a weaker rule than it first proposed, limiting kids' sugar intake at school by weight rather than by calorie as public health experts had recommended." If the current agriculture appropriations bill is approved in an upcoming congressional vote, schools will be allowed to opt out of new USDA rules that require cafeterias to provide more fruits and vegetables in students' lunches.

The authors also hope to hasten change on food labels. The FDA is currently evaluating proposed revisions that would require manufacturers to list added sugars separately from those that occur naturally. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Washington D.C. Six trade groups, including the Corn Refiners Association, the American Frozen Foods Institute, and the National Confectioners Association, have already pushed on the FDA to postpone while they complete "consumer perception research," on the proposed changes. Representatives from the Center for Science and Democracy plan to present the results of the study to encourage officials to move forward with the new labels.

You can read the full report here

Is Your Cereal Giving You a Vitamin Overdose?

| Tue Jun. 24, 2014 12:30 PM EDT

Those bran flakes with "original antioxidants" or "extra vitamin A"? You might be better off without the added nutrients. A report released on Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that cereals and snack bars that have been fortified with extra vitamins and minerals to appear healthy may actually be harmful—particularly for kids.

The report, How Much is Too Much?, explains that there are some nutrients that most Americans don't get enough of, like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin E. But it turns out that kids are eating too much of other nutrients, and overconsuming certain vitamins and minerals for a long period of time can have negative health implications in the long run.

EWG focused on three nutrients that are regularly consumed in excess: vitamin A, zinc, and niacin. Only 6 percent of two- to eight-year-olds are deficient in vitamin A, and less than 1 percent are deficient in zinc and niacin. But, according to the report, an estimated 28 million children between those ages are overexposed to these nutrients from food and supplements.

Studies have shown a host of illnesses associated with excessive intake of these nutrients. Here are the effects of overconsumption, according to the EWG:

  • Vitamin A: Liver damage, brittle nails, hair loss, skeletal abnormalities, osteoporosis and hip fracture (in older adults), and developmental abnormalities (of the fetus)
  • Zinc: Impaired copper absorption, anemia, changes in red and white blood cells, impaired immune function
  • Niacin: Skin reactions (flushing, rash), nausea, liver toxicity

Renée Sharp, the EWG's director of toxics research, explained that the associated health risks are "more chronic than acute": If a child eats too much of a given nutrient over a long period of time, he or she might experience the associated illnesses down the line. The tricky part is that it's nearly impossible to link a specific case of an illness to overconsumption of fortified food, so there isn't a hard and fast set of rules on what to eat and what to avoid. But, according to the report, several studies have shown that "cumulative exposures from fortified food and supplements could put children at risk for potential adverse effects." Put more simply by Sharp: "if your kid is eating highly fortified cereal, and that kid is also eating snack bars and other fortified foods and you're giving your kid a vitamin pill, that adds up. And there's no reason to put your kid at that risk."

Nutrition labels, even on brands marketed toward kids, almost always show the recommended values for adults.

Part of the reason for childrens' overconsumption of certain nutrients is marketing: If products are marketed as healthy, people are more likely to buy them. According to New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, "Plenty of research demonstrates that nutrients sell food products. Any health or health-like claim on a food product—vitamins added, no trans fats, organic—makes people believe that the product has fewer calories and is a health food…Added vitamins are about marketing, not health."

Adding to the confusion among shoppers is nutrition labels. Young kids have significantly lower recommended daily intakes of nutrients than adults, but nutrition labels, even on brands marketed toward kids, almost always show the recommended values for adults. Furthermore, the EWG contends that the intake recommendations, which were calculated by the FDA in 1968, are themselves out of date: "Those values were set at a time when people were worried about nutrient deficiencies," explained Sharp. "Scientists just hadn't done as much research on the potential pitfalls of overconsuming nutrients. Things have changed."

Zinc perfectly exemplifies this double whammy. The FDA currently recommends that adults consume 15 milligrams of zinc per day, and that children younger than five consume 8 milligrams per day. But food packaging, which shows recommended intake levels calculated in '60s, still says that adults should consume 20 milligrams per day. "If you think about it, every single food sitting in the grocery store has a nutrition fact panel right now that is largely irrelevant for young children," says Valerie Tarasuk, a University of Toronto nutritional scientist.

In the years since the FDA calculated its recommended Daily Values, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, have developed "Tolerable Upper Intake Levels" for these three nutrients (referenced in the graph above). Often, they're considerably lower than the FDA's recommended daily allowances. An FDA proposal to revise nutrition labels is currently open for public comment. Though the FDA proposed similar changes in 2003, the Daily Values for nutrients have remained consistent since the 1960s. An FDA spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

In EWG's review of fortified foods, the top source of excessive intake of the three studied nutrients was cereal. Cereals made up 43 percent of all sources of preformed vitamin A, 52 percent of added niacin, and 97 percent of added zinc.

But not all cereals are fortified equally. The EWG's analysis of the nutrition labels for 1,556 cereal brands found that 114 cereals were fortified with 30 percent or more of the FDA's daily intake values (for adults) of vitamin A, zinc, or niacin. The full list of those cereals is here, but here are a few brands you might recognize:

  • Cap'n Crunch's Chocolatey Crunch
  • Food Lion Whole Grain 100 Cereal
  • General Mills Fiber One, Honey Clusters
  • General Mills Wheaties
  • General Mills Total Raisin Bran
  • Kashi U 7 Whole Grain Flakes & Granola with Black Currants & Walnuts
  • Kellogg's Crispix Cereal
  • Kellogg's Smart Start, Original Antioxidants
  • Kellogg's Special K
  • Kroger Frosted Flakes of Corn
  • Malt-O-Meal Corn Bursts
  • Safeway Kitchens Bran Flakes
  • Stop & Shop/Giant Source 100 Crispy Whole Grain Wheat & Brown Rice Flakes
  • Trader Joe's Bran Flakes

These Maps Show How Many Brutally Hot Days You Will Suffer When You're Old

| Tue Jun. 24, 2014 11:14 AM EDT
Risky Business

One of the main difficulties in getting people to care about climate change is that it can be hard to notice on a daily basis. But the prospect of sweating profusely through your golden years? That's more arresting.

If you're aged 4 to 33 right now, the map above shows you how many very hot days—those with temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit—you're likely to experience by the time you're elderly. It comes from a new report by the economics research firm Rhodium Group, which was commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Henry Paulson, the Republican Treasury secretary under George W. Bush; and Tom Steyer, the billionaire Bay Area entrepreneur and environmentalist. 

What Does "Natural" Mean?

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 5:00 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 5:01 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 12:28 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 3:22 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 5:00 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.