Category Archives: Food

Chart of the day: Getting high in Eastern Europe


From Our World in Data [formerly Worldmapper], a remarkable look at an 18,000-year-long game of catch-up, depicting the average height of folks along the eastern half of the Mediterranean as measured from archaeological remains and contemporary living people.

Only now are males reaching the stature of the Pleistocene predecessors, in part because folks are only now catching up to the levels of protein consumed by their hunter/gatherer ancestors. Women, however, still have lots of catching up to do. still have a lot of growing yet to do.

The world’s tallest folks are now the Dutch [click on the image to enlarge]:

Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Maps of the day: More climate change impacts


A new study from Cornell University casts new on thee life-threatening reality climate change:

Severe Caribbean droughts may magnify food insecurity

A comparison of drought conditions between 2015 and 2017 on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti (in the west) and the Dominican Republic. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, dark brown indicates severe to extreme drought, while blue colors indicate wetter than normal conditions. In the summer of 2015, when the Pan-Caribbean drought peaked, most of Hispaniola had severe drought conditions. In contrast, the western portion of the island – mostly Haiti – had wetter-than-normal conditions in January 2017 due to rain from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Even after the hurricane, drought conditions remained for the Dominican Republic.

More from Cornell:

Climate change is impacting the Caribbean, with millions facing increasing food insecurity and decreasing freshwater availability as droughts become more likely across the region, according to new Cornell research in Geophysical Research Letters [open access].

“Climate change – where mean temperatures rise – has already affected drought risk in the Caribbean. While our research focused on the role of human-causes for the strong 2013-16 drought there, our findings and climate-model projections show that drought in the region will likely to become more severe over time,” said lead author Dimitris Herrera, postdoctoral associate in earth and atmospheric sciences.

Since 1950, the Caribbean region has seen a drying trend and scattered multiyear droughts. But the recent Pan-Caribbean drought in 2013-16 was unusually severe and placed 2 million people in danger of food insecurity.

In Haiti, for example, over half the crops were lost in 2015 due to drought, which pushed about 1 million people into food insecurity, while an additional 1 million people suffered food shortages throughout the region, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Examining climatological data from the 2013-16 Pan-Caribbean drought, anthropogenic warming accounted for a 15 to 17 percent boost of the drought’s severity, Herrera said.

Climate model simulations indicate the most significant decrease in precipitation in the Caribbean might occur May through August – the rainy season. A failed rainy season in spring and summer, added to a normal dry season in the late fall and winter, prolongs a drought.

Beyond growing crops, the Caribbean also faces dwindling freshwater resources, due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and pressure from agricultural and municipal sectors.

“This paper documents that human activity is already affecting the drought statistics of the region,” said Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “Hot temperatures in the future will probably continue to play an increasingly important role in exacerbating droughts.”

Although the Caribbean has recently been affected by catastrophic hurricanes – such as Maria and Irma – that caused significant and rapid damage, persistent droughts can slowly bring havoc to vulnerable Caribbean countries, said Herrera: “This is especially true for the agriculture and tourism sectors of this region, which are the most important contributors to gross domestic product in most Caribbean nations.”

Other authors are of “Exacerbation of the 2013-2016 Pan Caribbean Drought by Anthropogenic Warming,” are John Fasullo, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Sloan Coats, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Carlos Carrillo, Cornell; Benjamin Cook, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and A. Park Williams, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University.

The research was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

But there’s some potentially good news, too

Another new study, this one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, study links over-consumption of alcohol with two curious factors, cold temperatures and alcohol.

While climate change won’t tilt the Earth’s axis further south, it’s already making northern latitudes warmer, so there’ll be less need for somatic antifreeze. . .

We begin with a map from the study comparing levels of booze-guzzling and binge behavior in the counties of the good ol’ U.S of .A. [click on it to embiggen]:

From the University:

Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their warm-weather counterparts.

The study, recently published online in Hepatology, [$6 for 48-hour access] found that as temperature and sunlight hours dropped, alcohol consumption increased. Climate factors also were tied to binge drinking and the prevalence of alcoholic liver disease, one of the main causes of mortality in patients with prolonged excessive alcohol use.

“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it. Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold,” said senior author Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D., chief of hepatology at UPMC, professor of medicine at Pitt, and associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “But we couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcohol intake or alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.”

Alcohol is a vasodilator – it increases the flow of warm blood to the skin, which is full of temperature sensors – so drinking can increase feelings of warmth. In Siberia that could be pleasant, but not so much in the Sahara.

Drinking also is linked to depression, which tends to be worse when sunlight is scarce and there’s a chill in the air.

Using data from the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and other large, public data sets, Bataller’s group found a clear negative correlation between climate factors – average temperature and sunlight hours – and alcohol consumption, measured as total alcohol intake per capita, percent of the population that drinks alcohol, and the incidence of binge drinking.

The researchers also found evidence that climate contributed to a higher burden of alcoholic liver disease. These trends were true both when comparing across countries around the world and also when comparing across counties within the United States.

“It’s important to highlight the many confounding factors,” said lead author Meritxell Ventura-Cots, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “We tried to control for as many as we could. For instance, we tried to control for religion and how that influences alcohol habits.”

With much of the desert-dwelling Arab world abstaining from alcohol, it was critical to verify that the results would hold up even when excluding these Muslim-majority countries. Likewise, within the U.S., Utah has regulations that limit alcohol intake, which have to be taken into account.

When looking for patterns of cirrhosis, the researchers had to control for health factors that might exacerbate the effects of alcohol on the liver—like viral hepatitis, obesity and smoking.

In addition to settling an age-old debate, this research suggests that policy initiatives aimed at reducing the burden of alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease should target geographic areas where alcohol is more likely to be problematic.

Additional authors on this study include Ariel Watts, B.S., Neil Shah, M.D., Peter McCann, M.D., and A. Sidney Barritt IV, M.D., all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Monica Cruz-Lemini, M.D., Ph.D., of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México at Juriquilla; Jose Altamirano, M.D., of Hospital Quirónsalud in Barcelona; Juan Abraldes, M.D., from The University of Alberta; Nambi Ndugga, M.P.H., of Harvard; and Anant Jain, M.D., Samhita Ravi, and Carlos Fernández-Carrillo, M.D., Ph.D., all of Pitt.

This research was supported by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awards U01AA021908 and U01AA020821, the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and the Spanish Association for the Study of the Liver.

What’s the best fertilizer? We’re calling bullshit!


And we mean that literally.

The Agronomy Society of America reports on new research certain to put the wind up Big Agra:

In a newly published study, researchers dug into how fertilizing with manure affects soil quality, compared with inorganic fertilizer.

Ekrem Ozlu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his team studied two fields in South Dakota. From 2003 to 2015, the research team applied either manure or inorganic fertilizer to field plots growing corn and soybeans. They used low, medium, and high manure levels, and medium and high inorganic fertilizer levels. They also had a control treatment of no soil additives to provide a comparison.

In the summer of 2015, they collected soil samples at a variety of depths using a push probe auger. Then they analyzed the samples.

  • Manure helped keep soil pH—a measure of acidity or alkalinity—in a healthy range for crops. Inorganic fertilizer made the soil more acidic.
  • Manure increased soil organic carbon for all the measured soil depths compared to inorganic fertilizer and control treatments. More carbon means better soil structure.
  • Manure significantly increased total nitrogen compared to fertilizer treatments. Nitrogen is key to plant growth.
  • Manure increased water-stable aggregates. These are groups of soil particles that stick to each other. Increased water-stable aggregates help soil resist water erosion. Inorganic fertilizer application decreased these aggregates.
  • Manure increased soil electrical conductivity at all soil depths in comparison to inorganic fertilizer and control treatments. Higher soil electrical conductivity means higher salt levels in the soil.

Ozlu and his team concluded that long-term annual application of manure improved most soil quality properties compared to inorganic fertilizer. “Increased electrical conductivity is one of the few negative impacts of manure,” Ozlu said.

The team also measured the effects of larger and smaller doses of each treatment at different soil depths. This will provide useful guidance to growers.

So, what could a backyard gardener learn from this study? Ozlu said, “I recommend gardeners use composted manure, especially in solid form, because manure is the fertilizer that supports better soil quality by improving almost all soil properties. Inorganic fertilizer is better in terms of electrical conductivity, but it does not improve other soil properties and crop yields better than manure.”

Ozlu concluded, “If you think of soil as a heart, manure is the lifeblood going through it.”

This is a poetic view of manure, to be sure. But perhaps this humble yet enormously useful substance deserves a little poetry.

The research is published in Soil Science Society of America Journal [$15 for non-subscribers to access]. This research work was partially supported by the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) of South Dakota State University (SDSU), and the General Directorate of Agricultural Research and Policies, Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Livestock, Republic of Turkey.

No corporate research funds?

Gee, we wonder why?

Not really.

Climate change threatens oceans, food supplies


As the earth heats up, the oceans, the source of all life, are undergoing rapid, ominous changes capable of dramatically altering the context of human existence.

We begin with a briefing from the World Bank:

Billions of people worldwide —especially the world’s poorest— rely on healthy oceans to provide jobs and food, underscoring the urgent need to sustainably use and protect this natural resource.

According to the OECD, oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually in value-added to the overall economy. The FAO estimates that around 60 million people are employed in fisheries and aquaculture, with the majority of those employed by capture fisheries working in small-scale operations in developing countries. In 2016, fisheries produced roughly 171 million tons of fish, with a “first sale” value estimated at US$362 billion,  generating over US$143 billion in exports. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein, even more in poor countries [emphases added].

Healthy oceans, coasts and freshwater ecosystems are crucial for economic growth and food production, but they are also fundamental to global efforts to mitigate climate change. “Blue carbon” sinks such as mangroves and other vegetated ocean habitats sequester 25 percent of the extra CO2 from fossil fuels and protect coastal communities from floods and storms. In turn, warming oceans and atmospheric carbon are causing ocean acidification that threatens the balance and productivity of the oceans.

While ocean resources have the potential to boost growth and wealth, human activity has taken a toll on ocean health. Fish stocks have deteriorated due to overfishing — the share of fish stocks outside biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 2013, while in the same year approximately 57 percent of fish stocks were fully exploited. Fish stocks are affected by illicit fishing, which may account for up to 26 million tons of fish catches a year or more than 15 percent of total catches. . . Fish habitats are also under pressure from pollution, coastal development, and destructive fishing practices that undermine fish population rehabilitation efforts.

Oceans are also threatened by marine plastic pollution and each year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans, with microplastics becoming part of the food chain. Five countries produce the highest volumes of plastic waste and researchers estimate that a 75 percent reduction in plastics pollution in just China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean globally by almost 45 percent.

Threats from over-fishing

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2018 notes that “Zones of moderately heavy to heavy fishing intensity now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas. This implies that fishing activities have exposed shallow coastal marine ecosystems to potential long-term damage, notably by trawling.” The report cites the particularly heavy intensification in the global South and East over the past six decades, with the greatest intensification in South East Asia.

This map from the report reflects the changes globally [click on the image to enlarge]:

AVERAGE ANNUAL CATCHES OF THE WORLD’S MARITIME FISHING COUNTRIES IN THE 1950s COMPARED TO THE 2000s.
Blue indicates zero or very minute catches, and yellow indicates light or no fishing. Zones of moderately heavy [ orange] to heavy fishing intensity [red] now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas.
Almost 6 billion tons of fish and invertebrates [e.g. crustaceans and molluscs] have been extracted from the world’s oceans since 1950. Annual catch increased dramatically from 28 million tons in 1950 to more than 110 million tons in 2014. However, since peaking in 1996 at about 130 million tons, catch has been decreasing at an average rate of 1.2 million tons per year.

Coral reef bleaching levels hit new heights as seas warm

Marine coral reef bleaching may be the greatest immediate threat, as rising temperatures upset the balance of the delicate reefs which serve as breeding grounds for much of the fish so vital to the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest peoples. [Also see our previous posts on the subject]

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a look the recent escalation of the crisis and what it might mean:

Historically, global-scale coral bleaching has been associated with El Niño events, which generally raise global temperatures. The first mass coral bleaching was observed during the strong El Niño in 1983, and the first truly global event coincided with the strong El Niño of 1998. The world’s tropical reefs were stressed again during a moderate-strength 2010 El Niño.

The coral-bleaching event of 2014–2017 was unusual not just for its long duration, experts say, but also because it wasn’t entirely due to El Niño. Though an El Niño was anticipated in 2014, it didn’t really materialize until March 2015, yet bleaching-level heat stress was already well underway by that time. A strong El Niño arrived in 2016, and heat stress occurred at 51 percent of the world’s coral reefs into early 2017, when a La Niña was in place.

The 36-month heatwave and global bleaching event were exceptional in a variety of ways. For many reefs, this was the first time on record that they had experienced bleaching in two consecutive years. Many reefs—including those in Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii—experienced their worst bleaching ever documented. In the Northern Line Islands in the South Pacific, upwards of 98 percent of the coral at some reefs were killed. Reefs in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that had never bleached before lost nearly 30 percent of their shallow water corals in 2016, while reefs a bit farther south lost another 22 percent in 2017.

All told, more than 75 percent of Earth’s tropical reefs experienced bleaching-level heat stress between 2014 and 2017, and at nearly 30 percent of reefs, it reached mortality level. The scientists summarized the event in stark terms:

More than half of affected reef areas were impacted at least twice. This global event has punctuated the recent acceleration of mass bleaching. Occurring at an average rate of once every 25–30 years in the 1980s, mass bleaching now returns about every six years and is expected to further accelerate…. Severe bleaching is now occurring more quickly than reefs can recover, with severe downstream consequences to ecosystems and people.

The accompanying map reveals the sheer extent of coral reef bleaching:

Many coral reefs experienced mass bleaching back-to-back in 2015 [top] and 2016 [bottom]. The likelihood of coral bleaching depends on how high the temperatures are above the annual monthly maximum and how long the unusual heat persists. Scientists track these conditions using satellite-based estimates of Degree Heating Weeks. Alert 1 means coral bleaching is likely. Alert 2 means widespread bleaching and significant mortality of corals are likely. Severe coral bleaching was reported in areas circled in white.

And to make matters worse, yet another heat spike is expected in the coming year, one that might be even worse.

Reef bleaching dramatically impacts fish behavior

Way back in out college days, an anthropology prof described the Three Fs of behavior: Feeding, Fucking, and Fighting. The three were often related, he added, as humans often fought for food and sex.

Fish, it seems, are much the same.

Professor Stéphan G. Reebs of Canada’s University of Monckton specializes in animal behavior and has written extensively about fish, including their aggressiveness, the focus of a 2008 paper:

Competition is a fact of life. It can take many forms, but biologists usually recognize two broad categories. In the first one, called exploitative or scramble competition, the contests are like races. The most food goes to the animal that eats the fastest, the best shelter is occupied by whoever reaches it first, and the largest share of eggs are fertilized by those males which produce the most sperm. There is usually little aggression displayed in such cases. However, in the second category, which is called interference or defense competition, animals fight among themselves for the right to monopolize food, to occupy alone a shelter or a territory, or to secure exclusive access to a mate.

And now we learn that coral reef bleaching has marked effects of fishy behavior, effects we suspect could have long-term cascading impacts on the world’s food supply.

From the University of Vermont:

A research team, including University of Vermont scientist Nate Sanders, found that when water temperatures heat up for corals, fish “tempers” cool down, providing the first clear evidence of coral bleaching serving as a trigger for rapid change in the behavior of reef fish.

Publishing in Nature Climate Change [$8.99 to read for non-subscribers],the researchers show how the iconic butterflyfish, considered to be sensitive indicators of reef health, can offer an early warning sign that reef fish populations are in trouble.

The international team of scientists spent more than 600 hours underwater observing butterflyfish over a two-year period encompassing the unprecedented mass coral bleaching event of 2016. Led by marine ecologist Sally Keith of Lancaster University, the team examined 17 reefs across the central Indo-Pacific in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

During the initial data collection, the researchers were unaware that the catastrophic bleaching event was on the horizon. Once underway, the researchers realized that this serendipitous “natural experiment” placed them in a unique position to see how fish changed their behavior in response to large-scale bleaching disturbance.

The team sprang into action to repeat their field observations, collecting a total of 5,259 encounters between individuals of 38 different butterflyfish species. Within a year after the bleaching event, it was clear that, although the same number of butterflyfish continued to reside on the reefs, they were behaving very differently.

“We observed that aggressive behavior had decreased in butterflyfish by an average of two thirds, with the biggest drops observed on reefs where bleaching had killed off the most coral,” said Keith. “We think this is because the most nutritious coral was also the most susceptible to bleaching, so the fish moved from a well-rounded diet to the equivalent of eating only lettuce leaves—it was only enough to survive rather than to thrive.”

Early warning

“This matters because butterflyfishes are often seen as the ‘canaries of the reef,'” said Nate Sanders, director of UVM’s Environmental Program and professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Due to their strong reliance on coral, they are often the first to suffer after a disturbance event.”

Such changes in behavior may well be the driver behind more obvious changes such as declining numbers of fish individuals and species. The finding has the potential to help explain the mechanism behind population declines in similarly disrupted ecosystems around the world.

By monitoring the fishes’ behavior, “we might get an early warning sign of bigger things to come,” said co-author Erika Woolsey of Stanford University. And the new work shows that  animals can adjust to catastrophic events in the short term through flexible behavior, “but these changes may not be sustainable in the longer-term,” said co-author Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

But it’s not a problem, right?

At least that’s what the White House would have us believe.

Is you pet Roundup Ready™? It better be. . .


Roundup™, Monsanto’s best-selling weed-killer has been the keystone of the agricultural giant’s genetically engineered crops,as well as the subject of endless controversies, ranging from the economic power GMO companies have amassed to contamination of other plants, the evolution of superweeds immune to the presticide [leading to an escalation to more dangerous herbicides], and the possible health impacts on animals, including the human kind. [See here for  our extensive collection of previous posts.]

A recent California verdict awarded $289 million to a groundskeeper dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma who charged that his ailment stemmed directly from exposure to the herbicide, though the judge reduced the total to $78 million.

The company was sold in June to Germany’s Bayer, the German chemical-gint, but the flow of Roundup™ continues

And now comes word that glyphosate, the weedkiller’s active ingredient, is in your pet food.

While the author of the Cornell University study says the amounts are well below  the government’s danger threshhold, he’s stopped feeding the stuff to his own pet.

From Cornell University:

Got glyphosate?

Your pet’s breakfast might.

A new Cornell study published this month in Environmental Pollution finds that glyphosate, the active herbicidal ingredient in widely used weed killers like Roundup, was present at low levels in a variety of dog and cat foods the researchers purchased at stores. Before you go switching Fido or Fluffy’s favorite brand, however, be aware that the amounts of the herbicide found correspond to levels currently considered safe for humans.

The study grew out of a larger interdisciplinary research project led by Brian Richards, senior research associate in biological and environmental engineering, and supported by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Academic Venture Fund, which sought to reassess glyphosate mobility and impacts in several contexts: movement from crop fields in surface water, impacts on soils and on animals consuming it in their feed.

Richard’s co-investigators Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology, and Kenneth Simpson, professor of small-animal medicine, visited a pet store and a retail outlet, where they selected multiple bags of cat and dog foods from major brands. The 18 feeds were all mixtures of vegetable and meat ingredients, and one product was certified GMO-free. Analyses conducted by postdoctoral researcher and lead author Jiang Zhao in Hay’s lab, and research support specialist Steve Pacenka, found that all of the products contained glyphosate at concentrations ranging from approximately 80 to 2,000 micrograms of glyphosate per kilogram.

Since there is not enough data available to determine what effect – if any – low-dose glyphosate exposure has on domestic animals, the researchers used human acceptable daily intake guidelines to put these findings in context, according to Hay. The researchers estimated that the median dog exposure would amount to only 0.7 percent of the U.S. glyphosate limit set for humans.

“While the levels of glyphosate in pet foods surprised us, if a human ate it every day, their glyphosate exposure would still be well below the limits currently deemed safe,” Hay said.

“Even the most contaminated feed they studied had thousands of times less glyphosate than levels that were shown to have no adverse effects on dogs in the U.S. EPA’s Draft Risk Assessment for glyphosate” said Dan Wixted, a pesticide educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension who was not involved in the study.

While unable to pinpoint the exact product or crops that were the source of the glyphosate, Hay’s team did find a correlation with fiber, suggesting a plant-based origin.

“We know that glyphosate is only certified for spraying on crops, and it does not bio-accumulate in animals, so we would not expect it to come from feed animals that are the main protein sources in some of the products,” Hay said. “Our evidence suggests that it’s coming from plant material.”

One surprising finding of the study: Glyphosate was detected in the one GMO-free product the researchers analyzed at levels higher than those of several other processed feeds. This suggests that keeping feed stocks uncontaminated is a challenge even in the GMO-free market.

What is a pet owner to do with this information?

“Glyphosate is out there in our pets’ food, and while there doesn’t appear to be any immediate risk, there is still uncertainty about the chronic impact of low doses like these,” Hay said. “It’s hard to find a product that doesn’t have glyphosate in it, so we included the exposure assessment to provide some context. The old adage ‘dose determines the poison’ is good to keep in mind: While it’s possible that these animals might respond differently than humans, the numbers are still within a range that would be deemed safe for humans.”

Hay, for his part, has stopped feeding chow found to be high in glyphosate to his own dog, a pug beagle mix, but he hasn’t seen any changes in her health.

“She’s more cat than dog to be honest,” he said. “She sits on the bed and won’t go outside when it rains. But I can now confirm that her laziness has nothing to do with her feed.”

Map of the day: Warming’s agricultural impacts


A dramatic graphic capture’s one of the most immediate impacts of global warming, the shift of fertile agricultural regions toward the poles, as rising temperatures and declining rainfall render once-vibrant growing regions — realities certain to have profound economic and social impacts across the globe.

From the Arbor Day Foundation:

Much of the U. S. has been warmer in recent years, and that affects which trees are right for planting. The Arbor Day Foundation has recently completed an extensive updating of U.S. Hardiness Zones based upon data from 5,000 National Climatic Data Center cooperative stations across the continental United States.

For a dramatic animation of thsee changes, as well as others, see this page from Yale’s Envrionment 360.

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Chart of the day: How Americans use the land


From Bloomberg, a look at how the nation uses it’s land, with each color representing the total of land occupied by the accompany usage [click on the image to enlarge]:

Suit: ‘Ghosts’ wrote Monsanto Roundup™ research


Explosive allegations rising from a California lawsuit charge that Big Agra corporate giant Monsanto used ghost writers to created research the company used to win federal approval of  glyphosate, the weed-killer in Monsanto’s market-leading Roundup™ herbicide.

With the EPA poised for massive cuts under the new administration, the litigation reveals problems calling for stronger, rather than weaker, enforcement powers for the agency created by Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The disclosure comes just as a federal court upheld a law mandating their product carry a cancer warning.

From teleSUR English:

Agrochemical giant Monsanto used ghostwriters on scientific reports to cover up the risk of cancer from its flagship weedkiller, plaintiffs in a case in a U.S. Federal Court in San Francisco have claimed in a lawsuit.

Lawyers suing Monsanto on behalf of farmers and others in the mass litigation presented documents to the court claiming that the company had failed to warn the public that exposure to its most popular weedkiller, Roundup, was known to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. Roundup is the most-used weed killer in history.

Employes at the company were accused of writing reports that were used to determine if one of the key ingredients in Roundup, glyphosate, was not carcinogenic. The company’s toxicology manager is accused of ghostwriting sections of a scientific report in 2013 under the names of other scientists and another manager was seen to ghostwrite sections of another report from 2000.

On the back of the false reports, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed that Roundup posed no cancer risk. The company has denied that it carried out such activities and says that the claims the allegations are based on “cherry-pick” from one email.

In the email in question, an executive from the company said that ghostwriters could help cut down on costs and researchers “would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”

While court filings said that the EPA “may be unaware of Monsanto’s deceptive authorship practice,” former deputy director of the EPA, Jess Rowland, was accused of colluding with Monsanto to bury the real scientific research on glyphosate and its links to cancer.

Citing an email from a Monsanto employee, Roland reportedly said, “If I can kill this (the study) I should get a medal.”  Rowland has been the central figure in more than 20 lawsuits in the U.S.

In a separate lawsuit, a district court ruled that California could classify glyphosate as a cancer risk. The World Health Organization had previously upgraded glyphosate as a carcinogen.

California: Roundup™ must carry a cancer warning


A new California law will force Monsanto to slap a cancer warning on its Roundup weedkiller.

Score one for the good guys.

The story, from RT America:

California to force Monsanto to label its herbicide as possibly carcinogenic


Program Notes:

Agrochemical giant, Monsanto has lost its court battle in California after a Fresno county judge ruled that the active ingredient in the company’s notorious weed killer ‘Roundup,’ glyphosate, can be added to the state’s list of cancer-causing agents. Once the chemical is added to the list, the company will have one year to label that it’s a possible carcinogen on their products. RT America’s Brigida Santos reports, speaking to Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America, and Alexis Baden-Meyer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Charts of the day: Latin American land inequality


Two significant graphics from Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, a major study of land distribution in Latin America, reveal the gross inequalities of land distribution in the Americas.

First, a look at agricultural land tenure rates, featuring the percentage of farms in each country owned by the top one percent of landowners:

More from the report:

Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution. The Gini coefficient for land—an indicator of between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum inequality—is 0.79 for the region as a whole, 0.85 in South America and 0.75 in Central America. These figures indicate much higher levels of land concentration than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).

According to this indicator, Paraguay (with a Gini coefficient of 0.93) is the country where land is most unequally distributed, followed by Chile (0.91) and Venezuela (0.88). At the other end of
the spectrum is Costa Rica (0.67), which has the most equitable land distribution in the region. Most Latin American countries have extremely high levels of concentration with Gini coeffi-
cients above 0.80, while the ratio is over 0.90 in Chile and Paraguay.

Compared with the distribution of income—for which Latin America is also the most unequal region in the world—land distribution is even more inequitable. The regional Gini coefficient for income is 0.48 compared with 0.79 for land, and is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa (0.43), North America (0.37) or the East Asia-Pacific region (0.37).

And, next, a look at what crops are planted on those vast latifundias:

Note particularly the vast acreage devoted to soybeans.

The great majority of those acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans, according to this September report from Reuters:

South American farmers are expected to sow 57 percent more area with Monsanto Co’s second-generation, genetically modified soybean seed Intacta RR2 Pro in the new planting season, a company executive said.

Intacta, which tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and resists caterpillars, was planted on 14 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2015/2016.

Farmers are expected to plant 18 million to 22 million hectares this season, Maria Luiza Nachreiner, head of South American soy operations, said in an interview before Monsanto announced it would accept a $66 billion takeover bid from rival Bayer.

“We have a positive outlook this crop,” Nachreiner said.

Intacta will account for 31 percent to 38 percent of the planted area in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, up from 24 percent this season, she noted.

Monsanto does not release specific numbers about the area planted with its seeds in Brazil, the world’s largest soybean exporter. For years, its Roundup Ready Soybeans dominated the regional GMO seed market, peaking in 2013/14 with 84 percent of Brazil’s soybean area, according to data from local consultant Celeres.

To maintain those crops, farmers are also basically forced to use Monsanto weed-killers, most notably glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in the company’s Roundup,.

Roundup has been linked with a growing number of human health problems, but weeds have been growing tolerant, forcing the company to create new blends featuring even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D, one of two chemicals used in the toxic Agent Orange blend sprayed over much of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, resulting in a growing number of severe infant deformities.

Chart of the day: World environmental child deaths


From the World Health Organization’s Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access], a graph of the leading environmental causes of childhood deaths worldwide [click on the image to enlarge]:

With the Trump Administration rapidly dismembering the Environmental Protection Agency, a new report reveals just why protecting the environmental saves lives, especially young ones.

From the World Health Organization:

More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.

The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access] reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Top 5 causes of death in children under 5 years linked to the environment

A companion report, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:

  • 570 000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361 000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270 000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
  • 200 000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200 000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

Ongoing and emerging environmental threats to children’s health

“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”

For example, emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.

Continue reading

U.N experts slam pesticides as a global health threat


And they’re calling for an end to their use and a shift to sustainable agriculture worldwide.

It’s a message we heartily endorse, but it won’t sit well a Trump administration and national legislature dominated by corporate interests.

From the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

Two United Nations experts are calling for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. They say: “excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital  to ensuring food security.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections.

The experts particularly emphasized the obligation of States to protect the rights of children from hazardous pesticides. They noted the high number of children killed or injured by food contaminated with pesticides, particularly through accidental poisonings, the prevalence of diseases and disabilities linked to chronic exposure at a young age, and reports on the exposure to hazardous pesticides of children working in global food supply chains, which is one of the worst forms of child labour.

The experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural enemies of pests, and reducing the nutritional value of food. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies around the world.

Continue reading

The tragedy of Trump/Big Oil’s war on the EPA


We spent a good many years covering environmental issues, including the role played by corporations and the nation’s largest university system in building on polluted land.

We were first stirred to concern for our impact on the environment in 1962 when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that inspired the rise of the modern environmental movement in the last half of the 20th Century.

The movement became so significant that a Reoubkican President [and a loathed one at that] created the Environmental Protection Agency,

And while Donald Trump may share a leak paranoia with Agent Orange, he’s anything but Richard Nixon when it comes to the environment.

An agency dismembered

While Trump and many of his appointees called for outright elimination of the EPA, realism set in.

That and the beginning of the death by a thousand cuts, starting with a story from Newsweek written as the initial proposed budget cuts were revealed:

The proposal, sent to the EPA [last week], would cut into grants that support American Indian tribes and energy efficiency initiatives, according to the source, who read the document to Reuters.

State grants for lead cleanup, for example, would be cut 30 percent to $9.8 million. Grants to help native tribes combat pollution would be cut 30 percent to $45.8 million. An EPA climate protection program on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that contribute to global warming would be cut 70 percent to $29 million.

The proposal would cut funding for the brownfields industrial site cleanup program by 42 percent to $14.7 million. It would also reduce funding for enforcing pollution laws by 11 percent to $153 million.

The budget did not cut state revolving funds for programs, that Congress tapped last year to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, for its lead pollution crisis.

All staff at a research program, called Global Change Research, as well as 37 other programs would be cut under the plan.

As Bloomberg notes:

More than 40 percent of EPA’s budget – about $3.5 billion – is dedicated to state and tribal grants used to pay for staff and support an array of programs, including initiatives that protect drinking water. State clean air and water programs also benefit.

That means the disproportionate burden will fall on states, most of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and chief executives.

So it’s unlikely most states will replace the lost funds, and layoffs will ensue.

Also impacted will be city government, losing both federal funds and monies from the states.

Given that the burdens of pollution fall disproportionately on the poor, life expectancies may decline.

Hey, but he’s makin’ Ahmurka great agin, ain’t he?

Ain’t he?

The latest development: Still more cuts

Needless to say, climate research is involved.

Scientific American puts it i context:

The administration is seeking a nearly 20 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget, including to its satellite division, The Washington Post reported. That includes significant cuts to the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which has produced research that disproved the notion of a global warming pause. NOAA’s satellites provide invaluable data on climate change that are used by researchers throughout the world. The NOAA cuts target the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research, which conducts the bulk of the agency’s climate research.

That’s on top of proposed reductions to climate research at U.S. EPA, including a 40 percent cut to the Office of Research and Development, which runs much of EPA’s major research. The cuts specify work on climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. The Trump administration also has proposed 20 percent staffing reduction at EPA.

More than a dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department and the Department of Energy, conduct climate research. Further cuts are expected, particularly at NASA, which develops and launches the satellites that provide invaluable information on climate change used throughout the world. President Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and some congressional Republicans pushing for climate science cuts have falsely claimed that federal scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to defraud the American public into thinking that human activity is causing the planet to warm.

About a third of the American economy relies on weather, climate and natural hazard data, said Chris McEntee, president of the American Geophysical Union, the nation’s largest scientific organization. She said much of the federal scientific research and data comes from multiple agencies working together, so cutting one will have a ripple effect.

“It’s not just one agency, it’s a holistic view here, and cutting one piece also has an impact on the whole enterprise of what we get out of science from the federal government that enables us to have the kinds of tools and information we need to protect the infrastructure, to protect lives, to protect public safety, and to give us knowledge and information to make a more effective economy and country,” she said.

After the jump, more cuts, the threats to a massive database and efforts to preserve them, and a case of class war. . . Continue reading

Why are we fat? Republicans, Democrats disagree


If the recent elections have taught us anything, it’s that Democrats and Republicans are so deeply divided that one might reasonably argue that the system has broken down, with folks of great wealth fueling the divisions for their own ends.

So how deeply divided are the two parties?

Well, they can’t even agree on what makes folks fat.

It’s that old nature/nurture divide that lurks beneath so much of political divisiveness, with the Republicans arguing that Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination, rules at the bathroom scales, while Democrats argue that it’s something fueled by the environment.

From the University of Kansas:

People’s political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

“Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people,” Joslyn said. “The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated.”

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings [$36 to read] recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a “nanny state,” blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people’s opposition to certain practices.

“To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected,” Joslyn said.

Also, it’s likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Program notes

The genome dynamically interacts with the environment as chemical switches that regulate gene expression receive cues from stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors. Epigenetics is the study of these reactions and the factors that influence them.

So what’s it all about?

From Scientific American:

In a study published in late 2011 in Nature, Stanford University geneticist Anne Brunet and colleagues described a series of experiments that caused nematodes raised under the same environmental conditions to experience dramatically different lifespans. Some individuals were exceptionally long-lived, and their descendants, through three generations, also enjoyed long lives. Clearly, the longevity advantage was inherited. And yet, the worms, both short- and long-lived, were genetically identical.

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best. Their form is far from the elegant tendrils of DNA that make up genes, and they are fleeting, in a sense, erasable, very unlike genes, which have been passed down through generations for millions of years. But they do lurk, and silently, they exert their power, modifying DNA and controlling genes, influencing the chaos of nucleic and amino acids. And it is for this reason that many scientists consider the discovery of these entities in the late 20th century as a turning point in our understanding of heredity, as possibly one of the greatest revolutions in modern biology—the rise of epigenetics.

Continue reading

Chart of the day: Inflation hits Europe’s poorest


blog-euroinflate

From Eurostat [click on the image to enlarge]:

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 2.0% in February 2017, up from 1.8% in January 2017, according to a flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, energy is expected to have the highest annual rate in February (9.2%, compared with 8.1% in January), followed by food, alcohol & tobacco (2.5%, compared with 1.8% in January), services (1.3%, compared with 1.2% in January) and non-energy industrial goods (0.2%, compared with 0.5% in January).

Note that the impacts will hit hardest on the poor, especially those soaring energy costs, which will mean higher prices for food, and still higher bills to heat and light homes use their cars for transportation to and from work — for those lucky enough to have jobs, especially in Greece and the other poorer nations hit hardest by the ongoing Great Recession.

Subway’s ‘chicken’ turns out to be half soy


At least the subway chicken DNA tested by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a survey of fast food eateries in Ontario Province.

From CBC’s Marketplace:

In the first round of tests, the lab tested two samples of five of the meat products, and one sample of the Subway strips. From each of those samples, the researchers isolated three smaller samples and tested each of those.

They were all DNA tested and the score was then averaged for each sandwich. Most of the scores were “very close” to 100 per cent chicken DNA, Harnden says.

  • A&W Chicken Grill Deluxe averaged 89.4 per cent chicken DNA
  • McDonald’s Country Chicken – Grilled averaged 84.9 per cent chicken DNA
  • Tim Hortons Chipotle Chicken Grilled Wrap averaged 86.5 per cent chicken DNA
  • Wendy’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich averaged 88.5 per cent chicken DNA

Subway’s results were such an outlier that the team decided to test them again, biopsying five new oven roasted chicken pieces, and five new orders of chicken strips.

Those results were averaged: the oven roasted chicken scored 53.6 per cent chicken DNA, and the chicken strips were found to have just 42.8 per cent chicken DNA. The majority of the remaining DNA? Soy.

Hell, any more soy and they could call their chicken vegan.

Subway, needless to say, disagreed with the tests, then put the blame in a unnamed supplier.

Whoever’s responsible, it’s a fowl deed.

Or an unfowl deed?

Border wall moves ahead; Mexican resistance stirs


Yep, the border wall is moving ahead.

From the Chicago Tribune:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Friday that it plans to start awarding contracts by mid-April for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, signaling that he is aggressively pursuing plans to erect “a great wall” along the 2,000-mile border.

The agency said it will request bids on or around March 6 and that companies would have to submit “concept papers” to design and build prototypes by March 10, according to FedBizOpps.gov, a website for federal contractors. The field of candidates will be narrowed by March 20, and finalists must submit offers with their proposed costs by March 24.

The president told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday that construction will start “very soon” and is “way, way, way ahead of schedule.”

The agency’s notice gave no details on where the wall would be built first and how many miles would be covered initially. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has sought employees’ opinions during border tours of California, Arizona and Texas.

Announcement comes a day after cross-border meeting

The wall wasn’t even mentioned when two cabinet members traveled south of the border the day before the announcement.

From NBC News:

There were promises of cooperation, of closer economic ties, and frequent odes to the enduring partnership between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. But there were no public mentions of that massive border wall or President Donald Trump’s plan to deport non-Mexicans to Mexico as top U.S. officials visited the Mexican capital.

Instead, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played it safe, acknowledging generally that the U.S. and Mexico are in a period of disagreement without putting any specific dispute under the microscope. It fell to their hosts, and especially Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, to thrust those issues into the spotlight.

“It is an evident fact that Mexicans feel concern and irritation over what are perceived as policies that may hurt Mexicans and the national interest of Mexicans here and abroad,” Videgaray said Thursday after meeting with Kelly and Tillerson.

The Americans focused instead on putting to rest some of the fears reverberating across Latin America – such as the notion that the U.S. military might be enlisted to deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally en masse. Not so, said Kelly. He said there would be “no mass deportations” and no U.S. military role.

Sure, Mexico can trust anything that comes out of an administration headed by a man who can’t even keep his own lies straight, then flies into a rage any time anyone dares point that out.

Trump may do the impossible for Peña

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been polling at all-time lows, earning an abysmal 12 percent approval rate in one recent survey., making Trump’s current 42 percent approval rating look like a rave review.

But Trump may prove a boost for the beleaguered Mexican President is Agent Orange continues with his self-serving racist rants, especially now that Peña’s administration is showing a little resistance.

From teleSUR English:

The U.S. wants to pressure Mexico into keeping migrants and refugees as they await trial, forcing Mexico to deport them instead. Mexico isn’t falling for it.

Mexico will reject the remaining funds of the Merida Plan if they’re used by the U.S. to coerce the country on immigration policy, said Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Friday.

The US$2.6 billion security assistance package on the drug war has been almost been entirely distributed since 2008, mostly on military equipment like helicopters and training for its security forces.

The plan has been widely criticized for worsening, rather than improving, violence and disappearances in the country and being partly responsible for the disappearance of the 43 student-teachers in Ayotzinapa. It already contains a proviso to withhold funds if Mexico doesn’t improve its rule of law or human rights abuses, though the U.S. has never enacted this demand.

Besides now taking into account U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall, the aid may be dependent on Mexico hosting undocumented immigrants from third countries as they are awaiting processing of their deportation trials in the U.S.

“They can’t leave them here on the border because we have to reject them. There is no chance they would be received by Mexico,” said Osorio Chong on Friday, speaking with Radio Formula after a cool reception of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who visited on Thursday.

Mexico already deports hundreds of thousands of Central Americans apprehended at its southern border, but cities like Mexico City are among the largest receptors of refugees deported from the U.S.

Mexico hints at a trade war

A not-so-veiled threat was issued Thursday at the same time Trump administration officials were meeting with their Mexican counterparts.

From Reuters:

Mexico’s economy minister said on Thursday that applying tariffs on U.S. goods is “plan B” for Mexico in trade talks with the United States if negotiations aimed at achieving a new mutually beneficial agreement fail.

Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told local broadcaster Televisa that he expected North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations with both the United States and Canada to begin this summer and conclude by the end of this year.

And promptly takes the first step

Guajardo’s warming was accompanied by action as well,

From teleSUR English:

Amid trade tensions with the United States, Mexico plans to send a delegation next month to visit Brazilian corn, beef, chicken and soy producers as an alterative to U.S. suppliers, its representative in Brazil said on Friday.

Mexican chargé d’affaires Eleazar Velasco said Brazil is uniquely positioned to expand agricultural commodity sales to Mexico if trade with the United States is disrupted because it is closer than other potential suppliers like Australia.

“The United States unilaterally wants to change the established rules of the game,” Velasco told Reuters. “This will evidently lead us to rebalance our trade relations.”

Mexican Agriculture Secretary Jose Calzada was due to visit Brazil last week but had to postpone his trip until March due to scheduling issues, Velasco said.

Calzada will bring Mexican food industry executives to do deals with Brazilian exporters, the diplomat said. The trip is part of a drive to lessen dependence on U.S. exports as President Donald Trump threatens to upend long-standing free trade between the two countries.

And Mexico acts on the financial front as well

The country has been engaged in a massive buttressing of its currency.

From CNNMoney:

Mexico’s currency, the peso, is one of the best performers in the world in February, up over 5%.

Before the U.S. election, the country’s central bank started implementing what its governor, Agustin Carstens, called a “contingency plan.” Carstens says Trump’s potential policies would hit Mexico’s economy like a “hurricane.”

For ordinary Mexicans, the peso’s momentum doesn’t mean much. Gas prices rose as much as 20% in January while economic growth and wages continue to be sluggish. Life is getting more expensive.

Still, it’s a swift turnaround for a country and currency facing an uncertain future with the U.S.

Since November, Mexico’s central bank has raised interest rates three times and sold U.S. dollars to international investors. Among other efforts, it’s all meant to buoy the peso that’s been weighed down by Trump’s threats.

Things are starting to get interesting. . .

Trump’s NAFTA stance sparks Mexico trade war


And the first commodity under attack is corn grown by farmers in the U.S.

From teleSUR English:

The foreign affairs commission at the Mexican Senate will introduce a bill this week that would make the country buy corn from Brazil and Argentina instead of the United States.

Mexico is one of the top buyers of U.S. corn and the move will be a tough blow to the U.S. agriculture industry, said the president of the commission Armando Ríos Piter from the leftist PRD party.

The bill is seen as a counter-attack to the protectionist threats made by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to kill the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, signed by Mexico, the United States and Canada in the early ’90s. Experts say such a bill would be very costly for U.S. farmers.

“If we do indeed see a trade war where Mexico starts buying from Brazil … we’re going to see it affect the corn market and ripple out to the rest of the agricultural economy,”  Darin Newsom, senior analyst at agricultural management firm DTN, said to CNN.

If approved, this bill would be one of the first signs of concrete action by the Mexican government after it has been directly targeted by Trump’s rhetoric and policies, particularly an executive order enabling construction of a border wall and the promise to make Mexico foot the bill.

However, to unions of Mexican farmers and academics, Trump’s pledge to end NAFTA will be a good opportunity to boost the agriculture sector in Mexico.

The treaty has helped to dismantle Mexico’s agricultural production system through neoliberal policies that have left millions of poor farmers without state support and made the country increasingly dependent on food from abroad.

And an update, also from teleSUR:

Mexico’s agriculture minister said on Thursday he will lead a business delegation to Argentina and Brazil to explore buying yellow corn, part of a drive to lessen Mexico’s U.S. dependence given uncertainty over President Donald Trump’s trade policies.

The trip will happen within the next 20 days, Agriculture Secretary Jose Calzada said, adding that the government could explore quotas and changing the tariff regime for imports from South America if needed.