The stuff of ancient legend and high-end cuisine, matsutake mushrooms bloom briefly in the forests of Oregon. Subsistence harvesters flock there, hoping to find buttons that can earn a fortune in Tokyo’s bustling wholesale markets, halfway across the world. ... With a firm texture and notes of cinnamon and saffron, this fungus tastes like no other. It’s especially prized in Japan, where the name means “pine mushroom”: The flavor lends a subtle accent to rice and seasonal dishes such as dobin mushi, a seafood broth steamed in a clay teapot. Formerly abundant in the island country’s red pine forests, modern wilderness management and disease have made the mushroom scarce. As much as 90 percent of the matsutake harvested in Oregon is now exported to Japan. Before that country’s economic bubble burst, the highest-grade buttons, dressed up in a gift box with ferns and orange blossoms, could fetch upward of $100 each at auction in Tokyo’s Ota Market. No wonder pickers in the U.S. referred to the mushrooms as “white gold.” ... These days foragers are fortunate to get $15 a pound.
In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia — the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi — who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across state lines. ... Cornett went into business for the same reason poachers are keen to rob him. The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. These days, most ginseng is mass-produced on large, pesticide-sprayed farms under the artificial shade of wood and fabric canopies. Wild ginseng, which tends to grow in temperate forests, is considered more potent and fetches a higher price. Plants like Cornett’s, cultivated in the woods, are closer to wild than to conventionally farmed ginseng. ... Dwindling supply and robust demand have inflated wild American ginseng’s value. In 2014, according to public and academic data, the 81,500 pounds that were legally exported commanded an average wholesale price of $800 per dried pound. That was almost 15 times more than the going rate for farmed roots. Nearly all exports go to China, where a burgeoning middle class is willing to pay marked-up retail prices — sometimes even thousands of dollars per pound. ... Scientists believe ginseng is native to both East Asia and North America because some 70 million years ago, the two land masses were part of a single megacontinent known as Laurasia
But in a world full of manipulative marketers, the truffle is the real deal. A type of fungus that grows on tree roots, the truffle stands on the right side of the line between decomposition and decadence. ... These fickle cousins of mushrooms have proven impossible to mass produce; they are still dug up individually by dogs that track their scent. ... The truffle stands in stark contrast to our era of convenience: the preservatives in bread that allow it to stay fresh for weeks and the year-round availability of seasonal fruits and vegetables. ... The combination of these two trends—the desire for a convenient, ever-ready supply of an ingredient, and a hunger for the traditional, the rare, and “real food”—led to what would seem to be a remarkably successful scam on foodie culture: truffle oil. ... Despite truffle oil's poor provenance, though, it has been used and praised by both average joes and renowned chefs. Truffle oil has been a remarkably successful con. ... taste is a slippery concept that is susceptible to psychological trickery and difficult to discuss objectively. Many embarrassed gourmands have realized that they were equating true truffles with smelly olive oil, but amateurs and experts alike easily confuse the good stuff and the cheap stuff whether it’s wine, sushi, or chicken picatta.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.
If water is not managed better, today’s crisis will become a catastrophe. By the middle of the century more than half of the planet will live in areas of “water stress”, where supplies cannot sustainably meet demand. ... Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces. ... As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. ... To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. ... around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited. This jeopardises future use by causing contamination. It also damages the layers of sand and clay that make up aquifers, thereby reducing their capacity to be replenished. ... People do not drink much water—only a few litres a day. But putting food on their tables requires floods of the stuff. Growing 1kg of wheat takes 1,250 litres of water; fattening a cow to produce the same weight of beef involves 12 times more. Overall, agriculture accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. ... estimated that agricultural production will have to rise by 60% to fill the world’s bellies. This will put water supplies under huge strain. ... Hydrologists expect that a warming climate will see the cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation speed up. ... There is no single solution for the world’s water crisis. But cutting back on use, improving the efficiency of that use and sharing out water more effectively would all help.
The medical student told me to use his name. He said he didn’t care. “Maduro is a donkey,” he said. “An a**hole.” He meant Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. We were passing through the wards of a large public hospital in Valencia, a city of roughly a million people, a hundred miles west of Caracas. The hallways were dim and stifling, thick with a frightening stench. ... Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government. ... For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency. ... He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. ... After Chávez barely survived a 2002 coup attempt, the Cubans also sent teams of military and intelligence advisers who taught their Venezuelan counterparts how to surveil and disrupt the political opposition Cuban-style, with close monitoring, harassment, and strategic arrests. ... Polar employs about thirty thousand workers (it is the country’s largest private employer) and is responsible for more than three per cent of Venezuela’s non-oil gross domestic product. Besides corn flour and the country’s top-selling beer, Polar produces pasta, rice, tuna fish, wine, ice cream, yogurt, margarine, ketchup, mayonnaise, and detergent. Yet it operates in an atmosphere of continual uncertainty, its planners and logistics mavens never sure what roadblock or subterfuge the government will toss up next. ... The crisis has a small but crucial constituency, starting with the generals and other high government officials who are thriving financially, mainly through smuggling, graft, and import fraud.
Eight years before, there were no sheep here. Then 21 ewes and five juvenile rams were transplanted to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation of the Chippewa Cree, which straddles part of the Bears Paw Mountains, an islandlike uprising on the plains. ... The herd quickly grew to 100, and 40 were relocated to South Dakota. It has again grown over 100, and another 40 are likely to be transplanted this spring, part of broad attempts to replant sheep populations that are a fraction of what they once were in the West. ... A man from Michigan had paid $100,000 for the year’s only chance to hunt one sheep in the herd on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. ... In exchange, the Chippewa Cree tribe at Rocky Boy’s received the $100,000, which was used to fund two tribal game wardens overseeing wildlife on the reservation. ... It is a paradox of hunting, rarely so conspicuous as with wild sheep: The hunters are often the primary conservationists. ... widespread belief among serious hunters is that rams are the ultimate pursuit. ... That is for two reasons. One, opportunities to hunt sheep are scarce, and often prohibitively expensive. Two, the hunts are among the most difficult, often lasting weeks in some of the most remote regions on Earth.
Here are the facts: there were 5,400 properties on the market at the end of February, half of last year’s figure. That amounted to just one month of inventory—the time it would take to sell all available properties—compared with 5.6 months in Manhattan. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand. ... While Canada’s west coast city of Vancouver has grabbed international attention for its soaring prices in recent years, Toronto is now in the eye of the country’s housing hurricane. The price of an average house in Toronto and its suburbs rose 28 percent in February to C$875,983 from the prior year, the sixth straight month of above-20 percent growth. ... “Nothing is more bubbly right now than the Toronto housing market,” David Rosenberg
The cost of crab blood has been quoted as high as $14,000 per quart. ... Their distinctive blue blood is used to detect dangerous Gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli in injectable drugs such as insulin, implantable medical devices such as knee replacements, and hospital instruments such as scalpels and IVs. Components of this crab blood have a unique and invaluable talent for finding infection, and that has driven up an insatiable demand. Every year the medical testing industry catches a half-million horseshoe crabs to sample their blood. ... The number of crabs harvested by the U.S. biomedical industry jumped from an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 in the 1990s to more than 610,000 crabs in 2012, according to the ASMFC's latest stock assessment report.
Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Bangalore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, “the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.” ... Every year since 2012, Bangalore has been hit by drought; last year Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, received its lowest rainfall level in four decades. But the changing climate is not exclusively to blame for Bangalore’s water problems. The city’s growth, hustled along by its tech sector, made it ripe for crisis. ... Through the 2000s, Bangalore’s urban landscape expanded so quickly that the city had no time to extend its subcutaneous network of water pipes into the fastest-growing areas, like Whitefield. Layers of concrete and tarmac crept out across the city, stopping water from seeping into the ground. ... 44 percent of the city’s water supply either seeps out through aging pipes or gets siphoned away by thieves. ... Everywhere, the steep ascent of demand has caused a run on groundwater. Well owners drill deeper and deeper, chasing the water table downward as they all keep draining it further. The groundwater level has sunk from a depth of 150 or 200 feet to 1,000 feet or more in many places.
Sand covers so much of the earth’s surface that shipping it across borders—even uncontested ones—seems extreme. But sand isn’t just sand, it turns out. In the industrial world, it’s “aggregate,” a category that includes gravel, crushed stone, and various recycled materials. Natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water, and for many uses the right kind is scarce or inaccessible. In 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” which concluded that the mining of sand and gravel “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.” ... Geologists define sand not by composition but by size, as grains between 0.0625 and two millimetres across. Just below sand on the size scale is silt; just above it is gravel. Most sand consists chiefly of quartz, the commonest form of silica, but there are other kinds. Sand on ocean beaches usually includes a high proportion of shell pieces and, increasingly, bits of decomposing plastic trash ... Sand is also classified by shape, in configurations that range from oblong and sharply angular to nearly spherical and smooth. Desert sand is almost always highly rounded, because strong winds knock the grains together so forcefully that protrusions and sharp edges break off. River sand is more angular. ... Aggregate is the main constituent of concrete (eighty per cent) and asphalt (ninety-four per cent), and it’s also the primary base material that concrete and asphalt are placed on during the building of roads, buildings, parking lots, runways, and many other structures. A report published in 2004 by the American Geological Institute said that a typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation, basement, garage, and driveway, and more than two hundred tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it. A mile-long section of a single lane of an American interstate highway requires thirty-eight thousand tons.
As long as the public delights in seeing pompous winemakers and critics humbled, journalists will keep writing Schadenfreude-laden stories about the latest “Gotcha!” study. But these articles generally confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence: they presume that if a handful of researchers did not find that one group of connoisseurs possessed statistically significant tasting ability, any claim to wine expertise must be a hoax. The truly interesting question is the opposite one: whether it’s possible for a critic to look smart rather than silly. ... Unfortunately, designing an experiment that gives tasters a chance to succeed requires the scientist to understand wine. They need to give the drinkers plenty of time on a small number of wines, in an odourless room with appropriate stemware; to taste the bottles and ensure they are not flawed; to choose wines that are representative of a well-known style; and to serve them at the age where they best strut their stuff. In other words, what you would need is the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match.