Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Firefly Language

Love Carl Zimmer's latest article in the NY Times, Blink Twice if You Like Me. From the article:

The fireflies flashing in the air are all males. Down in the grass, Dr. Lewis points out, females are sitting and observing. They look for flash patterns of males of their own species, and sometimes they respond with a single flash of their own, always at a precise interval after the male’s. Dr. Lewis takes out a penlight and clicks it twice, in perfect Photinus greeni. A female Photinus greeni flashes back.

“Most people don’t realize there’s this call and response going on,” Dr. Lewis said. “But it’s very, very easy to talk to fireflies.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

We're all in this together

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society reveals the latest threat to some of our planet's endangered species: Cancer. Tazmanian devils, turtles, whales, sea lions, and dolphins are among those afflicted at rates comparable to those in humans. After reading this short article in treehugger, I am saddened by the hypothesis that carcinogens (undoubtedly man-made, IMO) are at the bottom of this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Questioning safety of Roundup

New research has revealed that an inert ingredient in the popular weed-whacking herbicide, Roundup, can also suffocate human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells, in a laboratory. Crystal Gammon, for Scientific American, reports:

Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

Monsanto, the product's manufaturer, contends that the study does not reflect realistic usage and conditions of the product. And the EPA classifies classifies glyphosate as a Group E chemical, which means that there is fairly strong evidence it does not cause cancer in humans.

As with any data and contraversy, I feel obligated to err on the side of caution and suggest that expecting mothers steer clear of Roundup.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Understanding the American Appetite

Great article in yesterday's Well column in Science Times, How the Food Makers Captured our Brains, about the topics of a new book by former Food and Drug Administration head Dr. David A. Kessler, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.” A few excerpts from the article:

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.

The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.

Much like the above text, the book is supposed to focus on why those peanut M&Ms are so darn addictive and not so much attack the industry, but simply understand how our brains work in response or in conjunction. Join Tara Parker-Pope's discussion here.

McFood in Tokyo

Daniel Gross, for Slate, is reporting from Japan this week and next and I love the fact-filled op-ed he wrote about the presence of American food in Tokyo. Find it here.

If you are wondering what or whom defines "American food," it appears to be: Wolfgang Puck, McDonald's, Outback Steakhouse, the Hard Rock Café and T.G.I Fridays.

One of my favorite lines: I've traveled about 20 hours and 7,000-odd miles to wind up in a strip mall. Also love the acronym: SPC, Stabucks Per Capita.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Love her!

Check out some snapshots of Michelle O. harvesting veggies from the White House garden via The Huffington Post. From the accompanying article:

...White House Associate chef Sam Kass said no chemicals--fertilizer or herbicide-- had been used on the garden, but that the underlying White House soil had been "amended" with crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, green sand compost and lime powder. Kass said that the only problem he had noticed is that "something is nibbling a little bit on the kale." But Kass also said the garden "is not "certified organic."

Kass said that there has been one big weeding once a week and that he and a pastry chef along with "volunteers" from the White House had done the weeding. The garden was cleaner of weeds than the area under the nearby trees.

Kass also said that the White House has begun offering tours of the garden to school children and plans to have the school tours about twice a week.

Kass said he has taken 90 pounds of produce from the garden, including broccoli and green beans and "one beautiful eggplant." He also said he has harvested herbs "every night" and they are not included in the 90 pounds.

Some has been used at the White House and some has been donated to Miriam's Kitchen...

Unusual, but not entirely surprising, contaminated "food" recall

Yesterday, after US health officials linked Toll House refrigerated cookie dough to E. coli infections in as many as 66 people in 28 states, Nestle USA recalled the convenience item I am struggling to call "food." From the NY Times article:

Officials have been hunting since March for the cause of cases from across the country that shared the same genetic fingerprint. Because most victims were young and female, the investigation was unusual from the start. Twenty-five people have been hospitalized, including seven who suffered a severe complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome. No one has died.

Among the early food suspects were strawberries and fruit smoothies, but neither quite fit. On Wednesday, health investigators in Washington State proposed a link with NestlĂ©’s raw cookie dough, prompting officials in the rest of the country to re-interview victims. All six in Minnesota confirmed eating raw dough, said Carlota Medus, an epidemiologist in the state health department.

As tempted as I am to rant about the sorry state of food safety, I think I have to bring up consumer responsibility instead. I mean, isn't there a universal rule about not eating raw cookie dough (unless, of course, it happens to be mixed with ice cream in a Ben 'N Jerry's container)? And if you do dare to taste a spoonful of raw cookie dough or brownie batter, aren't you admittedly taking a gamble?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Nestle should be entirely off the hook... I'm just saying that while food safety officials investigate the source of contamination, be it an ingredient or something within the processing facility, maybe people could use a little common sense.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Just because...

Not sure if this image is a real photo or photoshopped but either way, as with many other important things I discover on the Interweb, it needs to be shared with my loyal readers. What does this have to do with climate change, the American diet or agri-business, you ask? Absolutely nothing. It is just awesome squirrel love.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What's better than finding a froglet in your yard?

Scientists finding a new species of glass frog while on an expedition in Nangaritza, Ecuador!! Or anywhere really. Check 'em out:

Pretty cute, huh? From Conservation International: "Nymphagus chancas, a glass frog, was recorded for the first time in Ecuador. This species is only known from one locality in northeastern Peru."

Learn about lots of other significant findings from the recent expedition here.

Toxic fireworks?

Consider where they are coming from. If they were made in China, the EPA is concerned about a toxic chemical, perchlorate (found in the cheap imports), seeping into our drinking water and hindering the thyroid's production of growth hormones in pregnant women and children. Luckily, chemists Mike Hiskey and Darren Naud have been working on friendlier fire. Too bad there aren't any laws regulating perchlorate just yet.

Talk about sacrifice...

Protests by indigenous Amazonian people in Peru, that resulted in at least 34 deaths, seem to have had some success as the government is considering repealing the land laws and the region may be spared from the "deforestation and degradation that inevitably accompanies gas, oil and cattle ventures." Read more in Treehugger. Courageous, passionate people. You'd think this would be headline news...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fun Factoid

If 10,000 people hop on the Meatless Monday train and replace red meat with vegetarian fare that one day per week, in a year we'd avert the emissions produced by driving a car around the earth (equator) 464 times. Just saying.

(Courtesy of Ideal Bite)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bad News...

"Man-made climate change is already lifting temperatures, increasing rainfall, and raising sea levels around the United States -- and its effects are on track to get much worse in the coming century, according to a report released this afternoon by federal scientists."

...from a new report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, summarized here in The Washington Post.

Good news

Tara Parker-Pope, for the NY Times, recently reported that American children seem to be shifting towards healthier menu choices. While burgers and fries unfortunately remain top sellers to the 13 and under crowd, it seems that the healthier options on fast food menus do in fact follow the corporate motto of "giving people what they want." From Parker-Pope's post:

...The findings, based on survey data by the Chicago market research firm NPD Group, follow a report last year that childhood obesity appears to have hit a plateau after rising for more than two decades. That finding, reported by The Journal of the American Medical Association, has been greeted with guarded optimism, and it remains unclear whether efforts to limit junk food and increase physical activity in schools have had a meaningful effect on the way children eat...

...Among the losers in the year ending March 31 were colas (down 10 percent), chicken nuggets and strips (8 percent), French fries (7 percent) and hot dogs (6 percent). Winners included soup (29 percent), grilled chicken sandwiches (26 percent), yogurt (21 percent), carrots (9 percent) and fruit (6 percent).

Join the discussion here.

Safeway to support local farmers

Yesterday, Safeway Inc. announced plans to launch a campaign significantly increasing its focus on locally grown produce. The company claims that shoppers will find "more local produce per item at its stores than at a typical farmers market." The campaign includes an initiative to promote local growers with reference maps showing locations of key farmers.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I think it's worth a shot....

Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently suggested and rather obvious low-tech idea to slow global warming: changing the reflectivity of roofs by painting them white. Why not, right? The Washington Post reports:

White roofs work because of the physics of sunlight. Dark roofs absorb and hold more than 80 percent of solar energy, while white ones can reflect 75 percent of it away. That makes a white-roofed building cooler and cheaper to air-condition.

Because of that energy savings, California has since 2005 required most flat-roofed buildings to have white tops, and Walmart has installed them on about 75 percent of its U.S. stores. In January, the District will require new flat roofs on commercial buildings to be covered in vegetation or a reflective material.

Now scientists are wondering whether white roofs might keep the world cooler, too.

In his talk, Chu cited new research from his former laboratory, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, which imagined the result of painting about 63 percent of the roofs white in 100 large cities in tropical and temperate areas worldwide.

It estimated that would provide about the same climate benefits as taking all the world's cars off the road for 10 years.


After years of gathering data and lobbying for funding, Dara O’Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a wonderful website GoodGuide, to help consumers sort through all the marketing mumbo-jumbo about the supposed eco-consciousness of various products. So far, the site has scored about 75,000 products and is making headlines after joining up with Apple and appearing in a recent iPhone App Ad. The NY Times reports:

...Users enter a product’s name to get scores. For instance, Tom’s of Maine deodorant gets an 8.6 in part because it has no carcinogens, while Arrid XX antiperspirant rates a 3.8 because it contains known carcinogens. Another click leads to information behind the scores, like whether an ingredient causes reproductive problems or produces toxic waste, or whether the company has women and racial minorities in executive positions or faces labor lawsuits...

“What we think of now as green is a marketing mirage,” usually based on a single environmentally friendly practice, said Daniel Goleman, author of “Ecological Intelligence,” who switched deodorants and shampoos because of GoodGuide. The site could potentially “have a revolutionary effect on industry and commerce,” he said, by educating shoppers about the ramifications of buying a particular product...

I checked out a favorite dessert item of mine, Skinny Cow, that has one of the higher ratings on the site, and was disappointed to learn that the company has had multiple violations of the Clean Water Act and is one of the lowest rated on environmental management compliance. Stoneyfield Farm Organic Yogurt, thankfully, seems to be a guilt-free buy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Soy in moderation, guys.

So this isn't a topic I typically discuss here on justsaying, but because it is news to me and there is quite a buzz on the Interweb surrounding it, I feel it is my duty to pass it along to my loyal readers. Supposedly too much soy, i.e. excess estrogen, may lower testosterone levels in men and have... well... feminizing effects. I'd rather not get into the details so... read about it here and here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

East Coast hardest hit by sea level rise

Looks like I'll be saying a few I told you so's sooner than I thought. Although I wish that were not the case. The Washington Post reports:

Three studies this year, including one out last month, have made newly worrisome forecasts about life along the Atlantic over the next century. While the rest of the world might see seven to 23 inches of sea-level rise by 2100, the studies show this region might get that and more -- 17 to 25 inches more -- for a total increase that would submerge a beach chair.

And here are some frightening predictions on a local level:

Even before the recent research forecast accelerating rise, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge -- a rare, vast marsh on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- was predicted to become mainly open water by 2030.

In the Washington region, Environmental Protection Agency official James G. Titus said, Hains Point, along the Southwest Waterfront, and K Street NW in Georgetown might have to be elevated. Sections of the waterfront Fells Point neighborhood in Baltimore might also need to be jacked up.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Not too surprised...

According to a recent report released by the CDC, poultry was the number one source of food borne illness in the United States in 2006. Read more here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

family tree

My father's Cirque de Squirreliel

Greenest Cookware?

Slate's Green Lantern posted an educational response to an engaged couples' question regarding eco-friendly cookware. Find it here. On top of discussing the virtues of copper and longevity of a solid, cast iron pan, the Lantern mentions something that I know very little about: Fluoropolymers. Better known for their presence in a little something called "nonstick coating." From the article:

...Most nonstick cookware is lined with polytetrafluoroethylene—one of a class of slippery substances, known as fluoropolymers, used to make products waterproof, grease-proof, and stain-resistant. (DuPont's Teflon is the most famous brand.)

...Fluoropolymer manufacturing has traditionally required the use of perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical known to linger in the environment and to be toxic to animals. (It's also been found, in low levels, in the blood of more than 98 percent of the American population of humans.) How the acid, known as PFOA, actually gets into our blood and to what extent it affects our health aren't fully understood, but in 2005 the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board recommended that it be labeled a likely human carcinogen. The EPA is continuing to research the issue, however, and hasn't reached any definitive conclusions. (Some people avoid nonstick-coated pans for fear of harmful gases that could be released at high temperatures. However, the scientific consensus is that they're safe when used carefully—i.e., when the burner heat is kept relatively low and pans are never heated while empty.)

Although the Lantern seems less concerned about this carcinogen and more focused on reminding the reader of some eco-basics like 'less is more' and that the environmental cost of mining and processing raw/virgin materials is far higher than that of post-consumer recycled material, I can't help but wonder... is PFOA the next BPA?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Food, Inc.

"Viewers who haven’t thought much about how all that food in the grocery store got to be there will likely find it hard to toss a few packages of pork chops and some Froot Loops in the cart and call it a day. Some viewers will undoubtedly look away during the meat cutting and processing scenes. For parents the eye-averting moment will come during repeated slow-motion scenes of a 2-year-old’s last vacation. His mother, now a food-safety advocate, explains in a tearful voice-over the gruesome details of his death after he ate hamburger tainted with E. coli."

...from The NY Times' review of Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc." I'm going to go ahead and deem the film a "must see" and I'm not just saying that because my man, MP, narrates it.

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 10,000,” Michael Pollan says as the film opens. Mr. Pollan, an author and occasional contributor to The New York Times Magazine, is the spiritual guide for the film and serves as its narrator. “A lot of it is hard to watch,” he conceded, “but I think people are ready to take a good, unflinching look at how their food is produced.”

Can't wait to get my hands on the companion book! The film opens in select cities this weekend. For now, here's a trailer:

Quite a Quandary...

The Baltimore Sun reported this morning that the Department of Natural Resources is all set to execute the less than 500 remaining mute swans said to be an aggressive and environmentally hazardous invasive species. From the article:

Mute swans have been a flash point in the management of Maryland wildlife, pitting bird lover against bird lover and putting animal advocates on opposite sides. Over seven years, the battle has been waged in federal court, in Congress and in Annapolis, as each side has tried to block the other. Even the task force report and the minority opinion show the deep divide. The majority concluded the birds are "aggressive" and an "environmental hazard" that should be eliminated, if possible. But Grandy and Joseph Lamp, a member of the state's Wildlife Advisory Commission, called them a "beautiful, engaging and captivating part of the Chesapeake Bay" that should be "treasured and maintained for the enjoyment of citizens."

Biologists say adult swans eat up to 8 pounds of underwater grasses daily, eliminating critical vegetation that filters bay water and controls erosion. Ornithologists complain that the non-native swans push native birds such as least terns, black ducks and tundra swans out of nesting areas.

Like many, I am torn on this issue. Particularly after reading just how the birds would be eradicated:

...That means shooting adults or snapping their necks, and coating eggs with vegetable oil to suffocate embryos.

Definitely check out The Sun's article and this previous post for a little history about how these swans came to be such a "menace" and the debates surrounding them.