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A Pledge that Promises to Keep Seeds Free For All to Use

In battle against seed patents, plant breeders and advocates find inspiration in open source software

For years, many of us have kept an eye out for organic and pesticide free vendors at our local farmers markets. Thanks to a new movement hitting the American food scene, we may soon be looking for another important environmental marker: open source seeds. At least, that is the goal of a small but burgeoning group of plant breeders and sustainable farming advocates who hope to add “free seed” to the list of things consumers watch for as they vote with their wallets.

a newly germinated seedlingPhoto courtesy USDAThe Open Source Initiative has released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.

Inspired by the concept of open source software, a group of plant scientists and food activists, led by the University of Wisconsin, have launched the Open Source Seed Initiative – a campaign to protect the right of farmers, plant breeders and gardeners to share seeds freely. At a formal event in April, the initiative released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.” The pledge is designed to keep the new seeds free for anyone to propagate and share for perpetuity.

Essentially, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is a response by small-scale farmers, plant breeders, public universities, and nonprofit organizations to the drastic proliferation of seed patenting since the 1980s.

Seeds have typically been part of the Commons – a natural resource shared freely by all. But with the rise of intellectual property rights and patenting, many hybrid seed varieties began to be patented as inventions. Growers these days need to seek permission from the patent holder, usually a big seed company, to use them. Most seed patents today are held by the “Gene Giants” – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF. These six companies now control roughly 60 percent of all commercial seeds and restrict farmers and plant breeders from conducting research or breeding with the seeds (and seed traits) that they own.

For smaller scale farmers and breeders, this means that the so-called Gene Giants are patenting traits that many of them have already bred independently or that they may already be using.

“Patenting is being misused by a very narrow range of companies,” explains Jack …more

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EPA Restricts Mine Waste Disposal in Bristol Bay Watershed

A crucial step towards protecting the world’s most prolific salmon fishery

On Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited plan for restricting mine waste disposal in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed — a crucial step towards protecting the world's most prolific wild salmon fishery and the 14,000 hardworking fishermen who depend on it. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

Salmon fishing boats in Bristol BayPhoto by Courtesy Friends of Bristol BaySalmon fishing boats in Bristol Bay. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

"It's been a long time coming," said Luki Akelkok, chairman of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Native Tribes and corporations, in a press statement.

The EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste disposal that will harm important fisheries. Yet, EPA has used its authority sparingly — only 13 times in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act. And, never has it been more warranted than now. As Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA stated on Friday:

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse. The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems."

Just how big would it be? The numbers are staggering. Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:

  • A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
  • Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times.
  • A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan.

The EPA's announcement has been met with strong and diverse support from Alaska Native Tribes, the commercial fishing industry, jewelers, investors, conservation groups, hunters and anglers.

“We asked the EPA to step in to protect our fishery from the Pebble Mine because the State of Alaska wasn’t listening to us,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai. “The future of our people and 14,000 jobs are at risk. We’re glad the EPA is doing its job.”

“Thousands of jobs in Bristol Bay rely on a healthy fishery, said …more

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In Review: Snowpiercer

No, it’s not another climate change dystopia flick. It’s the first geoengineering dystopia flick

The end of the world won’t be prophesied by the feverish nightmares of the Book of Revelations, but instead by the apocalyptic fantasias of Hollywood.

Movie directors just can’t seem to get enough of crafting stylish dystopias. Doomsday is its own genre by now and, as New Yorker film critic David Denby quips: “In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.” Or, at least, a convenient backdrop. A screenwriter or director rubs out humanity and voilà — a perfect blank slate for crafting the kind of action-packed, outsized morality tales that can fill a theater.

Snowpiercer movie posterSnowpiercer goes far beyond sci-fi into the realm of straight-up allegory.

The apocalypse used to arrive in a couple of predictable forms — nuclear war, plagues, zombies. In the last decade or so, a new scourge has appeared: planetary environmental devastation, usually in the guise global climate change. The first of this dystopian sub-genre was the soporific Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld, a kind of Mad Max on the high seas. The next big climate change feature didn’t appear for close to a decade later, when Roland Emmerich unveiled The Day After Tomorrow, his 2004 blockbuster about the heroics of a climatologist played by Dennis Quaid. While The Day After Tomorrow was burdened by a slew of predictable action scenes (a wolf-pack chase, a couple of literal iceberg cliffhangers), it distinguished itself by its effort to sketch some science (however exaggerated) and its edge of irony. Climate change, we were told, would destroy civilization, not in a blast of heat, but with the hammer of a blizzard. 

Since then, Hollywood’s eco-apocalypses have come hard and fast. Pixar’s Wall-E was all about an adorable robot tasked with cleaning up a trashed Earth. The Hunger Games takes place in an austerity landscape created by some vague environmental dislocation that occurred in the near-past. In last year’s Elysium, Matt Damon battles to get himself off an Earth that’s become a dusty wasteland. And don’t forget Avatar. The ugly humans were hell bent on razing the wonders of the forest-moon Pandora because they had already ruined our home planet.

You can now add to the list Snowpiercer, the hotly talented Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s fable about environmental hubris and social injustice. Snowpiercer is a potent — if …more

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Court Bars Paved Serengeti Highway, But Concerns Remain

Tanzania still plans to upgrade existing dirt track to gravel, which could lead to increased traffic through the park

Last month, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against the Tanzanian government’s plans to build a paved commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park calling the proposal “unlawful.”  This is a victory for sure, but big questions still remain about the fate of unique ecosystem.

Dirt road in the middle of the SeregetiPhoto by Roberto Maldeno A dirt road in the Serengeti. Scientists have warned that constructing a paved road through this unique ecosystem would devastate the iconic World Heritage Site.

The ruling is limited in that it only banned a northern, asphalt (bitumen) road from the park. Tanzania still plans to upgrade the existing seasonal dirt track to gravel, even though it lies in a designated wilderness zone where public traffic is not allowed. But for now, the ruling has stopped a project that Serengeti Watch and scientists warned would devastate an iconic World Heritage Site and its annual wildebeest migration.

The court’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a Kenya-based nonprofit. Serengeti Watch, an Earth Island project that I founded, provided legal funding for the lawsuit. (The intergovernmental court settles disputes between the republics of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.)

"This was not a win for ANAW, not for our lawyer, Saitabao Ole Kanchory, not for Serengeti Watch, not for our expert witness John Kuloba, but for the millions of animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem,” ANAW's executive director Jophat Ngonyo, said after the court announced its ruling. “It is a win for nature and God's creation. Nature has won today."

The Serengeti ecosystem includes Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves such as Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, and Grumeti. The nearly 10,000 square-mile protected area is about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The park’s most famous feature is the Great Migration — the largest land mammal migration on Earth. Each year more than 2 million animals – wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores – make a long journey from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to the Masai Mara in search of water and fresh grasses and then return in a yearly cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years. The Serengeti is one of the very few reserves left on …more

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Denton Council Washes Hands of Fracking Ban Proposal, Now Voters Will Decide in November

Texas city’s marathon public hearing reveals citizens’ outrage, exposes oil & gas industry’s bullying and fear-mongering

I spent eight hours in Denton on Tuesday night at a city council hearing to consider a ban on fracking in city limits, and during that time, I saw the oil and gas industry do what they do best. And that’s not drilling and fracking, folks. It’s bullying, lying, spreading propaganda, and fear mongering. Their behavior and dirty tricks were abysmal and fooled no one who mattered; even the council called them out on it.

a scene from the public hearing at Denton Photo by Jennifer LaneThe good news is that the people of Denton stood up and spoke for their rights to clean air,
quiet neighborhoods, and healthy kids.

The good news is that I also saw the people of Denton, nearly 100 of them, stand up and speak for their rights to clean air, quiet neighborhoods, and healthy kids. The bad news is that the city council listened instead, to the well-heeled industry suits representing oil and gas companies and mineral rights owners who profit from other people’s misery. After, a marathon eight-and-a-half hours of public testimonies, at 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the city council voted 5-2 against a ban, sending the question to the ballot measure in November.

Shortly after the vote, here’s what was overheard from one of the industry suits:

“Good. They are taking it to a vote. All we have to do is rent up a bunch of cheap apartments and houses and get people to register to vote using those addresses.”

In the parking lot, I told one industry representative from Austin that they were making promises like a cheating husband. His response: “You aren’t going to get your ban, little lady.”

So there you have it. Just a taste of what is coming to Denton in 2014. Millions will be spent and it will be ugly. The worst thing is that the city council admitted that there is no way the vote will be fair because citizens cannot compete with the millions industry will pump into corrupting the vote.

Some of my favorite moments and random thoughts about the meeting:

Again and again the industry promised to help find solutions to the problems they have created if only given a seat at the table. Again and again, when asked for even one solution, they had nothing, zero, no solutions …more

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Your Tax Dollars Fund Climate Change Denial

US still spending billions a year on fossil fuel subsidies

Climate change scientists and energy forecasters are quite clear that the world has at least three times as many fossil fuels in proven reserves as we can afford to burn and emit into the atmosphere. In 2012, the International Energy Agency warned that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” if the world wants to limit climate change to relatively safe levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a similar conclusion in its 2013 climate assessment. These findings just confirm what should be common sense by now: In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to keep most of the oil, coal and gas in the ground.

Reduce the deficit by ending taxpayer-funded subsidies to Big 5 Oil CompaniesImage by HouseBudgetCmte, on Flickr

Yet many policymakers – even those who are otherwise quite concerned about climate change – have yet to internalize this key piece of information. This failure is perhaps somewhat understandable. The simple calculation of how much additional carbon our atmosphere can safely absorb (aka “the carbon budget”) puts a very fine and bright line on the fundamental question beneath the climate crisis: How quickly can we stop our dependence on fossil fuels and switch fully to clean energy?

Atmospheric physics doesn’t care that this is a very difficult question politically, economically, and financially. It simply states that there is a limit to how much carbon we can put in the atmosphere – and that we need to heed that limit or we risk climate chaos.

The world is in a deep hole when it comes to climate change and fossil fuels. The first rule of holes is that when you find yourself in one, stop digging. Not only is the world nowhere close to stopping digging – the fossil fuel industry spends upwards of $600 billion annually on new exploration – but on top of this, most governments are actually still using taxpayer funds to assist these extremely profitable industries.

As David Turnbull, campaigns director with Oil Change International puts it: “Rather than putting down the shovel, the US government is using even more taxpayer dollars to buy backhoes.”

According …more

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Let’s Have a Marshall Plan for Clean Energy in the Caribbean

The vulnerable islands are a perfect laboratory to test out renewable energy solutions to our climate crisis

In June, Lefties Food Stall, a pint sized eatery serving Barbados’s signature flying-fish sandwiches, became the first snack shack on the island to be fitted with a solar panel. The nearby public shower facility sports a panel as well. So does the bus shelter across the street and the local police station and scores of gaily-colored houses on the coastal road leading into the capital, Bridgetown.

barbadosphoto by Domenic Scaturchio, on FlickrLast month Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart pledged that the island nation would produce 29 percent of its energy from renewables by the end of the next decade.

Like many other small island nations, Barbados has to ship in all of the oil that it uses to produce electricity, making power over four times more costly than it is in the fuel-rich United States. That high price has proven a boon for Barbados’s fledgling solar industry.

Nearly half of all homes on the island boast solar water heaters on their roofs, which pay for themselves in lower electric bills in less than two years, and increasingly industries, like the island’s small desalinization plant, are installing solar arrays to meet a portion of their power needs.

This move to solar is also being driven by tax incentives for green businesses and consumers. In an address marking the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) “World Environment Day” in the capital city Bridgetown in June, Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart pledged that the island nation would produce 29 percent of its energy from renewables by the end of the next decade.

That rather conservative goal, which is still over twice what the US currently produces with renewables, won’t be hard to reach. Not only is the island blessed by abundant sunshine, but it also has year-round trade winds to run wind turbines and sugarcane waste or bagasse that can be used as a biofuel. The Barbados government is also looking into harnessing the energy of the tides, as well as introducing ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), a technology which employs the temperature difference between cooler deep and warmer shallow sea waters to generate electricity.

Barbados is not the only Caribbean island enthusiastic about green technology. Aruba is planning a 3.5-MW solar airport, perhaps the largest such project in the world. The Dutch-speaking island has combined wind …more

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