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Let's Ask Marion: Should Salt Be Regulated?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: New York City's new initiative to persuade food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the salt in their foods by 25% over the next five years is eliciting the usual outrage from the "nanny state" naysayers, for whom excess salt consumption is yet another matter of personal responsibility.

But as you noted last Monday, "nearly 80% of salt in American diets is already in packaged and restaurant foods and if you eat them at all you have no choice about the amount of salt you are getting." Many Americans consume more than double the daily recommended intake of sodium, contributing to thousands of deaths and billions in medical costs annually.

Mayor Bloomberg equates the food industry's overuse of salt to such health hazards as asbestos. But Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, insisted to WNYC's Amy Eddings that this analogy is false because "we could reduce our salt intake on our own, if we wanted to."

Technically, this is true, if you're willing and able to eliminate packaged foods from your diet, stop eating out, and start cooking all your meals from scratch. Unfortunately, the percentage of folks who have the time, inclination, and resources to do this is roughly on a par with those who think that Wall Street's robber barons earned those big bonuses.

The food industry maintains that it would gladly reduce the sodium in its products--and some are doing so surreptitiously--if only consumers conditioned to crave super salty foods would be more willing to accept reduced sodium products.

The "invisible hand" of the market can't seem to let go of the salt shaker. Mayor Bloomberg's proposal is a step in the right direction, but do you think it will achieve meaningful reductions, or will we ultimately end up having to regulate salt?

Dr. Nestle: I love nanny-state accusations. Whenever I hear them, I know either that food industry self-interest is involved or that the accuser really doesn’t understand that our food system already is government-regulated as can be. These kinds of actions are just tweaking of existing policy, in this case to promote better health.

At issue is the default. Right now, companies have free rein to add as much salt to their processed or prepared foods as they like. The makers of processed foods do focus-group testing to see how consumers like the taste of their products. They invariably find that below a certain level of salt--the “bliss” point—their study subjects say they don’t like it. Soups are a good example. A measly half-cup portion of the most popular Campbell’s soups contains 480 mg of sodium or more than a full gram of salt (4 grams to a teaspoon).

To someone like me who has been trying to reduce my salt intake for years, those soups taste like salt water. That’s because the taste of salt depends on how much you are eating. If you eat a lot, you need more to taste salty. If you are like me, practically all processed and restaurant foods taste unpleasantly salty.

So what to do? I say this is indeed a matter of personal choice and right now I don’t have one. If I want to eat out at all, I know I’m going to feel oversalted by the time I get home.

I want the default choice to be lower in salt. Nobody is stopping anyone from salting food. You don’t think your food tastes salty enough? Get out the salt shaker.

But let me make two other comments. One is that the amount of salt we eat is so far in excess of what we need that asking food makers and sellers to cut down can hardly make a dent in taste. A new Swedish study just out says that young men consume at least twice the salt they need and the authors are calling on government to require food makers to start cutting down.

And yes, the science is controversial and not everyone has blood pressure that goes through the roof when they eat something salty. But lots of people do. And almost everyone has blood pressure that goes up with age. As a population, we would be better off exposed to less salt in our diets.

Some food makers are already gradually cutting down on salt, but quietly so nobody notices. If every food company were required to do that, everyone would get used to a less salty taste and we all might be able to better appreciate the subtle tastes of food.

My guess is that Bloomberg has started a movement and we will be seeing much more effort to lower the salt intake of Americans. As I see it, this is about giving people a real choice about what they eat.

Haiti: The Aid Masquerade

The horror in Haiti is beyond anything we can imagine in the U.S., but this apocalyptic catastrophe has something in common with Hurricane Katrina; in both cases, a terrible natural disaster was made infinitely worse by human negligence and incompetence. How many thousands of Haitians could have survived the earthquake if the country weren't crippled by chronic poverty, shoddy infrastructure, environmental degradation and a host of other ills that have plagued Haiti for centuries?

Many Americans are rushing to send relief and expressing compassion for the devastated nation. But some influential public figures have done just the opposite. Pat Robertson has stated that Haiti brought this tragedy on itself through "a pact with the devil," while Rush Limbaugh derides the notion that we should provide any further aid to Haiti because, he says, "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."

Limbaugh apparently thinks that we've already done more than our share for Haiti. It's a shame to see him use his massive platform to perpetuate this idea, because the reality is that much of what we have done in the name of "aiding" Haiti has in fact been far from helpful.

As Tracy Kidder notes in a New York Times op-ed, many of the projects undertaken ostensibly on behalf of the Haitian people "seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects."

Consider, for example, the food aid we send to Haiti. Aljazeera's Inside USA program ran a report last July called The Politics of Rice that explains how seemingly good intentions can have disastrous implications:

Twenty years ago, Haiti produced enough rice to feed its population. Importing rice from other countries like the US was unheard of.

Today, the country of less than 10 million people is the third largest importer of US rice in the world - 75 per cent of the rice eaten in Haiti is shipped in from the US.

Great for farmers in places like Arkansas and Missouri but devastating for farmers in the Artibonite valley, which used to be Haiti's rice bowl.

In short, it has been our government's policy to encourage Haitians to give up farming in rural areas and move to crowded cities like Port-Au-Prince to work in sweatshops manufacturing cheap garments for the U.S. and other markets.

The logic behind this policy is that it's more "efficient" for U.S. agribiz to produce rice than the small Haitian farmers, and that working in a sweatshop gives Haitians a way to participate in the global economy.

Unfortunately, this approach to "aid" has compelled thousands of Haitians to migrate to overcrowded slums and work in miserable conditions. It also left them vulnerable to fluctuations in the global food supply recently, when rising fuel costs and droughts drove up the price of rice.

Annie Leonard, the environmental activist who created the Story of Stuff video and has a superb book by the same name coming out March 9th, documents the terrible consequences of this misguided philosophy in her book:

...global rice prices tripled over a few months in early 2008, leaving thousands of Haitians simply unable to afford this staple food. The newspaper ran haunting images of Haitians who had resorted to eating dirt pies, held together with bits of lard or butter, in order to have some substance in their stomachs.

Had we devoted our resources to "supporting farmers in developing sustainable farming practices, rather than investing in infrastructure and policies favoring garment factories and export processing," Annie concluded, "a drought in Australia would not have made people starve in Haiti, half a planet away."

Haiti lies in ruins and we have played a role in fostering the conditions that helped reduce this troubled nation to rubble. Now's the time to make amends for decades--if not centuries--of neglect and exploitation. Find out here how you can help.

Originally published on The Green Fork

Budweiser: The Beer of Climate Change Deniers?

When Whole Foods CEO John Mackey revealed himself to be a climate change skeptic in a New Yorker profile last month, he drew attention once again to the disconnect between his own libertarian ideology and the sensibilities of the ecologically and ethically-minded eaters who form Whole Foods' core constituency. Coming on the heels of his Wall Street Journal op-ed opposing health care reform, it may have been the proverbial last straw; shortly after the article hit the newstands, Mackey resigned from the chairmanship of Whole Food's board.

Mackey's resignation suggests that carbon footprint-conscious foodies have the power to influence a corporation. Now, it's time for all the lager-lovers who support low-impact living to step up to the plate--or, rather, the bar--to demand better from Anheuser-Busch. .

If you're still drinking Budweiser, Michelob, Rolling Rock, or any other brew marketed by Anheuser-Busch, you're inadvertently bankrolling a company that continues to stand by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce despite its ongoing efforts to thwart any efforts to address global warming. Will Budweiser become the brew of choice for the "Drill, Baby, Drill" crowd?

Progressive beer-drinkers who'd like Anheuser-Busch to rethink its position can flout their clout at the cash register, for a start, but you can also send a message by signing this petition from CREDO and Living Liberally asking Anheuser-Busch to step down from the board of the Chamber of Commerce.

Anheuser-Busch, which currently claims about fifty percent of the beer market in the U.S., proudly touts its record of "environmental stewardship." And yet, the behemoth brewer refuses to use its weight to compel the Chamber of Commerce to stop blocking progress at a critical juncture in the climate crisis.

Rolling Stone has declared U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohoe one of its 17 "Climate Killers," the "polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb global warming." As Al Gore told Rolling Stone:

Not only has the Chamber spent decades denying the existence of the climate crisis, now it is dedicating a significant quantity of resources and money attempting to prevent Congress from taking action.

This stubborn stance has cost the Chamber of Commerce such key supporters as Nike and Apple. Rolling Stone noted that "Even the California utility PG&E resigned from the Chamber, blasting Donohue for his group's "disingenuous attempts to distort" the dangers of climate change."

As historian Doug Brinkley told Living On Earth's Jeff Young last week:

If global warming continues and we don't address it history will wonder, what were these people thinking? They were given every alarm bell. It's like fire bells going off in a theater and everybody kept sitting and watching the movie.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is threatening to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its stated plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They've already filed a lawsuit against the Yes Men, who held a fake press conference last October to announce that the Chamber of Commerce was ready to reverse course, i.e. stop steering us off the climate change cliff, and instead embrace legislation to curb carbon emissions.

Such pranks help shame the climate change cranks, but there's more we can do. Can Anheuser-Busch really afford to remain aligned with the Chamber of Commerce? The brand may already be in serious trouble, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which notes that "Bud Light and Budweiser -- Anheuser-Busch's No. 1 and No. 2 brands, respectively -- are suffering drops in sales," due, analysts speculate, to "a loss of identity and appeal among cash-strapped drinkers."

It's not even in Anheuser-Busch's own interests to ignore global warming, given the fact that climate change is already hurting hops yields. And as more and more brewers strive to genuinely lower their carbon footprint (as opposed to greenwashing), environmentally conscious beer drinkers now have plenty of other brews from which to choose.

So, maybe it's time to ask yourself whether this Bud is really for you? And ask Anheuser-Busch to step down from the board of the Chamber of Commerce.

Let's Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that "the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle," according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book's authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog's annual diet--about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains--requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You've become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what's your take on the Vales' claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet - its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating--and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals--than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.

NYC Climate Summit Puts the Focus on Food

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Get rich quick! Lose weight fast! We squander billions each year on scams that promise easy money and effortless weight loss. Still, the pounds pile up, the money doesn't, and our tanking bank balances and spiking weight distract us from the more remote, abstract problem of climate change.

But we could find true prosperity, improve our health, and fight global warming all at once. How? By transforming the way we produce, distribute, consume and dispose of our food.

Of course, you'll never hear this from the climate change skeptics. On the contrary, they'll tell you that we can't reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without destroying our economy and our quality of life. These fossil fueled foot-draggers are being rightfully skewered at swifthack.com, but they're doing their damnedest to derail the negotiations at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, where the world's leaders are struggling to hammer out a consensus on how to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

I'm not investing all my hope in Copenhagen. I don't have to, and neither do you. Because this Saturday, we've got our own climate summit here in New York City, where our politicians are laying the groundwork for real progress on climate change by rethinking our food chain. Hosted by NYU, the NYC Food and Climate Summit is a collaboration between Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's food policy team and the non-profit powerhouse Just Food, which promotes CSAs (community supported agriculture), urban food production and greater access to healthy food.

You don't hear much about it, but the production, distribution and disposal of food all generate a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases. Changing the way we do these things is not only one of the most effective ways to fight global warming, it has the potential to provide us with healthier food and a revitalized economy as well.

So while economists and scientists debate the merits and perils of cap and trade, Stringer and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have been busy working with food policy experts and others (like me) to craft cutting edge initiatives to curb New York City's carbon "foodprint" by relocalizing our food chain, supporting urban agriculture, converting food waste to compost instead of sending it to the landfills, and so on.

Last Friday, Stringer unveiled a New York City Food Charter, with "10 Principles For a Sustainable Food System." On Monday, Quinn announced "Foodworks New York," an ambitious five-point plan to overhaul New York City's food system to create green jobs, improve access to healthy food, and preserve our environment.

Stringer and Quinn recognize that a relocalized New York City food system would provide a model of sustainability for other cities in the US and around the world. Mayor Bloomberg, who's off to Copenhagen next week to meet with 100 other mayors from around the world to discuss the critical role that cities play in reducing the world's carbon footprint, is committed to a greener Big Apple. But when he launched his sustainability initiative, PlaNYC, he left our food system out of the equation, as my fellow good food advocate Alexa Van de Walle pointed out on Huffington Post.

So a group of advocates, scholars, farmers, nutritionists, chefs, labor leaders, community gardeners, students and others--myself and Alexa included--have spent the last several years campaigning to put food issues on the table. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of many dedicated and passionate people, and responsive, visionary politicians like Stringer and Quinn, sustainable agriculture's potential to help solve climate change is becoming more widely known. This, as much as anything that might happen in Copenhagen, gives me hope.

On Saturday, nearly a thousand folks will gather for the NYC Food and Climate Summit and learn more about the link between food and climate change from good food luminaries, legendary locavores, and a wide range of experts who'll be conducting skills-building workshops and policy sessions. Speakers include Scott Stringer, Marion Nestle, Anna Lappé, Joan Gussow, and Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man). Seats for the summit, which is free, were "sold out" a day and a half after registration opened, indicating the tremendous interest in this subject.

As 350.org founder and longtime climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote the other day, we are at a critical juncture in the climate crisis now. McKibben warns that "politics-as-usual may mean the end of civilization."

You have three choices: you can be a denier, a defeatist, or a doer. Deniers may or may not admit that the climate is changing, but they flatly reject the notion that we're contributing to it; defeatists recognize that global warming is real and we're part of the problem, but feel helpless to do anything about it. The doers? Thousands of us are congregating in Copenhagen right now, but there are thousands more right here in New York, and all over the world. We're tackling climate change, supporting healthy food, and revitalizing our communities. Why be a doubter, or a downer, when you could be a doer?

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Guest Blogger Gisele Perez Reviews John Besh's My New Orleans

Guest Blogger Gisele Perez Reviews John Besh's My New Orleans

(note from kat: Gisele Perez was born in New Orleans and was part of the mass migration westward from there in the 1950's and 60's. She writes, as the LA2LAChef, about her experiences as an expatriate New Orleanian, and her life as a professional chef now living in Los Angeles at painperdu. She is also the owner of small pleasures catering in Los Angeles, and co-host of the Drinking Liberally chapter there.)

John Besh dedicates his newly released cookbook, My New Orleans, to the people of New Orleans, and to those who hold the city close to their hearts.

“After Katrina, being from New Orleans became the focus of my identity,” he writes in his introduction. I hear ya, brother! I had just begun to write about my early life in New Orleans when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember e-mailing a fellow writing workshop member that it seemed trivial to be writing about backyard family parties, and okra and shrimp and gumbo at a time like this. He wisely responded, “that’s precisely what you should be writing at a time like this. Food is a means of preserving culture.” And so, Katrina was the impetus for beginning my blog, pain perdu. Likewise, Mr. Besh felt the urgent call to preserve the culture of New Orleans, using food as his window.

He threw himself into feeding people, returning to New Orleans quickly to feed “policemen and national guard troops, evacuees and refugees, doctors and nurse, all who were hungry...” It didn’t stop there. He writes that he “became obsessed with finding ingredients with the flavor of here,” and began raising his own cattle, hogs and chickens, and working closely with local farmers to supply his restaurants, believing that New Orleans is “a true national treasure”, and that it’s “important to come from somewhere”. I couldn’t agree more.

While Besh’s New Orleans is not exactly the same as mine, and I found myself quibbling over the details of recipes for basic dishes like gumbo and jambalaya (New Orleanians can be very proprietary about their recipes), I realize that the wonderful thing about this city is that it's like Rashomon. We all see different sides of New Orleans, and defend our view. Yet unlike other cities, there is so much commonality that is essential to life as a New Orleanian- like the extraordinary love of food (“In New Orleans, folks live to eat; they don’t just eat to live”) and festivity (“there’s a Mardi Gras taking place in every household and every neighborhood of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday”)- that binds us together. And our fierce love of New Orleans binds us further together.

Besh acknowledges, and his book embodies “...a tension in New Orleans cooking between preserving the classics and modernizing them for today’s palates, between home cooking and restaurant food.” He offers some updates of classic dishes which reflect NOLA’s evolving demography, like Shrimp Creole infused with lemon grass to reflect the arrival of the Vietnamese and their imprint on the city and its cuisine. And because he trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, and apprenticed in Europe, he also offers us some modern reinterpretations of classic ingredients, like Grilled Watermelon, Tomato and Goat Cheese Salad, with a knowing aside, “where I grew up, grown men did not eat grilled figs with baby greens and artisanal goats’ milk cheese.”

Besh’s book is not just another cookbook. While it contains 200 recipes, it’s also a beautiful coffee table book with gorgeous archival and present day pictures of NOLA, and its families and characters at work and play, at Mardi Gras, on the waterways, and at the table. Its contents are not organized in traditional cookbook “appetizer to dessert” order, but rather by ingredients, seasons and feast days- some of those days meriting their own chapter- like Mardi Gras and Thanksgiving. Speaking of ingredients, the book is also full of sidebars with background notes on the glorious ingredients available to New Orleans cooks-i.e. Creole tomatoes, Ponchatoula strawberries, and mirlitons, and speckled trout and Gulf oysters.

My New Orleans is a “must add” to the library of anyone who loves New Orleans, or anyone who has flirted with the possibility of falling in love with the city. At a retail price of $45, it seems a bargain to me, and will, no doubt, to every one who holds the city in its heart.

Shrimp Creole

5 pounds jumbo Louisiana or wild American shrimp
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. minced fresh lemongrass
1/2 C. olive oil
3 medium onions, diced
10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 bell pepper, red, green or yellow, seeded and diced
5 pounds very ripe Brandywine or other heirloom tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 t. ground allspice
1 T. crushed red pepper flakes
Leaves from 2 branches of fresh basil
Leaves from 1 sprig of fresh mint
Sugar

1. Put shrimp into a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, then mix in the lemongrass. Heat 1/4 C. of the oil in a large deep skillet over moderate heat. Add the shrimp, stirring and tossing them with a spatula, until they turn pink, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside.
2. Into the same skillet with the oil and and shrimp juices, put the remaining 1/4 C. oil, and the onions, garlic, celery, and bell peppers and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for about 2 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium low, and when the sauce comes to a simmer, add the bayleaf.allspice, and red pepper flakes. Simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Add the shrimp back to the skillet, along with the basil and mint. Cook for a minute or two. Season with salt and pepper. If the sauce is a little too tart, add a little sugar to balance the flavors. Serve over steamed white rice.

Seeds of Doubt

American ingenuity is alive and well. Or at least it's alive, as evidenced by such recent US inventions as Bacconaise, Snuggies, and credit default swaps.

If this represents the best we can do, though, we may be in trouble. Because now, more than ever, the world needs true innovators and visionaries who can find the solutions to climate change.

I don't mean to dismiss the insulation value of a Snuggie, nor to imply that a blanket with sleeves does not constitute a remarkable breakthrough. But American industry has to do better if we want to reclaim our status as the world's great innovator.

You would think that business leaders would recognize the extraordinary opportunity that climate change presents to create markets for new products, not to mention those desperately needed green jobs. Sadly, with a few forward-thinking exceptions, much of corporate America remains in denial, betting on business as usual to sustain its bottom line.

That kind of blinkered thinking has left our auto industry on life support after decades of fighting higher fuel efficiency standards, on the grounds that such onerous regulations would bankrupt it.

This shortsighted approach assumes that economic prosperity takes precedence over the well-being of people and the planet. We all know the saying "health is wealth." If you've got a terminal illness, all the money in the world won't save you.

The same rule applies to the environment. Rising profits have got nothing on rising sea levels; well-stocked corporate coffers will be useless to combat the droughts, floods, hurricanes, disease and pest outbreaks that climate change has already begun to unleash.

And yet, many of our politicians and business leaders obstinately refuse to accept the urgency of this crisis. It's a shame that we even have to discuss the so-called "Climategate" scandal, because, as Huffington Post's Katherine Goldstein noted on Wednesday, "The verdict on global warming is in -- it's caused by humans and it is happening and nothing in the emails remotely challenges that."

But as the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, congressional Republicans cited the controversial emails on Wednesday in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency calling on the Obama administration "to suspend efforts to combat climate change until the controversy is resolved".

The US has the sorry distinction of being the only industrialized nation where a significant percentage of the population remains unconvinced that climate change is real. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and anti-conservation conservatives like James Inhofe are partly to blame, spreading the notion that global warming is a fraud.

And then there are the professional climate change naysayers, brought to you courtesy of the massively funded "manufactured doubt industry," as David Michael reveals in his book Doubt Is Their Product. These shills-for-hire--or "biostitutes," as Robert Kennedy Jr. dubbed them--are the same folks who've deliberately distorted science in order to mislead consumers about the hazards of everything from tobacco to asbestos to lead, phthalates, and numerous other industrial toxins.

Pity the poor layperson who's trying to make sense of it all. And now, the agriculture industry, which generates more greenhouse gases worldwide than every form of transportation combined, has set out to persuade a perplexed public that it is not only not part of the problem, but is, in fact, the solution.

Consider the new pr campaign from Monsanto, the biotech behemoth best known for its genetically modified seeds and the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto's now declaring itself a champion of sustainable agriculture, adopting the motto "Produce More. Conserve More. Improve Farmers' Lives."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Consumers get the impression that Monsanto's producing the kind of high-yielding, drought resistant seeds that farmers will need as resources dwindle and growing conditions become more challenging. And isn't that exactly the kind of innovation I'm calling for? Here's a giant corporation acknowledging the challenges of climate change and taking steps to deal with it.

The only problem is, Monsanto has yet to succeed at creating such a product. It's like clean coal--it makes for good pr, but it doesn't actually exist. And it's doubtful that the promised seeds will ever materialize, according to agronomy professor Kenneth Cassman. At a forum on global agriculture hosted by Jeffrey Sach's Earth Institute at Columbia University in October, Cassman declared that while genetically modified crops have the potential to provide greater resistance to disease, pests, and weeds, they hold little promise of improved yield and drought tolerance.

When a Monsanto executive in attendance disputed Cassman's claims, Cassman replied that Monsanto had yet to provide any evidence of such seeds, and questioned whether the whole thing was "a marketing ploy."

Conventional farming is, in some ways, the agricultural equivalent of Detroit's doomed automakers; an industry in denial, unwilling and unprepared to adapt to an environment altered by climate change. In fact, as the Economist reported last month, America's commodity crop farmers are hellbent on opposing any form of meaningful climate change legislation, on the grounds that it will destroy their livelihood.

Looking to industrial agriculture to solve the environmental problems that it's played such a prominent role in creating is like asking the same financial geniuses who crashed our economy to drive it out of the ditch. Does that really make any sense?

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Please Help Send Me To "Hopenhagen"

(If you agree with my message please click HERE to vote for me. You can use your Facebook or Twitter account or create a HuffPo account.)

The "Climategaters"--or "Swifthackers," if you prefer--are gleefully crowing that those hacked emails offer definitive proof that global warming is a massive hoax perpetrated by a vast left-wing conspiracy.

But what the emails revealed was not so much flawed science, as flawed scientists. The evidence that global warming is real is overwhelming. This hacking was clearly timed to derail the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, where a successful outcome was already far from certain.

Which is why I'm asking you to help make me Huffington Post's "Hopenhagen Ambassador" (click HERE to vote). The winner will be provided with press credentials and flown to Copenhagen to cover the UN climate summit as HuffPo's citizen journalist.

This is Obama's opportunity to reverse eight years of obstructionism and demonstrate genuine leadership, and it's my opportunity to show that he's got the grassroots support he needs to muster the political will to stand up to the climate deniers, all the drillers and the shillers, who are feeding the notion that climate change is just a liberal fraud.

At Eating Liberally we galvanize the grassroots and the netroots to help spread the word about industrial agriculture's enormous carbon footprint. We celebrate a more fulfilling, less stuff-filled way of life--true patriotism means being a citizen first and foremost, not a consumer.

The US has the unfortunate distinction of being the only industrialized nation where a significant percentage of the population continues to question whether climate change is even real. The problem, as the Independent notes today, is that climate change is "the invisible enemy"--most folks don't yet perceive its impact on their immediate lives, leaving them susceptible to the notion that global warming is just a hoax hatched by environmental extremists with a militant vegan bicyclist agenda.

Send me to Copenhagen as HuffPo's citizen journalist and I will use that soapbox to show the world that the blowhards can't stop the winds of change with their noxious bluster.

Bats: The New Canary in the Coal Mine?

You may think bats are scary, but what's truly terrifying is the mysterious fungus that's decimating the bat population, according to an article by Stacy Chase in last Sunday's Boston Globe:

At least 1 million bats in the past three years have been wiped out by a puzzling, widespread disease dubbed "white-nose syndrome" in what preeminent US scientists are calling the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in human history. If it isn't slowed or stopped, they believe bats will continue disappearing from the landscape in huge numbers and that entire species could become extinct within a decade.

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This would have drastic repercussions for the rest of us. As Tim King, a conservation geneticist with the US Geological Survey in West Virginia, told Chase, "We're at the vanguard of an environmental catastrophe."

Why? Because bats are insect-eating machines, capable of consuming nearly half their body weight in insects each night. Take them out of the equation and we'll have an explosion of pests, including disease-carrying mosquitoes and agriculturally destructive beetles, moths, leafhoppers and other foes of the farmers, who may be forced to use more pesticides as a result.

Bat colonies in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont have averaged a shocking 94.5 percent decline since white-nose syndrome was first detected there in 2006, plummeting from 48,626 bats to 2,695. The disease's spread "has been terrifyingly swift," according to the Globe, starting in the Northeast and South Atlantic states and now infiltrating "caves and mines in Kentucky and Tennessee, and possibly North Carolina and Ohio."

But, unlike colony collapse disorder, the highly publicized disease that's destroying our bees, white nose syndrome isn't getting much attention. As Susi von Oettingen, a biologist who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, noted, "They're not charismatic. . . . We don't make money off of them. They are not cute and cuddly." Let's face it; even baby bats aren't all that adorable.

Julia Whitney Barnes, a New York artist, did her best to glamorize these critical but creepy critters last year by hanging over 30 life-sized, gold-plated ceramic bats from a willow tree on Brooklyn's waterfront. The installation, entitled "Gilded Phytophillic Bats," was intended "to raise awareness of the mysterious environmental problem causing widespread death in many bat colonies," Barnes explains on her website. By gold-plating the bats, Barnes hoped to express "the precious role bats play in our ecosystem" and counteract the perception of bats as being "dangerous or grotesque."
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Bats have long been feared and misunderstood in our culture, with their fang-filled faces and freaky flying ways. But a future without them is the real horror, and it could happen if we don't give our scientists and agencies sufficient resources to combat white nose syndrome. Efforts to solve the mystery so far have been hampered by a lack of funding and coordination, as Chase reported.

This past June, US House subcommittees held hearings on the mysterious deaths, and $3.3 million has been allocated so far to study the disease. An additional $1.9 million for research on white nose syndrome was earmarked in a recent appropriations bill for this fiscal year.

But these amounts fall far short of what scientists and wildlife managers need to tackle the problem. In a budget request prepared for Congress, Thomas Kunz, a bat biologist from Boston University, estimated that $17.6 million is needed this fiscal year, and $38.3 million more over the next four years, to conduct essential research, surveillance, and management.

Scott Darling, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist, told Chase:

This is more than just about bats dying. It's about a key player in our ecosystem disappearing before our eyes. It may be a model for the severity of diseases that our native species are going to be confronted with.

If it's frogs yesterday, bees two days ago, bats today, and something else in two more years, how long before this system falls apart on us?

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

My Q and A With Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer's new book Eating Animals is a thorough, nuanced analysis of the ethical and environmental quandaries posed by America's appetite for animal products. He is intent on fostering more mindful eating, whether we choose to forgo animal-based foods entirely or opt to simply reduce their consumption. Foer graciously ruminated on my meat-y questions when I spoke with him by phone last week.

KT: Is the term "conscientious carnivore" an oxymoron?

JSF: No, and I think that points to something important, which is that these words "carnivore" and "vegetarian" do a real disservice to the conversation, because they imply an on/off switch rather than a spectrum. We no longer ask someone "Are you an environmentalist?" It's just a weird question. When it's framed as an all-or-nothing, people who don't feel like they can do everything sometimes think they should do nothing.

KT: Did you have any real expectation that Tyson -- the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, as you note in your book -- would agree to give you a tour of any of its farms?

JSF: To be honest, I did, because I know that they have "show farms." All these companies have show farms. I thought I would at least get a response -- you know, "Unfortunately, we won't be able to show you the farms because of biosecurity, but we'd be happy to give you these brochures."

The thing that really surprised me was the total lack of a response. I didn't get anywhere with anybody.

KT: And now, of course, after the fact, the industrial livestock industry's accusing you of not doing your homework, which is really funny, because when they had the opportunity to throw open the doors--

JSF: --Yeah, so let's do it! Let's do the homework now, it's not too late! Seriously, I would be so happy to revise my book if they showed me something else. But they're not going to show me anything.

KT: You've said that when it comes to animal abuse, chickens suffer the most of all and recommend that if people are only going to make one change, they should consider giving up factory farmed eggs. But when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, beef production is the greatest offender and poultry is said to be the more sustainable choice. How can folks prioritize when the most ethical choice is not the most ecological choice?

JSF: Well, people care about different things differently. When I said give up one thing (on the Ellen Degeneres show) it was in the context of animal welfare.

But in the context of the environment, I would say give up fish. Did you see the New York Times editorial about making tuna an endangered species? We've gotten to a truly insane place with the ocean. We talk about greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about a real process, I mean it's terrible, but fishery scientists are saying we're gonna have zero wild fish in fifty years, it's a catastrophe.

But, despite my having said that, I don't think it's the most useful thing to say "cut this out" or "cut that out." What if, instead of cutting out one food group, people just said at every meal, what am I doing here? Can I do a little better? Not have it be an absolute, not have it be a religion or a law, but just a series of choices that we try to make as well as we can.

KT: Glenn Beck and PETA's Ingrid Newkirk recently ganged up on Al Gore, calling him a hypocrite for not adopting a vegetarian diet. If you happened to find yourself seated next to the former vice president at some gala or forum, what would you have to say to him on this topic?

JSF: He's a very smart guy, and I'm sure he's thought of this stuff before. He knows quite a bit more about the environment than Ingrid Newkirk or Glenn Beck. He has a role in the world, an enormously important role. If he were to declare his vegetarianism tomorrow, it's conceivable that he would not be able to do his role in the same way. These are the realities of the world. It shouldn't be, but it is considered a fringe position.

Would he do a great thing for animal welfare? Yes. Would he make a lot more people vegetarians? Yes. But the fact is, the majority of the world still finds it to be a fringe thing. And I want my Al Gore being the champion of environmentalism. I think that that has to include a conversation about meat, and it does; he is bringing that into his conversation. Do I wish he would do it a little bit more strongly? Yes, I guess I do.

But you know, Ingrid Newkirk isn't out there campaigning for -- does PETA have solar panels on their roof? I'm not sure. My point is not that she's a hypocrite, or he's a hypocrite. I mean, she's right, it is the number one cause of global warming, and if he's going to talk about global warming, he has to talk about it.

But we also have to remember that we're living in the real world, in which, again, people have different roles and the public has certain predispositions to different kinds of arguments, and I guess I would offer him a little more flexibility than they might. Glenn Beck is just being disingenuous, he's not being serious.

KT: You write in your book of the many recent legislative successes in various states on behalf of farm animals, the phasing out of gestation crates, battery cages and so forth. What do you make of the passage in Ohio on November 3rd of Issue 2, the agribiz-driven measure which seems to preempt such legislation having a chance in that state?

JSF: These ballot initiatives (like Prop 2 in California) always pass by the largest margins of anything on the ballot, people just agree on this stuff, they really do. This is not a democrat or republican or liberal or conservative or urban or rural thing. These are just very fundamental American values, and they're fundamental farming values.

And so the industry can continue to try to find ways to confuse us or to block the lines of sight but we're catching up to them. We definitely are -- 18% of college students now describe themselves as vegetarians.

KT: The industrial meat industry is attempting to dismiss your critique of their operating methods in the same way that they have attacked Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the others who have written exposes of factory farming. You presumably expected some backlash; has it been better or worse than you anticipated?

JSF: Infinitely better. The book's now been reviewed, I don't know, a hundred times or whatever it is, and there are enough people who think I'm an asshole, there are enough people who think the style is annoying. There has not been a single argument in defense of factory farming, or against the premise of the book. Not even a whiff of it. The worst reviews I get are people who say "It's too bad that this incredibly important argument was framed like this," you know? That's as bad as it's gotten.

KT: Your book is making a real splash; it seems like you have this huge potential to really influence a lot of people who haven't previously given this a whole lot of thought.

JSF: I hope so. I know it's not easy to approach; I know the title of the book doesn't make it any easier. But I also know that if the conversation is had correctly, it's a conversation that Americans are not only willing to have, they want to have it.

Like when I did Ellen, just look at her audience -- her audience is not Berkeley granola-eaters. It's people on a fixed income, it's a lot of mothers, a lot of people who come there from the middle of America. And people care.

The first talk about this book that I did was in Dowagiac, Michigan. I spoke to an audience that was comprised largely of farmers, actually -- it was the warmest reception I've gotten. These are just not liberal issues, they are not elitist issues. They're biblical issues, like dominion. You know, what does it mean to have power over things less powerful? What does it mean to be stewards of the earth? The most conservative understandings of those ideas are precisely what would lead one away from factory farming.

KT: Would you be willing to share your Thanksgiving menu with us?

JSF: Um...I would if I knew it! You can probably guess what it won't include. But I don't yet know what it's going to be, in fact. There's some pressure on me to figure it out (laughs.)

KT: You might have that figured out by the time you go on Martha Stewart, though, I'm guessing?

JSF: Oh, maybe I'll even prepare something with her, although that's unlikely. Wouldn't that be funny?