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Weeds that resemble knee-high grass grow in planter pots in a small room at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lab just outside Washington, D.C. Light, heat and carbon dioxide reach the plants at steady levels. For more than a month, the weeds have sustained the same conditions expected to be Earth’s norm 35 years from now—carbon dioxide levels equivalent to an urban traffic jam, and temperatures tipping into the dangerous zone for the planet’s health.
But rather than choking from such treatment, the weeds—a wild plant called red rice—are thriving. The test lab mimics conditions expected around the world by 2050, when an additional 2.6 billion people will be wondering what’s for dinner.
Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, studies, among other things, weeds in food production and human health. Weeds beguile Ziska. Weeds may be the largest single limitation to global crop yield. But they also have traits that are useful to plant growth. Red rice, for instance, can adapt to more carbon dioxide and heat by producing more stems and grain—red rice has 80 to 90 percent more seed than cultivated rice.
Now, plant breeders and plant physiologists are capitalizing on those traits and counting on all possible sources of genetic variation, including weedy lines of rice, to improve productivity in cultivated crop varieties. Such cross-breeding could play an important role in helping the world’s staple food crops better adapt to a warming climate.
Plant physiologists such as Ziska usually put weeds in two categories: “an unwanted or undesired plant species” and “early vegetation following soil disturbance.” Ziska thinks a third definition could be more suitable: the unloved flower. “A weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered,” he says, paraphrasing Emerson.
Ziska is not the only one with this perspective. Many scientists now believe that weeds may be part of the solution to boosting harvests in a warming world. Wild lines of wheat, oats and rice—which are, in fact, weeds—have genetic characteristics that may be useful to adapt their domesticated cousins to an uncertain future.
Why weeds? When other plants are wilting at extremes of temperature and rainfall, weeds thrive. Ziska studies weeds for their redemptive qualities. His research in this area was bolstered on a sweltering day in an abandoned industrial lot in Baltimore, 25 miles from his USDA research center, where he observed weeds that were two to four times bigger than weeds growing on his rural test plot. The urban weeds prompted further research on weeds that could be valuable to raising crops in high-carbon, high-heat scenarios.
Ziska tries not to call red rice a weed. Sometimes he calls it skanky rice, but mostly he refers to it as wild or feral rice. All crop plants were wild at some point. They became domesticated in the same way cows and pigs became domesticated on farms: through breeding and selection. Wild and feral crop relatives are the original source of raw genetic material from which all modern crop varieties were first developed, but these reservoirs of natural variation have not been well studied.
Breeding from wild, ancestral plant populations may hold the key to creating crops of the future. Wheat breeding has already made significant progress in producing weedy lines, which have led to the cultivation of edible wheat. Because it has a large genome, wheat can incorporate traits that better withstand heat and drought. Matthew Reynolds, head of the wheat physiology program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City, says that wheat producers are fortunate because they are slightly ahead of the curve in developing heat- and drought-resistant varieties.
The value of using wild relatives of crops as sources of environmental resilience and resistance to pests and diseases led to an estimated $115 billion in annual benefits to the world economy by 1997, primarily through increased production, according to research at Cornell University.
Although seeds are readily accessible in 1,700 gene banks throughout the world, “they are not used to their full potential in plant breeding,” said Susan McCouch, a plant geneticist at Cornell. “There are still vast reserves of valuable genes and traits hidden in low-performing wild ancestors and long forgotten early farmer varieties that can be coaxed out of these ancient plants by crossing them with higher-yielding modern relatives. These crosses give rise to families of offspring that carry a myriad of new possibilities for the future.”
McCouch says the plant breeder’s job is to utilize a combination of insight, field experience, technology and innovative breeding strategies to select the most promising offspring and prepare them for release as new varieties. The breeding system allows ancient traits and genes to be constantly recycled and recombined, giving rise to an infinite range of new possibilities with every generation.
“The same process happens in nature,” McCouch said, “but the plant breeder can bring together parents from diverse sources that would never have found each other in the wild.”
Improved rice breeding has a long way to go. It takes about 10 years for a crop to go from breeding to production, and another five years to bring it to distribution to farmers. That’s because it is a painstakingly slow process to select populations of offspring that contain combinations of traits and genes that have never been utilized in agriculture before, then test their resiliency to environmental stresses.
But through such work weeds may become the unlikely hero of food production. Take red rice. As the name implies, weedy red rice looks like cultivated rice—the staple food for more than 3 billion people in the world—but it is an Asian wild grass. If it gets into a field of cultivated rice, it’s a fierce competitor. Because it looks so similar to rice, it develops incognito. It grows vigorously. It propagates quickly. As it matures, it grows taller than other rice plants.
Then the wind blows its seeds all over a field and the crop plants itself. Red rice can’t be controlled by herbicides because it is so closely related to most cultivated rice. Once it’s established in a field, it is so aggressive that it will cut a field’s rice yield by 80 percent. Within five years it can become the dominant species in a field. Technically, red rice is edible but almost impossible to harvest because once it develops a seed, the seed falls to the ground and shatters.
The goal, says Ziska, is to transfer the traits that make red rice so hardy into the more commonly cultivated rice crops.
With a growing global population projected to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century, the demand for rice and other cereals is expected to rise by 14 percent per decade. But climate change is expected to cut into some of those crop yields. Today’s high temperatures stress the rice plants, limit growth and shorten growing seasons. Increasing carbon dioxide causes weeds to outpace crop growth. Coastal deltas are major rice-growing areas worldwide, and repeated coastal flooding is worsening with rising sea levels and intensifying storms; Vietnam, one of the top exporters of rice globally, already is losing land in the Mekong Delta.
To surmount these many challenges, new tools and technologies are being developed that allow plant breeders to utilize ever-more distantly related wild and exotic relatives and to liberate the potential that remains locked up in these reservoirs of natural variation.
However, crop resilience does not come in the form of a silver bullet. “It will not be one new trait, one super crop variety or one new management system that allows us to meet the world’s demand for food,” McCouch says. “It takes time, effort and training to make significant genetic progress when utilizing these ancient sources of variation.”
But Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science said agricultural science must move quickly to keep pace with climate change. “This adaptation needs to be fast,” said Boesch. “It is not something we can gradually work on. We need to have our science to support adaptation done at the same time as the rapid change that is occurring. And that poses tremendous risks for food security.”
Ziska believes weeds will likely be a key part of the solution. “The feral cousins of today’s crops may allow us to adapt to meet food security needs,” he says. “This paradox of weeds I find fascinating. Let’s turn lemons into lemonade.”
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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As the climate crisis takes on more urgency, psychologists around the world are seeing an increase in the number of children sitting in their offices suffering from 'eco-anxiety,' which the American Psychological Association described as a "chronic fear of environmental doom," as EcoWatch reported.
By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.