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A Record Year for Sea Lion Pup Strandings

Since January, more than 3,000 starving pups have washed up on California beaches

The little orphaned sea lion pup struggled to climb into the kayak. Tuckered out, cold, shivering and very hungry, the roughly seven-month-old pinniped was on its own, abandoned by its beleaguered mother, no doubt starving herself.

Eventually the sea lion pup managed to climb into my friend’s boat and ultimately into his lap to seek some much needed warmth and rest. The pup stayed with us for over two hours on the water until we landed in a crescent moon-shaped cove on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Reluctantly, the young sea lion flopped out of the kayak and stumbled onto the cobbled beach before finding a warm patch of sand to haul out on.

close up photo of a sea lionall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

This has been a record year for stranded sea lion pups on the Southern California coastline. In February 2015, 850 sea lion pups were rescued from mainland beaches in California. In March, 1,050 pups were retrieved, and in April and May, a combined total of 1,090 pups were found. So far this year, more than 3,000 sea lion pups have been stranded on beaches in southern and central California, more than the total number of strandings from 2004 through 2012. These numbers do not include the number of sea lions that have died.

Some of these pups are lucky. They are spotted by beach-goers who contact the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating ill and injured marine mammals, or other wildlife centers for assistance. From there, the pups are retrieved by volunteers, rehabilitated if possible, and eventually released in the open ocean. Unfortunately, scores of other starving pups go undiscovered on inaccessible portions of the coast or on any of California’s eight windswept Channel Islands.

Researchers believe the mass strandings are related to warmer-than-average water temperatures. Over the past year, warm currents in Southern California have wreaked havoc on cold upwelling systems that generate nutrient rich waters. Portions of the food web like squid and baitfish have been forced to retreat to deeper, colder waters, making things tough on female sea lions and their hungry 6- to 8- month-old pups.

photo of people administering care to a sea lion pupmore

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Americans Are Paying Attention to Food Waste, But Still Throw Away More Food Than They Think

New survey finds nearly three-fourths of Americans believe they toss less food than the average consumer

We all throw away food. In fact, in the United States, an estimated 40 percent of all food is trashed as it makes it way from farm to table, or more aptly, as it doesn’t. But how aware are we of our own waste? And what motivates us to rethink our shopping habits or reconsider that wilting lettuce in the back of the fridge?

Photo of Food Waste Photo by Stephen Rees, on Flickr Nearly three-quarters of the 1,010 survey respondents said they waste less food than the average American.

Those are the questions a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to answer in the first national consumer food waste survey conducted in the United States. The results were published this month in PLOS ONE. It turns out that a lot of us are giving ourselves more credit than we probably deserve. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the 1,010 survey respondents said they waste less food than the average American. What is more, 13 percent of respondents indicated that they don’t discard any food and 56 percent estimated that they discard only 10 percent of their food, though the estimated average food waste for consumers is around 25 percent.

Researchers also looked at consumer motivations for reducing food waste, including considerations like saving money, setting an example for children, guilt about waste, thinking about those who are hungry, and environmental concerns. Perhaps expectedly, saving money came first. Among parents, setting a good example for children. Concern about the environmental — including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and energy associated with food waste — was ranked last by respondents.

“From an environmental perspective, one thing that was very striking was that we asked people what is their top motivation for reducing waste, and environmental issues came out dead last on that list,” says Roni Neff, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the authors of the article. Neff noted that this outcome could mean one of two things: people just aren’t that aware of the environmental footprint of their food, or environmental impacts aren’t a big motivator for those considering food waste.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wasn’t quite as surprised. “[F]or most of us, we go to the …more

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Tea Industry Boosts Forest Cover in Kenya, But Will Trees Remain Standing?

Tea processing factories in Kenya have pledged to plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees every year to increase forest cover as well as supply wood to power operations

Tea processing factories in Kenya are implementing a conservation program that will see them scale up the area of land under forest cover while at the same time sustainably using exotic trees, especially eucalyptus, to generate power for their operations.

Photo of Cassava in Danforth GreenhousePhoto by hobokenvie Kenya’s tea industry has pledged to plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees every year.

The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which manages the 65 tea processing factories in Kenya, says it has partnered with communities in tea growing areas, including 560,000 small-scale tea growers, to expand the area covered by indigenous and exotic trees. The exotic trees are increasingly used to generate heat for steam boilers, as the factories seek to reduce their reliance on expensive and unreliable grid-connected electricity and switch from petroleum-based fuels.

Going forward, KTDA, in partnership with the factories and tea farmers, will plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees each year both to conserve the environment and ensure adequate wood fuel supply to power tea processing factories. “The key pillar of KTDA is environmental sustainability, which we want to pursue by ensuring at least 560,000 small-scale tea growers conserve the environment,” said the agency’s CEO Lerionka Tiampati.

KTDA has acquired 13,800 acres of land from the state and individuals for the planting of trees to meet the factories’ wood fuel needs, with Tiampati saying there is potential to increase the acreage to 40,300 acres. Under the program, the tea factories will develop tree nurseries and supply tea farmers with seedlings for planting in their farms to complement those grown on the KTDA acquired land. An estimated 157,720 hectares are under tea cultivation in Kenya.

“The wood fuel program is going hand-in-hand with our environmental conservation program,” says Tiampati. “The factories propagate both exotic and indigenous tree seedlings and issue them to the farmers to plant in their farms.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the agency supplied communities in tea growing areas with an estimated 20.4 million seedlings for planting, which is equivalent to 4.7 million cubic meters of expected firewood. “The factories are acquiring their own land to plant trees, both to meet their wood fuel needs as well as for conservation,” he says.

The factories, which use the crush, tear, and curl processing method, will utilize exotic trees for wood fuel. …more

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Is Plant Science the Answer to Improved Food Security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, some researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Photo of Cassava in Danforth GreenhousePhoto by Donald Danforth Plant Science Center Cassava grow in a greenhouse at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Researchers at the center are trying to engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us. 

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May. 

Photo of Nigel Taylor at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center Sena Christian Senior …more

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‘We Are Going to Get an Agreement’ in Paris, Says UN Climate Chief

In a visit to San Francisco, the UN’s top climate diplomat explains why she is so confident countries will reach a global climate agreement in December

In six months, delegates from nearly 200 countries will gather in Paris with the intention of signing the first truly global climate agreement. Don’t expect a replay of the fractious talks held in Copenhagen, in December 2009, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate diplomat, said on Tuesday.

Photo of Christiana Figueres Photo by UNclimatechange High Level Youth Briefing with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. Bonn Climate Change Conference, June 11, 2015. Figueresis confident that we will reach a global climate agreement in Paris.

In a conversation at Climate One, in San Francisco, Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, returned time and again to the political and economic shifts evident since Copenhagen that augur well for a positive outcome when negotiators convene in Paris in December.

At negotiating sessions during 2009, including in Copenhagen, I often heard from negotiators and NGO observers that political leaders in their home countries told them that renewable energy technologies could not compete on cost against, and were not ready to displace, fossil fuel power plants. Politicians can no longer justifiably make such claims. In a report released earlier this year, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) noted that solar photovoltaic (PV) module prices have dropped by 75 percent since 2009 and continue to fall, that between 2010 and 2014 the total installed costs of utility-scale solar PV systems fell by as much as 65 percent, and that for the 1.3 billion people around the globe who lack access to electricity, renewables are the cheapest source of energy.

Figueres apparently heard much the same during 2009. “The implicit assumption was that [climate change] was in the future, and we don’t know if we have the solutions,” she said at Climate One. “What has fundamentally changed is that the problem is no longer in the future — the problem is in the present — and furthermore the solutions are in the present. We do have the technologies. We have the capital. We have a growing number of regulations and pieces of legislation in place.”

Forces are at work, Figueres said, that have upended the status quo in the global electric power sector. An ever-growing number of governments are requiring that renewables be added to the grid, and customers are demanding that companies buy clean energy. “What …more

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In Ecology Encyclical, Pope Points to Science, Faith in Call for Bold Action

Catholic environmental advocates, who have been preparing for the document for months, are now in high gear

Pope Francis’s statement on ecology, issued today at noon in Rome, is already being hailed as a game-changer, particularly when it comes to mobilizing Catholics towards climate action. With the document having drawn attention to ecological issues months before its release, the question now is, how can environmental communities leverage the current momentum?

First, it will be helpful to understand some of the major messages and components of the document — what it is and what it is not. Then we can appreciate what’s currently happening and what’s in the works.

Photo of Pope FrancisPhoto by Aleteia Image Department Pope Francis’s comments on ecology build on those of his predecessors.

Pope Francis’s comments on ecology build on those of his predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Now Pope Francis has in many ways expanded on these comments and made the teachings his own with the issuance of an authoritative Church document known as an “encyclical.” (The name comes from the Greek word for circular. It refers to important letters that would be circulated in the early Church when, because of state persecution, communication wasn’t always easy.) Since the late nineteenth century, popes have been issuing “social encyclicals” to discuss important changes in the societies of their time.

Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is called “Laudato Si,” or “Praise Be to You.” The name comes from a famous text from St. Francis of Assisi in which he praised God for the gifts of nature.

Laudato Si is made up of seven sections spanning 246 sizeable paragraphs that are all focused on understanding today’s ecological issues and their origins. Besides climate, Pope Francis discusses biodiversity loss, water justice issues, and general “throwaway cultures” in which consumption and waste are prevalent. He also offers pathways forward — from a perspective of faith.

This spiritual perspective places the focus of the encyclical not so much on political, economic, social, and individual causes and corrections — although those are important discussions within the text. Rather, the central thesis of Laudato Si is to find deeper sources of our shared environmental and social ills.

“We have come to see ourselves as [creation’s] lords and masters,” Pope Francis writes, “entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms …more

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Farming the Sea

Industrial aquaculture in Greece, and why we shouldn’t race blindly toward the last agricultural frontier

We spent the morning crowded together on a low-lying boat and then in a low-lying car, inspecting the fish farm cages from several vantage points. The whipping wind and that thwap as a hull hits the waves made conversation difficult. But now that we’re sitting around a table together with food, relative quiet, and a stiff drink, the fishermen (and women) of Chios — a Greek island in the Eastern Aegean — can tell their stories: About how the beaches where they swam as children are now murky and polluted from the excrement and excess food that spreads out from each fish farm unit. About how the wild fish they pull from the bay are disappearing. About their futile attempts as a community to prevent the expansion of fish farming, or at least move the cages into deeper waters. 

Photo of Fish Farms GreecePhoto by Clara Rowe Two Greek islands, Oinousses and Chios, are challenging fish farms in their coastal waters.

When I first began working with coastal communities in Greece more than a year ago, I was skeptical of these stories — not about their truth but about their relevance to the big picture of sustainable food. We’ve all heard about the problems with large-scale agriculture and animal production — deforestation, water-table depletion, and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides. Doesn’t fish farming offer an attractive alternative? Producing a pound of beef results in more than four times the CO2 emissions of producing a pound of farmed fish. It requires five times the fertilizer and freshwater use. And more than six times the total area. I could run through the numbers for chickens or pigs or goats, but the punch line is always the same. Fish come out on top. As I began to learn, however, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.  

To understand Chios and aquaculture, we need to motor east to Oinousses, a tiny rocky island with 800 inhabitants, the occasional pine grove, and many roaming goats. That’s where this story really begins, because Oinousses is one step ahead of Chios in efforts to defend its shore — islanders are suing the Greek government for allowing fish farm expansion around their coastline.

Until 1989, the coastal waters of Oinousses were thick with beds of healthy Posidonia oceanica. Posidonia oceanica is a species of seagrass …more

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