Organic, GMO, Pesticide-free, Fair Trade—what do these really mean, are they just trends and how do they affect our planet? Agriculture is a complex industry which to some extent we are all reliant upon. Understandably, for decades the focus has been on how to increase crop yield more efficiently and at lower and lower costs. At first glance, this seems intuitive. And in large measures the agricultural industry has been able to accomplish this through the widespread use of pesticides and genetically modified crops (GMOs) that are resistant to pests and other external factors. But does more equal better?
The evidence suggests not. We have sacrificed nutrition for quantity, and we are now ingesting chemicals into our bodies that we were never meant to. In 1974 Monsanto patented glyphosate as an herbicide, aka Roundup, which revolutionized farming practices and as such the use of the herbicide has grown exponentially. This has had not only a profound impact on the food we eat, but also on all the natural support systems that affect all life.
The pervasive use of glyphosate has given rise to “superweeds,” more resistant weeds that have evolved in response to the herbicide, resulting in ever larger doses of the chemical being sprayed. Herbicides and pesticides leave residuals on crops, affecting the genetic makeup of the plants, their nutrition, as well as, consumption by humans. A 2014 study by the Arctic University of Norway conducted in Iowa found high levels of Roundup on 70 percent of genetically engineered soy plants. This increase of glyphosate and other chemicals in humans is leading us to numerous health hazards.
As far as thirty years ago, glyphosate has been evaluated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its potential to cause cancer. In an original study done with mice, the EPA found that the chemical may have cancer causing potential, but reversed their decision only six years later in 1991. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently declared that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer, drawing from several previous studies on people, animals and cells. Industry leaders, like Monsanto, oppose the decision, citing agendas and cherry-picking of data. The EPA’s initial reversal, as well as the controversy surrounding the WHO’s declaration, demonstrates the variance of conclusions reached by how each agency analyzes the same data. Although we are still waiting for the WHO’s detailed monograph on how they reached their conclusions, what is clear is that glyphosate deserves a second look. As the most widely used herbicide in the world we cannot afford to take risks and ignore the potential harm.
But what about the plants themselves? GMO crops, as well as those excessively treated with herbicides and pesticides, have an altered genetic makeup that severely depletes their nutritional value. One way we are seeing this is in the impact on the quality of soil, which not only affects nutrition but yield. According to The New York Times article “Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil,” Robert Kremer, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says “Because glyphosate moves into the soil from the plant, it seems to affect the rhizosphere, the ecology around the root zone, which in turn can affect plant health.” To ward off disease and improve photosynthesis, plants’ root systems depend on a complex system of bacteria, fungi and minerals in the soil. Roundup in the soil can actually compete with plants for these nutrients and in some cases change the makeup of bacteria and fungi in the soil, making them more susceptible to pests and pathogens. Simply put, chemicals that are put on soil affect and alter the chemistry and biology of the land, which affects the biology of the crops, which affects the biology of the humans consuming these crops.
A clear example of this is colony collapse disorder, the name given to the ongoing mass die off of our pollinators, primarily bees, but butterflies and other insects as well. Pollinators are responsible for one-third of the food we eat, and this includes some of our most nutritious food, like fruits and vegetables. Although studies are still trying to determine the exact nature of the relationship between colony collapse and pesticides, the relatively new neonicotinoids found in insecticides are thought to be a primary culprit. Honeybee pollination is a major economic engine, according to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The worth of global crops with honeybee’s pollination was estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2005.
As global citizens of the world, we can not afford to keep living with our heads in the sand about pesticides and GMO foods. What can you do? Each time you choose the organic product at the grocery store your dollars are voting against these destructive practices. Whether you choose to buy organic or not, let your grocer know you want food labeling. You can also empower yourself with the Environmental Working Group′s recently launched food scores database. This is a definitive guide that rates food based on nutrition, ingredients and processing scores. You can shop at local markets and refuse to purchase plants treated with neonicotinoids. Also check out these organizations that are doing amazing work: Xerces Society, Pesticide Action Network, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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