Category Archives: Agriculture

Lake Mead hits an all-time low, bad news for L.A.

A major source of water for Southern California, Southern Nevada [including Las Vegas], and Arizona is running dry.

From the Palm Spring Desert Sun:

The nation’s largest reservoir has broken a record, declining to the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s.

Lake Mead reached the new all-time low on Wednesday night, slipping below a previous record set in June 2015.

The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river.

As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

Lake Mead and the Colorado River are major sources of water for Southern California, especially the farms of the Imperial Valley and the taps of Los Angeles.

And while Northern California’s two largest reservoirs are above seasonal normal levels and a third is at its normal, Central and Southern California reservoirs are all below normal levels.

From the California Department of Water Redsources:


India hits record high temp; 2016 to set record

From the India Meteorological Department, a map of weather conditions, with residents of the regions marked in red urged to take immediate action to protect themselves from the killer heat.

From the India Meteorological Department, a map of weather conditions, with residents of the regions marked in red urged to take immediate action to protect themselves from the killer heat.

India is suffering from a devastating heat wave that is destroying lives and crops and depleting the nation’s water supplies.

And today, in a year which has seen the hottest April in recorded history, India set a new temperature record.

From USA Today:

India sweltered to a scorching 123.8 degrees Thursday, setting a new all-time high that breaks a 60-year-old record, the India Meteorological Department said.

Officials recorded the blistering temperature in Phalodi in Rajasthan state in the northwestern part of the country. It bests a record most recently set in 1956 of 123.1 degrees in the city of Alwar, also in Rajasthan. That temperature was also recorded May 25, 1886 in Pachpadra in the same state.

The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth is 134 degrees in Death Valley, Calif., on July 10, 1913.

More on the impacts of the devastating Indian heat wave from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

The prolonged heat wave this year has already killed hundreds and destroyed crops in more than 13 states, impacting hundreds of millions of Indians.

Hundreds of farmers are reported to have killed themselves across the country and tens of thousands of small farmers have been forced to abandon their farmland and live in squalor in urban slums in order to earn a living.

Rivers, lakes and dams have dried up in many parts of the western states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and overall officials say that groundwater reservoirs are severely depleted.

In some areas, the situation is so bad the government has sent in water by train for emergency relief.

And some more context, yet more frightening, from Bloomberg:

The number of climate records broken in the last few years is stunning. But here’s a new measure of misery: Not only did we just experience the hottest April in 137 years of record keeping, but it was the 12th consecutive month to set a new record.

It’s been relentless. May 2015 was the hottest May in records dating back to 1880. That was followed by the hottest June. Then came a record July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March—and, we learned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday—the hottest April. In an age of rising temperatures, monthly heat records have become all too common. Still, a string of 12 of them is without precedent.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the magnitude of the new records. The extremes of recent months are such that we’re only four months into 2016 and already there’s a greater than 99 percent likelihood that this year will be the hottest on record, according to Gavin Schmidt, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

If NASA’s Schmidt is right, 2016 will be the third consecutive year to set a new global heat record—the first time that’s ever happened. So far, 15 of the hottest 16 years ever measured have come in the 21st century.

But relax, India. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, the chair of the Senate Environment Committee who says the Bible proves human-caused climate change isn’t real, has some help to throw your way:

BLOG Inhofe

GMOs, ethical conflicts, and a setback in Europe


The chart is from The chart comes from UNDER THE INFLUENCE: the National Research Council and GMOs [PDF], a report from Food & Water Watch detailing the conflicts of interest on the panel that issued this week’s report declaring GMOs fit for human consumption.

The only problem, the report concluded, was that the herbicides used in conjunction with patented GMO crops tends to result in the fast, chemically natural selection of superweeds resistant to the patented pest-killers.

As for health problems, though they maintained none had been found, more was needed in the way of research:

In response to its charge, the committee has developed a framework to identify appropriate scientific questions and methods for determining unintended changes in the levels of nutrients, toxins, toxicants, allergens, or other compounds in foods from GMOs, in order to assess potential short- and long-term human health consequences of such changes. Although the array of analytical and epidemiological techniques available has increased, there remain sizeable gaps in our ability to identify compositional changes that result from genetic modification of organisms intended for food; to determine the biological relevance of such changes to human health; and to devise appropriate scientific methods to predict and assess unintended adverse effects on human health.

As for that research on GMOs, there’s only one problem — besides, of course, those troubling vested interests of the scientist on the panel: Nobody can conduct research on those patented GMO crops without the approval of the companies make lots of money from creating and selling them, along with their similarly patented herbicides.

Would you buy a house from someone who said nobody could inspect it unless they were approved by the seller?

More on the report from Common Dreams:

Public skepticism is growing over a new report that claims genetically modified (GE or GMO) foods are safe for consumption, particularly as information emerges that the organization that produced the report has ties to the biotechnology industry.

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects (pdf), released Tuesday by the federally-supported National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, states not only that GMO crops are safe to eat, but that they have no adverse environmental impacts and have cut down on pesticide use. Its publication comes as U.S. Congress—which founded the institution—considers making GMO labeling mandatory on consumer products.

“There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health,” the report states.

However, one day before publication, the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch (FWW) reported in an issue brief (pdf) that the National Research Council (NRC)—the National Academy of Sciences’ research arm—has deep ties to the biotech and agricultural industries, which FWW says have “created conflicts of interests at every level of the organization.”

As far as those pesky weed-killers, Monsanto got some bad news Thursday.

From Deutsche Welle:

With the Monsanto’s glyphosate license in the EU set to expire, members put off a decision on continued use of the potent herbicide, marketed as Roundup. Glyphosate, one of the world’s most commonly used active ingredients in weed killers, works by inhibiting the growth of unwanted plants in farming and domestic and urban environments.

A 2015 World Health Organization study identified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. A more recent study by the WHO and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found otherwise. However, watchdogs have criticized the second study because the chairman of the joint meeting leads an institute that received a six-figure donation from Monsanto, which produces glyphosate and several controversial genetically modified products.

The European Food Safety Authority, the EU’s industry watchdog, has not identified a risk of cancer. Still, scientists have found that glyphosate poses a serious risk to biodiversity.

If no decision is made by June 30 and the European Commission chooses not to weigh in, glyphosate will no longer be authorized within the EU.

So does this means Europe is headed for the last Roundup™?

Well, if the TTIP passes, Monsanto can always sue them in the secret tribunal the trade pact would create. . .

Quote of the day II: And GMO firms control politics

From Arthur Neslen, writing in the Guardian:

A UN panel that on Tuesday ruled that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans has now become embroiled in a bitter row about potential conflicts of interests. It has emerged that an institute co-run by the chairman of the UN’s joint meeting on pesticide residues (JMPR) received a six-figure donation from Monsanto, which uses the substance as a core ingredient in its bestselling Roundup weedkiller.

Professor Alan Boobis, who chaired the UN’s joint FAO/WHO meeting on glyphosate, also works as the vice-president of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) Europe. The co-chair of the sessions was Professor Angelo Moretto, a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environmental Services Institute, and of its Risk21 steering group too, which Boobis also co-chairs.

In 2012, the ILSI group took a $500,000 (£344,234) donation from Monsanto and a $528,500 donation from the industry group Croplife International, which represents Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and others, according to documents obtained by the US right to know campaign.

Alan Boobis said: “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated. The boards of trustees are responsible for oversight of the organisations and their scientific programmes.”

But the news sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs, intensified by the report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.

Quote of the day: GMO firms control research

From an important editorial in Scientific American:

To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

Shields is the spokesperson for a group of 24 corn insect scientists that opposes these practices. Because the scientists rely on the cooperation of the companies for their research—they must, after all, gain access to the seeds for studies—most have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. The group has submitted a statement to the EPA protesting that “as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the tech­nol­ogy.”

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

A curious tale told in two headlines. . .

Two stories from the Guardian, the first from Monday [16 May 2016]:

Glyphosate unlikely to pose risk to humans, UN/WHO study says

Chemical used in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller ‘unlikely to pose carcinogenic risk from exposure through diet’

And the second from 21 March 2015, covering a report from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer:

Roundup weedkiller ‘probably’ causes cancer, says WHO study

The Monsanto product – the world’s most widely used herbicide – contains glyphosate, which may also be carcinogenic for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

We leave the conclusions to you. . .

Map of the day II: GMO crops around the world

From Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, a massive new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine

A summary of the findings from the Associated Press:

Genetically manipulated food remains generally safe for humans and the environment, a high-powered science advisory board declared in a report Tuesday.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that tinkering with the genetics of what we eat doesn’t produce the “Frankenfood” monster some opponents claim — but it isn’t feeding the world with substantially increased yields, as proponents promised.

With the line between engineered and natural foods blurring thanks to newer techniques such as gene editing, the 408-page report said, regulators need to make their safety focus more on the end-product of the food that’s made rather than the nuts and bolts of how it’s made.

The report waltzed a bit around the hot political issue of whether genetically modified food should be labeled. The study’s authors said labels aren’t needed for food safety reasons but potentially could be justified because of transparency, social and cultural factors, somewhat similar to made-in-America stickers. That stance was praised by some environmental and consumer groups, but criticized by some scientists as unnecessary because the food poses no unique risks.

There’s no evidence of environmental problems caused by genetically modified crops, but pesticide resistance is a problem, the report said. Farms that use genetically modified crops in general are helped, but it may be a different story for smaller farmers and in poorer areas of the world, it said.

So basically the panel is telling us that in the short period that GMO crops have been around, they’ve not found any health problems [a questionable conclusion], while basically ignoring a host of other questions.

And we are reminded that only now, many decades after their adoption and widespread use, are we discovering that plastics are anything by the safe substances scientists had long assured us they were.

And we are also reminded of the relentless campaign waged again UC Berkelet plant microbiologist Ignacio Chapela by Monsanto, the Big Agra giant which introduced the world to the Roundup Ready GMO crops which have become ubiquitous in so many countries.

When Chapela and a student found that Monsanto’s engineered genes had infected land race strains of maize in Mexico and published their findings in Nature, Monsanto mounted a massive smear campaign, forcing Nature to issue the first-ever partial retraction in the magazine’s history and successfully pressured UC Berkeley to deny Chapela tenure.

Other researchers verified Chapela’s findings, and the university was forced to grant him tenure, but only after a lawsuit, a case we covered as a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Planet.