With little oversight, some organic foods labels may just be labels

Employees at Maharishi Vedic City Organic Farm adjust hundreds of threads for cucumber vines to grow on unhampered. - Photo by Donna Schill/IowaWatch

If you regularly shell out extra cash for food guaranteed to be more wholesome and ethically produced, you may want to read on.

As the popularity of organic foods rises across the nation, lax oversight of the industry raises questions about what the organic label really means, a new study from IowaWatch.org has found. Continue reading

Report: Power plants put Iowans at risk for mercury poisoning

Photo from Environment Iowa's report: Dirty Energy's Assault on our Health - Mercury

Iowa’s power plants spewed 2,735 pounds of poisonous mercury into the air in 2009 – the 17th highest tally for power plants in the nation, according to a new report from Environment Iowa.

The report comes as the Environmental Protection Agency readies to propose new limits on mercury and other emissions from power plants across the country – one year after a ruling that coal plants, the biggest emitters of mercury, no longer need to keep tabs of how much they releaseContinue reading

Looking “Beyond Organic”

Photo by Donna Schill/IowaWatch

Are you a health-conscious consumer?  If so, be sure to check out this piece from IowaWatch.org about the evolution of the organic food industry and a growing trend of farmers who say their methods go “beyond organic.”

For nearly a decade, the word organic has stood for all that is wholesome and pure to the health-conscious consumer.

But an emerging movement of farmers who consider themselves the real organic purists are saying their methods go “beyond organic.” Although still in its infancy, adherents to beyond organic methods are enlivening the debate about the effectiveness of the government certified organic program.

And now, a new report by a presidential advisory group has raised alarms about some of the same environmental issues that devoted organic farmers worry about, and it urges people to eat organic food to minimize health risks.

The report, released in May by the President’s Cancer Panel, warned that federal regulators have greatly underestimated the risk of environmental cancer caused by pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics. Continue reading

Mercury-contaminated fish pose health risk to Iowans

Jim Xiao, 36, of Cedar Rapids, and his father, Lao Xiao, caught this bucket of crappie in the tailwater below the Coralville Reservoir dam one morning - credit: IowaWatch.org

Mercury and other pollutants may make Iowa’s fish unsafe to eat.  And many Iowans aren’t being warned, reports IowaWatch.org today.

The state of Iowa is failing to warn people to cut back on eating locally caught fish contaminated with mercury and other pollutants at levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds too risky, an IowaWatch study has found.

More than 330,000 people a year buy licenses to fish Iowa’s waters, and the contaminated fish many catch, eat and provide to their families and friends could pose serious health consequences, especially for children, women of child-bearing age, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.

Southeast Asians and Hispanics dominate another high-risk group – people who make fish from the state’s rivers, streams and lakes a staple of their diet. But conservation officers say few people, especially minorities, know about the contaminated fish advisories state officials periodically issue. They are written only in English….

Iowans approve referendum on conservation

Iowa conservationists went to bed at least a little happy last night (the night owls among them, at least). Largely overshadowed by the fierce gubernatorial and congressional races and a controversial judicial retention vote, was a landslide victory for conservation efforts.

Over 62 percent of Iowans voted yesterday to approve a constitutional amendment to create a fund for land and water-quality conservation.

Known as Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment, it was just the third change to the state constitution in the past 16 years.

The measure would designate three-eighths of one percent of a sales tax increase to a trust fund dedicated to conservation.  This would generate about $150 million a year.

A  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist lauds the vote and would like to see Wisconsin adopt a similar approach.

Read more about the amendment on IowaWatch.org. Or check out the Des Moines Register for reactions.

Also, view a detailed table of election results from the New York Times.

Referendum vote huge for Iowa conservation

On November 2, Iowans will vote on a measure that could yield millions of dollars for conservation efforts.

Check out this piece from IowaWatch.org:

Come November 2, voters will see a referendum on a constitutional amendment that its sponsor says would have “completely changed the face of Iowa” had it been the law of the land 20 years ago. And, at a time when the red and blue partisans in the legislature can’t seem to agree on anything, this measure eased through two different legislative sessions with 90 percent support from Republicans and Democrats.

If voters approve the referendum, the next sales tax increase would generate millions of dollars for cleaning Iowa’s filthy waters, to help stop farm soil from washing into its streams and rivers and to develop new parks and trails.

Known as Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment, the measure would designate three-eighths of one percent of a sales tax increase to a trust fund dedicated to conserving the state’s natural resources. That fraction would generate about $150 million a year.

“If we would have passed this 20 years ago, we would have already spent $3 billion on conservation,” said Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the bill.

It would be only the third amendment to the state constitution in the past 16 years, Dearden said.

The vote, in the words of Iowa Nature Conservancy Director Sean McMahon, “is nothing short of a referendum on conservation.”

“It’s now or never,” he said, calling it one of the most important conservation measures to pass through the legislature in a generation. “If we were to lose, legislators would not have the stomach to bring it up again for a while.”

Even if legislators raised the issue in the next session, they would be “back to square one,” said Jim Gillespie, bureau chief of field services for the Iowa Division of Soil Conservation.

“They would be forced to go through two legislatures,” he said, referring to the legal requirement that all amendments to the state constitution pass through two consecutive legislative sessions. “It would be at least three years to get it back to the people.”…

ISU’s Hornbuckle teams up with European Space Agency to map soil moisture


Brian Hornbuckle holds a scale model of a satellite launched last Novemeber that maps soil moisture from space - IowaWatch.org


Check out the profile on ISU agronomist Brian Hornbuckle in the Ames Tribune and on IowaWatch.org. And listen to Hornbuckle discuss the importance of soil moisture.

When Brian Hornbuckle cranes his neck to the nighttime sky, he’s probably not pondering the beauty of the constellations, but thinking about what’s in the Iowa soil right under his feet.  Yet he’s neither absent-minded, nor a contradiction. He’s just a man who has found his niche – where astronomy, physics and environmental science collide.

Through his work, Hornbuckle says he hopes to help keep agriculture profitable and to give Iowans better information on how to maintain soil and water quality, and a favorable climate.

Hornbuckle, an associate professor at Iowa State University, thinks of himself as a physical agronomist – a term he coined. It means that he uses physics to study how plants and soil interact with climate. But throw in his expertise in satellite design and data collection, and the work gets even more interesting – interesting enough to land him a role in a European Space Agency project he calls “groundbreaking” and “a perfect fit” for his hodge-podge of interests…