Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Corn: How can one food lead to both obesity and starvation?

Corn: it makes us fat, makes our cows sick, degrades our land and now it is causing a food crisis. How can one crop cause both obesity and starvation? Can a plant be evil?

Well, as we all know, and as I wrote about in my "King Corn" post, corn is the basic building block of most of our food. But with mountains of corn, all that processed food and high fructose corn syrup, how can there be global a food crisis? Think about this, there are people RIOTING in the streets because there is not enough food to eat!

Due to the poorly conceived energy policies of the United States and European Union a tremendous amount of corn is being converted to biofuels (think ethanol). The acreage being used to grow fuel corn is contributing to the explosive rise in global food prices.  Many farmers are growing corn for your gas tank and not your belly.

Yesterday the United Nations said that fuel policies pursued by the U.S. and the EU were one of the main causes of the current worldwide food crisis. So now, not only are we fighting for oil in Iraq, but Iowa isn't feeding us anymore, its feeding Ford's, Chevy's and Toyota's.

Jean Ziegler of Switzerland, UN special rapporteur on the right to food and a professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and at the Sorbonne in Paris, said "that last year the United States used a third of its corn crop to create biofuels, while the European Union is planning to have 10 percent of its petrol supplied by biofuels."  To me, that's both pretty amazing and scary.  Thirty-three percent of all the corn grown in the US is going to run our cars.

When speaking with Voice of America, Greg Barrow of the UN's World Food Program stated, "There is a perfect storm that has emerged over this issue [due to] a combination of factors - high fuel prices, high food commodity prices driven by the growth of economies in China and India. Then this phenomenon of biofuels production, where fields that were once used to produce grain for human consumption are now producing grain for fuel."

Food prices have risen dramatically in the last year and we are already seeing a food crisis in Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Bangladesh and the Philippines. And American's are not immune to the crisis.  Both Costco and Sam's Club have begun rationing sales of rice allowing a maximum of two to four institutional-size bags per customer, depending on supply. 

When speaking with the Washington Post, Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics and the director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University said "If you didn't have ethanol, you would not have the prices we have today. It doesn't mean it's the sole driver. Prices would be higher than we saw earlier in this decade because world grain supplies are tighter now than earlier in the decade. But we've introduced a new demand into the market."  And the astounding thing is, ethanol is not an efficient source of fuel and might be exacerbating global warming. 

According to the Associated Press, even President Bush-- that well knowing environmentalist--said biofuel is responsible for about 15 percent of the rise of food prices. However the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes it to be more around 20 percent. And the International Food Policy Research Institute and Ziegler says it is 30 percent. Leave it to Bush to underestimate a crisis.

Then of course there is the biofuel industry that says that biofuels have only brought food prices up 4 percent. But who are they kidding. It is in their best interest to keep the corn flowing to their chemical vats, and the fuels flowing to our cars.

Check out the Associated Press photo above of a pump at an Ohio Department of Agriculture fuel station in 2006 that is 85% ethanol and 15% petroleum. Currently gasoline contains up to 10% ethanol. If the biofuel industry had it their way all our pumps would look like the one in the photo.

Ziegler and other international scientist have called for a moratorium on the production of biofuels. But of course Bush believes the opposite. Good thing he is a lame duck!

What do you think?

(pump image by Kiichiro Sato, AP)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reducing our Carbon Footprint is Critical: Take Action

I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher the other night with my husband, and the hot discussion was global warming. Bill and his guests were talking about how the current adminstation has done nothing.  Basically addressing global warming has been put on hold because Bush wants the next President to make the hard choices required to deal with it. Richard Clarke, the counter terrorism czar, was on the panel and he said something that really stuck in my head.  

"The real problem is, the last eight years were probably the critical years where we might have done something. And, you know, when we look back – and my book is about government failure, and I say in it, the biggest failure probably that has ever happened of the American government is the failure to do something about global warming. Because the consequences are going to be staggering. And the time when we could have done something about it has probably passed. You know, we should still try. But, the time when we could have really done something to mitigate carbon emissions, the president was saying there wasn’t a problem."

Ok, we all know Clarke really dislikes the President (and so do I) so his statement is more than a little slanted, but I do agree that the clock is ticking. We are approaching "midnight". So the question is have we reached a tipping point where we can't do anything to reverse global warming?

I hope not.  Global warming is a huge and scary issue. Fifteen years ago or so when anyone talked about climate change and global warming, it was hard for us to grasp the concept--what we were told was about the hole in the ozone layer-- because we did not see any changes. But now we see how our weather is changing, think Katrina. If our government is not going to do anything we as individuals MUST take matters into our own hands.

The Environmental Defense Fund released a new analysis that revealed that the overall cost of capping greenhouse gases for the average American family will amount to less than one percent of household budgets over the next two decades. To put this into perspective, assume your family has an annual income of $75,000.  We're talking less than $750 dollars a year.  The anticipated cost to the U.S. economy of reducing emissions is small, even difficult to measure against projected economic growth, but the most expensive policy by far is to do nothing at all

 Another study just release conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon revealed that our dietary choices, not food miles (how long food travels from production to consumption), determine a household's food-related climate impacts. So eating a cow raised on industrial corn is worse for the environment than eating a Mango from Mexico shipped to your grocery store.  

The researchers report that fruit, vegetables, meat and milk produced closer to home rack up fewer petroleum-based transport miles than foods trucked cross country to your table. Yet despite the large distances involved the average distance traveled for food in the U.S. is estimated at 4,000-5,000 miles ­the large non-energy based greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing food make food production matter much more than distance traveled. So the energy used to grow feed, fertilize, slaughter and transport is much more than the energy used to import fruits and veggies to the U.S.

Researchers Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews suggest that eating less red meat and/or dairy products may be a more effective way for concerned citizens to lower their food-related climate impacts. Moving to a diet that is entirely local would reduce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as driving 1,000 miles, while changing only one day per week’s meat and dairy-based calories to chicken, fish, or vegetables would have about the same impact. Shifting entirely from an average American diet to a vegetable-based one would reduce the same emissions as 8,000 miles driven per year.

We're doing our part.  We've joined a CSA (community supported agriculture farm) to lower our dietary carbon footprint and eat locally grown fruits and vegetables. Additionally, we've made a commitment to grow as much of our own food as we can in our family garden. 

So, what are you going to do? 

(Click on the image above by Learning Fundamentals to see different things you can do to help solve global warming)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dark Sky for Earth Day 2008

OK I just have to write one more post before I leave because I will be away for Earth Day. Today my 4 1/2 year-old son came home with a note in his backpack that was entitled "Dark Sky for Earth Day."  The note was from the second grade and had images just like the ones you see in this post.  Above the photo it said, "Wow! This is one fantastic photo, isn't it? Think again. This is a view of the world and the light we waste."

And since I love what the second grad wrote I am copying it word for word for you below.

A really fantastic photo would show nearly all black with a few little white dots.  A special kind of pollution has changed the night sky -- light pollution.  Light pollution comes from millions of street lights, cars & trucks, homes, and office buildings. At night astronauts in space can see the exact shape of the United States.  Our nation glows because of the lights we use and it takes energy to keep those lights on. Light pollution is a problem for astronomers who cannot study the star and people like us who cannot see the Milky Way. At the same time we're wasting huge amounts of energy. On March 29 of this year many cities around the world (like Chicago and Sydney, Australia) decided to take action. They turned off many lights for one hour from 7:00-8:00 p.m. in order to see the sky and to save energy and money. So -- second grade would like to have our school be a part of this in our own small way. On Earth Day, April 22nd, we encourage you and your family to turn off the lights in your house from 7:00-8:00 p.m.

Some suggested reading while A Greeniac's World is on vacation.

A Greeniac's World is going on vacation.  So for all you who need some "green" reading while I am away check out the new issue of Vanity Fair,  the "Green Issue."  Not only does Madonna look as gorgeous as ever, there are some really interesting and sometimes scary articles.

Check out the piece by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele entitled "Monsanto's Assault of the Farmer," an in-depth look into how scary this company is and what they are doing to the dairy industry (which I previously wrote about here).

There is piece about how Michael Forbes is going up against Donald Trump because "the Donald" wants to build a luxury golf coarse on the coast of Scotland. It has come under fire by environmentalist and the local fisherman, Mr. Forbes.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has written a Manifesto to the next U.S President saying that the new president's first task should be to tackle global warming. There is an investigative story on the rush to drill for oil in the Arctic Circle and another about how oil-drilling is leading to the extinction of the polar bears.

Not a green piece but for those of you who love Bob Dylan check out "Inside Dylan's Brain" a cataloguing of themes that Dylan has chosen for his XM radio show, the artists he likes, and other Dylan preferences and quirks.

There is much much more.  So happy reading and have a great week. 

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Grass-Fed Meat

Deciphering the labels in the meat department in the supermarket has become increasingly difficult. Try figuring our what free range, organic, hormone free, no animal bi-products, no antibiotics means and you could go crazy. So if you don't have a higher degree in animal husbandry you probably would ask the butcher behind the glass for help right? Well in my experience  the butcher at Whole Foods, the only place I can buy the closest thing to non-industrial meat, gives me a different answer every time I ask the SAME question, "what does this mean?"

As far as I can figure out from my many trips to the store, organic meat and poultry is the best because they are fed an organic diet. In addition, as I recently learned from an organic farmer I met, the food you eat needs to have to be born from an organic mother to be considered organic. (Uh, oh, I was non-organic when I gave birth, does that mean my kids aren't organic?) Not sure about the father. But to get the really low down on all the labels check out these two really great articles from this week by the Diet Detective discussing the meat and poultry claims and labels. You can read them here and here.
So post reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and watching King Corn I started having dreams about Polyface farms, the farm that Michael Pollen lived at for a week. I had hopes of finding something like that in my area. I began looking online for grass-fed farmers near my home.  In my search I found a farm in upstate New York called Sap Bush Hollow Farm. While searching on the site I discovered that the daughter of the farms owner, Shannon Hayes, had written books on grass-fed meats. Wow, someone who could provide some information on grass-fed meat. I quickly emailed her, and she introduced me to grass fed beef and pork.  

It turns out that a typical industrial steak can have 3 times as much saturated fat the a grass-fed. As I learned in King Corn, a industrial farmed t-bone has approximately 9 grams of saturated fat compared to 3 grams in same size grass-fed t-bone. Wow that's a big difference. Shannon told me that many experts believe that 100 percent grass-fed meat is like a preventive and curative medicine in food form. Meat, eggs, and dairy products from pastured animals are believed to be ideal for health. Compared with commercial products, they offer more "good" fats, and fewer "bad" fats; are richer in antioxidants; including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Grass-fed meats do not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. And most importantly, beef from a grass-fed farm is believed to be free from mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE).

Shannon has written two books, The Grass-fed Gourmet and her most recent which hit shelves this month, The Farmer and The Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Split-Roasting Grass-fed Meat and for Saving the Planet, One Bite at a Time. In addition to writing, Shannon and her family run a sustainable farm that raises and sells only grass-fed meats including beef, pork, lamb and poultry.

According the Shannon, "Grass-based farms are not industrial factories. The livestock on these farms are unique individuals and their genetics are going to vary, which means that some will be fatter, some larger, some leaner, some older, and some younger when they are read for processing. The key thing for anyone who cares about what they are eating, is to know that truly organic, grass-fed meat tastes different than what you are used to. It's more robust in flavor, but more of a challenge to cook. Grass-fed meats do not cook at the same temperatures, have the same texture or tastes, and even look a bit different. So for those people who want to eat better, for their health and the environment, I wrote the The Farmer and the Grill, to help these people get the most enjoyment and flavor out of the grass-fed foods they buy."

So with Shannon's newest book in hand, my husband and I fired up the BBQ and sloooow cooked a nice steak and pork chop on low heat. Why slow cooking on low heat? Because of the way the animals are raised, the meats are marbled differently, they are significantly less fatty, and have a different cooking profile. After following Shannon's directions (no BBQ sauce for Lewis' pork chop, which is a rarity) we got our steak knives and sat down to eat. With a bit of trepidation, we put the first bites into our mouths.  WOW, they were delicious. Not only were they much healthier for us but they tasted great too.  

So, if you can try some real meat, grass-fed, not grain (corn)-fed, and not Whole Foods grass-fed, which are corn-fed the month before slaughter to fatten them up, you'll be happy you did. 

To find a grass-fed farm in your area check out Eat Wild that has a state-by-state listing. Also on this this site is information on benefits of grass-fed meats for the animals, the environment, the farmer and for your health.  And check out Shannon's books and farm to get a true insight into the way meat is suppose to be raised.

Friday, April 4, 2008

No more plastic bags for IKEA

Back in February I wrote about how Whole Foods was "greenwashing" their consumers with their 100% Recycled Paper Bag initiative.  Well, no "greenwashing" for IKEA

Back in March 2007, IKEA set a goal of reducing its US store's plastic bag consumption by 50%. Thats from 70 million to 35 million plastic bags. At that time IKEA began to offer its consumer the option of buying a reusable bag for $0.59 or a plastic bag for $0.05, with all proceeds the company received for the purchase of their plastic bags over the past year going to American Forests, a non-profit dedicated to conservation, to plant trees to restore forest and help reduce CO2 emissions. 

Now one year later and IKEA has discovered that their consumers are not interested in plastic bags.  Over 92% of IKEA shoppers preferred reusable or no bags at all.  So as a result, IKEA will not longer offer plastic bags to their consumers, as of October 1, 2008.  So it is reusable or nothing!

"The success of this program truly demonstrates that our customers care deeply about our global home and that we can all work together to be sustainable and environmentally responsible." said Pernille Spiers-Lopez, president, IKEA North America.
IKEA UK went plastic bag free in June 2007.  Leave it to the Europeans to be way ahead of us. IKEA Australia stopped in December 2007.  

Way to go IKEA! Now can you get your products to last more than a year?

King Corn: We are what we eat.

Corn, it is hot news these days. With crops at record prices and grocery bills rising everyone is looking at the corn industry. 

Corn is in almost everything we eat. Livestock is fed corn, farmed fish are fed corn, processed food are made of corn and the mighty sweeter, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is made of corn. Corn is even used to fuel our cars in the form of ethanol thanks to a poorly thought out government policy.

Well for those of you are interested in an introductory course on the corn, two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, filmed a documentary on the industry called "King Corn." This pretty amazing film will air on PBS on April 15th. 

What's the story here? Well, Ian and Curt decided to move to Iowa in 2003 for a year to plant one acre of corn to follow it from seed to table. What they find out raises scary questions not only about what Americans eat but also how our agriculture is farmed. 

Their journey takes them first to have their hair carbon tested at the University of Virginia to discover that their bodies are made out of more than 50% corn! From Virginia, they venture to fields of Iowa where acres and acres of farmland are planted with corn and the grain elevators are overflowing with corn. Then to the grasslands of Colorado where cattle use to graze.  The fields are now cornfields that feed the cows in feed-lots.  Ian and Curt look at every part of the corn production cycle. They even speak to a high fructose corn syrup producer who thinks the liquid sweetener is the best invention since sliced bread.  

Corn is a commodity and Ian and Curt learn this very quickly when they taste their industrial corn for the first time.  It was inedible! They discover for their corn to become any type of food it must be processed.  

The film is in large part a homage to Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. In "King Corn," Pollan states, "If you take a McDonald's meal, you don't realize it when you eat it but you're eating corn. Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries -- half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they're fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you're at McDonald's, you are eating Iowa food. Everything on the plate is corn." 

The agriculture system today is a result of America's government subsidized farm program.  In 1973, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared, "What we want out of agriculture is plenty of food."
Well, we have plenty of food but our nutritional supply has degraded. When Ian and Curt speak with one of the Iowa farmers about their crops, the farmer admits that they do not eat their corn.  As he states in the movie, "We aren't growing quality, we are growing crap."

Ian and Curt's acre harvested 10,000-pounds of corn which could yield 57,348 cans of soda or 3,894 corn-fed hamburgers.  Sixty-three percent of their harvest went into feed for livestock, 32% into ethanol and 5% into sweeteners like HFCS.

A great visual into to corn industry and the American food system, "King Corn" should become required viewing for all schools across the country to teach children to eat better.  

"King Corn" will air on PBS on April 15th at 10:00 PM.  You can also purchase the DVD on their website.