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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the theme of this year’s Earth Day festivities? -- J. Worden, Austin, TX

Organizers from Earth Day Network (EDN), the non-profit group dedicated to diversifying and mobilizing the environmental movement through planning and coordinating Earth Day activities and events around the world, have chosen “The Face of Climate Change” as the theme for 2013’s celebration on April 22. According to the group, which works with 22,000 partners in 92 countries, more than a billion people will take part in Earth Day events this year.

Leading up to April 22, EDN is collecting images of people, animals and places directly affected or threatened by climate change, as well as images of people stepping up to do something about it. Anyone can upload a relevant picture for inclusion via EDN’s website. Then on and around Earth Day itself, an interactive digital display of all the images will be shown at thousands of events around the world—including next to federal government buildings in countries that produce the most carbon pollution. The resulting “global mosaic” display will also be available online—including an embedded live twitter feed.

The idea behind the theme is to personalize the challenge climate change presents by spreading the stories of those individuals, animals and places affected through imagery. Some of the images already part of the project include a man in the Maldives worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a polar bear in the melting arctic, a farmer in Kansas struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought decimates crops, a tiger in India’s dwindling mangrove forests, a child in New Jersey who lost her home to Hurricane Sandy, an orangutan in Indonesian forests ravaged by bush fires and drought, and a woman in Bangladesh who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones.

EDN is also including many images of people doing their part to address climate change: green entrepreneurs, community activists, clean tech engineers, carbon-conscious policymakers and public officials, and Average Joes and Josephines committed to living sustainably.

“Together, we’ll highlight the solutions and showcase the collective power of individuals taking action across the world,” reports EDN. “In doing so, we hope to inspire our leaders to act and inspire ourselves to redouble our efforts in the fight against climate change.”

For those looking to organize an Earth Day event locally this year, Earth Day Network provides a wide range of useful resources—including basic guides for organizing events at schools and universities, in libraries and within faith communities, as well as posters, reading lists and so on. Teachers can also download Earth Day lesson plans and other curricula aids for their K-12 classrooms.

Beyond Earth Day itself, EDN runs the Billion Acts of Green campaign throughout the year with the goal of getting billions of people to take action on behalf of the environment, whether through encouraging policymakers to consider sustainability initiatives, recycling e-waste, planting trees, going solar, and much more. So far the group has tallied over a billion individual acts of green and is working on its second billion now. Anyone can register their own acts of green via the Earth Day Network website.

CONTACT: Earth Day Network, www.earthday.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "Production Tax Credit" and why is it so important to developing alternative renewable energy? -- Sean Gallagher, Boston, MA

Environmentalists and wind energy boosters breathed a sigh of relief this past January when Congress voted to reinstate the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal tax incentive for companies that generate renewable energy from wind, geothermal or “closed-loop” biomass (dedicated energy crops) sources.

The credit, worth 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, remains in effect for the first 10 years of a qualifying renewable energy facility’s operation. Other technologies such as “open-loop” biomass (using farm and forest wastes rather than dedicated energy crops), efficiency upgrades and capacity additions for existing hydro-electric, small irrigation, landfill gas and municipal solid waste systems qualify under the program for a lesser credit of 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour produced. The PTC, which had expired at the end of 2012, can in effect get wind and other qualifying renewable energy technologies down into the price range of conventional energy sources.

Available off and on again in one form or another since 1992, the PTC has been key to helping many small utility-grade alternative energy providers get their businesses off the ground, which in turn has created hundreds of thousands of green jobs. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the PTC has helped the U.S. wind industry grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to the subsidy, the industry has attracted some $15 billion in investment during each of the past five years. Today some 500 wind farms operate across 44 states, providing as much as three percent of U.S. electricity needs. The increase in supply and demand has meant that the cost of wind has fallen by some 90 percent since 1980.

But Congress has let the PTC expire without renewal four times previously, leaving high and dry the alternative energy producers who depend upon it to make ends meet. Some argue that the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of the PTC has actually hurt small providers who have not been able to count on what amounts to a subsidy for helping push the country in the right direction energy-wise: “This ‘on-again/off-again’ status contributes to a boom-bust cycle of development that plagues the wind industry,” reports the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit which puts independent science to work to solve the planet’s most pressing problems. “In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 73 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses.”

This time around Congress has once again only extended the PTC for one more year, leaving the future uncertain still for qualifying producers and reducing the security of any investments in U.S.-based wind, geothermal and biomass projects. “Short-term extensions of the PTC are insufficient for sustaining the long-term growth of renewable energy,” reports UCS, adding that the planning and permitting process for new wind facilities can take two years or more to complete. “As a result, many renewable energy developers that depend on the PTC to improve a facility’s cost effectiveness may hesitate to start a new project due to the uncertainty that the credit will still be available to them when the project is completed.”

The shame of it is that wind energy is one of America’s most promising alternatives. AWEA points out that wind farms can produce as much as 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs—but only if Congress can commit long-term to supporting them via extending the PTC for more than a year.

CONTACTS: AWEA, www.awea.org; UCS, www.ucsusa.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I know that some of us are genetically predisposed to get cancer, but what are some ways we can avoid known environmental triggers for it? -- B. Northrup, Westport, MA

Cancer remains the scourge of the American health care system, given that four out of every 10 of us will be diagnosed with one form or another during out lifetime. Some of us are genetically predisposed toward certain types of cancers, but there is much we can do to avoid exposure to carcinogens in our environment.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit working to protect public health and the environment, a key first step in warding off cancer is lifestyle change—“stopping smoking, reducing drinking, losing weight, exercising and eating right.” The American Cancer Society reports that smoking and poor nutrition each account for about one-third of the 575,000 U.S. cancer deaths each year.

But smoking and obesity are obvious and other cancer triggers aren’t so easily pinpointed. In 2010 the President’s Cancer Panel reported that environmental toxins play a significant and under-recognized role in many cancers, causing “grievous harm” to untold numbers of Americans. And EWG reports that U.S. children are born “pre-polluted” with up to 200 carcinogenic substances already in their bloodstreams.

Given this shocking fact, it may seem futile to try to reduce our bodies’ chemical burden, but it could be a matter of life and death. EWG lists several ways anyone can cut their cancer risk. First up is to filter our tap water, which can include arsenic, chromium and harmful chemicals. Simple carbon filters or pitchers can reduce contaminants, while more costly reverse osmosis filters can filter out arsenic or chromium.

The foods we choose also play a role in whether or not we get cancer. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthy, but not if they are laden with pesticides. Going organic when possible is the best way to reduce pesticide exposure. And when organic foods aren’t available, stick with produce least likely to contain pesticides (check out EWG’s “Clean 15” list of conventional crops containing little if any pesticide residue). EWG also suggests cutting down on high-fat meats and dairy products: “Long-lasting cancer-causing pollutants like dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the food chain and concentrate in animal fat.”

Eliminating stain- and grease-proofing chemicals (Teflon, Scotchgard, etc.) is another way to cut cancer risks. “To avoid them,” says EWG, “skip greasy packaged foods and say no to optional stain treatments in the home.” And steer clear of BPA, a synthetic estrogen found in some plastic water bottles, canned infant formula and canned foods. “To avoid it, eat fewer canned foods, breast feed your baby or use powdered formula, and choose water bottles free of BPA,” reports EWG. Personal care products and cosmetics can also contain carcinogens. EWG’s “Skin Deep” cosmetics database flags particularly worrisome products and green-lights others that are healthy.

Another cancer prevention tip is to seal wooden outdoor decks and playsets—those made before 2005 likely contain lumber “pressure-treated” with carcinogenic arsenic in order to stave off insect infestations. Of course, avoiding too much sun exposure—and wearing high-SPF sunscreen—when using those decks and playsets is another important way to hedge one’s bets against cancer.

CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; President’s Cancer Panel, http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What would you say are the most important steps we need to take as a nation to counter the impacts of climate change? -- Ned Parkinson, Chino, CA

Americans care more about the environment than ever before and the overwhelming majority of us acknowledges that climate change is real and human-induced. But still we continue to consume many more resources per capita than any other nation and refuse to take strong policy action to stave off global warming—even though we have the power to do so.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a top down manner—via legislation mandating reductions in fossil fuel emissions—or in a bottom-up fashion with individuals and businesses doing their part by driving and flying less, conserving more and embracing greener forms of energy. Environmental leaders would like to see Americans take both paths to cut greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading green group, has proposed a five-step plan for Americans to follow to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by mid-century. Step One is to cut global warming pollution via “strong legislation that caps carbon emissions and makes polluters pay for the global warming gases they produce.” Step Two involves investing more in green jobs and clean energy. Producing more fuel efficient cars constitutes Step Three. Creating green homes and buildings is Step Four. Step Five: Build more sustainable communities and transportation networks.

Individuals need to play a role, too, by altering our behaviors to reduce our individual carbon footprints. NRDC has several suggestions along these lines as well. Walking, biking or using public transit instead of driving is one. If you must drive, make sure for best gas mileage that your car is tuned and your tires are properly inflated. If in need of a new car, look into a hybrid or electric that consumes less or no gasoline.

On the home front, weatherization can go a long way to lower heating and air conditioning needs, thus saving significant amounts of energy. Also, upgrading old appliances to more energy efficient models and switching out old lightbulbs with new compact fluorescents (CFL) or LEDs will keep carbon footprints down. If your utility has a green energy option—with power from wind, solar or other renewables—choose it, even if it costs more than the coal-based electricity. And for things you can’t change there are carbon offsets you can buy that support renewable energy projects that will offset your carbon emissions.

But perhaps the most important tool we have as individuals for battling global warming is our voice. “Send a message to your elected officials, letting them know that you will hold them accountable for what they do—or fail to do—about global warming,” instructs NRDC. On the group’s website you can customize a letter to President Obama urging him to finalize a carbon pollution standard for new power plants, and direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set tough new standards for existing plants.


Environmentalists are optimistic that President Obama will take strong action to fight global warming during his second term. But even if he convinces Congress to pass binding legislation limiting carbon outputs, each of us will continue to play an important role through how we lead our own day-to-day lives.

CONTACTS: NRDC,
www.nrdc.org

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: My kids just want to play videos games and watch TV all day. Do you have any tips for getting them outside to appreciate nature more? -- Sue Levinson, Bowie, MD


Getting kids away from computer and TV screens and outside into the fresh air is an increasing challenge for parents everywhere. Researchers have found that U.S. children today spend about half as much time outdoors as their counterparts did 20 years ago. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids aged eight to 18 spend on average more than seven and a half hours a day—or some 53+ hours per week—engaging with so-called entertainment media. Meanwhile, the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), a non-profit founded by writers and educators concerned about “nature deficit disorder,” finds that, in a typical week, only six percent of American kids aged nine to 13 plays outside on their own.

According to Richard Louv, a founding board member of C&NN and author of the book, Last Child in the Woods, kids who stay inside too much can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” which can contribute to a range of behavioral problems including attention disorders, depression and declining creativity as well as physical problems like obesity. Louv blames parental paranoia about potential dangers lurking outdoors and restricted access to natural areas—combined with the lure of video games, websites and TV.

Of course, one of the keys to getting kids to appreciate nature is for parents to lead by example by getting off the couch and into the outdoors themselves. Since kids love being with their parents, why not take the fun outside? For those kids who need a little extra prodding beyond following a parent’s good example, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a leading national non-profit dedicated to preserving and appreciating wildlife, offers lots of suggestions and other resources through its Be Out There campaign.

One tip is to pack an “explorer’s kit”—complete with a magnifying glass, binoculars, containers for collecting, field guides, a notebook, bug repellent and band-aids—into a backpack and leave it by the door to facilitate spontaneous outdoor adventures. Another idea is to set aside one hour each day as “green hour,” during which kids go outside exploring, discovering and learning about the natural world.

NWF’s online Activity Finder helps parents discover fun outdoor activities segmented by age. Examples include going on a Conifer Quest and making a board displaying the different types of evergreen trees in the neighborhood, turning an old soda bottle into a terrarium and building a wildlife brush shelter.

Another great source of inspiration is C&NN which, during the month of April, is encouraging people of all ages to spend more time outdoors at various family-friendly events as part of its nationwide Let’s Get Outside initiative. Visitors to the C&NN website can scroll through dozens of events within driving distance of most Americans—and anyone can register an appropriate event there as well.

Researchers have found that children who play outside more are in better shape, more creative, less aggressive and show better concentration than their couch potato counterparts—and that the most direct route to environmental awareness for adults is participating in wild nature activities as kids. So do yourself and your kid(s) a favor, and take a hike!

CONTACTS: Richard Louv,
www.richardlouv.com; NWF Be Out There, www.nwf.org/Be-Out-There.aspx; C&NN, www.childrenandnature.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (
www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How are populations of African elephants faring these days? What conservation efforts are underway and are they working? -- Libby Broullette, Salem, MA

A century ago some five millions wild elephants roamed Africa. Today fewer than 500,000 remain, a result of poaching for meat and ivory as well as habitat loss due to expanding human development. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1990 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed some populations to recover briefly, but a recent resurgence in illegal poaching means the iconic species is still in hot water.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported recently that African elephants are “under severe threat” with double the number killed and triple the amount of ivory seized in recent years over previous decades. And the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the international “Red List of Threatened Species,” categorizes African elephants as “vulnerable” and warns that conservation initiatives are not working to stem declining population numbers.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), poachers kill tens of thousands of African elephants each year to meet the growing demand for ivory products across the Far East. “Asia stands behind a steadily increasing trend in illegal ivory and there are still thriving domestic ivory markets in Africa,” says WWF.

In addition to the demand for ivory, war and natural resource exploitation across Africa contribute to poaching as increasingly larger numbers of hungry people turn to wild elephant meat as a source of food. WWF reports that limited resources, along with the remoteness and inaccessibility of so much elephant habitat, make it difficult for governments and agencies to monitor and protect elephant herds.

Beyond poaching, habitat loss looms larger and larger over Africa’s diverse fauna, especially elephants as they require large ranges and dine on copious amounts of tree and plant life. “African elephants’ natural habitat is also shrinking as human populations grow and forest and savannas are cleared for infrastructure development and agriculture,” says WWF. Researchers estimate that elephants’ range across Africa has been reduced from three million to just one million square miles in the last three decades.

Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers,” adds WWF. “In addition, extensive logging of forests leaves elephants with a very limited food supply, which results in high levels of human-elephant conflict when hungry elephants enter villages and destroy local farmers’ crops.”

In 2011, U.S. Congress reauthorized the long dormant African Elephant Conservation Act, putting $1.7 million into rescue efforts. Green groups raised another $3.6 million and now 29 on-the-ground projects are working to help restore elephant herds across Africa. Efforts include promoting partnerships between African and Far East wildlife and law enforcement agencies to detect and intercept illegally trafficked wildlife and improve prosecution rates, installing radio networks to improve communication between wildlife protection personnel, and aerial surveillance to rapidly detect and respond to poaching. Let’s just hope efforts like these will bear fruit in the face of rapidly continuing habitat loss.

CONTACTS: CITES, www.cites.org; UNEP, www.unep.org; IUCN, www.iucn.org; WWF, www.worldwildlife.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I hear the term “greenwashing” a lot these days but am still not sure exactly what it means. Can you enlighten? -- Ruth Markell, Indianapolis, IN

In essence, greenwashing involves falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations. CorpWatch, a non-profit dedicated to keeping tabs on the social responsibility (or lack thereof) of U.S.-based companies, characterizes greenwashing as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”

One of the groups leading the charge against greenwashing is Greenpeace. “Corporations are falling all over themselves,” reports the group, “to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”

Greenpeace launched its Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 to call out bad actors and help consumers make better choices. The most common greenwashing strategy, the group says, is when a company touts an environmental program or product while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.

Another involves what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster”: using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual environmental problems—or spending more money bragging about green behavior than on actual deeds. In some cases, companies may boast about corporate green commitments while lobbying behind the scenes against environmental laws.

Greenpeace also urges vigilance about green claims that brag about something the law already requires: “For example, if an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”


For consumers, the best way to avoid getting “greenwashed” is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just trying to look that way to make more money. Look beyond advertising claims, read ingredient lists or ask employees about the real skinny on their company’s environmental commitment.

Also, look for labels that show a given offering has been vetted by a reliable third-party. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. Just because a label says “made with organic ingredients” or “all-natural” does not mean the product qualifies as Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the hype.

Even some eco-labels are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, look it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+ different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors. The free online resource provides information on which company or group is behind each certification and whether or not independent third-party assessments are required.


CONTACTS: CorpWatch, www.corpwatch.org; Greenpeace Stop Greenwash, www.stopgreenwash.org; Ecolabel Index, www.ecolabelindex.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the prognosis for Hawaii’s coral reefs in the face of global warming, invasive algae and other environmental threats? -- Bill Weston, San Francisco, CA

Despite sweeping protections put in place near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency for large swaths of marine ecosystems around the Hawaiian Islands, things are not looking good for Hawaii’s coral reefs. Poisonous run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters and overfishing are taking their toll on the reefs and the marine life they support. Biologists are trying to remain optimistic that there is still time to turn things around, but new threats to Hawaii’s corals are only aggravating the situation.

To wit, a previously undocumented cyanobacterial fungus that grows through photosynthesis is spreading by as much as three inches per week on corals along the otherwise pristine North Shore of Kauai. “There is nowhere we know of in the entire world where an entire reef system for 60 miles has been compromised in one fell swoop,” biologist Terry Lilley told The Los Angeles Times. “This bacteria has been killing some of these 50- to 100-year-old corals in less than eight weeks.” He adds that the strange green fungus affects upwards of five percent of the corals in famed Hanalei Bay and up to 40 percent of the coral in nearby Anini Bay, with neighboring areas “just as bad, if not worse.” Lilly worries that the entire reef system surrounding Kauai may be losing its ability to fend off pathogens.

Meanwhile, some 60 miles to the east across the blue Pacific, an invasive algae introduced for aquaculture three decades ago in Oahu's Kane‘ohe Bay is also spreading quickly. Biologists are concerned because it forms thick tangled mats that soak up oxygen in the water needed by other plants and animals, in turn converting coral reefs there into smothering wastelands.

“This and other invasive algal species...don’t belong in Hawai‘i,” says Eric Conklin, Hawaii director of marine services for The Nature Conservancy, which works to protect ecologically important lands and waters worldwide. He adds that there are not enough plant-eating fish to keep them under control.

Biologists are working hard to battle the algae in and around Kane‘ohe Bay. Conklin and his colleagues from the Conservancy have joined forces with researchers from the state of Hawaii to develop an inexpensive new technology, dubbed the Super Sucker, which uses barge-based hoses and pumps to vacuum the invasive algae away without disturbing the underlying coral. Once divers clear a given reef of algae, they then stock it with native sea urchins raised in the state’s marine lab that can help keep new algal outbreaks in check. The system has been so successful at reducing invasive algae at Kane‘ohe Bay that the state has begun producing tens of thousands of sea urchins for similar “outplanting” projects on other coral reefs around Oahu and beyond that are threatened by invasive algae.

Fast-growing algae and pathogens are only part of the problem. Decades of overfishing have reduced the biodiversity on and around coral reefs, reducing their ecological integrity and making them more vulnerable to climate change. Higher water temperatures and rising sea levels, two of the more dramatic symptoms of global warming, are hastening the bleaching of some particularly vulnerable reefs that have evolved over thousands of years.

CONTACT: The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Monsanto Protection Act” and why are environmentalists so upset about it? -- Rita Redstone, Milwaukee, WI

The so-called Monsanto Protection Act is actually a provision (officially known as Section 735) within a recently passed Congressional spending bill, H.R. 933, which exempts biotech companies from litigation in regard to the making, selling and distribution of genetically engineered (GE) seeds and plants.

President Obama signed the bill and its controversial rider into law in March 2013 much to the dismay of environmentalists. It means that Monsanto and other companies that supply the majority of the nation’s crop seeds can continue to produce GE products regardless of any potential court orders stating otherwise. Opponents of GE foods believe that giving such companies a free reign over the production of such potentially dangerous organisms regardless of judicial challenge is a bad idea—especially given how little we still know about the biological and ecological implications of widespread use of GE crops.

Today more than 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola planted in the U.S. is derived from seeds genetically engineered by Monsanto and other companies to resist pests and thus increase yields. Aviva Shen of the ThinkProgress blog reports that, instead of reducing farmers’ use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, GE seeds are having the opposite effect in what has become a race to keep faster and faster developing “superweeds” and “superbugs” at bay. With Congress and the White House refusing to regulate GE crops, the court system has remained a last line of defense for those fighting the widespread adoption of genetic engineering—until now, that is, thanks to H.R. 933.

Monsanto isn’t the only seed company heavy into genetic engineering, but it is the biggest and most well-known and spends millions of dollars each year on lobbyists to keep it that way. Critics point out that the company has spent decades stacking government agencies with its executives and directors. “Monsanto’s board members have worked for the EPA, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served on President Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations,” reports the group Food & Water Watch. “The prevalence of Monsanto’s directors in these highly influential positions begs a closer look at how they’re able to push the pro-GE agenda within the government and influence public opinion.”

“The judicial review process is an essential element of U.S law and serves as a vital check on any Federal Agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods,” reports Food Democracy Now! “Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds, even if a court may find them to have been wrongfully approved.”

Another concern of safe food advocates now is getting the government to require food makers to list GE ingredients clearly on product labels so consumers can make informed choices accordingly. Not only is [GE] labeling a reasonable and common sense solution to the continued controversy that corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have created by subverting our basic democratic rights,” adds Food Democracy Now!, “but it is a basic right that citizens in 62 other countries around the world already enjoy, including Europe, Russia, China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.”

CONTACTS: ThinkProgress, www.thinkprogress.org; Food & Water Watch, www.foodandwaterwatch.org; Food Democracy Now!, www.fooddemocracynow.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly are Asian carp and why are they such a big problem lately?

-- Lori Roudebush, Portland, OR

Seven species of carp native to Asia have been introduced into United States waters in recent decades, but it’s four in particular—bighead, black, grass and silver—that worry ecologists, biologists, fishers and policymakers alike. Introduced in the southeast to help control weeds and parasites in aquaculture operations, these fish soon spread up the Mississippi River system where they have been crowding out native fish populations not used to competing with such aggressive invaders. The carps’ presence in such numbers is also compromising water quality and killing off sensitive species such as freshwater mussels.

Asian carp are hardy, lay hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time and spread into new habitat quickly and easily. To wit, they can jump over barriers such as low dams. Also, flooding has helped the fish expand into previously unattainable water bodies. And fishers using young carp as live bait have also facilitated the fish’s spread, as have boats going through locks up and down the Mississippi.

The federal government’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force considers the Asian carps to be nuisance species and encourages and supports “active control” by natural resources management agencies. Federal and state governments have spent millions in tax dollars accordingly to prevent the carp from making their way into the Great Lakes, but an elaborate underwater electric fence constructed to keep them out has not worked as well as hoped, and policymakers are reviewing other options now.

Friends and neighbors of the Great Lakes are particularly concerned about the impact Asian carp could have on the region’s $7 billion/year fishing industry. In 2009 the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District seeking measures to prevent Asian carp from moving through the Chicago Area Waterway System into Lake Michigan. While a federal district court dismissed the lawsuit last December, it could resurface in a future appeal.

Regardless of whether the states can keep the Mississippi and Great Lakes systems segregated, Asian carp are expected to keep spreading throughout other parts of the U.S. through river systems that connect up with the Mississippi directly or otherwise. Federal researchers estimate that even if Asian carp are kept out of the Great Lakes, they could affect freshwater fisheries in as many as 31 states representing some 40 percent of the continental U.S.

In the meantime, state and federal agencies are monitoring the Mississippi and its tributaries for Asian carp and testing various barrier technologies to prevent their further spread. For instance, the National Park Service is collaborating with the state of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources to construct new dams that are high enough to prevent Asian carp from jumping over. The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee has funded DNA monitoring in potentially affected water bodies whereby researchers can determine whether the troublesome fish are present just by the biological footprints they leave behind. Individuals can do their part by not transporting fish, bait or even water from one water body to another, and by draining and rinsing boats before moving them between different water bodies.

CONTACTS: Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, www.anstaskforce.gov; National Park Service, www.nps.gov; Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, www.asiancarp.us.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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