Blue Marble - March 2007

Brazil Cracks Down on Soy

| Fri Mar. 30, 2007 9:59 PM EDT

Brazil's environmental agency is finally cracking down on the soy crop that has been devastating the Amazon. In response to Greenpeace activism, Brazil has closed a soy-processing facility and port both operated by the U.S.-based multinational Cargill. Greenpeace has been publicizing the fact that large swaths of rainforest are being cleared to make room for the soy crop. Last May, a Greenpeace ship blocked the port. Vegetarians can keep eating tofu in peace, because according to the Greenpeace report, "Eating up the Amazon," the Amazonian soy crop actually feeds chickens that wind up in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets.

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Overfishing Large Sharks Impacts Entire Marine Ecosystem

| Fri Mar. 30, 2007 12:59 AM EDT

Ransom's Myers last paper before his death this week reports that fewer big sharks in the oceans also means bay scallops are harder to find at market. Ecologists and scientists have thought for a long time that the effects of removing the ocean's top predators, big sharks, would cascade through the food web. This is the first study to demonstrate that cause and effect—a holy grail of conservation biology.

A team of Canadian and American ecologists, led by Myers and Julia Baum, found that overfishing the largest predatory sharks (such as bull, hammerhead, dusky, and great white sharks) along the Atlantic Coast led to an explosion of ray, skate, and small shark prey species, according to a Dalhousie University press release. Myers held the Killam Chair in Ocean Studies at Dalhousie. The paper appears in this week's Science.

"With fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon – like cownose rays – have increased in numbers and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops have wiped the scallops out," says Julia Baum, a co-author of the article. "Large sharks have been functionally eliminated from the east coast of the U.S., meaning that they can no longer perform their ecosystem role as top predators. The extent of the declines shouldn't be a surprise, considering how heavily large sharks have been fished in recent decades to meet the growing worldwide demand for shark fins and meat.

"Our study provides evidence that the loss of great sharks triggers changes that cascade throughout coastal food webs," says Baum. "Solutions include enhancing protection of great sharks by substantially reducing fishing pressure on all of these species and enforcing bans on shark finning both in national waters and on the high seas."

Loss of a Great Scientist, Ransom Myers Dies of Brain Cancer

| Thu Mar. 29, 2007 11:28 PM EDT

The science world lost a great this week. Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia warned at length, using solid science and brilliant analysis, of the dangers of overfishing. He didn't mince words and he wasn't afraid to report bad news. As the Guelph Mercury reports, the 54-year-old biologist, originally from Mississippi, was known for his groundbreaking research and blunt warnings about the extinction of marine life around the world, and for his irrepressible passion for conservation that not even cancer could quell.

Despite his illness, another groundbreaking scientific paper on shark population declines that Myers co-wrote was published this week in Science, a testament to his boundless energy and ability to carry on in the face of grave adversity. "He was just so extraordinarily driven to try to provide the science and to address the scientific questions so we can start seeing more effective shark conservation," Julia Baum, co-author on his last paper, told the Guelph Mercury.

That passion for marine conservation stemmed from his days in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, where he worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at a time when the industry was watching the collapse of the cod fishery. He became, says the Guelph Mercury, a lone, unpopular voice in the emotional discussion about the cause of the collapse, insisting overfishing was the main factor in the decimation of a fishery central to island life. The world was in "massive denial," he said, and spending its energy fighting over the few fish left instead of cutting catch limits before it was too late.

A Washington Post obituary reports that Myers analyzed vast amounts of data from government and industry reports around the globe, establishing that the size of large fish declined dramatically in recent decades. Tuna used to be twice as big, and marlins were once as large as killer whales. He warned governments, the fishing industry and consumers that unless commercial fishing is sharply curtailed many large marine species will become extinct, leading to economic disruptions, food shortages, and lasting damage to marine ecosystems. He said his conclusions were shocking because people had lost sight of the true magnitude of the declines because they did not look back far enough in history. In other words, we've forgotten how big fish used to be and how many of them once lived in the sea.

His seminal paper on fisheries declines was reported in Mother Jones' "The Fate of the Ocean."

The world will sorely miss his voice, commitment, intelligence, and common sense. Let's hope more scientists emulate his fearless lead.

Cancer Patients Warned Not to Self-Medicate with Chemotherapy

| Thu Mar. 29, 2007 11:07 PM EDT

A bizarre black market is forming around a simple laboratory chemical that cancer patients have pinned their last hopes for survival on. In January, New Scientist reported a discovery that sounded "too good to be true."

A Canadian researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, tested dichloroacetic acid on human cells cultured outside the body and found it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. "Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks," wrote Andy Coghlan.

But because the chemical is not patentable, Coghlan wrote, no incentive existed for pharmaceuticals to run the clinical trials necessary to make DCA legal as a cancer treatment. Soon two Web sites sprung up: one with the research papers and chat rooms to discuss DCA, and another site selling DCA supposedly for use in pets with terminal cancer. Both sites are run by a California man who operates a pest-control company. But both sites are under criminal investigation by the FDA, because DCA hasn't gone through clinical trials or been approved for human use. Even marketing DCA for pets is illegal.

Still, Evangelos Michelakis and his Canadian team, who made the discovery, have fielded thousands of emails and calls from people asking how much DCA to take. Michelakis tells New Scientist, "We're now getting emails from people asking for dosage information for, say, a 150-pound golden retriever."

But even Michelakis is warning the desperate people not to take DCA. And so are other doctors, even though at least one doctor with cancer is taking it. Michelakis fears that if anyone dies while taking DCA unsupervised, funding for clinical trials will disappear. He tells New Scientist, "We are trying to do this the right way, by putting it into clinical trials, and these websites could destroy all of this."

Spate of Tornadoes

| Thu Mar. 29, 2007 4:32 PM EDT

tornado.jpgTime reports that "65 tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska on Wednesday." As part of my weird weather watch, I looked into these and learned that they're only sorta weird. It's tornado season, and although Colorado technically falls outside "Tornado Alley," it does see twisters pretty regularly. A National Weather Service representative told me the "number of tornadoes was large," calling the "outbreak" "significant but not of record proportions."

The Unsinkable John Lott Vs. "Freaky" Economics

| Thu Mar. 29, 2007 1:49 PM EDT
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The world of economics is predictably unpredictable; we know that markets will ebb and flow, but not when or often why. So too it goes with John Lott, the undefatigable conservative economist who is guaranteed to pop up in some new controversy of his own creation every so often. What keeps him going—and why places like AEI embrace him—remains a mystery. Lott is most infamous for his claims that crime rates are inversely proportional to rates of gun ownership; or as his book title put it, More Guns, Less Crime. Small problem: His research is far from bulletproof, and he's been repeatedly exposed and denounced for what could be charitably called sloppy research. In his defense, Lott has blamed "coding errors," claimed that some of his data have been destroyed, and in his finest moment, created a fictitious online identity to take on his critics. But none of this has slowed him down. For a good rundown of Lott's sins, see Chris Mooney's 2003 piece on our website, which shot some more holes into his work. More recently, Lott sued the Freakonomics guys for defamation after they wrote that he had "falsified his results." A judge threw part of his case out. Now Lott's firing back with a new book, Freedomnomics, a defense of the free market against "freaky theories," printed by renowned academic publisher Regnery. Fact checkers, statisticians, and economists, start your BS detectors...

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Read Fortune Not Working Mother

| Wed Mar. 28, 2007 8:47 PM EDT

With all the greenwash these days, how would you go about picking the ten greenest corporations? Fortune's team of reporters started by soliciting 100 "nominations from environmentalists and consultants who have worked in the trenches of corporate America," according to the magazine. Sounds like a given. But other magazines actually run lists of best companies based on self-reported data and advertising dollars.

Most notoriously, Working Mother has named Union Pacific five times one of the best places for women to work, even though it pays for employees' Viagra and Rogaine but not contraceptives. The UP flack's spin is, "We are thrilled that Working Mother has recognized our efforts to create a culture that helps employees balance work and families." Working Mother also includes firms facing class-action suits for sex harassment. And it has named Allstate, American Express, and General Mills among the 8 best firms for women of color. But at each, 30% of new hourly hires are women of color, but 0% of newly hired executives are.

Distinguishing hype from hope in green business was a focus of Mother Jones' November issue. We reported BP's blundered but well-publicized attempt to go "Beyond Petroleum" and the near-religious conversion of a carpet industry captain.

Now for the names. Drum roll please. Fortune's "Ten Green Giants" are Honda, Continental Airlines, Tesco, PG&E, S.C. Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Swiss Re, Hewlett-Packard, Alcan, and Suncor. Any objections?

"Viagra for Women" on the British Market

| Wed Mar. 28, 2007 8:09 PM EDT

A testosterone patch to increase the female sex drive went on the market this week in the UK. Intrinsa can be prescribed only to women who have had menopause or hysterectomies. Unlike Viagra, Intrinsa takes up to a few weeks to take effect. Intrinsa targets Female Sexual Dysfunction, which was only seven years ago officially recognized as a disorder.The UK's Daily Mail predicts that Intrinsa will become a "lifestyle drug." Salon worries Intrinsa will set up unreasonable expectations for the female libido. And I think that since the roots of Female Sexual Dysfunction are often social, not physiological, a designer drug may not be the best fix.

—Rose Miller

Paper or Potato?

| Wed Mar. 28, 2007 1:48 PM EDT

Mother Jones' hometown, San Francisco, yesterday became the first U.S. city to ban non-recyclable plastic bags from use in retail stores. Not only do conventional plastic bags take up space in landfills—1,400 tons in San Francisco alone—they also require petroleum for their manufacture. City supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said, "We can't sleepwalk into the future. The end of the era of cheap oil is here."

Bags made from biodegradable materials such as potato starch are actually stronger than plastic bags, but cost more to produce.

Environmental Fact of the Day

| Wed Mar. 28, 2007 12:21 PM EDT

A gallon of gasoline puts 19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In California, passenger vehicles account for 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Mass transit: A (relatively) easy way to limit your contribution to global warming.