California’s almonds constitute a lucrative multibillion dollar industry in a fiscally tenuous state that is also, as you know, in the middle of the worst drought in recent history. The drought is so dire that experts are considering adding a fifth level to the four-tiered drought scale. That’s right: D5. But each almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce, as Alex Park and Julia Lurie at Mother Jones reported earlier this year, and 44 percent more land in California is being used to farm almonds than was 10 years ago.

That raises ecological concerns like, as NPR’s Alastair Bland reported last weekend, that thousands of endangered king salmon in northern California’s Klamath River are threatened by low water levels because water is being diverted to almond farms. Despite the severe drought, as of June 30, California’s Department of Agriculture projected that almond farmers will have their largest harvest to date. If more water is not released into the river soon, Bland reported, the salmon will be seriously threatened by a disease called gill rot. If there’s one disease I never want to get, it’s gill rot.

Even as almond production increases in California, demand is driving prices ever higher. Other producers are getting into the game. In England, for example, the cost of almonds has almost doubled over the past five years, and sales of almond milk increased 79 percent in a year. “The value of each kernel has gone up dramatically, and growers are looking for the best return on their investment, so they’re still planting almond trees at an alarming rate,” one farmer told BBC’s Peter Bowes. “If you decided to plant an orchard right now, you would wait two years for available root stock to actually plant.”

Meet China’s baby-shaped pears and heart-shaped melons

Baby-shaped pears, heart-shaped watermelons and square apples are hitting supermarkets in China and Japan. But are these fruits just frivolous fun?

by Bec Crew

Since the beginnings of agriculture, humans have been customising their fruits and vegetables to suit their needs. Early on, bigger fruits and higher yields were the most important considerations, and while these factors still outweigh the actual taste factor, other, slightly less pressing desires have come into play over the past decade or so.

Namely, people want to eat fruit that doesn’t look like regular fruit.

Which is how baby-shaped pears have come into existence. Grown by China-based manufacturing company, Fruit Mould Co., these strange little shapes have been selling like crazy in China, along with square-shaped apples, and heart-shaped watermelons and cucumbers. Their Buddha-shaped pears are apparently extremely popular

(read more: ScienceAlert! - Australia & NZ)

photos: Fruit Mould Co.

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The dried cocoa beans are used by the whites to make this," declared a happy farmer of cocoa beans in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).

Here, cocoa farmers in Africa taste chocolate for the first time in their lives. They’ve been growing and selling cocoa beans for decades, and didn’t know what the beans were used for. So says this video.

UPDATE: Here are some folks in Holland encountering a cocoa pod for the first time. They are equally stumped what the pod is. Quite funny…

Sizing Down Food Waste: What’s The Worst Thing To Toss?

Sometimes I feel like a broken record at home: “Let’s eat the leftovers for dinner, so they don’t go to waste,”

But inevitably, Sunday night’s pasta and meatballs get tossed out of the refrigerator to make way for Friday night’s pizza.

Now scientists at the University of Minnesota offer up another reason to put those leftover meatballs in the tummy instead of the garbage: There are hidden calories in the beef that go to waste when you toss it.

These invisible calories could help out the 1 in 6 Americans who don’t get enough to eat each day, just as easily as the meatballs themselves. And when you add them all up, these hidden calories are enough to help the world feed a rapidly rising population, ecologists report Thursday in the journal Science.

About a third of all food grown around the world never gets eaten. Americans alone waste up to about 1,200 calories per person each day.

But not all these calories are equal, when you look at how they hurt the global food supply, says ecologist Paul West, who led the study.

Discarding a pound of boneless beef effectively wastes 24 times more calories than discarding a pound of wheat, West and his team report. Why? Because the beef also contains all the calories in the corn that fed the cow.

"If you throw out some arugula at a fancy restaurant in upstate New York, it doesn’t have much impact on the world’s food system," West says. "But throwing out a small steak has a huge impact — maybe more than all the arugula in the restaurant put together."

Continue reading.

Photo by Morgan Walker/NPR


Industrialized Meat: The Landscapes of Factory Farming

Feedlots are facilities used in factory farming—a modern form of industrialized, intensive livestock production—in which thousands of livestock are “finished” in densely-packed feeding pens. The U.S. contains over 15,000 feedlots today, and 99% percent of all farmed animals in the country are raised on one. Despite their ubiquity, agricultural companies have done their best to hide these operations. So-called “ag gag” laws, for example, have made the recording of animal cruelty in commercial farming practices illegal. According to Ted Genoways of Mother Jones, ag gag laws have been on the books in eight states and were enacted in 15 more as of 2013. Luckily, artist Mishka Henner, who has been collecting satellite imagery of feedlots for years, has been able to avoid legal repercussions. His work captures the vast scale and damaging ecological effects of industrial farming in America. As Matt Connelly notes in Mic, what appear as beautiful emerald green and ruby red pools are in fact “manure lagoons” for the highly toxic chemical animal waste produced in these concentrated enclosures. Henner has utilized open-source satellite imagery to reveal other hidden yet highly potent landscapes like oil fields and covert U.S. military bases.

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 Food Is Weird: Understanding Agriculture in the Developing World

In which John Green flies in a helicopter with Bill Gates in Ethiopia, investigates a new form of cursing, and discusses agricultural reform—specifically, how the UN’s World Food Program is trying to improve maize yields in Ethiopia. If you can break the vicious cycle of low incomes leading to low harvests, agricultural productivity per hectacre can increase dramatically, as we’ve seen in China and Brazil. It seems boring, I know, but this is a big reason hundreds of millions of people have emerged from poverty in the past 30 years. So hopefully it will happen in Ethiopia! But, as usual, the truth resists simplicity.

Should We Return The Nutrients In Our Pee Back To The Farm? - NPR

A small group of environmentalists in Vermont isn’t as squeamish about urine. They’re pooling the urine of the 170 volunteers in a pilot project (a quart or so, per person, daily) and eventually giving it to a farmer, who’s putting it on her hay fields in place of synthetic fertilizer. The goal is to collect 6,000 gallons this year.

The logic driving this avant-garde project of the Rich Earth Institute, based in Brattleboro, Vt., is that it’s foolish and wasteful to part with the precious nitrogen and phosphorus that moves from the food we eat right through us — especially when farmers have to buy fertilizer at great expense to put those very same nutrients back into the soil.

In many ways, the indigenous civilizations of precolonial North America were more highly developed than European cultures. The cities and roads of the Aztec culture astounded the European conquerors. The agricultural systems featured advanced forms of irrigation, with the cultivation of foods that were unknown to the Old World. Some of these foods (potato, corn, peanuts, and other grains) were later to provide 60 percent of Europe’s diet and were responsible for the greatest explosion of population since the Neolithic Age (Feagin & Feagin, 1993). Substances from the New World (cocoa, tobacco, coca) were to provide Europeans with exhilarating addictions in the centuries to come.
Medicinal products from the Americas revolutionized the treatment of disease in Europe and still fascinate pharmacologists with as yet untapped treasures. The political systems of native peoples ranged from the religious theocracies in Mexico, sources of advanced astronomical and mathematical achievement unparalleled in the world of that day, to the democratic councils of the Algonquin, Iroquois, and other nations that were much admired by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Hardt, 1992).
—  The Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook: A Complete K-12 Reference Guide, Fourth Edition, by Lynne T. Diaz-Rico, and Kathryn Z. Weed, Copyright 2010 Pearson education, Inc. pg. 215. 

Moray: Extreme Inca Landscaping

Moray is an archaeological site in Peru containing unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is approximately 30 m (98 ft) deep. As with many other Inca sites, it also has a sophisticated irrigation system and appears to be an early experimental agriculture station. These gigantic bowls recall Indian stepwells, but scholars speculate they were utilized to concentrate thermal gradients and affect the local weather. Indeed, the temperature varies substantially (up to 15° – 20° C) between the center (warmer) and the exterior (colder) and the site reproduces more than 20 ecological areas. The exact usage of the site of Moray is still subject to research, however. It possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. allowing for domestication, acclimatization, and hybridization of wild vegetable species that were modified or adapted for human consumption.