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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Should those of us who care about our health and the planet be concerned about the new trend in genetic engineering called synthetic biology? -- Chrissie Wilkins, Bern, NC

“Synthetic biology” (or “synbio”) refers to the design and fabrication of novel biological parts, devices and systems that do not otherwise occur in nature. Many see it as an extreme version of genetic engineering (GE). But unlike GE, whereby genetic information with certain desirable traits is inserted from one organism into another, synbio uses computers and chemicals to create entirely new organisms.

Proponents of synbio, which include familiar players such as Cargill, BP, Chevron and Du Pont, tout its potential benefits. According to the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SYNBERC), a consortium of leading U.S. researchers in the field, some promising applications of synthetic biology include alternatives to rubber for tires, tumor-seeking microbes for treating cancer, and photosynthetic energy systems. Other potential applications include using synbio to detect and remove environmental contaminants, monitor and respond to disease and develop new drugs and vaccines.

While these and other applications may not be widely available for years, synthetic biology is already in use for creating food additives that will start to show up in products on grocery shelves later this year. Switzerland-based Evolva is using synthetic biology techniques to produce alternatives to resveratrol, stevia, saffron and vanilla. The company’s “synthetic vanillin” is slated to go into many foods as a cheaper and limitless version of real vanilla flavor. But many health advocates are outraged that such a product will be available to consumers without more research into potential dangers and without any warnings or labeling to let consumers know they are eating organisms designed and brought to life in a lab.

“This is the first major use of a synbio ingredient in food, and dozens of other flavors and food additives are in the pipeline, so synbio vanilla could set a dangerous precedent for synthetic genetically engineered ingredients to sneak into our food supply and be labeled as ‘natural,’” reports Friends of the Earth (FoE), a leading environmental group. “Synthetic biology vanillin poses several human health, environmental and economic concerns for consumers, food companies and other stakeholders.”

For example, FoE worries that synbio vanilla (and eventually other synthetic biology additives) could exacerbate rainforest destruction while harming sustainable farmers and poor communities around the world. “Synbio vanilla…could displace the demand for the natural vanilla market,” reports FoE. “Without the natural vanilla market adding economic value to the rainforest in these regions, these last standing rainforests will not be pro­tected from competing agricultural markets such as soy, palm oil and sugar.” Critics of synbio also worry that releasing synthetic life into the environment, whether done intentionally or accidentally, could have adverse effects on our ecosystems.

Despite these risks, could the rewards of embracing synthetic biology be great? Could it help us deal with some of the tough issues of climate change, pollution and world hunger? Given that the genie is already out of the bottle, perhaps only time will tell.

CONTACTS: SYNBERC, www.synberc.org; FoE, www.foe.org; Evolva, www.evolva.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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that global warming could cause an increase in health problems and disease epidemics? Do we have any evidence that it is already happening? -- Jim Merrill, Provo, UT

Global warming isn’t just bad for the environment. There are several ways that it is expected to take a toll on human health. For starters, the extreme summer heat that is becoming more normal in a warming world can directly impact the health of billions of people.

Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people,” reports the World Health Organization (WHO). “In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe, for example, more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded.”

WHO adds that high temperatures also play a role in elevated levels of ozone and other air pollutants known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular problems. And according to the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), warmer temperatures and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide can stimulate plants to grow faster, mature earlier and produce more potent allergens. “Common allergens such as ragweed seem to respond particularly well to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, as do pesky plants such as poison ivy. Allergy-related diseases rank among the most common and chronic illnesses…” reports the group.

Another way global warming is bad for our health is that it increases extreme weather events that can injure or kills large numbers of people. According to WHO, the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Likewise, increasingly variable rainfall patterns combined with higher overall temperatures are leading to extended droughts around the world. “By the 2090s, climate change is likely to widen the area affected by drought, double the frequency of extreme droughts and increase their average duration six-fold,” reports WHO. One result is likely to be a downturn in agricultural productivity along with a spike in malnutrition. Another is less access to safe drinking water, a trigger for poor sanitation and the spread of diarrheal diseases—not to mention resource wars.

Perhaps most worrying to public health experts, though, is the potential for global warming to cause a spike in so-called “vector-borne diseases” like schistosomiasis, West Nile virus, malaria and dengue fever. “Insects previously stopped by cold winters are already moving to higher latitudes (toward the poles),” reports UCS. Researchers predict that thanks to global warming an extra two billion people, mostly in developing countries, will be exposed to the dengue virus over the next half century.

A related fear is that thawing permafrost in Polar Regions could allow otherwise dormant age-old viruses to re-emerge. Earlier this year, French and Russian researchers discovered a 30,000 year old giant virus, previously unknown to science, in frozen soil in Russia’s most northerly region. While the virus, which researchers dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, is harmless to humans and animals, its discovery has served as a wake-up call to epidemiologists about the potential re-emergence of other viruses that could make many people sick. While some of these re-emergent viruses might also be new to science, others could be revitalized versions of ones we thought we had eradicated, such as smallpox.

CONTACTS: WHO, www.who.int; 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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: If “cap and trade” has worked so well in Europe for reducing greenhouse gas emissions there, why haven’t we tried something similar here in the U.S.? -- Sandra M., Bern, NC

“Cap-and-trade,” whereby big polluters must pay to emit greenhouse gases against a capped total amount that is reduced over time—has been in effect across the European Union (EU) since 2005. This so-called Emissions Trading System (ETS) requires 11,000 of the largest electric and industrial facilities in 28 European countries to participate. Some 45 percent of Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions are regulated under the system. Proponents say the ETS has succeeded in keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check and making Europe a global leader on climate. The EU reports that, by 2020, emissions from sectors covered by ETS will be 21 percent lower than they were in 2005 and 43 percent lower by 2030.

But critics argue that Europe’s reduced emissions may be more due to the global recession than the ETS, and that the cheap availability of allowances has made it easier for companies to pay to burn coal than to switch to cleaner natural gas or invest more in carbon mitigation technologies. Early in 2014 the EU tightened up its system by cutting the number of new allowances it plans to issue over the next three years by a third while simultaneously creating a “market reserve” to absorb extra allowances as needed.

Meanwhile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Kazakhstan and South Korea have each set up their own national cap-and-trade programs to varying degrees of success, while regional versions have popped up within Japan, Canada and the U.S.

As to the U.S., whether or not to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system here has been a hot topic of discussion in Congress. It last came up for a vote in 2010, but never found enough bi-partisan support to become the law of the land. But in lieu of any federal system, two U.S. regions have undertaken their own attempts at ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions through market mechanisms:

In 2009, 10 Northeastern states came together to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system with the goal of reducing regional carbon emissions from the power sector 10 percent from 2009 levels by 2018. Lower emissions than expected over the first five years of the program—thanks to many utilities switching over to cleaner burning and increasingly cheaper natural gas as well as less overall economic output due to the recession—led RGGI to lower its overall annual cap from 165 million to 91 million tons in 2014, with a 2.5 percent reduction every year thereafter until 2020. Analysts expect this rejiggering will drive the price of polluting five times higher than it has been and thus force utilities across the region to seek cleaner, greener alternatives to coal as an electricity feedstock.

The other major U.S. cap-and-trade player is California, which launched its own ETS in 2013 with a cap set initially at two percent below 2012 emission levels. The cap will then be reduced three percent a year from 2015-2020. Some 600 facilities are big enough polluters to qualify for participation in the system, which will cover around 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Given that California in and of itself is the 12th largest economy in the world, its forward-thinking commitment to cap-and-trade gives hope everywhere to fans of marshalling market forces to bring about environmental change.

CONTACTS: EU Emissions Trading System, ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/ets/index_en.htm; RGGI, www.rggi.org; California Cap-and-Trade Program, www.arb.ca.gov/cc/capandtrade/capandtrade.htm.

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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of those “K-Cups” everyone seems to be using nowadays to make coffee at both home and office? -- Chris B., Stamford, CT

K-Cups—those little one-serving coffee containers that allow people to brew one cup at a time in a specially designed Keurig brewing machine—are all the rage these days. Each K-Cup is made up of a plastic outer container with one cup’s worth of ground coffee and a small filter inside, capped off with a foil lid. They go into Keurig brewing machines which pierce the bottom of the K-Cup with a nozzle that then forces hot water through the coffee grounds and filter, and then out into the drinker’s cup. K-Cups and the Keurig brewers are convenient and require little to no clean-up while producing gourmet quality coffee for a fraction of the price that a retail coffee shop would charge.

Environmentalists’ beef with the Keurig system is in the single-use, non-recyclable nature of the packaging, given the implications for our waste stream. The individual parts of a K-Cup (plastic, paper and foil) could theoretically be recycled on their own, but the combination is too small and messy for recycling facilities to be able to sort. So our only choice is to throw the whole K-Cup pack, lock stock and barrel, into the garbage. Each pound of coffee consumed sends 50 K-Cups to the landfill. And with upwards of 17 million U.S. households and offices possessing Keurig brewers these days, billions of K-Cups are already ending up in landfills every year.

Keurig Green Mountain, the company behind the K-Cup revolution, is on the case about the bad environmental reputation it is developing over the issue. As a first step, it launched its Grounds to Grow On program in 2011 whereby office customers can purchase K-Cup recovery bins and fill them up with spent K-Cups. When the boxes are full, they are shipped to Keurig’s disposal partner, which turns the used coffee grounds into compost and sends the rest out to be incinerated in a “waste-to-energy” power plant. Critics point out, though, that waste-to-energy is hardly green given the airborne pollutants released from incinerator smokestacks and the fact that, in the words of Julie Craves of the Coffee & Conservation blog, recycling is the enemy of the never-ending stream of garbage needed to feed waste-to-energy facilities.

In 2012, Keurig Green Mountain, realizing it still had a lot of work to do on sustainability matters, undertook a lifecycle assessment across its product lines—and set ambitious sustainability targets to achieve by 2020. Chief among them is to make all K-Cups 100 percent recyclable. Other goals include ensuring responsible sourcing for all its primary agricultural and manufactured products, reducing life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of its brewed beverages by 25 percent compared to the 2012 baseline, and achieving zero waste-to-landfills its manufacturing and distribution facilities.

Those who love the Keurig system but are ready to forego the environmental guilt sooner than 2020 do have some options. Julie Craves reports that used K-Cups can actually be refilled with ground coffee and reused. An easier option might be buying a reusable K-Cup—most of them are made out of plastic with a stainless steel mesh filter. Still the best choice for the environment, however, might be getting the old traditional coffee pot out of storage and brewing up several cups at once—just like the old days.

CONTACTS: Keurig Green Mountain, www.keuriggreenmountain.com; Coffee & Conservation Blog, www.coffeehabitat.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.


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