Meredith Rosenberg is a senior editor at EcoWatch. She holds a Master's from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC and a B.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.
What Are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have been modified in a laboratory in order to produce a specific result. For example, many types of food sources, especially corn and soybean crops, are genetically modified in order to withstand herbicides and insects. This method stems from the concept of selective breeding and dates back to at least 8000 BCE, although genetically altering DNA didn’t happen until 1973.
Austrian monk Gregor Mendel is credited with identifying the founding principles of genetics when he crossbred two pea breeds in 1866. In 1922, hybrid corn made its commercial debut, while plant breeders discovered how to alter DNA with radiation and chemicals in 1940. After 1973, the FDA approved insulin in 1982 as the first genetically engineered product for human use. However, genetically modified food didn’t get FDA approval until 1994, when a GMO tomato became the first to go commercial. While on the surface it appears that GMOs are 100 percent positive, they have been surrounded by controversy for decades.
How Are GMOs Made?
Creating GMO plants first involves identifying and isolating a desired trait, from the aforementioned herbicide resistance to drought resistance to disease tolerance. That trait is then copied and inserted into the plant DNA that’s being modified, with the final result initially grown in a lab. The seeds from successful modifications are then sold to farmers.
Current Use of GMOs
Besides corn and soybeans, other commonly grown GMO crops in the U.S. include cotton, canola, potatoes and sugar beets. The latter are used to make granulated (or white) sugar; in fact, more than half of this type of commercially sold sugar comes from GMO sugar beets. GMO-derived ingredients are also prevalent in processed foods, such as lecithin and emulsifiers from soybeans; canola and cottonseed oil used in packaged goods; and high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in everything from soft drinks and salad dressing to bread and sweetened yogurt. While it’s often thought that GMOs are only found in processed food and drink, genetically modified produce exists as well: apples, summer squash and papaya are among the ones grown in the U.S.
GMO grains are also fed to the majority of livestock (cows, chickens) used in the meat and dairy industry, with corn, soybeans and alfalfa ranking as the most popular choices. The FDA claims that livestock fed a GMO diet pose no greater risk to human health than ones that aren’t, and so far there haven’t been any conclusive studies that prove otherwise.
In the meantime, the benefits appear to outweigh any possible risks, although these might be more apparent to farmers and the agricultural industry than to consumers, since GMO crops can be altered to better withstand drought conditions and pests, require less pesticide, cost less money to grow and even increase nutritional value.
Are GMOs Safe?
Though unproven, GMOs have been tied to everything from reduced fertility to cancer. GMOs are considered safe by the FDA, but long-term effects are still being studied, and these studies have only been performed on animals.
Although correlations exist, there are currently no definitive studies that GMOs cause cancer, and this is the stance of cancer organizations in the U.S., UK and Australia. A 2013 study raised concerns when it studied the effect of glyphosate, the active ingredient used in most herbicides on GMO crops, in human breast cancer cells. The results suggested that glyphosate could cause breast cancer, but the lab study also used breast cell tissue that was already cancerous. Another study, this time from the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015, reported that glyphosate doubled the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. It connected the highest risk to farmers and farm workers, and California has since added glyphosate to its list of cancer-causing chemicals. It should be noted that glyphosate is the main ingredient in the popular weedkiller Roundup, which has been linked to thousands of cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite this, the EPA has declared glyphosate isn’t likely to pose a cancer risk in people.
The question remains whether or not GMO crops require more pesticides (including herbicides and insecticides) than non-GMO crops. A 2016 study examined this issue. On the one hand, GMO crops altered to resist insects technically don’t require additional insecticide. On the other hand, it turns out that farmers sprayed more weedkillers on glyphosate-tolerant corn after 2007. The same goes for glyphosate-tolerant soybeans. As to why, a co-author of that study suggested it was due to weeds becoming more resistant to glyphosate over time.
In 2011, the journal Environmental Sciences Europe reviewed 19 studies involving animals that were fed GMO diets of corn and soybeans. It concluded possible links between this diet and kidney and liver disorders, as well as altered body weight and genital cancer in second-generation females, but that further research was needed. A more recent 2019 study published in GMO Science also suggested a link between liver and kidney damage in rats fed a GMO corn diet. However, this particular diet involved Monsanto-engineered corn for the Egyptian market containing a pest-deterring insecticide. The earlier study also fed rats an insecticide variant.
A 2014 study possibly linked fertility issues to GMO-heavy diets, while a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that pesticide-tainted food, often associated with herbicide-tolerant GMO crops, might have been the cause behind 100,000 unsuccessful pregnancies at fertility clinics. While the study recommended that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should avoid pesticides and GMOs where possible, it didn’t measure how much of participants’ pesticide consumption came from GMO foods that were pesticide resistant.
According to a 2015 Harvard University article, various studies haven’t proven any causation between GMO consumption and negative impacts on offspring. The article cites a South Dakota State University study that tracked rats eating GMO corn for four generations, including pregnant rats, and did not find any changes in offspring size or organ damage. It should be noted that GMOs can be found in non-organic baby food, and just like other food studies, the long-term effects are unknown at this time.
An early study in the ’90s found a possible allergic reaction to GMO soybeans, but that was only upon adding a nut protein, and only affected people with specific nut allergies. The FDA states that people are only apt to be allergic to a GM food if they’re already allergic to the non-GM version, such as soy.
There have been some concerns that eating genetically altered food would alter human DNA. Bruce Ames, a Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California in Berkeley, developed a test to track mutations from food, and this test has been used on GMO corn and tomatoes without any findings to suggest a connection. The Royal Society, one of the world’s oldest scientific organizations, asserts that one doesn’t affect the other, and that the DNA in GM food is no different from the DNA in non-GM foods.
Pros and Cons of GMOs
Pros of GMOs
As touched upon earlier, GMO crops are meant to provide benefits. For example, certain GMO crops technically require less pesticide, while other GMO crops can achieve higher yields or withstand droughts.
Added Nutritional Value
Some GMOs can also boost a food’s nutritional value, although this area has been mired in controversy. Take Golden Rice, which is just white rice that’s been modified with Vitamin A to help prevent blindness and other Vitamin A deficiencies, especially in children, in developing countries. While a good idea in theory, Golden Rice has been caught in a 20-plus-year battle due to opponents who question the rice’s safety and effectiveness. Although the Philippines approved Golden Rice for the commercial market in 2020, it has yet to reach consumers.
Increased Food Supply
Besides the potential to add nutritional value, GMOs are another way to possibly reduce world hunger. Food demand is expected to grow 70 percent by 2050, and that requires even more deforestation going forward. However, GMO crops could prevent that in a number of ways, such as employing modifications that would double production yields without requiring additional land. That’s already the case with cotton crops in developing countries, where GMO cotton has increased yields in India and China. Although GMO food crops are currently banned in India and other nations that could benefit from an increased food supply.
Combat Climate Change
Then there are climate crisis considerations. There are studies indicating that GMO crops have reduced pesticide spraying by 8.7 percent, while less soil tillage and fuel dependence have decreased greenhouse gas emissions that are the equivalent to 15 million fewer cars on the road. Additionally, larger GMO crop yields resulting from drought resistance, among other reasons, have reduced the need for farmers to acquire more land. Scientists are also researching ways that GMOs can actively fight climate change, such as altering plants that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, require less sunlight or convert nitrogen for growth purposes. GMO crops could even reduce methane emissions from livestock by employing plants that create less methane from consumption.
Cons of GMOs
Besides the negative health implications and increased herbicide usage already covered, there are additional drawbacks for the environment and farmers.
There have been claims connecting GMO crops to superweeds, where, instead of reducing a reliance on pesticides, certain crops have become more herbicide resistant, thus requiring greater usage of weedkillers such as Monsanto’s Roundup. The elephant in the room is the fact that until recently Monsanto owned the majority of the country’s GMO seeds. Roundup has been linked to thousands of cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leading to a $10 billion settlement from Bayer, who acquired Monsanto in 2018. A 2018 study stated that 38 global weed species have become resistant to glyphosate.
Decreased Pest Resistance
Insects, similar to weeds, are becoming increasingly tolerant of pest-resistant GMO crops, particularly cotton and corn. Known as Bt crops (Bacillus thuringiensis), due to the type of bacteria that makes them pest-resistant, they initially worked to resist common threats such as bollworms and rootworms, and reduced the need for insecticides. However, new strains of these pests are no longer deterred by GMO crops modified to resist them, re-upping the need for insecticides.
Increased Roundup and herbicide usage has also been tied to dwindling monarch butterfly populations, one of many biodiversity issues. That’s because the toxin also kills milkweed, the main diet for monarchs and commonly found in crop fields.
In recent decades, India has attracted attention for its farmer suicide rate, which some have attributed to the GMO industry. There have been about 300,000 farmer suicides in the past twenty years, and biotech opponents blame these on the GMO cotton sector, which is the only industry allowed to use GM crops. The majority of the country’s cotton comes from modified Bt cotton seeds. The supposed problem is the rising cost of these seeds, which many farmers can’t afford and often go into debt for in order to buy them; bad crops and fluctuating global cotton prices often create a debt spiral that’s hard to recover from. Yet there are studies that dispute a connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicide rates, instead suggesting that the reverse is true due to higher crop yields.
Besides the theory that Bt cotton is sending growers into debt, there’s the other issue of bollworms becoming resistant to GMO cotton, requiring heavier doses of pesticides. Due to different regulations, it’s not uncommon for fieldworkers to apply toxic chemicals without the proper protection, or even shoes and masks.
Adding another layer, a different paper found that small farms were at a higher risk for suicide rates than large ones since they depend more on rainwater for successful crops than large operations, which use irrigation pumps. If anything, the study authors found the bigger problem is the threat of groundwater shortages for large farms, since groundwater usage is unregulated.
Not least is the matter of seed sovereignty, giving farmers the freedom to use whatever seeds they wish, thereby decreasing reliance on major seed companies who favor patented GM seeds. Seed sovereignty is an ongoing issue that’s been ceding control to large corporations concerning which seeds farmers can plant.
Which Foods Might Contain GMOs?
Though GMOs appear prevalent, there are only a small number of GMO crops grown in the U.S. The most common are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and cotton. However, about 90 percent of these crops use GMO seeds. There are also GMO alfalfa crops, used mostly for livestock feed. GMO versions exist for some produce, including apples, summer squash and papaya. Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes all have GMO versions, and are sold under the White Russet label.
While it appears easy to avoid some GMO foods, such as produce sold under a particular label, others, including GMO corn, soybeans and canola oil, can turn up in unexpected places. For example, corn can pop up in anything containing high fructose corn syrup, dextrose or glucose, and encompass bread, cereal, soda, frozen meals and even Vitamin C supplements. GMO soy can be found in infant formula, protein drinks, tofu, edamame, canned tuna and salad dressing. It’s a safe assumption that unless an item is sold under an organic label or is considered a whole food, it likely contains GMOs.
Then there are GMO foods which are marketed as healthy vegan alternatives to meat, such as the popular brand of Impossible Burgers. Sold by major chains, from White Castle to Bareburger, the plant-based burgers contain GMO soy protein and heme, the molecule responsible for replicating the realistic beef-like taste and appearance. This molecule is genetically engineered by combining soybean DNA with yeast.
In 2015 the FDA approved AquAdvantage Salmon, a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon. This new salmon grows faster than non-GE Atlantic salmon due to a hormone from Chinook salmon. The FDA asserts that this GE salmon will be labeled as bioengineered. AquaBounty, the company behind the new salmon, plans to sell it to consumers sometime in 2021. So far many entities, from Aramark and Walmart to supermarkets and restaurants, have refused to carry the salmon.
It’s worth noting that GMOs aren’t limited to food. Most cotton, whether produced in the U.S. or abroad, actually comes from the aforementioned Bt cotton seeds. So unless organic cotton was used, most clothes, bedding and towels are GMO goods. Although GM cotton also enters the food supply via cottonseed oil derived from cotton seeds, and the oil can be found in potato chips, baked goods and pasta sauce.
What Is Being Done About GMOs?
Due to the unknown long-term health effects from GMOs, along with environmental protestors and preliminary studies linking them to health risks such as cancer, they’re banned, or partially banned, in 19 out of 27 EU countries, including France, Greece, Italy, Germany and much of the UK. Additionally, GMOs are currently banned in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Venezuela and most African countries.
The EU also requires GMO labeling, something the U.S. has resisted, but will start adding in January 2022. At that point foods containing certain types of GMO ingredients will be required to display a “bioengineered” label.
CRISPR is a type of gene editing technology that can precisely alter cells; a new technique allows for plant alteration without introducing foreign DNA, hence the end result is not a GMO. While this new technology could positively alter the current GMO landscape, it’s still in the rudimentary phase.
There are some organizations such as the Non-GMO Project that independently monitor products for GMOs and verify whether or not certain standards are met. The site also facilitates checking specific food items for their GMO status and provides guidance for identifying potential GMO foods.
In the meantime, the FDA continues to monitor and regulate GMOs, which involves working with other government agencies to ensure that the same safety standards are met as non-GMO foods. This includes monitoring pesticide usage.
Otherwise, beyond ongoing independent studies, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization, among others, have all deemed GMOs safe and as such no further action is being taken at this time in the U.S beyond GMO labeling.
What Can You Do?
Consumers can err on the side of caution by choosing organic food and goods whenever possible, buying from local farms, looking for non-GMO certification labels and reading ingredient lists. The Non-GMO project also breaks down which crops are deemed most likely to be genetically modified, along with listing high-risk, animal-derived ingredients. Some of the items might be surprising, including honey and eggs, due to the amount of GMOs used in crops and livestock feed.
At of time of publication there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs as a whole are more harmful than non-GMOs, whether to one’s health, the environment or farmers, so it appears that avoiding GMOs entirely would have a negligible impact based on the current facts available.
Meredith Rosenberg is a senior editor at EcoWatch. She holds a Master’s from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC and a B.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.
What Is the Keystone Pipeline?
The Keystone pipeline is an existing structure that carries oil from Alberta, Canada, down to Cushing, Oklahoma. The major controversy surrounds a proposed 1,200-mile extension, or shortcut, between Alberta and Nebraska. Dubbed the Keystone XL pipeline, this additional route would connect into the existing Keystone pipeline in Nebraska, which extends onward to Texas. It’s worth noting that the proposed shortcut shouldn’t be confused with an already existing Keystone XL extension between Oklahoma and Texas, called the Gulf Coast pipeline, which has been operating since 2014.
The additional extension has been under consideration since 2008, when Canadian-based TC Energy (known as TransCanada at the time) decided this would be the best way to ramp up oil production as the route would allow 830,000 barrels a day to be transported to Texas. The current pipeline carries around 550,000 barrels a day from Canada. However, the proposed shortcut faced almost immediate objections from a varied contingency concerning the pipeline’s environmental impact. For more than a decade the project has been caught in a tug of war between political administrations, environmentalists and oil lobbyists, alternating between having permits granted then revoked. The battle continues to this day.
How Much of the Keystone Pipeline Is Completed?
It’s estimated that just eight percent of the Keystone XL pipeline has been built so far, although President Joe Biden canceled the project in January 2021.
Understanding the fuller picture of the pipeline’s complicated history involves some patience. The pipeline first underwent environmental review by the U.S. State Department in 2009. Around this time, Nebraskans started raising concerns about the pipeline’s potential impact on farmland and a major water system. The State Department approved the pipeline moving forward in 2010 after determining it would have a minimal effect on the environment, but this only increased opposition from state legislators and scientists. As a result, the State Department delayed the project for another year pending additional review, yet came to the same conclusion in 2011.
Following increased protest activity that year surrounding environmental concerns in Nebraska, the department revised its decision and ordered the pipeline to be rerouted through the state, and TC Energy agreed. Yet this wasn’t the end. Barack Obama, president at the time, blocked the Alberta to Nebraska extension based on insufficient time for officials to properly review the new proposed route.
Meanwhile, TC Energy moved forward with the southern extension from Oklahoma to Texas in 2012 while re-submitting a new reroute application for the first leg. No sooner did Nebraska approve the new route in 2013 before opponents filed a lawsuit against the state government. In 2014 a Nebraska judge ruled in favor of the opposition, and the State Department once again suspended moving forward. After being laddered up to the Nebraska Supreme Court, the previous ruling was overturned in 2015 and the U.S. Senate greenlit Keystone XL to resume yet again. President Obama immediately vetoed the bill; later that year the administration rejected TC Energy’s reroute application, putting a supposed end to the project.
That is, until Donald Trump took office in 2016. One of President Trump’s first orders revived the Keystone XL pipeline in 2017. A federal judge blocked that order in 2018, pending an environmental review. Not to be outdone, President Trump issued a presidential permit in 2019 allowing the pipeline to proceed, and construction began in 2020.
Why Is There So Much Opposition?
Members of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, including Native Americans, farmers and ranchers from across the United States, begin a demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the U.S. Capitol April 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
The type of oil that TC Energy wants to transport from Alberta via the XL pipeline is known as tar sands, a thick-as-molasses oil due to a hydrocarbon substance called bitumen, which also contains a mixture of clay, sand and water. This type of oil is considered one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet. Extracting it involves clearing large swaths of biodiverse boreal forest and using steam to liquefy the underground bitumen. All of this comes at a great cost to the environment and contributes to climate change, explaining why so many different groups are opposed to the project. Yet just as many groups have political and financial reasons to keep the Keystone XL pipeline alive.
For starters, the U.S. oil industry finds tar sands oil attractive because it means less of a reliance on oil from the Middle East, while the XL extension would prove cheaper than using rail transportation. Investors also want to protect their stake in the $8 billion pipeline.
Then there are other industry supporters, including the National Association of Manufacturers and construction unions, who have vested reasons for supporting claims that the pipeline would rely on renewable energy and achieve net-zero emissions by 2023, according to TC Energy. However, fully offsetting pipeline emissions wouldn’t help to reduce any of the emissions created by those using the actual tar sands oil.
The Global Energy Institute within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports Keystone XL because it claims the pipeline’s construction would provide more than 13,000 jobs to Americans and Canadians and generate $3.4 billion in U.S. GDP growth. That number also encompasses millions from state and local taxes. The Global Energy Institute has recently accused President Biden of making a politically motivated decision to cancel the pipeline, claiming that the pipeline would in fact protect the environment while boosting the domestic economy.
Yet there are valid claims that the refined tar sands oil wouldn’t even be sold in the U.S., but instead benefit the global market since Canada is free to sell the oil to anyone, all while the pipeline takes a toll on American land and water.
Not only that, but the State Department estimated that Keystone XL would ultimately create just 35 full-time jobs to operate the pipeline — so the thousands that are touted would be temporary jobs.
The pipeline became caught in political crosshairs since it crosses the Canadian border, meaning TC Energy can’t proceed without a permit from the U.S. State Department.
Keystone XL has become highly politicized since its introduction in 2008, with democrats concerned about climate change (generally) opposing it and republicans who deny climate change (generally) supporting it. As mentioned in the timeline, former President Obama continually rejected the pipeline due to concerns about the rushed nature of environmental considerations. Later, former President Trump sought to immediately restore the Keystone XL project upon taking office: in part because his predecessor rejected it, and in part because of motivators that had more to do with maintaining economic reliance on the fossil fuel trade and less to do with worrying about climate change issues.
Ultimately, the real issue comes down to the environment.
How Does the Pipeline Impact the Environment and Society?
Heavy oil seen mixed with water in a tailings pond in the Alberta Oilsands. dan_prat / iStock / Getty Images
Tar Sands Oil
As previously touched upon, tar sands is not your average oil. Accessing it requires two different methods, neither of which is environmentally friendly. Both require water from the nearby Athabasca River in Alberta, taxing its finite quantities. The first method, involving surface mining, creates gallons of wastewater in the process. This wastewater is stored in “tailings ponds,” where the toxic water is more likely to leak into the environment. The other method involves pumping steam underground in order to access the needed bitumen through a well. This method also requires burning fossil fuels in the process. In fact, extracting tar sands oil produces more greenhouse gas emissions than extracting other natural resources.
Extraction methods aren’t the only environmental threat. Oil pipeline leaks and spills are very real dangers too. In 2010, a faulty pipeline carrying tar sands oil leaked 843,000 gallons into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Owned by Canadian-based Enbridge, the company’s slow response to stop the spill prompted area evacuations and permanently damaged the Talmadge Creek, the initial site of the spill. The incident is considered the largest inland oil spill to occur in the U.S. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the oil damaged more than 1,560 acres of streams and rivers and negatively impacted at least 4,000 area animals that needed to be saved. Not only that, but removing bitumen from the environment is a far more costly and involved process than typical crude oil, itself a costly and involved process. Whereas crude oil floats on a surface, bitumen sinks.
Then there’s the matter of using tar sands oil itself as a fossil fuel. As it stands, burning the full amount that current technology is able to extract would contribute 22 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. The worst-case scenario predicts burning the maximum amount of tar sands oil that exists in Alberta would increase global warming by 0.4 degrees Celsius.
Parts of the proposed Keystone XL extension would run through or close to Indigenous territory, potentially threatening drinking water sources. There have already been oil leaks along existing parts of the Keystone pipeline, and the affected tribes, including the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, have no reason to believe the extension would be any different. Besides the environmental dangers, the initial permits granted by the State Department ignored existing treaties between the government and Tribal Nations.
Farmers and Ranchers
Tribes aren’t the only ones whose rights and land have been threatened by the pipeline. Farms and ranches along the route have faced eminent domain, which would allow the government to take control of private land for public use; i.e., handing it over to TC Energy regardless of opposition. Nebraska has been a battleground state, with an estimated 92 percent of its land belonging to family-owned farms and ranches. Also at stake would be the Ogallala aquifer, an underwater supply that provides water to most of the state. If that’s contaminated by leaks, the ramifications would take a toll on public health, agriculture, livestock and wildlife. One study estimates that even a small leak could contaminate five billion gallons of water. It’s not just the tar-like bitumen that poses this danger; transporting sludgy tar sands oil requires carcinogenic chemicals to dilute it enough for pipelines.
Tar sands oil poses additional hazards, both to local Alberta residents and those who live along the proposed route. Numerous studies have already linked higher cancer rates from polluted air and water in areas where people live near tar sands oil production or tar sand spills.
It’s not just the public who is at risk. For example, Nebraska is home to 20,000 acres of dunes and prairie hills known as Sandhills. It’s a popular pitstop for migrating sandhill cranes in particular. TC Energy’s proposed reroute would still cut straight through this region; a leak of any size could prove disastrous.
When Did the Pipeline Leak and Why?
Despite TC Energy touting an advanced leak detection system, the existing pipeline has leaked dozens of times since its inception in 2010, and locals have often been the first to notice and report many of them.
There were 35 leaks in the pipeline’s first year alone, including a 21,000-gallon spill impacting North Dakota. In 2016, about 16,800 gallons of oil leaked in South Dakota, but that was small compared to the following year, when 210,000 gallons spilled near the small town of Amherst, South Dakota. TC Energy later revised that number to 407,000 gallons of leaked oil. In 2019, an additional 378,000 gallons spilled in North Dakota.
Tar sands oil is more likely to leak than crude oil due to its corrosive nature and the high temperatures needed to transport it, and leaks are also much harder to detect. Not only that, but cleaning it up has proven to be a Herculean task. An NRDC report found that tar sand leaks are three times more likely than conventional crude oil. On top of that, a 2012 report revealed that leak detection systems missed 19 out of 20 leaks during a 10-year period. TC Energy itself admitted in 2011 that the company could only detect leaks greater than 500,000 gallons of tar sands a day.
As for what specifically caused all of the leaks to date? That depends, although variations of equipment failure is a recurring favorite. It’s still unknown what caused the massive 2019 leak in North Dakota.
What’s Being Done About Keystone XL?
After years of back and forth, President Biden, who ran on a more climate-friendly platform than his predecessor President Trump, canceled the pipeline on his first day in office on Jan. 21, 2021. But the case still isn’t closed. In response, 21 Republican-led states have since filed a lawsuit against Biden questioning his authority to make such a decision. (Nevermind that Trump overstepped his authority by issuing a 2019 presidential permit allowing the pipeline to proceed, thereby bypassing the required environmental reviews.)
Oil demand has also dropped since the pipeline’s initial proposal back in 2008, due in part to an economic shift toward clean energy and then decreased oil usage during the 2020 COVID pandemic. Plus early investors, including Shell and the Koch Brothers, have since pulled out of the deal. Though Keystone XL appears to have reached the end of the line, opponents say the final step involves removing the existing pipeline infrastructure.
The canceled Keystone XL pipeline is a promising step toward a less oil-reliant future, but it’s still a step. There remain other controversial pipelines caught up in legal battles, most notably the Dakota Access pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project. Resolving the ongoing oil pipeline threat ultimately requires a continued push toward clean energy, thereby eliminating the need for pipelines in the first place.
Meredith Rosenberg is a senior editor at EcoWatch. She holds a Master’s from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC and a B.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Polar bears, honeybees, mango trees and coral reefs are all examples of the countless animal and insect species, plant life and ecosystems that comprise the planet's vast biodiversity. Every living organism has a role to play in an intricate web of connectedness, no matter the size, and without them, there would be no life on Earth. Removing just one from the chain can send significant ripple effects throughout the system, even if those effects aren't immediately felt. More crucially, every species lost increases the extinction risk to another connected species.
While biodiversity exists wherever there is life, there are some places on Earth that are considered biodiversity hotspots — specific areas that are teeming with native species that can't be found anywhere else in the world, from koalas in Australia to giant pandas in China. There are currently 36 areas that qualify as hotspots, but consider this: While that number comprises only 2.4 percent of the planet, those regions contain almost 43 percent of endemic species. But these hotspots are increasingly threatened by human activity and climate change.
What Is Biodiversity?
Polar bears, honeybees, mango trees and coral reefs are all examples of the countless animal and insect species, plant life and ecosystems that comprise the planet’s vast biodiversity. Every living organism has a role to play in an intricate web of connectedness, no matter the size, and without them, there would be no life on Earth. Removing just one from the chain can send significant ripple effects throughout the system, even if those effects aren’t immediately felt. More crucially, every species lost increases the extinction risk to another connected species.
While biodiversity exists wherever there is life, there are some places on Earth that are considered biodiversity hotspots — specific areas that are teeming with native species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, from koalas in Australia to giant pandas in China. There are currently 36 areas that qualify as hotspots, but consider this: While that number comprises only 2.4 percent of the planet, those regions contain almost 43 percent of endemic species. But these hotspots are increasingly threatened by human activity and climate change.
Not only that, but a United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Report warned that about a million species currently face extinction, and for some it’s just a matter of decades. As it stands, a 2018 World Wildlife Fund report shared that the world’s vertebrate populations declined an average 60 percent in each category (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians) since 1970.
Why Is Biodiversity Important to Ecosystems?
Mangrove roots in Mochima, Venezuela. Humberto Ramirez / Moment / Getty Images
Think of biodiversity as acting behind the scenes of day-to-day life. It’s nature’s way of providing clean air and water, food, resources (medicine, wood) and even climate protection. Yet consider that only 20 percent of Earth’s species — at most — have been identified by science. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus began the daunting task in the 1700s, and since that time scientists have estimated that about 8.7 million unknown species exist, although only about 1.2 million species have been identified. Of that number, who knows how many critical ecosystem players have already gone extinct, or are critically endangered, before their role is even clear?
How Do Insects and Animals Impact Us?
It’s impossible to discuss this without covering the sixth mass extinction. As the name indicates, there have already been five mass extinction events throughout history, with the last one wiping out the dinosaurs 67 million years ago following an asteroid strike. After each of the prior mass extinctions, which were mainly caused by environmental factors that eliminated as much as 95 percent of existing species, scientists estimated that it took millions more years before biodiversity regained pre-mass extinction numbers.
The difference today is that the current ongoing extinction threat could have been avoided since it’s a human-led catastrophe. A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that more than 237,000 populations of 515 species have likely gone extinct since 1900, with many more not far behind; or, 100 times faster in the past 100 years compared to the more normal range of up to 10,000 years for some species. So what does that really mean?
Without the proper number of species performing their daily tasks, the everyday aspects of life that we take for granted, including oxygen and a plentiful food supply, will worsen. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed seven honeybee species as critically endangered. If all of the world’s bees were to disappear, there would be few insects left to pollinate certain plants, ultimately affecting global food supply chains and the economy. A recent study found that bees and other insect pollinators contributed 34 billion to the U.S economy in 2012 alone.
While the worst-case scenario has yet to happen regarding bees, the world is still dealing with the very likely connection between biodiversity loss and infectious diseases. Though still unproven, scientists are getting closer to linking habitat loss and the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Less land increases the likelihood of diseases spreading from animal species, such as bats, to humans. Until habitat loss is properly addressed, experts warn that pandemics will only increase in severity and frequency.
Then there are the financial costs, which are twofold. A UN report found that governments around the world allocated between $78-91 billion a year on biodiversity goals, when in fact hundreds of billions of dollars a year are needed, the report estimated. Without spending more to tackle the issues, biodiversity loss will wind up costing the world up to $140 trillion a year.
Which Species Are Most At Risk?
A Toucan feeds on fruit offered on Aug. 24 2020 at an inn at km 110 of the Transpantaneira highway whose fire consumed everything around along with the wildfires that has already burned more than 16.500 sq. km of the Brazilian Pantanal. Gustavo Basso / NurPhoto / Getty Images
The IUCN Red List identifies which species are most at risk for extinction, including their numbers, direct threats and conservation efforts. The Red List estimates that more than 37,000 known species currently face extinction, including, but not limited to, 41 percent of amphibians, 36 percent of sharks, 33 percent of coral reefs, 26 percent of mammals and 14 percent of birds. The IUCN has categorized species into Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct. Among the most critically endangered are Amur leopards, vaquita porpoises, Sumatran rhinos and Cross River gorillas. In some cases, such as the vaquita porpoise, researchers believe less than a dozen exist in the wild.
Many other species, including those in the food chain such as Chilean sea bass and Atlantic bluefin tuna, are being pushed toward extinction thanks to popular consumer demand, which leads to overfishing.
Then there are the species that the world has permanently lost in the last 100 years, from the Tasmanian tiger, which was hunted to extinction (mainly for museum display purposes) to the Pinta giant tortoise, a Galápagos native that was hunted to extinction by the fishing industry. The last known survivor, Lonesome George, passed away in captivity in 2012. In more recent years, the media has been following the world’s last two remaining northern white rhinos. Both female, their kind is headed toward extinction, but scientists are attempting IVF using white rhino surrogates in the wild.
Yet the question remains, why are so many species going extinct or are threatened with extinction compared to previous centuries? As with most complex issues, there’s no one explanation. Rather, a combination of population growth/overconsumption, the wildlife trade, pesticides, pollution, hunting, deforestation, wildfires, invasive species, big ag and climate change are among the larger culprits.
This category poses the largest threat to global biodiversity as rainforests to plains are cleared to make way for agriculture, housing and everything else that comes with modern-day living. Rainforests around the world especially suffered in 2020, having lost 12 percent of tree cover due in part to wildfires. Many of these wildfires in turn are caused by deforestation, with Brazil leading the way under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to raze this resource for more profitable industries involving cattle and soy. As a result, Brazil’s deforestation loss hit a 12-year high in 2020 according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). This biodiverse hotspot is now at risk of losing endangered species such as the Amazonian jaguar, hyacinth macaw, pink dolphins and spider monkeys. Other major habitat loss threats throughout the Amazon come from gold mining and logging. Unfortunately, this scale of destruction isn’t limited to the Amazon, with habitat loss taking a toll on species everywhere from Nepal and Borneo to China and Africa.
Ironically, the industry responsible for providing the world’s food supply is also a major contributor. Industrial agriculture is a main culprit behind habitat loss as increasing amounts of land are converted to feed growing populations. Compounding this is an overreliance on a small number of crops and animals to meet global food supply needs, placing some of these species at risk for extinction.
About 600 million people populated the planet in 1700 compared to 7.7 billion in 2019. Future projections put that number even higher, reaching 10.9 billion by 2021. This massive population boom has taxed Earth’s finite resources. While a Population Action International study has concluded that this boom is an indirect cause of biodiversity loss, it’s nonetheless a habitat loss driver as more land is needed every year for food and other resources, along with urban and industrial development.
With increased land clearing and development comes increased pollution on a range of levels. This takes a toll on ecosystems in a myriad of ways: For example, chemical-laden water causes toxic algae blooms; rapidly changing climates make it difficult for many species to adapt; rising ocean temperatures bleach and kill coral reefs; oil spills kill fish, birds and other wildlife; and plastic pollution strangles or slowly kills wildlife that ingest it. Throw in noise pollution, light pollution, acid rain and pesticides, and it’s no wonder that many species are experiencing population declines due to decreased breeding and numbers.
Speaking of pesticides, these chemicals are most notably destroying bee populations. While they’re not the only reason, pesticides are a direct link. The Center for Food Safety found that some beekeepers have been reporting a complete loss of their colonies in recent years; at the same time, studies are showing a link between declining bee populations and pesticides: neonicotinoids in particular. Not only are these the most common insecticide, but neonicotinoids saturate an entire plant, not just the surface, proving especially toxic to bees. To put this in greater perspective, the United Nations Environment Programme has determined that 71 out of 100 crops are pollinated by bees, and these 100 crop varieties supply 90 percent of the global food supply.
This category is another contributor to bee loss, but invasive species are increasingly threatening all manner of plant and animal life. Invasive species are non-native plants or animals that have been introduced, either intentionally or by accident, and inflict ecological damage to their new environments as they compete for resources and disrupt an established ecosystem. In fact, invasive species rank just behind habitat loss when it comes to biodiversity threats. A 2019 study revealed that out of 953 extinctions since 1500, more than 400 were attributed to invasive species. For example, simply introducing cats to New Zealand in 1769 led to the downfall of the Stephens Island wren by 1900. In more recent times, Florida has banned 16 invasive species, including popular pet iguanas, as a way to reduce ecological and economic damages.
While some invasive species have been inadvertently introduced throughout the centuries, the billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade is another driver — both for introducing invasive species and biodiversity loss. A 2019 study predicted that the wildlife trade threatens almost 9,000 land species with extinction; this trade is the largest illegal market after drugs and weapons, with pangolin scales and elephant tusks among the market’s most popular commodities.
Though not as large of a market, many plant-loving consumers are likely unaware that their latest acquisition could have been sourced via the illegal plant trade.
Poaching (illegal hunting) fuels the wildlife trade, but legal hunting is also detrimental to species’ survival. During the Trump administration, many hunting regulations were scaled back, such as allowing hunters to shoot and kill bears and wolves in a wildlife refuge, along with their offspring, in their dens. Yet hunting easements aren’t limited to administrations. Idaho recently passed a bill giving hunters the greenlight to kill 90 percent of the state’s gray wolf population, which would reduce the overall number from around 1,500 to just 150. The endangered threshold is 100.
Overfishing falls into this category as well. Illegal fishing is a common practice, marine sanctuaries have opened up to commercial fishing and large numbers of marine life are getting caught up in fishing nets as unintended bycatch. Consumer demand has caused species such as beluga sturgeon, Atlantic halibut and bluefin tuna to land on the endangered list.
Certainly not least, this vast area encompasses enough issues for a separate discussion. In a nutshell, ever-increasing greenhouse gases are exacerbating the gamut of climate-induced events: rising seas, droughts, floods, wildfires, etc., all of which threaten plant and animal species just as much as they threaten human life.
What’s Being Done About It?
M/V Farley Mowat crew member Tomas, pilots a boat at the port of San Felipe, in the Gulf of California, northwestern Mexico, in 2018, as part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s operation “Milagro IV” to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP / Getty Images
Despite the many extinction threats facing species, global and local entities are working to address the problem.
The Convention on Biological Diversity formed in 1993 to protect biodiversity, and includes 196 participating nations. In 2010, the group set 20 biodiversity goals to meet by 2020. Unfortunately none of those goals have been met, although six targets were partially achieved, such as conserving protected areas and preventing invasive species. A recent UN report determined that it’s not too late for global leaders to take action, but that countries need to focus on sustainability in general, from food systems and oceans to land and infrastructure. The next opportunity for countries to address biodiversity issues will occur in October 2021 in China, when the UN Biodiversity Conference convenes to troubleshoot biodiversity loss.
U.S. President Joe Biden formally announced a conservation plan in 2021 to protect 30 percent of the country’s land and water by 2030. Additionally, under Biden the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement, ended permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline and halted oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Other recent biodiversity wins include Biden’s plan to restore migratory bird protections, however, protecting gray wolves and monarch butterflies is still under review.
There are numerous wildlife groups devoted to conserving biodiversity; some of the major players include the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, The Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and the Jane Goodall Institute. Meanwhile, conservation tourism remains a growing area, despite experiencing COVID-19 pandemic setbacks. For example, the African Wildlife Foundation has partnered with the Rwandan government to protect endangered mountain gorillas, resulting in a booming tourism industry. Elsewhere in Africa, wildlife safaris and game drives remain a critical way to bolster local economies while protecting species that are favored by poachers, such as rhinos and elephants. By no means limited to Africa, conservation tourism is helping to boost and/or protect the numbers of giant pandas in China, Bengal tigers in India, polar bears in Canada and giant tortoises in the Galapagos.
Zoos and animal facilities around the world have been participating in captive breeding programs since the 1960s, which are meant to increase populations of endangered species. While some programs breed animals that will remain in captivity, particularly zoos, others breed with the intention of introducing endangered species back into the wild. Not all attempts have been successful, but there are positive stories. Take the black-footed ferret, a North American species that was declared extinct in 1979. A captivity breeding program launched after 18 were found a couple years later; today, it’s estimated that 301 survive in captivity and another 340 live in the wild. The ferrets are also notable for the fact that they’re the first endangered species in the U.S. to be cloned, raising new hope for not just the ferrets, but other endangered species as well — even those that are extinct, such as the passenger pigeon.
While there’s overlap with general wildlife conservation groups, an equal number of conservation organizations are dedicated to protecting marine life: Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and The Cousteau Society are among those making a difference by addressing pressing issues that involve, but aren’t limited to, overfishing, coral reef bleaching, plastic pollution, commercial whaling and ocean acidification.
What Can We Do?
Greenpeace activists create a burnt smoldering rain-forest with a lifelike animatronic orangutan at the headquarters of Oreo cookies, in protest over their use of palm oil on November 19, 2018 in Uxbridge, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images
Luckily, there are ways to make an impact on a smaller scale, and the more people that partake in these efforts, the greater the overall effect will be.
Support Sustainable Products and Food
Where possible, choose sustainably made goods, whether that’s organic coffee from producers who eschew pesticides or furniture made from FSC-certified wood. (This designation certifies that the wood was sourced from well-managed forests.) Supporting local, organic farmers is another way to make a difference, along with understanding which types of seafood are more sustainable and being aware of eco-certification labels and what they really mean.
Avoid Palm Oil Products
Palm oil plantations have devastated large swaths of land across Asia, Latin America and Africa, although the majority of this popular vegetable oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Mass production comes at the expense of endangered species facing habitat loss: the Sumatran elephant, orangutan, rhino and tiger are now among the critically endangered as plantation land expansion continues unchecked. Consumers can fight back by avoiding products made with palm oil; however, this can prove difficult since the ingredient is prevalent in everything from makeup products and laundry detergent to chocolate and soap. Read labels closely, since many items disguise palm oil under other names, or use other names for palm oil derivatives. Vegetable oil, palmate and sodium lauryl sulfate are all clues that a product contains palm oil.
Eat a Plant-Based Diet
Another way to avoid palm oil is by switching to a plant-based diet. But this diet has much larger environmental benefits for biodiversity as it requires far less land usage and reduces reliance on a small number of animal species as a global food source. The world is currently using 80 percent of its agricultural land to raise livestock; consider how much biodiversity could be saved and preserved otherwise.
Become a Citizen Scientist
It’s not uncommon for environmental organizations to seek help from average citizens to participate in all manner of projects. Whether it’s keeping track of cicadas, searching for penguin eggs or identifying coral reef damage, there are programs around the world that welcome assistance. Even better, it’s entirely possible to find projects that can be performed in your own backyard.
The world has reached a critical make-or-break point for preserving a million species at risk for extinction, some within the next few decades. The issue may seem overwhelming, much like climate change, but it’s not hopeless. As with anything related to the environment, getting involved at a local level, learning about the current issues and becoming a conscious consumer are good starting points for fighting back against biodiversity loss.
Meredith Rosenberg is a senior editor at EcoWatch. She holds a Master’s from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC and a B.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.