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Warning: Industry Spin Likely Bad For Your Health and the Environment

Big food and ag companies are spending hundreds of millions to manipulate the public conversation about food

Beware the amicable folks on trendy blogs or slick web sites who promise to restore common sense or set the record straight about GMOs or organic food. They get paid to dupe the public.

Record growth of organic, non-genetically modified food sales has beefed-up efforts by the industrial food and agriculture sector to manipulate a public fearful of contaminated food. American consumers forked over $35 billion for certified organic products in 2013. Last year, shoppers spent $ 10 billion on non-GMO certified food.

organic veggiesPhoto by shashinjutsu/FlickrIndustry-funded websites portray organic food advocates as “elitist food nannies.”

The trend has not gone unnoticed. According to a report released by Friends of the Earth earlier this month, a giant backlash designed to advance the causes of industrial agriculture is underway. Food industry and agrochemical industry trade associations spent an estimated $126 million from 2009 to 2013 to engineer the conversation surrounding food, sustainability, public health, and policy.

Using a technique devised in 1913 when the pork industry paid a group of doctors to extol the health benefits of bacon, corporations and special interest groups employ a front groups, or “third-parties” to endorse their products and share industry-friendly messages.

Today, advertising hotshots create covert organizations that sound legitimate to “craft a narrative about food that is intended to defuse public concern about the real risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and undermine the public’s perception of the benefits of organic food and diversified, ecological agricultural systems.”

The Internet provides a particularly effective arena to orchestrate insidious campaigns that downplay the benefits of food grown without chemicals. Not only do these campaigns vilify GMO critics, they perpetuate a myth that merely questioning the alleged safety of GMOs demonstrates scientific ignorance on par with climate change denial.

Groups with credible-sounding names — like US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Center for Consumer Freedom, Center for Food Integrity and Keep Food Affordable — have co-opted the look and language of legitimate, science-based websites to advance the cause of companies like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, the California Strawberry Commission, Merck Animal Health, and the National Pork Board.

Industry-funded websites bombard consumers with confusing messages and distorted, false information. They portray organic food advocates as “elitist food nannies,” claiming that organic food is no better than conventional. They claim that GMOs …more

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Tempest in a Green Bin

Uproar over compost and recycling fees in Oakland illustrates challenges of achieving a zero-waste goal

When Oakland restaurateur Gail Lillian received her July compost bill for her food truck and brick and mortar restaurant, Liba Falafel, she was shocked by the dollar figure. Lillian was expecting to see some increase in her waste disposal bill. She had received notices from the trash and recycling companies about a coming rate hike, and she remembered the contentious and controversial fight that occurred last fall over the City of Oakland’s new contract for waste hauling. But she was unprepared to get hit with such huge jump in her compost bill.

Jepson Organics Composting Facility Tour-43photo by Marc on Flickr A composting facility.

“My compost rates more than doubled – from $225 per month to $460 per month. That’s huge, it’s really huge,” Lillian told me. “When I suddenly have to spend almost $3,000 more [annually] for compost, for a service I was already happy with, that is really hard to swallow. I don’t know where to come up with that.”

So Lillian and other Oakland restaurant owners decided to push back. Earlier this month she organized a press conference on the steps of city hall denouncing the rate increases and complaining that the new fees create a disincentive for businesses to compost. Some businesses – notably Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, a downtown Oakland institution that says its monthly composting fee has gone up by $700 – say they have stopped composting altogether. Oakland landlords and residents are also upset as some multi-unit apartment buildings in the city experience increases of almost 200 percent on their trash and composting bills, along with an increase for recycling services.  

“It’s not OK where the rates are,” Lillian says. “I want rates that resemble other cities, and I want our compost rates to be far below the trash rates. … The rates have to be set to incentivize people to compost.”

The backlash from Lillian and others has sparked something of a political firestorm in the city of 400,000 people located across the bay from San Francisco. Last week the city council convened a special meeting to address residents’ and businesses’ concerns – a meeting that gave locals a chance to vent, but resulted in no action from the council other than a …more

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Major San Francisco Bayfront Developments Advance Despite Sea Rise Warnings

Builders plan to invest more than $21 billion in offices and homes in flood-prone areas, where waters could climb 8 feet above today’s high tide by the end of this century

By Kevin Stark, Winifred Bird and Michael Stoll

Like every body of water that opens onto a global ocean, San Francisco Bay is virtually guaranteed to rise several feet in coming decades, climate scientists say. But that has not deterred real estate developers from proposing and building billions of dollars worth of new homes and offices in bayfront areas that current climate change predictions show could flood by century’s end.

photo of the San Francisco skyline and waterfront as seen from nearby Treasure IslandPhoto by Peter Snarr, San Francisco Public Press.Built on landfill for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island will get 8,000 homes, 235,000 square feet of retail and three hotels, plus 300 acres of open space. Developers plan to protect against seas 3 feet higher with a berm that could be raised over decades.

Land-use records and environmental applications reveal that the building boom, fueled by a white-hot tech economy, is moving too fast for regulators to keep pace. Most cities and regional agencies have not yet adopted tools to address flooding in areas where thousands of acres are threatened by sea level rise.

Developers say they have engineering and financial solutions to deal with any reasonable future flooding risk. But critics, including climate scientists, urban planners and environmental activists, say the current wave of construction might leave taxpayers on the hook for enormously expensive emergency protections and repairs.

Researchers studying climate change predict that the rise in ocean levels will accelerate later this century as the atmosphere heats the ocean and melts glaciers. Many of their models show that by 2100, occasional flooding could reach as high as 8 feet above current high tide, in the event of a severe coastal storm.

photo of a houseboatPhoto by Peter Snarr, San Francisco Public Press.An apartment tower rises in Mission Bay, bringing new neighbors for Jack Wickert, 78, a retired
music teacher and playwright who lives in a houseboat on Mission Creek. Asked if he was
worried about sea level rise, he quipped: I’ll rise with it.

Even the scenario widely considered “most likely” – 3 feet of permanent rise – would put thousands of acres of the current shoreline underwater.

Developers are planning or currently building at least 27 major commercial …more

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Is Hillary Clinton’s Ambitious Solar Energy Goal Workable?

Clinton’s first climate change policy pitch is bold, but the US must look beyond solar for a clean energy revolution

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton took a first swing at the many-headed carbon hydra. By the end of her first term, she said, the US would have seven times more solar energy capacity than it does today. And by 2027, renewable energy would supply a third of the nation’s electricity.

Clinton’s announcement, which the campaign said would be the first of many on climate change from the presidential hopeful, extends the carbon-saving ambition in a significant sector of the economy. Burning fossil fuels for electricity accounts for 31 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. One estimate found Clinton’s 33 percent renewable target could slice another 4 percent off the US’s existing pledge to cut emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025.

Hillary ClintonPhoto by Barbara Kinney/Hillary for America On Sunday, Clinton announced that she would install half a billion new solar panels by the end of her first term in the White House, and generate enough renewable energy to power every home in the country 10 years after her inauguration.

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton took a first swing at the many-headed carbon hydra. By the end of her first term, she said, the US would have seven times more solar energy capacity than it does today. And by 2027, renewable energy would supply a third of the nation’s electricity.

Clinton’s announcement, which the campaign said would be the first of many on climate change from the presidential hopeful, extends the carbon-saving ambition in a significant sector of the economy. Burning fossil fuels for electricity accounts for 31 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. One estimate found Clinton’s 33 percent renewable target could slice another 4 percent off the US’s existing pledge to cut emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Americas chief, Ethan Zindler, said the ambition was high, but within reach. “It appears to be on the upper end but it’s entirely doable given the rapidly improving economics of renewables generally and solar particularly.”

The momentum is already swinging towards low carbon electricity. Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, due for activation in August, is predicted to push the renewable sector from its current 13 percent share of the electricity market to 25 percent by 2027.

In 2015, solar photovoltaic installations are forecast to …more

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Tick Populations Booming

As climates change, ticks spread farther north, harming dogs and humans

A few weeks ago, on a pleasantly cool day, this reporter and his dog, an Alaskan malamute named Bear, headed for a small set of trails in an area of woods not far from the New York-New Jersey border. With bicyclists plying their way on the shoulder of a nearby highway and the Hudson River rushing along beyond the wooded landscape, man and dog walked along the well-maintained trails, yielding to other visitors and trying to stay away from the tall grass.

a dog running outdoorsPhoto by Uwe MäurerThere used to be a commonly held belief that ticks couldn’t survive below a certain minimum temperature, preventing their spread to northern climates. Now researchers are rethinking the relationship between tick populations and temperature.

Memories of the day were somewhat dampened after returning home. Bear, whose deep malamute hair is a jungle of fluffiness, brought home an intrepid hitchhiker. Crawling in that furry maze, and thankfully not attached to his skin, was a tick, no doubt on the hunt for some dog blood — or human blood, for that matter. Another one was found crawling nearby. This episode plays out across the United States and the rest of the world on a regular basis.

According to experts in the field, ticks have gone through some changes over the past few years.

“I think one of the biggest concerns that you see within the published literature for ticks is that ticks’ geographical regions are expanding,” said Dr. Janet Foley, a professor and researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Foley, who studies the ecology and epidemiology of infectious diseases, also serves as co-director of the Center for Vector-Borne Diseases, an institution on the frontlines of tick and mite research.

“Clearly ticks are expanding farther north,” she said. “[W]e’re finding a lot of tick species moving into new areas. And a lot of that has to do potentially with climate change [and] animal husbandry practices if we’re cutting forests or recreating grasslands.… So as a whole ticks themselves are really becoming an emerging problem, not that they always weren’t anyway, but they are getting worse.”

Foley said the expansion of their range has brought them into Canada, and she called some of them “very, very aggressive human biters” that can potentially …more

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Early Warning System Is Reducing Human-Elephant Conflict in India

New program uses text messages and LED lights to improve life for both elephants and humans

Several years ago, as a masters student studying ecology, I took a trip with friends to the Anaimalais (literally, Elephant Hills, in Tamil) in the Western Ghats, a mountain chain running down peninsular India. One day we were careening down a hillside to the town of Valparai in the last bus of the day (or rather the night), trying to peer at the shadows the headlights threw up and spot wildlife. It was all very exciting, but I cannot imagine what would have happened if we had come across an elephant standing on the road.

Photo of Elephant in AnaimalaisPhoto by Thangaraj Kumaravel A new warning system in the Anaimalais is reducing elephant-human conflict.

Encounters with elephants and other wildlife in India are not rare. Often, animals enter human-modified landscapes, which the media frequently presents as a case of animals “straying” out of their habitat into human areas, requiring them to be chased back. Of course, these human-wildlife interactions can result in escalating conflict, even leading to death — of both humans and animals — and damage to property. Sometimes the situation gets so bad that authorities are pushed to capture or kill the animal. For example, in February 2015, a tiger in Tamil Nadu was declared a maneater after it killed a farmer and tea estate worker, and was put down. In other cases, the animals are captured and sent to zoos. On occasion, animals like the nilgai (an Asian antelope) are temporarily declared vermin in a specified region and people are allowed to kill them if they enter their property and destroy crops. 

A 2015 Whitley Award-winning initiative in the Anaimalais shows how this conflict can be reduced and co-existence made possible. The program, which focuses on human-elephant conflict, was developed and implemented by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a wildlife and conservation research organization.

Valparai, a town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is an unassuming jumble of houses spread over several hillsides. The 220-square-kilometer Valparai plateau is known for its tea and coffee plantations, created by the British more than a century ago by clearing the rainforest. With the tea industry booming (though the last two decades have seen a reversal of fortunes), human population increased. With growth came roads, construction, and electricity. The plateau …more

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30 Things You Didn’t Know About Rivers

Rivers are the arteries of our planet. They contain only 0.003 percent of the water on Earth but sustain much of her life. Yet rivers are also under threat. The following list offers a brief introduction to their unique ecological, social and cultural value.

Nam Ou 02photo courtesy International RiversThe Nam Ou River in Laos which runs runs 448 km from Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang Province.

  1. Rivers are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Rivers and lakes sustain more fish species than the sea even though they contain 600 times less water.
  2. Rivers feed us. Freshwater fisheries currently sustain up to 550 million people on a fish-based diet.
  3. Rivers are the cradles of our civilizations. Our most ancient cultures sprang up along rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow.
  4. Dams have fragmented two thirds of the world’s great rivers. They store about 7,000 cubic kilometers or one sixth of the water flowing in rivers.
  5. Rivers shape our planet and have created some of its most beautiful landscapes. Think of the Grand Canyon, the Iguaçu and the Victoria Falls!
  6. We cry to Ol’ Man River, dance By the Rivers of Babylon, and waltz along the Blue Danube. Rivers have inspired great music around the world.
  7. With a length of 6,853 kilometers, the Nile is the world’s longest river. With a mere 27 meters, the Reprua River in the Caucasus may be the shortest.
  8. An estimated 10,000-20,000 freshwater species have been lost or are at risk. 37 percent of the world’s freshwater fish species – including 24 of 26 sturgeon species – are threatened by extinction.
  9. By depositing nutritious silt on floodplains and deltas, rivers have created our most fertile agricultural lands, from the Mekong Delta to California’s Central Valley.
  10. Rivers sustain fish populations offshore. Because of the nutrients they carry to the sea, 80 percent of the world’s fish catch comes from continental shelves.
  11. Rivers unite us. Some 276 rivers flow across more than one country, and their basins …more
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