Colleges and universities offer little room for informed discourse on plant biotech
A few months ago, while reporting an article about genetically engineered trees for Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue (read the story here), I had a mighty hard time locating plant biologists or genetic engineers at academic institutions who were willing to talk about the possible risks of growing GE trees in massive plantations. It seemed there was little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses — the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.
Photo by Steve McFarland
So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when I heard that a group of environmental activists who were scheduled to make a presentation on GE trees at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month were booted off the campus, charged with trespassing, and banned from the university grounds for three years. What did come as a bit of a surprise was news that the FBI, too, was keeping tabs on the activists.
Genetically modified strains of trees like eucalyptus, pines, poplars, and fruit trees are being tested in hundreds of trial plots across the world, including the United States. In the US, except for a GE papaya tree variety that is grown commercially in Hawai‘i, there are no commercial GE tree plantations — yet. (The US Department of Agriculture is considering a proposal to grow GE eucalyptus in commercial plantations.) Some environmentalists are concerned that transgenic trees will promote industrial monoculture plantations that could have a huge impact on forest biodiversity.
The Gainesville campus GE tree presentation was part of a multi-week speaking tour, "The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests," organized by the Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to STOP GE Trees, and Everglades Earth First! The speakers were traveling to campuses in several southern states to raise awareness about the proposed commercial release of genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees in the US South.
The talk had been scheduled for October 28, a Monday. A conference room had been booked at the university’s McKnight Brain Institute a month in advance. But four days before the event, …more
Al Gore has gone vegan, a diet I was once skeptical about. Now I believe it is meat-eating that is more environmentally damaging
He did it quietly, and the decision is the better for that: Al Gore, according to reports in the US press, has gone vegan.
Photo by NDSU Ag Comm/Flickr
Certain things could be said about other aspects of his lifestyle: his enormous houses and occasional use of private jets, for example. While we can't demand that everyone who espouses green causes should live like a Jain monk, I think we can ask that they don't live like Al Gore. He's a brilliant campaigner, but I find the disjunction between the restraint he advocates and the size of his ecological footprint disorienting.
So saying, if he is managing to sustain his vegan diet, in this respect he puts most of us to shame. I tried it for 18 months and almost faded away. I lost two stone, went as white as a washbasin and could scarcely concentrate. I think I managed the diet badly; some people appear to thrive on it. Once, after I had been unnecessarily rude about vegans and their state of health (prompted no doubt by my own failure), I was invited to test my views in an unconventional debate with a vegan cage fighter. It was a kind invitation, but unfortunately I had a subsequent engagement.
In 2010, after reading a fascinating book by Simon Fairlie, a fair part of which was devoted to attacking my views, I wrote a column in which I maintained that I'd been wrong to claim that veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue. Diverting to livestock grain that could have fed human beings, I'd argued, is grotesque when 800 million go hungry.
Fairlie does not dispute this, and provides plenty of examples of the madness of the current livestock production system. But he points out that plenty of meat can be produced from feed that humans cannot eat, by sustaining pigs on waste and grazing cattle and sheep where crops can't grow. I was swayed by his argument. But now I find myself becoming unswayed. In the spirit of unceasing self-flagellation I …more
Warsaw talks forge a murky path towards an international climate pact at COP-21
Last week, government delegates and climate activists wrapped up the 19th round of United Nations international climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland. And though the talks may not have accomplished all that climate activists hoped for, many participants remain optimistic that a meaningful climate change agreement is on the horizon.
Photo by Shubert Ciencia
The goal going into Warsaw was to create a roadmap outlining the necessary steps for the adoption of an international climate agreement in 2015, and implementation of the agreement in 2020.
“The three [primary] aspects of the roadmap are the clarification of the legal form in which countries will make their pledges, the amount of money that will be available to support actions in developing countries and how that will be dispersed to different countries, and the actual pledges countries will make,” explains Tom Athanasiou, executive director of EcoEquity, an Earth Island Institute project. “And there are two kinds of pledges: there are finance pledges and there are emissions reductions pledges.”
While negotiators didn’t expect countries to make concrete emissions reductions commitments in Warsaw, they hoped to make progress on the legal form of pledges and the financial aspects of the agreement. So, did the climate talks succeed in this regard?
“The roadmap was an important part of what we were hoping for,” says Lou Leonard, vice president of the climate change program at World Wildlife Fund. “Rather than a roadmap, I think we got kind of a vague sense of direction, but certainly not with the clarity that would really be ideal in order for countries to know what is expected of them when they put another set of commitments on the table.”
The ambiguity surrounding the legal form of pledges has broad implications. Currently, there are no guidelines regarding how countries will provide information on their intended emissions reductions contributions, whether and how countries must explain the fairness of their contributions, or how their contributions should be evaluated and reviewed. As of yet, there is also no firm deadline by which countries must make their pledges.
With respect to finance for low-income countries, Warsaw also fell flat. Several mechanisms, including the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, have been established in previous negotiations to …more
New study links GMOs to conditions that either may trigger or exacerbate gluten-related disorders
A new report links genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with gluten-related disorders and suggests GMOs might be an important environmental trigger for gluten sensitivity, estimated to affect as many as 18 million Americans.
Photo by Lindsay Eyink
The report, released by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), cites U.S. Department of Agriculture data, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records, medical journal reviews and international research. The authors say the data link GMOs to five conditions that either may trigger or exacerbate gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder:
- Intestinal permeability
- Imbalanced gut bacteria
- Immune activation and allergic response
- Impaired digestion
- Damage to the intestinal wall
Although wheat has been hybridized over the years, it is not a GMO, which can only be created by a laboratory process that inserts genetic material into plant DNA. Nine GMO food crops currently are being grown for commercial use: soy, corn, cotton (oil), canola (oil), sugar from sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya and alfalfa. In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of conventional processed food, says the Non-GMO Project.
Most GMOs are engineered to tolerate a weed killer called glyphosate and sold under the brand name Roundup. The crops contain high levels of this toxin at harvest. Corn and cotton varieties also are engineered to produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. The report focuses primarily on the effects of these two toxins.
Glyphosate is a patented antibiotic that destroys beneficial gut bacteria. An imbalance of gut flora commonly accompanies celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders, Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT, said in the IRT media release.
Bt-toxin in corn is designed to puncture holes in insect cells, but studies show it does the same in human cells, IRT executive director Jeffrey Smith said in the release. Smith said Bt-toxin may be linked to leaky gut, which physicians consistently see in gluten-sensitive patients.
Dr. Emily Linder offered support for the report’s findings. When she removed GMOs as part of the treatment for her patients with gluten sensitivity, she finds her patients recover faster and more completely.
“I believe that GMOs in our diet contribute to the rise in gluten-sensitivity in the U.S. population,” Linder said …more
Hunters chasing down their Thanksgiving gobblers may not be able to detect virus from sight alone
As Thanksgiving nears and gravy-drenched pieces of hot turkey induce culinary daydreams, wildlife biologists are trying to connect the dots on a virus that has started to infect North America’s wild turkey population.
Photo by Don Greene
Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus, known as LPDV, has been present in domestic turkeys in Europe and Israel for decades, but in the last few years, biologists have started confirming cases in wild turkeys in the eastern United States. Some of the infected birds have lesions on their head and feet, although many of the sick fowl are not symptomatic, making their identification difficult.
Wild turkeys draw their ecological importance from being an integral part of the food chain. Gobblers, according to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, provide sustenance to predators like coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls, and people, among other mammals. A landscape without wild turkeys is one that would affect the hunting community and small predators.
At this point, there seems to be as many unknowns about LPDV’s spread in the United States as there is confirmed information, but the researchers are working on answers.
Dr. Justin Brown, assistant research scientist and diagnostician with the University of Georgia’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, said his team confirmed its first diagnosis of LPDV in 2009 by a process of elimination. He said the larger wildlife diagnostic laboratories received infected specimens and tested the turkeys for known diseases that cause lymphoid tumors. Brown’s team took the testing one step further, and the discovery was surprising.
“[W]e had a virologist who worked up the case a little bit more and screened it for all of the oncogenic, or cancer-inducing, viruses that are in North America,” Brown said. “And when he came up negative on all those, he screened it for LPDV. … And it came up positive — all tissues.”
Over the next three years after that initial discovery, the team screened more turkey specimens, and 40 cases came back positive for the virus. “[I]nfection can occur even in the absence of tumor formation,” Brown said. “And so from there what we decided to do is sort of expand on this and do a larger survey of turkeys that had no clinical signs of disease, and so …more
Short public comment window ends January 15
On November 15, the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), released its proposed regulations for fracking and other types of well stimulation, as stipulated by SB4. The regulations are the first in California to regulate fracking and acidizing.
Photo by Tim Evanson
Although hailed by regulators and the oil industry as the toughest regulations in the country, they are not. Far from perfect, the regs leave much to be desired in the way of public health and environmental protection.
The proposed regulations do have some steps that move California in the right direction. For example, they:
- Require a permit for the first time in California.
- Mandates disclosure of all chemicals used in the fracking and acidizing process. If a trade secret exemption is claimed, the information will still be available to state officials, emergency responders, and health professionals.
- Require a notice that a fracking job will occur to all property owners and tenant 30 days prior to the start of the project.
- Provides water monitoring, before and after the project, to be paid for by the operator of the well.
- Require well operators to report any seismic events that measure 2.0 magnitude or above.
Unfortunately, the proposed regulations are also loaded with giveaways for the oil industry. In many aspects, it seems that DOGGR has done the minimum required by SB4, and ignores the needs of the environment, and the rights of the Californians. Additionally, the regulations fail to address some of the most pressing concerns that will come from fracking and acidizing Decreased air quality, and increased greenhouse emissions from climate change.
Regulations based on science, that put the needs of Californians above those of corporate profits, will help protect people and the environment. The proposed regulations do not do this, and have written in ways that circumvent existing California law. For example:
Definitions, as written, regarding well stimulation, particularly acidizing, do not conform to accepted definitions used in previous reports, research, and data. DOGGR seems to be attempting to redefine the procedures so regulations don’t apply to some types of well stimulation.…more
Naval training exercises threaten local communities and environment
The United States military assumed control the Mariana Islands during World War II and has been waging war on the environment there ever since. Recent proposals to expand the range for Navy training exercises in this archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean represent the latest frontier in this battle, and could be devastating to local communities as well as wildlife.
Photo by SSgt. B. Zimmerman/Wikimedia Common
By many accounts, military trainings have already had a tremendous impact on the region that’s composed of two US jurisdictions — the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the territory of Guam. Military bombing exercises have destroyed much of at least one island — Farallon de Medinilla — and naval exercises have impacted large tracts of open ocean.
In 2010, the Navy training range in the region was expanded to encompass roughly 500,000 square nautical miles of ocean. “Right now, it is the largest range in [Department of Defense’s] inventory,” says Leevin Camacho, a member of We are Guåhan, a cultural and environmental justice advocacy group in Guam.
The Navy still wants more, and is now asking to nearly double the training range, extending it to 984,469 square nautical miles. It has named this expansion — which is part of the “Pacific Pivot,” a strategy aimed at shifting the US military’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region — the “Mariana Island Training and Testing” (MITT) area.
“[The expanded area] would be larger than Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico combined,” Camacho says.
“The Navy’s whole approach to the Marianas is shoot first and ask questions later,” says Michal Jasny, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We know very little about the populations of whales, dolphins, and other marine life around the Marianas. Yet the navy is proceeding with a massive militarization of the islands and surrounding waters. It is grossly irresponsible to proceed in this way.”
What we do know doesn’t bode well. “We know marine mammals depend on hearing to find mates, to find food, to avoid predators, to situate themselves in the ocean — in short, for virtually everything they need to do to survive and reproduce in the wild,” explains …more