Category Archives: Agriculture

New study links Roundup to liver damage in rats


And that’s from what researchers of the study [open access from Nature, the world’s most-esteemed scientific journal] called “ultra-low dose” levels.

From Al Jazeera English:

UK scientists say they have conducted an unprecedented, long-term study showing a link between Roundup – one of the most widely used herbicides in the world – and severe liver damage in test rats.

The research sparked further debate in the international scientific community over the potential health hazards to people caused by exposure to the well-known weed killer.

Scientists from King’s College London, whose findings were published in the journal, Nature, [open access] earlier this month, said their tests used cutting-edge technology to demonstrate that “extremely low doses” of the herbicide administered to rats through their drinking water had caused “non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)” over a two-year period.

NAFLD can lead to more serious liver disease such as cirrhosis, and increases the risk of other illnesses including diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

“The study is unique in that it is the first to show a causative link between consumption of Roundup at a real-world environmental dose and a serious disease condition,” the report said.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of studies alleging links between herbicides – used to help grow genetically modified crops – to a wide range of health issues including birth defects, reproductive and neurological problems, cancer, and even DNA damage.

Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, has repeatedly denied the accusations, insisting the product is safe for humans.

Wind turbines join fungus as leading bat killers


From the Bat Conservation Society, a map depicting the rapid spread of the leath White-nose syndrome among America's bat population.

From the Bat Conservation Society, a map depicting the rapid spread of the lethal White-nose Syndrome among America’s bat population.

As we’ve noted before, a lethal plague is killing America’s bats, a fungal disease named for its most characteristic sign.

But there’s also another newly discovered bat killer, one hails as a major step to alleviating climate change.

But first, the lethal spread of White-nose Syndrome

From the Bat Conservation Society:

White-nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America. The disease is caused by a fungus from Eurasia, which was accidentally transported here by humans. The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, invades the skin of hibernating bats and disrupts both their hydration and hibernation cycles.

Hibernating bats awake repeatedly during the winter, burning up limited fat reserves. They often leave hibernation sites in late winter, dehydrated and in search of food, and ultimately dying.

The fungus is transmitted primarily from bat to bat. Today, WNS is found in 29 US states and 5 Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes WNS is found in three more US states.

WNS is known to affect hibernating bats, and 7 species of bats have been diagnosed with the disease. Five additional species (†) have been found with the fungus, but have not yet developed the disease.

So why be concerned about bats? After all, we in the West associate them with ghosts, goblins, vampires, and other creepy things.

We would argue that they have just as much right to be here as we do. And, besides, when you get over the initial cultural reactions, they really are marvelous critters.

But there’s also an economic argument.

As the Center for Biological Diversity notes:

Bats eat bugs, which is not only helpful for keeping mosquitoes and another annoying insects at bay for us humans but also has economic importance. A recent scientific paper on the economic value of bats to agriculture estimated that bats provided nontoxic pest-control services totaling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. This study did not even consider what the indirect costs of “replacing” bats with pesticides would be in terms of potential health and pollution threats from greater levels of toxins in the environment.

Bats provide other services to humans too, such as pollinating plants and distributing seeds, in tropical and subtropical habitats throughout the world. Some of these plants are useful to people, including a species of agave that is the source of tequila, a multimillion-dollar industry in Mexico. Bat guano has traditionally been used as fertilizer for crops in various parts of the world and is also sold commercially. However, mining of bat guano may also be harmful to cave organisms that depend on it as a source of food, and removal of guano is likely to be disruptive to bats themselves, if they are present.

But there’s another bat killer, a ‘green’ one

A new study reveals that a technology hailed as a major step in controlling carbon emissions is proving just as lethal to bats as it is to birds.

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

Wind turbine collisions and the deadly bat disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) can together intensify the decline of endangered Indiana bat populations in the midwestern United States, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey study.

Bats are valuable because, by eating insects, they save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control,” said USGS scientist Richard Erickson, the lead author of the study. “Our research is important for understanding the threats to endangered Indiana bats and can help inform conservation efforts.”

Wind energy generation can cause bat mortality when certain species, including the midwestern Indiana bat, approach turbines during migration. Meanwhile, WNS, which is caused by the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus, has killed millions of hibernating bats in North America and is spreading. The new study found that the combination of these two hazards has a larger negative impact on Indiana bats than either threat alone.

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Brace for a flood of GMOs after TrumpAscension™


Each of them accompanied by a Rebel Yell.

From teleSur English:

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump picked the last member of his cabinet on Wednesday. Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue — who has been linked to big agribusiness and has sympathized with confederate history — has been tapped to become the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unsurprisingly, like Trump and the rest of his cabinet, Perdue has links to big business and in particular corporate agriculture. He has been a supporter of factory farms, and in 2009 he signed a bill to stop the local regulation of the industry to prevent animal cruelty.

In 2009, he was named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, which the Organic Consumers Association referred to as “a front group for the GMO industry.” During his campaigns for governor, he also received donations from pesticide companies. After finishing up as governor, he founded his global exporting business Perdue Partners.

The 70-year-old was on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee during last year’s presidential campaign. During his time as Georgia governor from 2003 to 2011, Perdue drew the support of many disillusioned white voters and was well known for leading a service at the state capital building in Atlanta to literally pray for rain during a harsh drought in 2007.

“Farmers need a champion in the USDA who will fight for conservation programs to help farmers be more resilient in the face of extreme weather, not pray for rain,” Kari Hamerschlag, from Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

In 2010, Perdue signed a law that proclaimed April “Confederate History and Heritage Month.” The month, which was also declared in six other southern states, is particularly controversial because it failed to mention the history of slavery in its proclamation.

Nicotine-based pesticides, bees, and the deniers


Nicotine, as we all know by now, is a powerful poison.

blog-black-leafSo powerful that on 22 November 1963 [yes, that day] the Central Intelligence Agency once sent an agent to kill Fidel Castro with a syringe disguised as a fountain pen and filled  Black Leaf 40, a powerful nicotine-based insecticide that our father used the stuff to kill mites on his roses.

Black Leaf 40 is no longer with us, following a 1992 ban on its use by the Environmental Protection Agency — you know, the department Trump wanted to eliminate — because of its widespread long-term environmental hazards as well as it’s propensity to poison people.

But the ban on Black Leaf 40 didn’t stop the widespread current use of nicotine-based insecticides, using nicotine-based chemicals called neonicotinoids.

How widespread is their use here in the U.S.?

Consider this chart from How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees — The Science Behind the Role These Insecticides Play in Harming Bees, a very informative new report from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation:

Estimated Annual Agricultural Use of Neonicotinoids in the United States: 1994–2014

Estimated Annual Agricultural Use of Neonicotinoids in the United States: 1994–2014

More from the report’s Executive Summary:

Neonicotinoids have been adopted for use on an extensive variety of farm crops as well as ornamental landscape plants. They are the most widely used group of insecticides in the world, and have been for a decade. Developed as alternatives for organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, neonicotinoids are compounds that affect the nervous system of insects, humans, and other animals. Although less acutely toxic to mammals and other vertebrates than older insecticides, neonicotinoids are highly toxic in small quantities to many invertebrates, including beneficial insects such as bees.

The impact of this class of insecticides on pollinating insects such as honey bees and native bees is a cause for concern. Because they are systemic chemicals absorbed into the plant, neonicotinoids can be present in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to pollinators that feed on them. The potentially long-lasting presence of neonicotinoids in plants, although useful from a pest management standpoint, makes it possible for these chemicals to harm pollinators even when the initial application is made weeks before the bloom period. In addition, depending on the compound, rate, and method of application, neonicotinoids can persist in the soil and be continually taken in by plants for a very long periods of time.

Across Europe and North America, a possible link to honey bee die-offs has made neonicotinoids controversial. In December 2013, the European Union significantly limited the use of clothianidin, imiadcloprid, and thiamethoxam on bee-attractive crops. In the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, local, state, and federal decision makers are also taking steps to protect pollinators from neonicotinoids. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service phased out all uses of neonicotinoids on National Wildlife Refuges lands starting in January 2016.

The European Union has banned the used of three neonicotinoids —  clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid — and restricted the use of a fourth, fipronil.

Given that bees are responsible for pollinating much of the food we eat, impacts on apians is a cause for deep concern.

A Colorado city bans nicotine-derivative insecticides

More on the good reasons for concern, as summarized in the following, taken from  Boulder, Colorado city government website section on protecting pollinators:

One group of pesticides, the neonicotinoid insecticides (also called neonics), stand out as a major contributing factor to the catastrophic loss of bees and other animals. Neonicotinoid insecticides are extremely toxic to pollinators at very low doses. They are absorbed and taken up by the plant, ending up in all plant tissues, including the nectar and pollen collected by pollinators and the seeds, fruits, and leaves eaten by other animals. These products are often applied as soil treatments in the form of granules or drenches, where they can persist for many years and continue to contaminate plants, kill earthworms and other important beneficial soil organisms, and run off into surface water where they can kill aquatic invertebrates. An  analysis by a consortium of independent scientists from around the globe reviewed more than 800 peer-reviewed studies and concluded that neonicotinoid insecticides pose a significant risk to the world’s pollinators, worms, birds and other animals and that immediate action is needed. Studies conclude that pesticide application rates that regulatory agencies consider protective to the environment actually harm aquatic organisms found in surface waters (dragonflies mayflies, snails and other animals that form the base of the food chain and a healthy, clean watershed) and build up in soils to levels that can kill soil organisms.

The city was so concerned that in May 2015, the city banned use of the chemicals on city land and urged similar actions by individuals, corporations, and state and federal government as well.

Canada to ban a popular neonicotnoid

One of the most widely used neonicitinoids in imidacloprid, and back in November CBC News reported that the Canadian government’s health agency is proposing a nationwide band on the substance based on its impacts on bees:

“Based on currently available information, the continued high-volume use of imidacloprid in agricultural areas is not sustainable,” the assessment states.

It proposes phasing out all agricultural uses of imidacloprid, and a majority of other uses, over the next three to five years.

“I’m really surprised,” said Mark Winston, a professor of apiculture at Simon Fraser University and senior fellow at the university’s Centre for Dialogue.

“To take an action to phase out a chemical that is so ubiquitous, and for which there is so much lobbying pressure from industry, I think that’s a really bold move.”

After the jump, impacts from use on one crop, the industry denial machine, and bee behavioral impacts. . . Continue reading

Calls to end a dangerous new GMO technology


What if scientists devised to introduce new genetic alternations in a way that ensured the altered genes spread rapidly through a species in the wild?

The scientists who have done just that contend their inventions would ensure the rapid diffusion of genetic traits that would benefit humanity.

But that assertion implies a godlike omniscience, and if we know anything of the fathomless human capacity for hubris, just sucj thinking invariably leads to catastrophe.

The technology is called the gene drive, and its so scary that the even Pentagon has grown wary of a technology they have supported, as Scientific American reported last month:

Over the next four years a new program in the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to cultivate, among other things, a kind of cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to or undesirable in an ecosystem. The initiative, called Safe Genes, comes at a time when so-called “gene drive” systems, which override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection, are raising hopes among some scientists that the technology could alter or suppress populations of disease-carrying insects or other pests in as few as 20 generations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sees so much promise in gene drive technology that it plans to double spending on its Target Malaria initiative, which aims to create systems for driving genes in two species of malaria mosquitoes, to $70 million. Yet without careful precautions, a gene drive released into the wild could spread or change in unexpected ways. Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. “It’s not going to be bioterror,” he says, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.’”

DARPA itself has been one of the largest public funders of synthetic biology research in the U.S. in recent years, upping its spending on synthetic biology projects to more than $100 million in 2014 from nothing in 2010, according to one analysis. The agency announced its Safe Genes program in September 2016 and plans to award funding to multiple research teams by the first half of 2017. “If we’re going to be really bullish about genome engineering,” says DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn, “we need to be just as aggressive with tools to reverse those changes.”

The fact that t’s the Pentagon which has backed the technology should be frightening enough, given that the building they’re in was built by the same fellow who headed the American nuclear weapons program for what was then called [more honestly than today] the Department of War.

Civil groups call for a stop to gene drives

And now a coalition of global environmental , labor, and other civil groups is calling for a halt to the new technology.

From Via Campesina News:

At the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity held in Cancun Mexico this month, international conservation and environmental leaders called upon governments to establish a moratorium on the controversial genetic extinction technology called gene drives.

Gene drives, developed through new gene-editing techniques- are designed to force a particular genetically engineered trait to spread through an entire wild population – potentially changing entire species or even causing deliberate extinctions. The statement urges governments to put in place an urgent, global moratorium on the development and release of the new technology, which poses serious and potentially irreversible threats to biodiversity, as well as national sovereignty, peace and food security.

Over 170 civil society organisations from six continents have joined the call. Among them were environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth International; trade unions such as the International Union of Food Workers representing over 10 million workers in 127 countries; the largest global organization  of small-scale famers La Via Campesina International, and organics movements like the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements; the international indigenous peoples’ organization Tebtebba; scientist coalitions including European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility and Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (Mexico); as well as ETC Group and Third World Network.

We can be certain that corporations seeking to release the new technology into the world will lie about it, just as Monsanto conducted a massive smear campaign to destroy the reputations and careers of scientists like Ignacio Chapela of the University of California at Berkeley [previously] when he reported that genes from Monsanto’s patented corn strains had escaped into the wild, infecting root race varieties of maize in Mexico.

The Law of Unintended Consequences speaks to the inevitability that  actions on complex system designed to create a similar response will inevitably lead to other consequences unanticipated by those who initiate the actions.

And when those actions could impact the whole biosphere, we should tremble in our boots.

Climate change poses a major threat to ants


While most of us notice the humble ant only when it invades our homes in wet weather, filch our food at picnic, or deliver a nasty bite when we invade their world, this modest insect plays a vital role in the ecosystem, as noted on the Harvard University forest website:

  • Ants play an important role in the environment.
  • Ants turn and aerate the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach plant roots.
  • Ants take seeds down into their tunnel to eat the nutritious elaiosomes that are part of the seed.
  • These seeds often sprout and grow new plants (seed dispersal).
  • Ants eat a wide variety of organic material and provide food for many different organisms.

But now, as with so many other creatures on the land, under the waters, and in the air, this vitally important animal faces a serious threat from climate change, a threat that could pose great peril to the rest of us.

From Bowling Green State University:

The world of forest ants may provide a macrocosm of the complex reactions and interactions among species affected by global climate change, according to a research project involving Bowling Green State University biologist Dr. Shannon Pelini.

As escalating amounts of carbon dioxide are introduced into the atmosphere, a chain reaction is induced, leading to increasingly warmer temperatures, Pelini said. This is taking place at an alarming rate, making it more important than ever that we understand how climate change will affect our natural world.

Many scientists have attempted to tackle this issue by determining the thermal tolerance of various species, then predicting what will happen to them as our world warms. However, this approach as a way to understand nature has its drawbacks because one species never acts alone. Individuals are constantly interacting with other species and the environment in which they live, so comprehending how global change impacts these interactions is crucial to a holistic understanding.

Pelini and her colleagues have made significant progress in this direction with their new study, “Climatic Warming Destabilizes Forest Ant Communities” [open access], which looks at complex interactions of ant communities and their responses to warming. The study was published [open access] in the Oct. 26 edition of the journal Science Advances.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Program for Ecosystem Research and the National Science Foundation, the long-term experiment looked at the interactions ants exhibit over nesting structures in two distinctly different geographical areas. As a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, and in collaboration with investigators from the University of Vermont, the University of Tennessee and North Carolina State University, Pelini designed and built large warming chambers within Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. These chambers were also replicated in Duke Forest in North Carolina to provide a comparison to the cooler Harvard Forest.

“It’s one of the biggest climate change experiments in the entire world, which is a really exciting thing to be a part of,” Pelini said. “We were shooting for understanding what goes on with ant communities that exist in a cooler northern latitude and how their responses compare to the same suite of species in populations that occur in the warmer lower latitude.”

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California’s treepocalypse damage assessed


While forests at all three study sites (Pepperwood Preserve to the north, Blue Oak Ranch, and Canyon Ranch to the south) showed signs of water stress by August 2015, the leaf canopy of trees held progressively less water the further south they were.

While forests at all three study sites (Pepperwood Preserve to the north, Blue Oak Ranch, and Canyon Ranch to the south) showed signs of water stress by August 2015, the leaf canopy of trees held progressively less water the further south they were.

For the past four years we’ve been reporting about California’s epochal drought, one that’s still lingering as the Golden State moves into its traditional, albeit brief, rainy system.

As noted earlier, the drought has cost the state millions of water-catching tree on the slopes of its hills and mountains, raising the threat of massive mudslides if and when normal rain levels resume.

But a headline in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times proves that old adage about silver linings:

The 102 million dead trees in California’s forests are turning tree cutters into millionaires

But what about that tree die-ff itself?

A new study reveals something of its impacts and effects.

The most severe drought in living memory did a number on California’s blue oaks. A new study by UC Berkeley researchers shows how even centuries-old trees struggled when landscape water disappeared between 2012 and 2015.

Some showed stress by producing miniature leaves, some by shedding leaves, and some simply died. The study’s findings will help refine our ability to manage water resources in coming decades — a measure critical for conserving the state’s beloved oak woodlands as climate change effects intensify.

“Plants we thought were probably more resilient to the drought, weren’t. We saw them pushed to their limits,” says UC Berkeley professor Todd Dawson, a principal investigator of the study.

The 2012-13 rain year began wet, with several rainstorms early in the season. But by spring, signs began pointing to a monster dry spell. Ocean and atmospheric conditions conspired to ward off storms, limit precipitation and trigger early melting of the snowpack.

“It was clear we were in store for something quite different in terms of a drought than we’d seen in a long, long time,” says Dawson, a plant physiologist.

Observing plants in extremis

Seizing the moment, Dawson teamed up with fellow biology professor David Ackerly and engineering professor Sally Thompson to examine how plants were responding to severe drought across the state.

With a National Science Foundation grant, the researchers studied plants at three sites ranging from central to northern California: Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, the NRS’s Blue Oak Ranch Reserve east of San Jose, and Canyon Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. As it turned out, the sites experienced a range of drought severity. From 2012–2016, Canyon Ranch received just 40 percent of its average rainfall, Blue Oak Ranch around 52 percent and Pepperwood Preserve about 62 percent.

At each location, the researchers measured a suite of plant characteristics across two years. Taken together, features such as tree canopy bareness (providing leaf area information), water use and water stress can provide a snapshot of plant performance in the same way that temperature, blood pressure and weight readings offer a handy overview of human health.

The scientists already had pre-drought readings at some locations, enabling them to compare plant performance during average and dry times.

“We were measuring the physiological water status of these plants and had never seen readings like these before,” Dawson says.

Stunted leaves

Two species of trees, valley oaks (Quercus lobata) and blue oaks (Quercus douglasii), produced striking responses. The changes were easiest to see in their leaves. The first year of severe drought, the blue oaks at the driest southern site produced freakishly shrunken leaves. Normal blue oak leaves are about the length of a human thumb. At Canyon Ranch, the foliage of the most water-stressed trees was the size of a pinky fingernail.

“We did not expect to see something like that. Not only were they physiologically stressed, but they responded morphologically by making a really puny little leaf,” Dawson says.

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