2011 - %3, March

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Science Shots: the Reproductive Helpers

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 6:37 PM EDT
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) collecting pollen.

Culled from the latest science journals, two papers about reproductive helpers—bees for food crops, fish for fruit trees.

First, an interesting paper in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science on the relationship between human welfare and bee welfare. The authors set up the premise in their opening sentences:

During the last 50 years, the human population increased 128% from 3.0 to 6.9 billion people, whereas cultivated area and crop yield increased globally by 33% and 57%, respectively. Concomitantly, natural habitat cover decreased, and global stocks and flows of water, nutrients, and pollinators were altered, reducing the capacity of many ecosystem services to support human activity.

This team of researchers from Argentina, Germany, Australia, and Canada took a look at how crops that are dependent on animal pollinators, like bees, have fared in a world where human growth is exponential, yet crop yield is not. To do this, they employed a 47-year data set collected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization between 1961 and 2008.

Background points:

  • About 70% of 1,330 tropical crops benefit from animal pollination.
  • About 85% of 264 crops cultivated in Europe benefit from animal pollination.
  • Pollinators can increase farm production of about 75% of the 115 most important crops worldwide (as measured by food production and economic value).
  • Crop pollination is not managed to the extent that farmers manage their crops for weeds, herbivores, and pathogens. In most cases it's not managed at all.

What emerged was the realization that, generally speaking, those crops which depend on animal pollinators provided less stable yields from one year to the next between 1961 and 2008—and this was despite a worldwide increase in most crop yields during that period. What also emerged was the realization that those lower yields drove farmers to compensate by converting nonfarmlands—wildlands, rangelands, semi-natural areas—into farmlands.

That's a recipe for a nasty positive feedback loop.

The authors discuss their findings and suggest a solution:

Historically, demand for increased crop production has been satisfied by expansion of cultivated area and yield improvements through genetic innovation, increased external inputs (e.g., fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides), and new agricultural practices. However, this combination of approaches imposes tradeoffs for agricultural production, such as between cultivated area and habitat for wild bees, between pesticide application and pollinator health, and between monoculture and diversified resources for pollinators... [Y]ield and its improvement should benefit considerably from more active management of wild pollinators and their habitats, the use of honey bees as pollinators rather than as honey producers, and increased application of other managed pollinators for specific crops. Such practices would weaken the feedback between environment quality and crop productivity, as the resulting improved yield may alleviate the need for increased cultivation.

 

Amazonion tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum). Credit: Thorke Østergaard via Wikimedia Commons.Amazonian tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum). Credit: Thorke Østergaard via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Second, a fascinating paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on the relationship between fruiting trees in the Amazon basin and fruit-eating fishes, like the tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum). The habitat of the fish expands hugely during seasonal floods, as the tambaqui swim through forests noshing on fruit. In the course of their travels, they disperse the fruit seeds. No one knew how far. The authors investigated that question:

Our mechanistic model predicts that Colossoma disperses seeds extremely long distances to favourable habitats. Modelled mean dispersal distances of 337–552 meters [1,105-1,811 feet] and maximum of 5495 meters [3.41 miles] are among the longest ever reported. At least 5 percent of seeds are predicted to disperse 1700–2110 meters [1.05-1.31 miles], farther than dispersal by almost all other frugivores [fruit-eaters] reported in the literature.

The problem here is that hunting of these large, fruit-eating fish by human fishers has led to the fish getting smaller and breeding earlier—a classic response to overfishing. Now we know something of how those effects might ripple through waters and forests:

Thus, overexploitation probably disrupts an ancient coevolutionary relationship between Colossoma and Amazonian plants.

 

 

The papers:

  • ♥ Lucas A. Garibaldi, et al. Global growth and stability of agricultural yield decrease with pollinator dependence.  PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1012431108
  • Jill T. Anderson,et al. Extremely long-distance seed dispersal by an overfished Amazonian frugivore. Proc. R. Soc. B :10.1098/rspb.2011.0155

I ♥ open-access papers.

McSweeney's Goes to Burma

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 5:14 PM EDT

It's Burma's turn for an earthquake: This morning, the country was rocked by a 6.8 temblor, in addition to several strong aftershocks. No news yet on the extent of the damage, because it's incredibly difficult to get information out of a country with such insane censorship and nonexistent infrastructure.

Speaking of Burma (and since I really like speaking of Burma anyhow), Voice of Witness, McSweeney's oral-history series, is about to release its newest book, Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives From Survivors of Burma's Military Regime.

My favorite story so far is that of Nge Nge. When she was in her early 20s, the schoolteacher was raped (another subject I can't stop bringing up); her attacker then forced her to marry him. Nobody believed her; when she told her dad, he beat her up and disowned her. Below is an excerpt from Nge Nge's story, though it's worth reading the whole 25-page thing, which has a relatively happy ending. Wait 'til you find out what her rapist husband does, how she finds a way to stick it to another dude, and the hope she discovers in the power of education.

The Gulf Gets Oiled, Again

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 5:10 PM EDT

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, which until last summer's BP disaster was the worst oil spill in US history. And to mark it, this week we have another oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

The slick reportedly stretched for 30 miles, with oil washing ashore along Louisiana's Grand Isle. When it was reported earlier this week in the Times-Picayune, officials were puzzled about the source. Then on Tuesday night, the responsible party 'fessed up. From The Lookout:

Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners issued a statement last night expressing "surprise" that what it claimed was a minor leak from a well that's been out of use for some time could have produced miles-long slicks that garnered national media attention. The company has been in the process of permanently plugging the well -- located in a shallow area about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La. Anglo-Suisse owned a cluster of five platforms in that area that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Times-Picayune reported that the company said it only leaked 5 gallons of oil. But as The Lookout's Brett Michael Dykes points out, that's more than a little questionable given the size of the slick and the amount of oil people were reportedly finding on the beaches.

Of course, the oil was "nowhere near the volume of Deepwater Horizon but still significant enough," as Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said earlier this week (via the Wall Street Journal). But it was a good reminder of something that we reported on last year in the middle of the BP spill, when evidence of additional leaks nearby came to light. Even when there's not a massive spill underway, there may we be leakage from other wells that isn't monitored very closely. Companies are required by law to report their spills to the National Response Center, Coast Guard or Environmental Protection Agency if there's a "visible sheen," but that requires them to notice the leak, actually report it, and be honest about how much oil has spilled.

A Word on Libya

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 4:19 PM EDT
A BGM-109 Tomahawk

The world is exploding. TomDispatch can't cover it all. Still, a comment is in order on our Libyan intervention. As a start, it could be the first intervention that actually escalated before it even began. It went from no-fly-zone to no-fly-no-drive-zone before a US cruise missile was launched or a French jet took off. Within two days, it seemed to be escalating even further into a half-baked, regime-change(ish)-style operation. (As of Wednesday, 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles had already been sent Libya-wards, most of them from American vessels, at more than $1 million a pop.) To make the intervention even stranger, it was initially opposed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, and counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan, as well as many conservatives. Instead, the (not very) liberal warhawks of the administration—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Council senior aide Samatha Powers, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice—were evidently in the lead on this one (along with various neocons in full hue and cry).

Tight Money, Lousy Economy

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 3:36 PM EDT

Economist Scott Sumner is aghast at his profession:

If pressed, Keynesians will usually point to real interest rates as the right measure of monetary ease or tightness. By that criterion the Fed adopted an ultra-tight monetary policy in late 2008. Monetarists will usually say that M2 is the best criteria for the stance of monetary policy. By that criterion the ECB adopted an ultra-tight monetary policy in late 2008. And yet it’s difficult to find a single prominent macroeconomist (Keynesian or monetarist) who has publicly called either Fed or ECB policy ultra-tight in recent years. Maybe tight relative to what is needed, but not simply “tight.”

I’m calling out my profession. Do they really believe what they claim to believe about good and bad indicators of monetary tightness? Or in a crisis do they atavistically revert to the crudest measure of all, nominal rates.

Tight money and inadequate fiscal stimulus, two terrible tastes that taste even worse together. It's almost as though we want our economy to suck for as long as it possibly can.

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Europe's Problem

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 1:29 PM EDT

Ryan Avent is nervous about Europe:

It seems clear that Greece is insolvent, and Ireland probably is too. Portugal is more of a borderline case, but it's becoming less so by the day. Angela Merkel is demanding austerity in exchange for a bail-out; well, the government just revised down expectations for the economy this year. It now says that Portugal's economy may shrink by 0.9% in 2011, where before it was expected to grow at a 0.2% pace. Austerity will likely slow the economy further, reducing Portugal's ability to pay its debts. And remember, the European Central Bank is about to raise interest rates.

There are several big problems to handle here, but one big one is obvious—Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are probably all busted. They simply can't meet their obligations. Their debt will almost certainly need to be restructured. The euro zone isn't excited about doing this now, partially because it's worried about its banks and partially because it's hoping it won't come to that. But default looks inevitable.

It's easy to say this from a distance, but Merkel and other European leaders have their heads in the sand. They don't want Greece, Ireland, or Portugal to default because that would mean big losses for banks in their own countries, which would then have to be bailed out. But they also don't want to directly bail out the insolvent countries, because voters wouldn't like that much. So they're kicking the can down the road with half measures and hoping that somehow things turn up. It's a recipe for stagnation at best and disaster at worst.

Chart of the Day: Who Are the Rebels?

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 12:15 PM EDT

So who are the Libyan rebels that we're now supporting in their fight against Muammar Qaddafi? Mark Thompson reports that a lot of them are the same folks who were fighting us in Iraq four years ago:

A West Point analysis of the foreign fighters involved in the increasing carnage showed that the nation sending the most militants to Iraq from August 2006 to August 2007, was, on a per-capita basis, Libya....Drilling down into the data, the December 2007 examination from the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center showed that nearly all of the Libyan fighters came from the northeastern part of the country [Darnah and Benghazi in the pie chart above], which is where the rebels we are now helping hail from. It's a small sample, but something to keep in mind.

Just another data point to tuck into the back of your mind as all this stuff unfolds.

Meet the Ex-KKK Grand Dragon Running for Mayor in Fla.

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 11:42 AM EDT

As a general rule, nothing that happens in Florida should ever come as a surprise; you should just assume, for instance, that Sunshine State Republicans are freaking out about government-run septic tanks, and that, until proven otherwise, somewhere in Sarasota a police officer is declaring himself a sovereign nation. But ok, this isn't exactly ordinary:

70-year-old John Paul Rogers wants to become the next mayor of Lake Wales, but critics say he could have a tough time bringing the town together because he's a former member of Ku Klux Klan.

Rogers, who is currently a commissioner, spoke with 10 News Tuesday afternoon and says, "I'm not running for the Klan for Grand Dragon." That's because Rogers has already had that title.

"Critics say" Rogers' long association with a racist hate group that has a history of violence reflects poorly on his character and suggests that he might be something less than a stellar ambassador for Lake Wales. But Rogers (above left, in gold), a city commissioner and a Democrat, insists that this is all just a big misunderstanding because really, the United Klans of America wasn't just about race—where'd anyone get that idea? Asked at a recent forum if he'd denounce his past views, "Rogers responded that if being against communism, against drugs, and in favor of states' rights was wrong, then he was wrong." (Here's a photo, via the Lakeland Ledger, of Rogers with his drug-fighting action figure).

Rogers, who dismisses the criticism as "muckraking and character assassination," says that he resigned from the Klan decades ago, thereby making his service a non-issue. But Tampa's WTSP says that he was basically forced out, on account of the fact that the Klan had just lost a $7 million civil suit for their role in the murder of a 19-year-old black man in Mobile, Alabama. Then again, that's muckraking so maybe it doesn't count.

The Coming GOP Spectacle

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

Speaking of Sarah P., I just want to say that I am so looking forward to the Republican primary campaign this cycle. It looks like Michele Bachmann is going to run, Palin might run, Newt Gingrich is probably going to run, Jim DeMint seems like he might run, and I suppose Ron Paul will run again too. This is a freak show of stupendous proportions, and it would be perfect if Donald Trump really did decide to join all these nutbags on the stage during the debates.

I guess I'm wondering how these debates are going to go. I mean, the party line even among the relatively sane wing of the GOP holds that Obama is a socialist Kenyan sleeper agent, global warming doesn't exist, millionaires are taxed too highly, and Ben Bernanke is courting hyperinflation. Parroting those positions won't make you stand out from the pack, so the crazy wing is going to have to up the ante. But how? Obama needs to turn over a DNA sample to prove he's not a mutant mole? Our real danger is the potential for ice caps to start forming in Los Angeles by the middle of the century? We should take a cue from the airlines and give rich people a million-dollar-club card from the government that exempts them from all taxes for the rest of their lives?

Can the Republican Party survive a spectacle like this? Sadly, yes, it can. Can Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney? Probably not. But at least it should be entertaining.

(And just for the record, I can afford to take this lightly because I believe Obama is a shoo-in for reelection. Short of Great Depression 2.0 or something like that, Republicans have zero chance of regaining the White House next year.)