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Want Babies? Eat Organic Produce

Pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables linked to poor semen quality, says study

For couples struggling with infertility issues, the list of probable causes can be long, running the whole gamut from genetics to age to sexually transmitted diseases. Now there’s one more to add to the list, at least in the case of men: their diet of conventionally produced fruits and veggies.

A new study shows that men who eat conventionally-grown produce with higher levels of pesticide residues — like peppers, spinach, strawberries, apples, and pears — have lower sperm counts and percentages of normally-formed sperm than those who eat produce with lower pesticide residues. (Check out my earlier report about the variations in pesticide exposure risk from conventional produce.)

 Beer sampler Photo by Suzie’s Farm The study found that that men who ate the highest amount of fruit and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residue had a 49 percent lower sperm count than men who consumed the least amount.

The study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is the first ever to investigate the connection between exposure to pesticide residues from produce consumption and the quality of men's semen. Previous studies have shown that occupational exposure to pesticides might have an effect on semen quality of farmers and farmworkers, but until now, there has been little investigation of the effects of pesticides in men’s diet.

The Harvard researchers found that that men who ate the highest amount of fruit and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residue had a 49 percent lower sperm count and a 32 percent lower percentage of normally formed sperm than men who consumed the least amount. Their report was published online last week in Human Reproduction, one of the world's leading reproductive medicine journals.

The researchers’ findings are based on an analysis of 338 semen samples from 155 men, ages 18 to 55, attending a fertility center between 2007-2012. The men were divided into four groups, ranging from those who ate the greatest amount of fruit and vegetables high in pesticides residues (1.5 servings or more a day) to those who ate the least amount (less than half a serving a day). They also looked at men who ate fruit and vegetables with low-to-moderate pesticide residues.

The fruit and vegetables were categorized as being high, moderate or low in pesticide residues based on data from …more

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Audubon Society Responds to Jonathan Franzen’s Half Baked New Yorker Essay

“Bird lover” Jonathan Franzen commits an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty, Audubon says

Here are a couple of warnings I offer, free of charge, to savvy consumers of glossy-magazine think pieces: 1) Beware rhetorical questions in headlines or subheads (e.g., “Has climate change made it harder for environmentalists to care about conservation?”) [1]; and 2) Beware paraphrased quotes in which the writer doing the paraphrasing manages to preserve just a single word from the original. [2]

Jonathan Franzen begins his essay “Carbon Capture,” in this week’s New Yorker, with a beautifully apposite anecdote centered on the publication last September of a report by the National Audubon Society about the potential effects of climate change on North American birds. Our report, based on a seven-year peer-reviewed study by our science department, found that roughly half of all North American bird species face serious and possibly existential threats from global warming in this century.

Jonathan_Franzenphoto by TownePost NetworkFranzen’s entire argument — that an “overriding” focus on the longer-term peril to birds from
global warming might undercut bird conservation today — rests on a wafer-thin foundation.

“Audubon’s announcement,” Franzen writes, “was credulously retransmitted by national and local media, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose blogger on bird-related subjects, Jim Williams, drew the inevitable inference: Why argue about stadium glass when the real threat to birds was climate change? In comparison, Williams said, a few thousand bird deaths would be ‘nothing.’ ”

“Stadium glass” is a reference to the long struggle by birders in Minnesota and beyond to push the Vikings ownership to cover the team’s new football stadium in a kind of glass birds can see, thereby saving perhaps thousands from fatal collisions each year. If that effort fails, Franzen, an avowed bird lover, seems to feel that it will have been people like Mr. Williams who sapped its energy. “It wasn’t that I didn’t share Williams’s anxiety about the future,” he writes. “What upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon’s could lead to indifference toward birds in the present.”

That would upset me, too, if there were a shred of evidence that the suggestion was valid.

Franzen’s entire argument—that an “overriding” focus on the longer-term peril to birds from global warming might undercut bird conservation today—rests on the wafer-thin foundation of Mr. Williams’s quote. The blogger’s dismissal …more

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As the Snowline Recedes, A Remote Himalayan Village Prepares to Abandon its Ancient Way of Life

A clue to the puzzle of what ails Kumik was recently found buried in ice thousands of miles away

If you were making a movie about life in the Himalaya, seeking a setting that shouts pastoral harmony, at first glance you might be inclined to film it in Kumik. On the surface, at least, Kumik is a little Shangri-La, a comely oasis in the sparsely populated, arid mountain reaches of Zanskar, a remote valley in northwest India.

En Route to Zanskar ValleyPhoto by travel photographythe only road that leads to Zanskar, one of remotest valleys in India, where residents have observed a pronounced decline in snowfall and warmer and earlier springs recent decades. The resulting change in the timing of water availability is seriously threatening their agrarian lifestyle.

Its thirty-nine whitewashed mud homes cascade down a southwest facing hillside that overlooks sun- kissed terrace fields of barley laced with intricate irrigation canals and interspersed with groves of swaying poplars and willows, which the Kumikpas coppice for saplings and ceiling materials. Several ranthaks, elegant water-powered grain mills, turn roasted barley into flour, the centerpiece of the Zanskari diet. A hanging glacier caps Sultan Largo, which towers above the phu, the high pastures where animals graze in the summer. Laughing children race up and down the narrow footpaths, past amiable grandfathers spinning prayer wheels and grandmothers doing clockwise skoras around the small lhakhang temple. Even the acrid smoke that wafts down the alleys has a cheering tang, conjuring the hidden warmth of dung-fired hearths. And if you crouch down on a summer evening among the ripening barley up on the ridge above the lhakhang, as the children skip and shout to greet the return of the rarzepa, the shepherd of the day, with every house hold’s sheep and goats, and you listen to the stalks rustle and rub against each other, with a sound like spreading rumors – a shimmery whisper of snowmelt transmuted into life – well, all talk of crisis and catastrophe seems ridiculous. Crazy Chicken Little stuff.

After all, Kumik is thought to be the oldest village in Zanskar, one of the highest, most remote, permanently inhabited places on the planet. The Kumikpas seem to have life in the rain shadow pretty well figured out. Yet the Kumikpas are busily preparing to abandon it all.

“The older people think Kumik is the perfect village,” notes Tsewang Rigzin, a …more

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Free Trade versus Good Food

How the World Trade Organization struck down Country of Origin Labeling for meat

Eager to chalk up some second-term accomplishments, the Obama administration is busy with the final negotiating stages of a sweeping free trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although many of the details of the agreement remain secret, a lot of progressives and environmental groups are worried about the broad outlines of the deal. If you care about creating a more sustainable food system, you should be worried, too. Let me explain.

Supermarket oysters labeled by country of originPhoto by Bob Nichols/USDAThe United States is currently in a trade fight with Canada and Mexico over a US law that requires Country of Origin Labeling on most fresh meat, fish, vegetables, and nuts sold here.

First, some background . The Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) is one of the largest free trade regimes ever conceived. It would include 12 Pacific Rim countries — among them Australia, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, and the United States — and link more closely together some 40 percent of the global economy. In a bit of Clinton-era triangulation, the White House is hoping it can bring together centrist Democrats and the business wing of the Republican Party to get enough votes to squeak this deal through Congress. If the agreement has any chance of passing, it will need that kind of cross-aisle support, because a lot of the president’s core supporters don’t like what they see in the TPP.

Labor unions, a bedrock Democratic constituency, have long hated free trade deals, which they say give added protections to international investors and huge transnational corporations while off-shoring good jobs to low-wage companies. Writing last month in the Los Angeles Times, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Robert Reich, the Berkeley professor and former Clinton administration labor secretary, warned: “Following NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] with the Trans-Pacific Partnership is like turning a bad television show into a terrible movie.”

Environmentalists are also anxious about the TPP. Here’s Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, writing at The Huffington Post: The implications of [the TPP] are profound: Corporate profits are more important than protections for clean air, clean water, climate stability, workers' rights, and more.”

Unions and green groups are especially nervous about the way in which the TPP would expand what are called Investor-State Dispute Settlements, or ISDS. What exactly is an ISDS, and why is …more

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In Africa, Clean Energy Provides a Route to Clean Water

Uganda and South Sudan us solar PV to lower cost of pumping water

In Africa today more than 350 million people lack access to clean water, leaving them at risk of deadly diseases. At the same time, many parts of the continent are “energy poor” — electricity service is either intermittent or non-existent. Now, some development agencies are trying to kill two birds with one stone by using solar energy to run well systems.

Boy drinking water from a wellPhoto by USAID/Morgana WingardIn some places in Africa, the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent.

The eastern Africa countries of Uganda and South Sudan are implementing initiatives aimed at integrating renewable energy and water supply networks to enhance access to clean drinking water at an affordable cost and also improve pumping systems. The two countries are undertaking separate initiatives with support from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in a bid to address the inefficiencies in water pumping systems. In some places,  the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent .

Uganda is implementing a number of projects with the support of development partners and donors that will reduce water costs both in urban and rural areas through use of renewable energy. For example, the government is finalizing the second phase of the Energy for Rural Transformation project, financed partly by the World Bank. The project’s objective is to increase access to clean drinking water and also clean affordable energy. The project — which covers the country’s Mukono District sub counties of Nama, Nakusinga, Ntenjeru and Mpata — enables communities to power their water pumping systems using solar PV. Large areas of Mukono District are far from the national electricity grid, which means communities have to rely on diesel generators to run water systems, an expensive source of energy that contributes to high water rates. Although the state-owned National Water and Sewerage Corporation does not cover water supply in rural Uganda, it admits pumping water using energy supply from the grid or diesel power generators has increased its water pumping bill to an estimated US$9 million every year, accounting for 35 percent of total operating expenditure. And yet Uganda, like many countries in Eastern Africa, has plenty of sunshine, with estimated solar …more

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Can Lions on a Leash Help Save Endangered Big Cats?

A leading tourism operator in Zambia is planning to suspend its “lion walks,” sparking new debate.

Earlier this month, Lion Encounter Zambia announced that it has “agreed” to suspend its “lion walk” activities beginning in November 2015, a move which is being celebrated by wildlife activists in light of growing publicity linking similar activities to unethical lion breeders in the wider region, particularly in South Africa.

Two tourists petting lionsPhoto by Philip MilneTourists pay about $130 for close up encounters with lions at Lion Encounter Zambia

Lion Encounter Zambia falls under the umbrella of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT). While ALERT itself is a not-for-profit organization, it manages three commercial operations: Lion Encounter Zambia in Livingstone, and Lion Encounter Victoria Falls and the original Antelope Park facility, both in Zimbabwe. All of these commercial ventures offer tourists the chance to have “close encounters” with lions, a lifelong dream for many visitors to Africa.

Such encounters cost tourists roughly $130. Some pay up to a few thousand dollars to “volunteer” at one of ALERT’s commercial sites for a few weeks or so. All three ALERT sites attract huge numbers of visitors and volunteers per year, predominantly from Europe and, even more so, the United States.

Ostensibly, it’s all in the name of conservation. But many conservationists have their doubts whether such programs are in the interest of the individual animals or the species as a whole.

The most widely publicized and championed “conservation” project that ALERT sponsors is its four-stage “Rehabilitation and Release” program, which, in theory, would see captive-born and essentially tame cubs gradually being weaned away from human contact and learning to behave like wild prides in large fenced areas with other game. The cubs of these captive-bred prides, which never would have been exposed to human contact, would then be relocated to the wild areas of Africa that “most need them.” 

In the past few years there has been a growing chorus of voices against ALERT and in particular against its commercial ventures in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The criticisms are numerous and multi-faceted.

First, lions at ALERT’s commercial facilities have been known to attack human visitors. In one incident ALERT’s founder Andrew Connelly had to kill a lioness that attacked a nine-year-old girl at Antelope Park. Some fear it is only a matter of time before a human fatality occurs.

Second, a number of former visitors …more

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What Lies Behind the Recent Surge of Amazon Deforestation

Conversation: Ecologist Philip Fearnside explains what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside has focused his work on how to sustainably develop the Amazon in the face of enormous pressures to cut and clear the forest.

Ecologist Philip Fearnside

Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting and forest clearing in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation, including a slowly improving global economy, rising commodity prices, and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that are encouraging the development of the Amazon. Fearnside warns that this great tropical forest will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.

Richard Schiffman: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit — they call it the hiccup — in 2013, but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.

The government hid these figures before the recent election. The August and September data would normally have been released in October [before the October 26th presidential election]. But they sat on the data, and it was not disclosed until the end of November. It’s a scandal.

This comes as a surprise to many observers who thought that Brazil had the deforestation problem under control. Rates of deforestation actually declined from 2004 until 2012. How do you account for these earlier declines?

The exchange rate with the Brazilian real hit a peak in 2002. From almost 4 reals to the dollar, it went all the way down to 1 ½, which means if you are exporting things like soybeans or beef, all your expenses are in reals and you get paid in dollars, and they are worth half as much in Brazil, …more

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