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Land as Canvas

When farming and art intersect

When artists use the land as their canvas, wonderful, organic creations are brought to life. Farm and landscape art exist at the vital and fertile intersection of cultivation and visual art, and result in land-based creations that allow viewers, artists, farmers, and visitors alike to interact with the landscape in new ways.  

Site and crop selection are often the driving forces behind agricultural designs, but along with functionality, the organization of farm crops naturally has an aesthetic craftsmanship. The organic, flowing design of many rice paddies in China, Japan, and Indonesia, and the geometric symmetry of corn rows in the United States, are just two examples of farms with starkly different visual layouts.

photo of rice paddiesPhoto courtesy of Skitter PhotoThe organic, flowing design of many rice paddies have an aesthetic craftsmanship.

While these standard layouts are designed for practical farming, when a farmer or environmental organization actively plants, tends to, and alters the land in a way that is intentionally visual, or invites artists to do so, the site specific results can be stunning, thought provoking, and monumental.

Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, created the piece Eleven Minute Line at the Wanås Art Farm in Sweden. The raised curve of the piece is organic — both visually flowing and made of earth — and powerful in its three dimensional presence; it interrupts and guides the way in which the cows can traverse and interact with the field. Modern Farmer explains that the piece was purposefully placed out of public view, but it remains accessible to cows. 

photo of Maya Lin Farm ArtPhoto by Anders Norrsell Maya Lin's Eleven Minute Line guides the way in which cows traverse the field.

Wanås is a global leader when it comes to landscape art, and has an enormous estate that includes farmlands, forests, and a castle. As the Wanås website explains, the estate “is a place where art, nature, and history meets.” The organization focuses on site-specific sculptures and installations, but is involved in sustainable forestry and agriculture as well. In fact, the estate is the largest producer of organic milk in Sweden’s Skåne region. Charles Wachtmeister, CEO of the Wanås Estate, credits collaborating with artists as …more

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Canada Approves Sale of Genetically Modified Salmon

Move could make it the first country to have GM salmon on grocery shelves

Health authorities in Canada have approved a fast-growing, genetically altered salmon as safe for consumption, paving the way for it to become the first genetically modified animal to be allowed on Canadian dinner plates.

Leaping Salmonphoto by Jake Khuon, on FlickrThe modified salmon is ready for market in 16 to 18 months rather than the up to three years needed for conventional salmon.

After four years of testing, Health Canada and the Canadian food inspection agency said on Thursday they had found the salmon developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies to be as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon.

The GM fish contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout, allowing it to grow twice as fast as conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon. It's often ready for market in 16 to 18 months rather than the up to three years needed for conventional salmon.

Canadian officials said the GM salmon would not require any special labeling, as no health and safety concerns were identified during testing.

"GM foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians," Health Canada said in a statement. "GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada have been consumed in Canada for many years and are safe and nutritious."

The approval process in Canada has been dogged by concerns raised by environmentalists and consumer groups over the safety of the fish, dubbed 'Frankenfish' by its critics, and questions over the risks it could pose to wild salmon populations.

The company has said its fish are sterile and currently only raised in land-locked tanks in Canada and Panama. The company has also argued that its GM salmon, originally developed by a group of Canadian scientists at Newfoundland's Memorial University more than 25 years ago, could help curtail the over-fishing of Atlantic salmon and lessen the pressure on stocks of wild salmon.

In November, AquaBounty's salmon was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration . Just two months later, however, the FDA issued a ban on the import and sale of GM fish until clear labeling guidelines are established.

The FDA ban will likely be in effect until at least September 2016. Some speculate it could take years to …more

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Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Holds Unique Potential for Bolivia and Paraguay

Exporting electric vehicles could give two South American nations a rare niche in the global economy and deter fossil fuel development

An exploratory study by Brazilian energy experts projects that Bolivia and Paraguay together have the potential to become a global center of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing, use, and export, thanks to their unique combination of natural resources. The study asserts that development of an EV industry would not only provide a massive economic boost to these two poorest South American nations, but also reduce their vehicle carbon footprints to near zero, while helping to forestall further fossil fuel exploration and development.

photo of Uyuni Salt FlatsPhoto by Government of Bolivia Ministry of Mining State mining workers move lithium-rich salts evaporated from brines by the sun on the Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest lithium stores and largest salt flats in the world.

Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats are home to the world’s largest deposits of lithium, the critical component of lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, which are used in EVs as well as laptops and cell phones. Meanwhile, Paraguay enjoys a 400 percent surplus of renewable electricity, drawing on its 50 percent share of the world’s most productive renewable energy generator, Itaipu Dam, split with neighboring Brazil.

Published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews last year, the study envisions an EV battery manufacturing industry based in Bolivia, integrated with EV automaking plants in Paraguay’s growing industrial parks. It recommends both countries first replace their national vehicle fleets with EVs, gaining scale, then export EV batteries and vehicles to Latin American and world markets. Led by Dr. Ildo Sauer of the University of São Paulo, the authors calculate the cumulative benefits of replacing national fleets with EVs over a 10-year period at $996 million for Paraguay and $1.373 trillion for Bolivia. They project CO2 reductions of 8398 gigagrams for Paraguay and 9420 gigagrams for Bolivia  — equivalent to taking 4.1 million cars off the road for a year.

Goldman Sachs calls lithium, a silver-white salt, “the new gasoline.” With global demand for EVs skyrocketing, lithium prices have doubled since 2009 to $6,000 per ton and are projected to rise an additional 20 percent by 2017. The study calculates that the lithium in Uyuni Salt Flats is enough to build 3.38 billion EVs — three times the number of internal combustion vehicles on the road today. The lithium is dissolved in shallow pools of liquid brine …more

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Portugal Runs for Four Days Straight on Renewable Energy Alone

Zero emission milestone reached as Iberian country is powered by just wind, solar and hydro-generated electricity for 107 hours

Portugal kept its lights on with renewable energy alone for four consecutive days last week in a clean energy milestone revealed by data analysis of national energy network figures.

Electricity consumption in the Iberian country was fully covered by solar, wind and hydro power in an extraordinary 107-hour run that lasted from 6.45am on Saturday 7 May until 5.45pm the following Wednesday, the analysis says.

Windmills on a mountaintop on PortugalPhoto by André B/FlickrAs recently as 2013, renewables provided only about 23 percent of Portugal’s electricity. By 2015 that figure had risen to 48 percent.

News of the zero emissions landmark comes just days after Germany announced that clean energy had powered almost all its electricity needs on Sunday 15 May, with power prices turning negative at several times in the day – effectively paying consumers to use it.

Oliver Joy, a spokesman for the Wind Europe trade association said: “We are seeing trends like this spread across Europe - last year with Denmark and now in Portugal. The Iberian peninsula is a great resource for renewables and wind energy, not just for the region but for the whole of Europe.”

James Watson, the CEO of SolarPower Europe said: “This is a significant achievement for a European country, but what seems extraordinary today will be commonplace in Europe in just a few years. The energy transition process is gathering momentum and records such as this will continue to be set and broken across Europe.”

As recently as 2013, Portugal generated half its electricity from combustible fuels, with 27 percent coming from nuclear, 13 percent from hydro, 7.5 percent from wind and 3% from solar, according to Eurostat figures.

By last year the figure had flipped, with wind providing 22% of electricity and all renewable sources together providing 48 percent, according to the Portuguese renewable energy association.

While Portugal’s clean energy surge has been spurred by the EU’s renewable targets for 2020, support schemes for new wind capacity were reduced in 2012.

Despite this, Portugal added 550MW of wind capacity between 2013 and 2016, and industry groups now have their sights firmly set on the green energy’s export potential, within Europe and without.

“An increased build-out of interconnectors, a …more

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An Unhappy Birthday for the 1872 Mining Law

Our antiquated hard rock mining law is a hurtful reminder of the worst of 19th century thinking

Some things, like the US Constitution, embody timeless principles. The General Mining Law of 1872, which celebrated its 114th birthday on May 10, is not one of those things. Instead it is a hurtful and embarrassing reminder of the worst of nineteenth-century thinking.

Hurtful because this antiquated law is harming our communities and the environment to this day. Embarrassing because it is still the law of the land for hardrock mining.

Aimus river after acid mine drainage spillPhoto by Mor/FlickrBecause how the mining law is framed, Gold King mine isn’t being held responsible for last year's Animas River acid mine drainage disaster. It's the American taxpayer who has to pay for the clean up.

Signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant before Custer’s Last Stand, the 1872 mining law was intended to do two things:

  1. Encourage the extraction of minerals by giving them away and making mining the top priority among all potential uses of public lands, and
  2. Fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny” — i.e. extirpate Native Americans — by “selling” mineral bearing lands at rock bottom prices to “settle” non-arable public lands.

If you wonder whether the federal government can succeed at anything it intends to do (and you discount the moon landing, the interstate highway system, Social Security, etc.), wonder no more. The General Mining Law of 1872 gloriously achieved its intended goals by:

Giving away more than $300 billion in publicly owned gold, copper and other metals, and;
Selling (known under the law as “patenting”), for no more than $5 per acre, mineral-bearing publicly owned lands equal in area to the state of Connecticut.

Although there is a temporary patenting moratorium in place that must be annually renewed by Congress, the Mining Law to this day allows companies to buy mineral-bearing public lands for no more than $5 per acre — nineteenth century prices— and to extract hard-rock minerals like gold, silver, and uranium from public lands without making royalty payments to the taxpayer (unlike other extractive industries like coal, oil or natural gas).

And, to this day, under the mining law anyone with a hard-rock mining claim has “the right to mine” that trumps all other potential uses of …more

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Citizen Science in the City?

Birding apps offer urban residents a unique path to engage with nature

When we think about the natural world, we don’t normally picture urban spaces. Most of the time, we probably conjure up meadows or forests, maybe with a stream or pond — or maybe the ocean coastline. Yet wildlife and natural areas can also be found, sometimes abundantly, in cities and suburbs, and increasingly this is where we are most likely to interact with them.

photo of Birds on FencePhoto by Michael Leland The biggest boost to “citizen birding” participant numbers has come from the use of eBird, an online reporting, cataloging, and data sharing application.

Citizen science organizations offer city-dwellers a unique way to engage with nature, beyond, say, having a picnic in a park, or taking a stroll along an urban waterway. These groups put interested citizens to work conducting scientific research, allowing them to make a contribution to the science that supports conservation — and to have fun doing it.

“Citizen scientists currently play active roles in a wide range of ecological projects, and their contributions have enabled scientists to collect large amounts of data at minimal cost,” writes Rachel E. McCaffrey, of theSchool of Natural Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson in Urban Habitats, an online ecology journal. “Because bird-watching is popular among members of the general public, bird-monitoring projects have been among the most successful at integrating citizen scientists.” Projects gathering data from bird monitoring are also among some of the more common urban citizen science projects.   

The biggest boost to “citizen birding” participant numbers has come from the use of eBird, an online reporting, cataloging, and data sharing application developed by a team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and partners at the nonprofit National Audubon Society. In May 2015 alone, eBird participants entered data for more than 9.5 million bird observations from more than 100 nations around the world.

Both well-known and novice birders have been using eBird to tap into their passion while also contributing to research. Noah Stryker, a famous birder and adventurer who set a world record in 2015 for the number of bird species seen in a year, writes: “Since its launch in 2002, eBird has revolutionized the way birders worldwide report and share their observations… Articles have been written about eBird with mind-bending titles like, ‘eBird Changed My …more

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Who Will Foot the Cleanup Bill for Bankrupt Coal Companies?

Many observers fear that the corporations will shift their huge liabilities for restoring land that has been mined to taxpayers

Coal’s share of the U.S. energy market is rapidly plunging. Low-cost fracking-generated natural gas has overtaken the use of coal at America’s power plants. Impending implementation of the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would place stringent regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions, has also helped to drive coal production to its lowest level in decades. Government sources predict further decline.

Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm, Acid-Mine DrainagePhoto by Jack PearceA Mushroom Farm site in North Lima, Ohio is plagued with acid mine drainage resulting from surface mining conducted in the 1980's. Eastern Ohio is home to over 1,000 abandoned underground mines.

Fifty U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy since 2012. Competition and more stringent environmental regulations played a role in this decline. But, just before coal prices collapsed, speculating top producers borrowed billions to finance unwise acquisitions. Now, unable to pay loan interest and principal, they have sought bankruptcy protection to restructure US$30 billion in debt. The bankrupt companies include Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Jim Walter Resources.

Last month Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s biggest private-sector coal producer, followed suit. Peabody seeks to restructure $8.4 billion in debt. Its capitalization has fallen from $20 billion in 2011 to $38 million at the time of bankruptcy.

Amid this turmoil, many observers fear that bankrupt coal companies will be able to shift their huge liabilities for reclamation, or restoring land that has been mined, to taxpayers.

Congress passed the Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, in 1977 to prevent such a scenario. But, in my view, state and federal coal regulators have failed to ensure that coal companies have enforceable financial guarantees in place, as the law requires.

I have interacted with the coal industry for 40 years, first as a government enforcement lawyer and then litigating issues relating to coal mine reclamation cases on behalf of conservation organizations and coalfield communities. I believe that if the unfunded liabilities of bankrupt coal companies are not covered by new guarantees and additional companies seek bankruptcy protection, there is a real chance that taxpayer-funded billion-dollar bailouts will be necessary to cover their cleanup costs.

Planning for reclamation

SMCRA was designed to prevent bankrupt coal companies from foisting onto …more

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