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Green Guru
Advice for the eco-minded

 

—Is organic milk better than conventional varieties?
Joanne Fitzgerald, Chicago, IL

If you’re concerned about the hormones and antibiotics given to dairy cows, organic milk is probably your best bet. But if you’re worried about greenhouse-gas emissions, the choice is less clear.

Many American commercial dairy farmers administer recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), an FDA-approved Monsanto product that keeps Bessie producing milk at peak levels. Largely in response to consumer concerns, Canada, the European Union, and Australia, among others, have banned rBGH. Still, there’s no scientific consensus on health risks associated with rBGH milk, says Scott Rankin, a food scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some studies show that kids on organic diets ingest fewer pesticides, and that some organic foods have more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants, but they’re not conclusive.

A report on the science behind the human health benefits of organic milk, published by UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, found that “access to fresh, high-quality pasture is the key, not whether the production system is organic or conventional.”

Then there’s the carbon footprint issue. Grass-fed cows, a source of much organic milk, may emit more methane than grain-fed bovines. The soaring demand for organic milk (possibly because of the public backlash against rBGH) is driving some organic dairy farms to emulate conventional operations by feeding their cows grain. Horizon, however, now owned by Dean Foods, produces as much as 40 percent of the nation’s organic milk and feeds its cows primarily grass, further clouding the situation. Unlike many cows, the issue is not black and white.
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—I want to eat locally all year. How do I make preserves?
Dakota Spaulding, Charlotte, NC

Eating locally grown food is a great way to support small farmers and enjoy scrumptious produce. It can also ease the burden on your pocketbook and the environment. One way to keep reaping those benefits throughout the year is to consider making and canning preserves, such as jams, jellies, and marmalades.

The first step, says Judy Harrison, a University of Georgia Extension foods specialist at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, is finding a tested recipe from a reputable source. Harrison suggests So Easy to Preserve, an extension publication now in its fifth edition, and the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. For online recipes, visit the National Center for Food Home Preservation or homecanning.com.

The key to preserves is boiling jars of the sweet stuff to seal in flavor and keep out mold and yeast. You’ll need a water bath canner, jars with sealable lids, and tongs to remove the hot containers from boiling water. Many grocery stores sell food preservation tools, says Harrison, and local cooperative extension offices offer advice.

“I think right now we’re seeing an upswing in canning because there are a lot of people who are growing their own gardens or going to farmers’ markets, so there’s a renewed interest in it,” she says. Canning can take all day, so make it more fun by inviting friends who also want to keep the sweet taste of summer in their cupboards long after winter has crept in.

To see a video about how to can, click here.
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—Do latex balloons still affect animals?
Julianna Patrick, Orlando, FL

Releasing balloons has long been a festive way to celebrate an event, but by the 1990s reports of deflated balloons harming marine animals took the air out of the practice. Some studies show that although latex biodegrades in the environment, it takes a long time to break down, and biologists have found bits of balloon in animals’ stomachs and twisted ribbon in their intestines. “I don’t want to be a party pooper, so to speak, but they can be a significant problem to wildlife, and mass releases should be discouraged,” says Andrew Stamper, a veterinarian in Disney’s Animal Programs and Environmental Initiative.

Sea turtles are indiscriminate eaters that are particularly attracted to brightly colored balloons floating in the ocean, which get stuck in their digestive systems, potentially causing starvation. While balloons don’t make up a significant part of the trash in the ocean, they “are definitely a source of pollution” that animals from whales to fish to seabirds mistake for food, says Stamper.

Instead of releasing the helium-filled orbs, try giving out native flower seeds, launching paper balloons, or setting floating candles adrift in a fountain.
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Send your most vexing questions to greenguru@audubon.org.