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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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Environmental Movement Is Having a Real Impact in the US, Study Finds

States with strong green voices perform better on cutting emissions whereas those with climate sceptic views have seen emissions rise

By Damian Carrington

The environmental movement is making a real difference in the US, according to a new research that shows states with strong green voices have significantly lower emissions of the gases that drive global warming.

Photo of Fracking ProtestPhoto by CREDO.fracking Activists protest fracking outside Governor Cuomo’s office in New York. States like New York and Vermont, with stronger environmental voices, have cut their emissions despite rising populations and affluence.

The study is one of the first to quantify the real impact of green politics on the environment. It reveals that more environmentally friendly states, such as New York and Vermont, have cut their greenhouse gas emissions despite rising population and affluence. But other states like Texas and Wyoming, where skepticism about climate change is much stronger, have seen emissions rise.

The work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared greenhouse gas emissions of each state going back to 1990 with the level of environmentalism. The latter was measured using the environmental voting record of the state’s congressmen and congresswomen as rated by the League of Conservation Voters. Previous work has shown voting records are a good indicator of voters’ opinions.

Professor Thomas Dietz, at Michigan State University and who led the research, said that, since 1990, economic growth and rising population usually drove up carbon emissions, but that this could reversed with rises in green attitudes. “If we increase environmentalism at about the same scale as economic growth, we can offset the impact,” he said.

Dietz said the finding also indicated that solutions to environmental problems do not emerge automatically as an economy grows, but needed a broad and strong environmental movement to develop: “From households to businesses, governments and the environmental groups, environmental activism is absolutely essential — these things don’t just happen.”

The study did not examine the mechanisms by which green activism reduced emissions but Dietz said it was likely to be a combination of green policies, more active implementation of those policies and action taken by both households and businesses. The link between environmental voting records and cuts in emissions was statistically very robust, Dietz said.

The voting records of the states were recorded as a score between zero and 100, with some states getting almost full marks and others almost none. Vermont was the state …more

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War Games Set to Begin Today in the Pristine Gulf of Alaska

As the Navy unleashes 6,000 personnel for training exercises, local communities protest impacts on wildlife and fisheries

Today the US Navy plans to unleash 6,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard members along with three Navy Destroyers, 200 aircrafts, untold weaponry, and a submarine to converge in war games in the Gulf of Alaska. The training exercises are scheduled to continue through June 26.

Photo of Gulf of AlaskaPhoto by Sonia Luokkala The Navy is set to begin war games today in the pristine Gulf of Alaska.

The Navy’s choice of the Gulf of Alaska – one of the most pristine places left on Earth, and at the peak of migration and breeding periods of marine life – has left locals baffled and upset.

In the last month, protests have been held in Cordova, Kodiak, and Homer, Alaska. Emily Stolarcyk, a program manager with the Eyak Preservation Council, an environmental and social change organization based in Cordova, says local communities have never before united in such a way, pointing to the 100-plus fishing vessels that joined the protest against the Navy.

“It was incredible to see the commercial fleet turnout and unite like that with tons of support from people on shore as well,”
she says.

Regional tribal villages have also been vocal in their opposition, worried that the Navy’s trainings could affect their subsistence foods. Several tribes have passed resolutions opposing the trainings and others are requesting formal government-to-government consultations regarding the plans. Local people are also concerned about the possible impacts on marine life.

According to Stolarcyk, the Navy has not been receptive to these concerns. “The Navy is refusing to negotiate at all with local communities,” she says.

The Navy has conducted Northern Edge training exercises in Alaska every two years since 1994. In 2011, the Navy expanded the scope of their training exercises and the use of the highly controversial low-frequency active sonar was authorized for the first time. The 2013 training was cancelled due to the federal government’s budget crisis.

The Gulf of Alaska training area includes more than 42,000 nautical miles of surface and subsurface waters. The area of impact spans more than 8,429 nautical miles, including Alaskan Marine Protected Areas and NOAA designated Fisheries Protected Areas.

Photo of Homer, Alaska protest against NavyPhoto by Shelley Gill Residents of Homer, Alaska have been vocal in their opposition to the Navy’s war …more

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What Good is an Apology?

An apology from the US government for theft of land and other injustices would be an important first step toward healing

This story originally appeared in Common Dreams

I’m a white man who has worked with Native Americans as a journalist and documentary filmmaker since 1977. Mostly, I have worked on exposing problems — environmental injustice, destruction of sacred places, hidden history. Finding long-term solutions has seemed overwhelming and elusive. But four decades of experience have clarified my understanding of our nation’s biggest obstacle to moving beyond the historical injustices confronting the cultures that share this land. There is a shadow in the American closet that will forever prevent healing and reconciliation — unless and until that shadow is recognized and acknowledged. The theft of country, the massacres, the inhumanity of forced boarding school captivity, the denial of historic trauma, and the ongoing injustice, racism and inequality will hold us back as a society until we collectively accept our painful history and change course. Opening the door to let the shadow out will require an apology.

Photo of ShastaPhoto courtesy of Sacred Land Film Project Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk at a sunrise ceremony at Mt. Shasta, California in 2013.

Two instructive stories came to light while filming our new film series, Standing on Sacred Ground. These stories help describe elements of the shadow. 

In 1851, treaty negotiations with tribal leaders in northern California resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Cottonwood Creek, which promised a 25-mile by 25-mile reservation on the Sacramento River south of Redding. You can imagine how the Wintu and other native leaders who signed the treaty felt as the white negotiators returned to Washington — something like: “Well, at least now we have a treaty and all the land that has been taken will yield the security of a protected homeland.” But there would be no reservation. Within weeks of the treaty signing, California squatters and military personnel moved onto the promised land. Due to opposition by California politicians and the US Senate, the Cottonwood Treaty was sealed in a closet in the Senate and locked away, unratified and then forgotten by Washington. The now landless Wintu never forgot — not when they were hunted by newcomers, not when their children were taken away to Christian boarding schools, and not when the US drowned their sacred sites in the waters behind Shasta Dam.

In Alberta, Canada, across the street from the site …more

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