Saturday, February 9, 2008

Weekend Update

Ethanol is such a bad idea, even the mainstream media is beginning to get a clue.

Two new studies find that when the total process of growing and producing biolfuels is taken into account, they cause more greenhouse gas emissions than the conventional gasoline they are meant to replace.

The studies, published in the journal Science, examine in detail the effects of converting large amounts of land to biofuel devlopment around the globe. The destruction of natural ecosystems such as rain forest or grasslands not only releases greenhouse gasses but eliminates the flora that would normally soak up carbon emissions.
Biofuel production results in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

Meanwhile, there's that pesky "dead zone" that raises its head in the Gulf of Mexico each summer after Midwestern farmers fertilize their cornfields, now more than ever destined for ethanol production.


The man largely responsible for industrial agriculture in the U.S., former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, died this week. Butz was instrumental in reversing the longstanding policy of paying farmers not to overproduce. "Plant fence post to fence post" was Butz's creed. He engineered new federal incentives to create giant surpluses, which fit nicely into the industrial food scheme that has left Americans fat and sick on cheap food.

It's been 45 years since Butz implimented his scheme for feeding the world on cheap corn. It may take another generation or two to undue the health and environmental disaster he created. Here's a fine retrospective on the Butz legacy from Grist's Tom Philpott.


While the U.S. is awash in corn, Haitians are making mud pies to stave off hunger.

We've written before about how the rush to biofuels has led to spikes in food prices worldwide. Corn, wheat, soybeans--everything is more expensive. In the Caribbean, prices in some places are up 40 percent. In Haiti, the poorest of the poor cannot even afford a plate of rice. They are resorting to making cookies and pies out of dirt and shortening.

Global price hikes, together with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season, prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency to declare states of emergency in Haiti and several other Caribbean countries.

At one slum market, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago, the Associated Press reported. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.

Still, at about 5 cents apiece, the cookies are a bargain compared to food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day.

The Vietnamese, meanwhile, are experiencing a diet change of a different kind. Outbreaks of avian flu have resulted in the destruction of much of the country's poultry. Diners have taken to eating more snakes and cats. That, in turn, has resulted in an explosion in the Vietnamese rat population. Rat has suddenly become a meal of choice.

Rat has always been considered a tasty dish in the countryside. But now it's catching on in urban areas as well. Handwritten signs in some of the backstreets of Hanoi offer cash in return for freshly caught rat, reports the Wall Street Journal.

"Both Vietnamese and foreign tourists are eating more rat meat these days," says Pham Huu Thanh, proprietor of the Luong Son Quan restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, the former southern capital Saigon. Mr. Thanh serves rat grilled with lemon grass or roasted in garlic for around 60,000 Vietnamese dong, or $4, a serving.

Vendors sell rat meat for about $1.50 a pound. It's a relative deal. Pork costs roughly a third more, and chicken twice as much.


While the rats are thriving, the salmon are crashing in California.

The number of endangered coho salmon returning to spawn in California's Marin County has plummeted and scientists aren't sure why. The watershed around Marin is home to one of the state's largest remaining populations of wild coho salmon. Coho have become extinct in 90 percent of California streams that once supported the species.

Possible causes include shifts in ocean conditions brought about by climate change. Meanwhile, the coho in Oregon have been re-listed as an endangered species. The National Aeronautics and Space Administratin Fisheries Service gave the coho the endangered designation as the result of a court finding that failure to protect the fish violated the Endangered Species Act.

Oregon's wild coho have been the subject of a long and tangled court battle pitting environmental and economic interests.

And in case you were wondering, the Monterey Bay Aquarium "Seafoood Watch" program lists wild-caught, West Coast salmon as a "good" alternative to farmed salmon, "but there are concerns about the long-term health of their populations."


Finally, we are all about urban food gardening here at The Slow Cook. So we took special interest in an architectural design prize awarded to a couple who proposed filling the courtyard at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Queens, with cabbages and other vegetables for a summer.

“It’s just so unlike anything that’s been done before,” said Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, which jointly sponsors the annual Young Architects Program with P.S. 1. “It’s the first one that’s not canopies or party spaces. In some ways it’s almost in counterpoint to the program.”

And when the project comes down, you can make ratatouille.

Bon appetit....

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