Top Scientist Quits USDA, Says Trump Admin Tried to Bury Study Linking Climate and Nutrition
By Jessica Corbett
The exodus of federal scientists in the era of President Donald Trump continued Friday as 62-year-old plant physiologist Lewis Ziska left the U.S. Department of Agriculture "over the Trump administration's efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice loses nutrients due to rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," POLITICO reported Monday.
Ziska — who worked at USDA under five presidents, both Republicans and Democrats — charged in an interview with POLITICO that he left the department's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) because the USDA tried to block the public dissemination of his research on how the human-caused climate crisis's impact on rice could threaten the nutrition of 600 million people. The study, POLITICO reported, was internally cleared at the department and peer reviewed prior to its publication in the journal Science Advances last year.
USDA, in a statement to the outlet, said that "this was a joint decision by ARS national program leaders — all career scientists — not to send out a press release on this paper" based on scientific disagreement, and the decisions involving the study weren't politically motivated.
Ziska, however, said that "this isn't about the science. It's about something else, but it's not about the science."
"You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don't agree with someone's political views," Ziska said about the current environment at the USDA. "That's so sad. I can't even begin to tell you how sad that is."
Ziska's resignation comes after the departures of Rod Schoonover, a State Department official who claimed the administration blocked the submission of his report on the climate crisis and national security to a U.S. House committee, and Maria Caffrey, a National Park Service employee who wrote for The Guardian last month, "In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration."
POLITICO previously reported on the Trump USDA refusing to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that warn about the climate emergency's consequences or to release a "multiyear plan that outlines how the department should help agriculture understand, adapt to, and minimize the effects" of the crisis.
Turns out the "swamp" that @realDonaldTrump wants to drain isn't lobbyists it's civil-servant scientists. #USDA relocation is as cynical as it gets. (Until tomorrow, brace yourself.) https://t.co/SPsjHwnkzV— Timothy A. Wise (@TimothyAWise) August 5, 2019
But it's not just top-down censorship that's impacting U.S. government research on the climate, Ziska told POLITICO.
The overriding fear among scientists within USDA, Ziska said, was that the administration would take an axe to the department's science budget, and research priorities that perhaps didn't align with the administration's agenda would be the first to go. (The Trump administration has repeatedly proposed significant cuts to ARS' budget, but Congress has so far largely kept funding flat.)
Anything related to climate change was seen as extremely vulnerable, he said.
"We were careful," he explained. "And then it got to the point where language started to change. No one wanted to say climate change, you would say climate uncertainty or you would say extreme events. Or you would use whatever euphemism was available to not draw attention."
"There was a sense that if the science agreed with the politics, then the policymakers would consider it to be 'good science,' and if it didn't agree with the politics, then it was something that was flawed and needed to be done again," Ziska added. "That was a sea change in how we viewed our role."
Ziska told POLITICO that by politicizing climate science, the administration is jeopardizing the future of agriculture on a global scale, which could have devastating consequences for human health. As he put it:
To ignore it. To just dismiss it and say 'oh that's political' ... I don't have the words to describe that. It's surreal. It feels like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was among those who responded to news of Ziska's resignation by calling out the Trump administration for "silencing our scientists."
Once again, the Trump admin is silencing our scientists. @USDA researchers study key topics like the devastating effects of climate change on agriculture—topics the Administration has repeatedly undermined at the expense of real data for farmers. This is a huge loss for USDA. https://t.co/BJSeU9xEng— Chellie Pingree (@chelliepingree) August 5, 2019
The POLITICO interview was not the only report that cast a spotlight Monday on the Trump administration's impact on government-backed climate research.
In a blog post for Scientific American, Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), wrote that "the Trump administration has suppressed, censored, and threatened to fire many of its experts for the work they do, or simply for discussing scientific information that is politically contentious. In some cases, the Trump administration's actions are driving experts out." He pointed to Schoonover and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official Betsy Southerland as examples.
"Imagine the working culture for federal experts watching the Trump administration go on the offense against their own staff. What do you do to get your day-to-day work done? How do you continue to get your work funded? One option is to censor politically contentious words or phrases," Carter continued. "Self-censorship may not make headlines, but there is a lot of evidence that it's happening in the chilling environment the Trump administration has created for federal government experts."
.@UCSJacob, @UCSUSA in @sciam: “We cannot afford to retreat from the science-based policies that help our nation respond effectively to complex challenges to public health, the environment and national security.” #ScienceNotSilence https://t.co/HDr16syVMi— Environmental Protection Network (@EnvProtectioNet) August 5, 2019
Carter referenced his organization's August 2018 survey of 63,000 scientific experts across 16 federal agencies which revealed, as Common Dreams reported at the time, that "as the Trump administration continues to brazenly attack national environmental regulations, it is also 'sidelining science' within agencies, with staffers reporting issues including 'censorship and self-censorship, political interference in scientists' work, low morale, decreased agency effectiveness, and dwindling resources.'"
Next week, UCS and other partners will host a panel discussion in Albany, New York about the importance of federal science and how it can be safeguarded from political manipulation:
When federal scientists can do their work and share it free from political manipulation, we are better able to tackle our most pressing challenges. Join UCS, @RepPaulTonko @CapSciNY @CleanHealthyNY and others for a panel discussion on how we can do that: https://t.co/ClLxJKRrDh— Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) August 5, 2019
EPA Exodus: Nearly 1,600 Workers Have Left Since Trump Took Office, Analysis Shows https://t.co/AmwYvpX5SY— Enviro Voter Project (@Enviro_Voter) September 10, 2018
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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