Category Archives: Agriculture

Neoliberal Argentine regime sacrifices forests


More than a quarter-million acres of Argentinian forest, much of it protected land, has fallen to the chainsaws and axes of Big Agra players since the election of a neoliberal regime under Mauricio Macri, a corporate tycoon and one of Argentina’s wealthiest.

Unlike the administration of predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Macri won’t let anything stand in the way of his fellow tycoons getting even richher, and the environment be damned.

From teleSUR English:

Over 110,000 hectares of forest were destroyed in Northern Argentina in 2016, including large areas protected because of their biodiversity and crucial role in mitigating the effects of global warming, according to a report Spanish-only] issued by Greenpeace on Thursday.

Greenpeace accused local state officials and agribusiness corporations of illegally collaborating to make systematic large-scale deforestation possible by issuing local decrees allowing deforestation on natural reserves protected by federal laws banning tree-harvesting.

The environment organization found that at least “one out of three deforestations” were illegal, with agribusiness companies paying “ridiculously low fines” which pale in comparison to the large profits they can make through large-scale soy and cattle farming, said Greenpeace’s coordinator in Argentina, Hernan Giardini.

The study only focused on deforestation in the northern provinces of Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Salta and Formosa, which are estimated to represent 80 percent of Argentina’s deforested areas, suggesting that the actual destruction is much greater.

The spike in deforestation in the region— where land is relatively cheaper— is likely driven by increasing meat consumption in recent years, Giardini told EFE.

Deforestation goes hand in hand with violent evictions of indigenous campesinos living in these areas, with agribusiness entrepreneurs occasionally hiring armed paramilitary groups to carry out the displacement.

The report noted that the phenomenon had decreased by half after the former administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner passed the Bill on Woods in 2007, but recommended that sanctions be better applied in order to end the destruction of key nature preserves.

Climate change threatens world’s parasites


Climate change impacts on parasites: Parasite traits and abiotic and biotic interactions leading to parasite vulnerability under climate change. We list the most important biological traits of parasites that could amplify their vulnerability to extinction under climate change, the most likely changes to host–parasite interactions and various mitigation strategies likely to be used by both parasites and hosts adapting to disrupted climates. From Royal Society Open Science [open access].

Climate change impacts on parasites: Parasite traits and abiotic and biotic interactions leading to parasite vulnerability under climate change. We list the most important biological traits of parasites that could amplify their vulnerability to extinction under climate change, the most likely changes to host–parasite interactions and various mitigation strategies likely to be used by both parasites and hosts adapting to disrupted climates. From Royal Society Open Science [open access].


Why care about parasites?

Why should that matter?

Parasites are icky, right?

Dangerous, too.

And nobody ever thanked you for calling s/he a parasite, right?

Well consider this [emphasis added] from a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, the University of Zurich, the University of Michigan, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and just published [open access] in the prestigious journal Royal Society Open Science:

[T]he geographical boundaries and ecology of ectoparasites can be affected by aridity, salt spray, elevation and cold, while endoparasites can be affected by precipitation, soil type, temperature and other variables. A changing climate alters the availability of parasite niche space, driving a combination of habitat loss and range shifts, and potentially decreasing population growth and reproductive rates, all potentially encouraging primary extinctions.

That loss of parasite biodiversity may have cascading effects in resource–consumer webs, and change the productivity and stability of ecosystems in unpredictable ways that are often overlooked in the literature . Some estimate that up to 70% of all animal species are parasites, making parasitism the most common consumer strategy on Earth, and parasites account for a significant portion of biomass and up to 78% of food web links in any given ecosystem. Their presence and diversity has also been suggested as an indicator of ecosystems with a low degree of human degradation. In addition, evolutionary specializations like host behaviour modification can increase biomass flow between free-living hosts up to 20-fold, while adaptations like host castration can drastically limit host population size. Recent research has also highlighted that within-host interactions and competition between parasites can dilute disease risk for hosts in counterintuitive ways. As demonstrated in the Ribeiroia trematode–amphibian experimental system, parasite and host biodiversity can dilute both disease risk and parasite-induced host mortality at the population level. Just as decreasing diversity in free-living species often increases the dominance of the most abundant species, parasite extinctions could have unpredictable effects on the structure of disease communities, as some pathogens could experience competitive release as rare species go extinct.

More on the study from the University of California, Berkeley:

Photogenic animals, from polar bears to people, aren’t the only creatures under threat from global climate change. A new review led by UC Berkeley suggests the phenomenon threatens parasites with extinction, which could have big consequences for ecosystems.

The vast majority of research into parasites and environment change focuses on how hosts, particularly humans, will be harmed. Few studies have addressed how the loss of parasite biodiversity may affect other aspects of host health, ecosystem connectedness and health  and biodiversity as a whole. Previous research suggests that parasites are up to 10 times more vulnerable to extinction than are their hosts.

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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.