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Coffee's Environmental Footprint Should Be Harder to Swallow Than Dubious Cancer Claims

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Coffee's Environmental Footprint Should Be Harder to Swallow Than Dubious Cancer Claims

Coffee is not only my favorite drink, it's a necessity (I get headaches from caffeine withdrawal). Even after a California judge decided this week that coffee should come with a cancer warning, my immediate response was to take another sip.

That's because coffee does not cause cancer, top scientists have concluded. In fact, numerous studies show that coffee has incredible health benefits, from lowering diabetes risk and, yes, protection against cancer.


It's important to note that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle's decision Wednesday was not to establish a coffee-cancer link. Rather, the outcome of the long-brewing lawsuit fell under California's Proposition 65, which requires businesses to warn people of exposure to roughly 900 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.

Roasted coffee beans happen to contain a known carcinogen called acrylamide, a chemical also found in fried potatoes and burnt toast. While very high doses of acrylamide can increase the risk of cancer in lab animals, it is not yet clear if it affects cancer risk in humans.

Because of the ruling, about 90 coffee roasters, retailers and distributors, including Whole Foods, Kraft and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, might have to post warning labels on their coffee, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The National Coffee Association, whose members include Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, plans to fight this decision and is "currently considering all of its options, including potential appeals and further legal actions."

However, there are certain labels that these businesses should consistently adopt for human health and for the planet's health, including "organic," "Fair Trade Certified" and "shade-grown beans."

Ultimately, the environmental footprint of our daily brew should be harder to swallow than its inconclusive cancer links. As EcoWatch detailed previously:

Coffee plants naturally prefer shade, as they evolved in the understory of the African jungle. But more and more, coffee is being grown in direct sun on monoculture plantations that resemble cornfields. Shade-grown coffee slipped from 43 percent of the world's farms in 1996 to just 24 percent in 2010. Three-fourths of the coffee farmland in Brazil and Vietnam has no shade tree cover at all. Much of their production is cheaper, robusta beans that are generally used for instant coffee and low-price supermarket brands.

The coffee you choose may be harmful to your health, to the environment or to the growers themselves. Much coffee is grown using pesticides, which has been shown to be detrimental to coffee farmers. Also, pesticides used to combat the coffee cherry borer and coffee rust can remain in the environment.

On large coffee plantations, workers often toil in harsh conditions for subsistence wages. Children as young as six or eight work the fields, and just 13 percent of coffee workers in Guatemala have completed primary education. In contrast to these big plantations, small farmers generally cultivate less than seven acres of land and often struggle to earn more than the cost of production. Fair Trade coffee may or may not help: only the label "Fair Trade Certified" ensures that farmers receive a fair price for their coffee.

Climate change is also threatening crops across the world's coffee bean belt. According to a report from the Climate Institute, commissioned by Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand, rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are already impacting coffee crops from Africa to Central America and the effects will worsen in the coming decades. Global warming could reduce global coffee production 50 percent by 2050, endangering the livelihoods of more than 120 million of the world's poorest people.

So to my fellow coffee-lovers, if you want to continue enjoying your morning jolt, be kind to the planet and always choose your brands wisely.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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