Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 2:16 PM EST
Ignacio ChapelaIn April 2002, I sat in the office of UC Berkeley environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela as an ancient telephone chortled incessantly with calls from scientists and journalists curious about his latest study, a paper published in Nature showing how genes from GM corn entered local varieties of the plant in Mexico, where GM crops are banned. Samples of the corn sat in vials on his desk. An international controversy had erupted over the experiment, and earlier that month the prestigious journal published an unprecedented near-retraction. “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” said a terse editorial note. Chapela admitted to making a few interpretative mistakes, but stood by his findings even when a study by a different team of researchers in 2005 was unable to replicate his results. His findings were finally corroborated this week by scientists from Mexico, the United States, and the Netherlands who looked at thousands of seed samples from hundreds of Mexican corn fields and found that around 1 percent of them had genes that had jumped from GM varieties. Even before this week, major detractors agreed with Chapela's main point. Corn disperses pollen easily, so one should expect that GM pollen carried by the wind has mated with local corn varieties in much of the world.

Although neither expensive--total cost $2000--nor surprising, Chapela’s study was attacked because it provoked ongoing feuds. Disagreements about what might happen when GM crops interbreed with their unaltered neighbors are now more than a decade old. Scientists still debate whether transgenics will diminish genetic diversity in local crop varieties, kill beneficial creatures, or reduce the ability of entire plant populations to survive.

Scientists already know that pollen from GM crops can kill beneficial insects. For example, the Bt gene in corn poisons pests like the European corn borer but could also inadvertently wipe out the valuable Typhlodromalus aripo. The T. aripo, as it is known, eats both corn pollen and the ignominious green mite, which wreaked havoc on Africa’s cassava crop in the 1980s and early 90s. The mite was accidentally introduced from South America and scientists combated it in 1993 by importing the T. aripo from Brazil. After it went to work eating mites, it immediately increased cassava yields by 35%. The addition of Bt pollen to that diet could be a boon to the mites and a disaster for T. aripo and farmers. “If it destabilized cassava,” says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a Berkeley researcher who has done computer modeling on GM crops, “it could destroy the basic food staple for 220 million Africans in an area twice the size of the United States.”

Accepting such risks becomes even more difficult given that Bt is probably only a temporary solution to insect invasions. Last February, University of Arizona researcher Bruce Tabashnik documented the first case, in GM cotton, of insects developing a resistance to the Bt gene. “My own experience in the history of insect resistance is that they develop resistance to whatever control measure is used against them,” he told me in 2002. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Did Slumdog Millionaire Exploit its Slum-Dwelling Child Actors?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 6:06 PM EST

Their parents seem to think so. The mother of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail—the 10-year-old who plays the lead character's brother, Salim, in the Oscar-sweeping film—still lives lives with her son in a hovel made of tarps and blankets in Mumbai's Behrampada shanty, where rats roam and sewage runs untreated. "He's supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he's living," she told Australia's Herald Sun. "We need money and help now. It is hard living like this. I am worried that after the Oscars are over they will forget us."

And then there's the movie's other slum star:

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the young version of Latika, the film's heroine, lives nearby. Her shack is brightly coloured but an open sewer runs close by.
Her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.

"I am very happy the movie is doing so well but it is making so much money and so much fame, and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more," he said.

But British director Danny Boyle says he's trying to be smart about how he pays the child actors:

They said they paid painstaking attention to how Azharuddin and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit over and above the payment for their work.
The children, who have never received formal eduction, have been enrolled in school since last June at the production company's expense until they are 18.
Azharuddin and Rubina will receive a lump sum when they finish their education, and Boyle said money was in place to cover health care and emergencies.
They decided not to shower the children with cash because they could not handle it psychologically and practically.

For the most part, Boyle's approach sounds wise. But in addition, why not give the parents just enough money to move out of the slums into a half-decent apartment somewhere? They certainly deserve it now that the film has grossed $155 million. And even if the adults blow the cash, it's hard to see how that kind of modest aid would skew the kids' priorities.

UPDATE from the Daily Mail:

The filmmakers also claim they have now agreed to buy apartments for the two children and allow the families to move in, with the stipulation that they will not own the property unless the youngsters complete their education.
Tonight, however, a spokesman for the film was unable to provide further details about the apartment plans.

UPDATE #2: The Hindu reports that the Oscars have apparently shamed the Indian government into giving flats to the families.

As U.S. Tightens Environmental Rules, Cash-Strapped States Loosen Them

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:41 PM EST
The stimulus package is an environmental boon, the EPA will probably regulate carbon, and Sen. Harry Reid wants to take a green pen to the Energy Bill. It looks like the best week in years for environmentalists--until, that is, you step out of the Beltway. To help close massive budget deficits, states across the country are weakening environmental rules.

Exhibit A is California, where today legislators closed a $41 billion budget gap in part by nixing air pollution rules that would have cost the housing industry millions. The measure delays requirements for builders to retrofit diesel construction equipment, slashing by 17 percent the emissions savings that the state had hoped to achieve by 2014. The move will probably prevent Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and other highly polluted regions from meeting federal air quality deadlines. It will also reduce the "green jobs" the state had hoped to create by retrofitting old equipment. The Sierra Club's California director told the LA Times: "With the magnitude of the forces at play here, the environmental issues have taken a back seat to taxes."

California's move follows on the heels of other states. In Oklahoma:
State agencies that protect public water supplies, manage the state's flood plains and protect Oklahomans from the dangers of hazardous waste would bear some of the biggest cuts under Gov. Brad Henry's proposed state budget for the upcoming year.
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors the state's air and water quality as well as solid, hazardous and low-level radioactive waste, lost almost $2 million in appropriations from its current $9.7 million budget, a reduction of 20 percent.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board, responsible for setting water quality standards, enforcing dam safety regulations and managing Oklahoma's flood plains, lost more than $1.1 million from its $4.6 million budget, a 25 percent reduction.
And that's not all: Pennsylvania's proposed budget reduces funding for three state environmental agencies by 1.5 to 9 percent. The state of  Washington's panel that tracks pesticide exposure was axed. And the budget for New York State's Environmental Protection Fund, which buys open space, parks, and clean water projects, is being slashed from $300 million to $205 million.

As things get worse, Republican state legislators are likely to push for even deeper cuts. After all, enviro regs cost businesses money and slow down "shovel ready" projects. In Florida yesterday the St. Petersburg Times reported:

Florida legislative leaders want to make it easier to get permits to destroy wetlands, tap the water supply and wipe out endangered species habitat, all in the interest of building houses, stores and offices.

They say streamlining the permitting process will get the economy moving again.
All of this should be a sobering counterpoint to optimism about the stimulus bill and the new green tone in Washington. Without more direct aid to cash-strapped states, it will be hard to fix things faster than the provinces burn through the green.
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