By Reynard Loki
Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant- or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.
In 1994, a tomato known as Flavr Savr became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. Scientists at the California-based company Calgene (which was scooped up by Monsanto a few years later) added a specific gene to a conventional tomato that interfered with the plant's production of a particular enzyme, making it more resistant to rotting. The tomato was given the all-clear by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Since then, both the U.S. and Canada have embraced the genetic engineering of food crops, while Europe has broadly rejected the use of such technology. Only five EU nations—the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—grow GE crops and in such minor amounts that all five countries make up less than 0.1 percent of GE cultivation worldwide.
It appears Europe has been right all along to renounce GE crops. An in-depth examination recently published by the New York Times found that GE crops have largely failed to achieve two of the technology's primary objectives: to increase crop yields and decrease pesticide use.
New York Times Takes Critical Look at False Promise of GMOs https://t.co/ojJKF4jtiR @TrueFoodNow @justlabelit— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1477965307.0
Pesticides in particular have come under increasing fire in recent years, not only for their negative impact on human health and wildlife, but for decimating populations of key food crop pollinators; specifically bees, which we rely on to pollinate a third of food crops.
New USDA Data Shows 85% of Foods Tested Have Pesticide Residues https://t.co/yVwXEZJff8 @gmo917 @TrueFoodNow— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1479941410.0
While consumer awareness of the effects of pesticides has grown, the ongoing battle over GE crops has largely zeroed in on whether or not such foods are safe to consume. But as the New York Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim points out in his article about the paper's analysis, "the debate has missed a more basic problem"—that GE crops have "not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides."
Analyzing academic and industry research, as well as independent data, the New York Times compared results on the two continents and found that the "U.S. and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields—food per acre—when measured against Western Europe." The paper also cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found "little evidence that the introduction of GE crops were resulting in more rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields in the U.S. than had been seen prior to the use of GE crops."
New York Times: Behind the Times?
For many farmers, researchers and activists, the New York Times' conclusion was not news. Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Minnesota, told AlterNet that the paper's analysis simply "confirms what many of the world's best scientists have said for years: GE crops have benefitted no one except the corporations selling the chemicals required to grow them."
"I'm glad that the New York Times has now discovered what those of us in agriculture have known for 20 years, that the old and exaggerated claims of genetic engineering by Monsanto and their allies are bogus," Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer, told AlterNet. "They have not panned out and I'm glad that now the newspaper of record has made this clear to a lot of people." Gerritsen and his wife Megan have owned and run Wood Prairie Family Farm in northern Maine for 40 years. "A lot of us have been saying this for a long time," he said.
While it may not be news for those working toward a more sustainable food system, the New York Times story was unexpected. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, DC, told AlterNet that the New York Times piece is "a surprising ray of light illuminating the longstanding GE crops debate." He said that the paper "for so many years had ignored the science about genetic engineering and bought the Big Lie" that Monsanto and its cohorts have been telling the public for so long: "that GE crops 'reduce pesticide use, increase yield and are key to feeding the world.'"
Seeing Through Monsanto's Propaganda
These recent findings fly in the face of Monsanto's stated claim that "the introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields." But the company is sticking to its guns. When shown the New York Times' findings, Robert T. Fraley, the company's chief technology officer, claimed the paper had selectively chosen the data in its analysis to put the industry in a bad light. "Every farmer is a smart businessperson and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don't think it provides a major benefit," said Fraley. "Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously."
On its website, Monsanto backs its claim by citing statistics reported by PG Economics, a UK-based agricultural industry consultancy. However, that firm that has been exposed as a corporate shill by Lobbywatch.org, a UK-based nonprofit that tracks deceptive PR practices. PG Economics has been commissioned to write reports on behalf of industry lobby groups whose members include the Big Six agrichemical giants: BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta.
"Most of the yield advancement since GE crops were first commercialized is attributable to traditional breeding techniques, not the GE traits," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, told AlterNet. Kastel, who worked for several agribusiness giants including International Harvester, J.I. Case and FMC before making what he calls the "paradigm shift to sustainable farming," said that since GE crops were introduced in the U.S., farmers have experienced boom-and-bust cycles and today are "generally hurting," regardless of the scale of their farming operations. "GE crops have not been a panacea for economic sustainability," he said.
Instead, GE crops have been a source of financial growth for the agrichemical industry. Kimbrell said that the Big Six "make tens of billions of dollars in profits by selling ever more pesticides, especially herbicides. Why would they spend hundreds of millions of research dollars and then billions in advertising and lobbying to promote crops that actually 'reduce pesticides' and thereby destroy their bottom line? Are these companies committing economic suicide in an altruistic attempt to feed the world? Obviously not. You can accuse Monsanto of many things, including myriad corporate crimes over many decades, but altruism is not one of them. The vast majority of [genetically engineered crops] are not designed to decrease herbicide use, but to massively increase it."
A Toxic Plague
The New York Times' Hakim notes that, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, while insecticide use has actually fallen by a third since GE crops were introduced in the U.S. in the mid-'90s, herbicide use has exploded, growing by more than a fifth over that same period. French farmers, by contrast, have been able to reduce insecticide use by a far greater margin—65 percent—while decreasing herbicide use by more than a third. "Although some insecticide use has been reduced, overall agrochemical applications have grown exponentially," said Kastel.
American tomatoes may take longer to rot than their conventionally grown European counterparts. But with GE tomatoes being one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the U.S. food supply—not to mention the fact they won't feed more people (there'll be a staggering 8.5 billion of us by 2030, 11.2 billion by 2100)—the Flavr Savr is just a trick and perhaps ultimately a dangerous one. While the real toll of industrialized GE agriculture on human and environmental health is hard to calculate, its track record is dismal. By some estimates, pesticides have killed an estimated 250 million bees in a just a few years. The New York Times reported that some commercial beekeepers have lost more than a third of their bees in 2013. Pesticides have also impacted populations of fish, amphibians and songbirds.
But it's not just wildlife that suffers. The general public is ingesting pesticides on a regular basis. Kastel notes that "eaters are consuming copious amounts of biological insecticides built into the genome of corn," adding that "the cumulative health impacts are unknown." People who live near GE crops have to contend with an additional health impact: pesticide drift, agrichemicals blown into their communities by the wind.
The heavy reliance on pesticides has started a vicious cycle, leading to the rise of pesticide-resistant superweeds. "Weeds and insects are becoming resistant to the herbicides and genetic insecticides that are spliced into the plants," said Gerritsen. "To combat resistance, some farmers are using a chemical cocktail of multiple herbicides while biotech companies are introducing resistance to even more powerful and toxic chemicals." He estimates there may be 60 to 80 million acres of farmland in the U.S. with "superweeds" that have built up a resistance to Roundup. Cummins said superweed resistance has forced farmers to "use higher and higher amounts of increasingly dangerous poisons" so that "soils are eroded and degraded. Water is polluted. Foods are contaminated. And to what end?"
It may take years, even decades to fully understand the unintended consequences of industrialized agriculture. "These chemicals are largely unknown," David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, told the New York Times. His research has linked the loss of millions of IQ points among children 5 years old and younger in the U.S. to a single class of insecticides. "We do natural experiments on a population," he said, referring to human exposure to agrichemicals, "and wait until it shows up as bad."
Activists of the World, Unite
Hakim also points out that "profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades," noting that anti-GE sentiment across the pond has been much more active, with Monsanto drawing the ire of thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, as GE opposition is firmly established as a primary plank of Europe's Green political movement.
The prospect of a Monsanto-Bayer merger has only galvanized the opposition in Europe, even as activists recognize new and different kinds of challenges ahead. Jan Perhke of the Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, a German NGO, says that Bayer's diversification has made it a more difficult target than Monsanto, whose business is simple: GE seeds and pesticides. Monsanto, which has emerged as the primary worldwide target of the anti-GE movement, has been steeped in controversy recently, particularly since Roundup's main ingredient glyphosate was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization in 2015.
States Join Fed's Antitrust Probes of #Bayer-#Monsanto, #Dow-#DuPont Mergers https://t.co/WirBDusi9Y @nongmoreport @NonGMOProject @Nutiva— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478621730.0
"We have tried to put the focus not only on Monsanto and to let people know that behind Monsanto there are many agrochemical multinationals which are very big and also have very dangerous products," Perhke told DW. There has been speculation that, if the merger goes through, Bayer will drop the Monsanto name, which would force activists to rebrand their campaigns.
Many anti-GE activists can be found in Vermont, the first state to pass GMO-labeling legislation. In its 2016 report Vermont's GMO Addiction: Pesticides, Polluted Water, and Climate Destruction, the nonprofit group Regeneration Vermont describes the terrible impact chemical-based industrial agriculture has had on the state's economy and environment:
The true nature of GMO agriculture in Vermont today is a stark and dangerous difference from the promises of its corporate advocates. According to data collected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, pesticide use is up 39% and increasing rapidly while, at the same time, new pesticides are being added to the arsenal. Climate-threatening nitrogen fertilizers have been up about 17% per year in the decade of GMO's rise to dominance (2002-2012) and climbing as our denuded soils require more and more inputs for high production. And the pollution to our climate, water and soil from these increases continues to rise, keeping us on a steady degenerative decline, environmentally, economically and culturally.
Lining Corporate Coffers
"The great economic promise of genetically engineered crops has flowed primarily to bankers, suppliers and the biotechnology industry," said Kastel. "Rather than improving the bottom line, it enabled farmers to grow larger and automate crop production with fewer people involved."
The agrichemical industry is the chief beneficiary of those economic benefits. Over the past 15 years, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto and Syngenta have grown more than sixfold. And these companies are profiting on both ends. "They sell the seeds and the poisons sprayed on those seeds. Great for their bottom line, terrible for the rest of us and the planet," said Kimbrell. "For Monsanto and the other chemical companies, genetically engineering crops is just another way to significantly increase profits." If the mergers of Monsanto and Bayer on one side, and Syngenta and ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned agrichemical company, on the other, were to go through, the two newly created behemoths would each have combined values in excess of $100 billion.
Meanwhile, bees are dying in worrisome numbers, in part due to the increased use of neonicotinoids, a dangerous class of pesticides produced by Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical and commonly used on GE corn, soybean, canola and cereal, as well as many fruits and vegetables. But because bees work for free, the estimated $15 billion in ecosystem services they provide to society each year is not included in economic calculations.
Is It Too Late?
Even as crop yields have shown no improvement versus conventional methods, U.S. growers have increased their use of herbicides as they have converted key crops—including cotton, corn and soybean—to modified varieties. Meanwhile, American farmers have been overtaken by their counterparts in France, Europe's biggest agricultural producer, in the overall reduction of pesticides.
Is it too late for the U.S. and Canada to get off this ruinous track of industrialized agriculture? For advocates of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture and agroecology—who seek to place farming within the context of natural ecosystems as opposed to objects of chemical-based production—the answer is a resounding no.
Regenerative Agriculture Will Feed the World and Cool the Planet https://t.co/qWmR0ZPF79 @SoilAssociation @RootsofChange— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478818866.0
"Research has shown that agroecologically based methods—such as organic fertilizers, crop rotation and cover crops—can succeed in meeting our food needs while avoiding the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture," argues the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "As farmers incorporate these practices into their work, many benefits emerge: Less pollution. Healthier, more fertile soil that is less vulnerable to drought and flooding. A lighter impact on surrounding ecosystems, resulting in greater biodiversity. Reduced global warming impact. Less antibiotic and pesticide resistance."
In fact, a 2015 global study conducted by researchers at Washington State University and published in the peer-reviewed Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that despite lower yields, the profit margins for organic agriculture are significantly greater than conventional agriculture. Part of that increased profit margin may come from not having to pay a premium for Big Ag's seeds and pesticides.
"Why would a farmer want to pay a premium for Roundup Ready soybeans if the Roundup is no longer working?" Gerritsen said. "What has been happening, widespread, is that farmers are going back to non-GE soybeans and growing them as they did before the Roundup Ready soybeans came in 20 years ago. Then, the best among them have figured out that there is a growing market worldwide for a non-GMO soybeans."
He notes that some U.S. farmers raising conventionally grown, non-GMO soybeans have found competitive markets in Asia, where they receive a premium for their produce. An added benefit for these farmers is that they can save their seeds instead of having to buy them each season from Monsanto, which actually leases its seeds and regulates them as intellectual property. For thousands of years prior, seeds were considered a part of the wealth of the commons, free and available to anyone who planted and grew crops.
But moving from industrial agriculture to organic farming isn't easy, especially when the transition period to get organic certification exposes growers to financial risk. The authors of the Washington State University study say that the impetus for change must come from policymakers, who should "develop government policies that support conventional farmers converting to organic and other sustainable systems, especially during the transition period," a 36-month withdrawal period from the time a farmer last used an unapproved material, like a pesticide.
But considering the powerful Big Ag lobby, getting policymakers to help farmers move to organic is a daunting task. Gerritsen acknowledges that "it's hard to out-gun the tremendous resources of Monsanto and what basically amounts to a calculated propaganda effort to misrepresent reality, to gain position and dominance." He said the deck is stacked against farmers. "Sadly, this is nothing new to agriculture. The history of agriculture is one where farmers who were spread out and independent by nature and by geography have a hard time competing with the concentrated power structures within agriculture. This has gone on for 150 years. Only now, the accelerated rates of concentration is no more stark than in the seed industry. Just a small handful of companies now control the vast majority of world seed resources. Monsanto is chief among them."
If regulators approve the $66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger, the resulting corporation would have control of nearly a third of the world's seed market and nearly a fourth of the pesticide market.
"In all probability, one story, albeit a major one, is probably not enough to finally debunk Monsanto and friends' Big Lie about GE crop technology," Andrew Kimbrell said about the New York Times' analysis. "You will probably continue to see the common sense-defying claims for a while yet. But if as the ancients said, the truth is like a lion; just let it loose. Then maybe we can finally go past the already failed but still dangerous GE experiment and move to an ecological agriculture that really will reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides and provide a secure sustainable food future for us all."
Whether or not the U.S. and Canada will move toward a more sustainable agricultural model remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The 20-year-old experiment with genetically engineered crops has proven to be a false promise, suggesting that the creation of completely new organisms is better left in the hands of Mother Nature, not scientists in laboratories.
"When you begin to genetically engineer organisms by mixing plant and animal genes, you now have the ability to alter ecosystems, which can have unintended consequences," Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, America's largest network of commercial and sustainable indoor vertical farms, told AlterNet. "Mankind does not have a good track record when it tries to alter nature."
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.
The report, from the People's Collective for Environmental Justice (PCEJ) and students from the University of Redlands, shared with The Guardian, is meant to serve as an "advocacy tool to help raise awareness related to the warehouse industry's impacts on Southern California's air pollution issues," Earthjustice noted.
California's Inland Empire, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the largest "warehousing hubs" in the world in just the past few decades, according to Grist. Since establishing its first warehouse in the region in 2012, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, where 40,000 people now work in Amazon warehouses, picking, packing, sorting and unloading, as well as driving trucks and operating aircrafts, The New York Times Magazine reported.
"The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant," The New York Times Magazine added.
In just the last year, Amazon has tripled its delivery hubs in the region due to the demand for online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis. But despite the economic boom, heavy air pollution mainly from trucks going in and out of the warehouses infects nearby communities, the new research showed, according to The Guardian.
The research found, for example, that the populations living within a half-mile of the warehouses are 85 percent people of color, while California's overall population is 64 percent people of color, The Guardian reported. The research also found that communities with the most Amazon warehouses nearby have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.
"Amazon has boomed in 2020 and tripled the amount of money it's making, and it is happening at a cost to the folks who live in these communities," Ivette Torres, a PCEJ environmental science researcher and analyst, who helped put the research together, told The Guardian.
The research also demonstrated that the top 10 communities with the most warehouses in the region also experience pollution from other facilities, like gas plants and oil refineries, Earthjustice wrote in a statement.
"The Inland Empire, probably more than any region in the United States, has disproportionately [borne] the brunt of the environmental and economic impact of goods movement, and Amazon is driving that now in the Inland Empire," Jake Wilson, a California State University, Long Beach, professor of sociology, told Grist.
Last year, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority ratified a decision to allow an air cargo facility development at the airport, allowing Amazon to operate more flights out of the region, Grist reported.
Among the local residents to oppose the decision was Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, a resident of San Bernadino in Southern California since 2005. "This whole region has been taken over by warehouses," Heredia told Grist, and commented on the "horrible" air quality in the city on most days. "It's really reaching that apex point where you can't avoid the warehouses, you can't avoid the trucks," he added.
Advocates who published the research are pushing on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local air pollution regulatory agency, to move forward with the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, which would require new and existing warehouses to take action to reduce emissions locally each year, The Guardian reported. Some solutions include moving towards zero-emissions trucks and mitigation fees.
"Last year, we saw some of the worst air quality, with wildfires adding to it, and the trucks were still in and out of our communities. So this is a huge change that we need right now, and that we actually needed yesterday," Torres concluded, according to The Guardian.
Scientists at the University of Purdue have developed the whitest and coolest paint on record.
Painting buildings white to help cool down cities has long been touted as a climate solution. However, the white paints currently on the market reflect only 80 to 90 percent of sunlight and cannot actually cool a roof to below air temperature, The Guardian reported. However, this new paint can.
"Our paint can help fight against global warming by helping to cool the Earth – that's the cool point," University of Purdue Professor Xiulin Ruan told The Guardian. "Producing the whitest white means the paint can reflect the maximum amount of sunlight back to space."
The new paint, introduced in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces on Thursday, can reflect up to 98.1 percent of sunlight and cool surfaces by 4.5 degrees Celsius. This means it could be an effective replacement for air conditioning.
"If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That's more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses," Ruan said in a University of Purdue press release.
The new paint improves upon a previous paint by the same research team that reflected 95.5 percent of sunlight. Researchers say it is likely the closest counterpart to the blackest black, "Vantablack," which can absorb as much as 99.9 percent of visible light. The new paint is so white for two main reasons: It uses a high concentration of a reflective chemical compound called barium sulfate, and the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes, meaning they scatter different parts of the light spectrum.
White paint is already being used to combat the climate crisis. New York has painted more than 10 million square feet of rooftops white, BBC News reported. Project Drawdown calculated that white or plant-covered roofs could sequester between 0.6 and 1.1 gigatons of carbon between 2020 and 2050. The researchers hope their paint will enhance these efforts.
"We did a very rough calculation," Ruan told BBC News. "And we estimate we would only need to paint one percent of the Earth's surface with this paint — perhaps an area where no people live that is covered in rocks — and that could help fight the climate change trend."
The research team has filed a patent for the paint and hope it will be on the market within two years, according to The Guardian. However, Andrew Parnell, who develops sustainable coatings at the University of Sheffield, said it would be important to calculate the emissions produced from mining barium sulphate and compare those with the emissions saved from using the paint instead of air conditioning.
"The principle is very exciting and the science [in the new study] is good. But I think there might be logistical problems that are not trivial," Parnell told The Guardian. "How many million tons [of barium sulphate] would you need?"
Parnell thought green roofs, or roofs on which plants grow, might prove to be a more ecologically friendly alternative.
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Less than three years after California governor Jerry Brown said the state would launch "our own damn satellite" to track pollution in the face of the Trump administration's climate denial, California, NASA, and a constellation of private companies, nonprofits, and foundations are teaming up to do just that.
Under the umbrella of the newly-formed group Carbon Mapper, two satellites are on track to launch in 2023. The satellites will target, among other pollution, methane emissions from oil and gas and agriculture operations that account for a disproportionate amount of pollution.
Between 2016 and 2018, using airplane-based instruments, scientists found 600 "super-emitters" (accounting for less than 0.5% of California's infrastructure) were to blame for more than one-third of the state's methane pollution. Now, the satellite-based systems will be able to perform similar monitoring, continuously and globally, and be able to attribute pollution to its source with previously impossible precision.
"These sort of methane emissions are kind of like invisible wildfires across the landscape," Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona research scientist Riley Duren said. "No one can see them or smell them, and yet they're incredibly damaging, not just to the local environment, but more importantly, globally."
For a deeper dive:
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