Blue Marble - February 2009

Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:16 AM PST
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.”

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

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 11:41 AM PST
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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Bristol Palin: Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed "Not Realistic"

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 12:45 PM PST
In her first interview since giving birth, Bristol Palin told CNN Fox that enjoining young people to be abstinent is "not realistic at all." This puts her at odds with her mother but squarely on the side of reams of social science research that shows abstinence education programs don't work. The young Palin said she had decided to speak out (despite suffering through "evil" tabloid coverage) because teens need to know that having a child is "not glamorous." She could be onto something. If she can put across a nuanced approach to sex ed that embraces contraception, it could help sway some conservatives--and maybe cover her childcare costs by landing her a lucrative book deal.

Tar Sands Update

| Fri Feb. 13, 2009 4:03 PM PST
A year ago we were putting the final touches on Tar Wars, the story of a small-town physician who'd been threatened with sanctions from Canadian health authorities after announcing that pollution from Alberta's massive tar sands mines might be killing his patients in tiny Fort Chipewyan. A lot has happened since then. Just after the story appeared, the Alberta government opened an investigation into the town's health problems. Around the same time, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Leslie Iwerks read our story and was inspired to make "Downstream," a controversial documentary about the doctor, John O'Connor, which came out in December and was promptly short-listed for an Oscar.

This past week, Alberta health officials finally concluded their investigation and announced that Fort Chip suffered from a higher than expected cancer rate. They'd found 51 cancers in 47 people, compared to the 39 that were expected in the town of 1,200. They also reported two cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare-bile duct cancer that is normally found in one person out of 100,000. That's the same number of cases that the nurse at Fort Chip's health clinic had told me she could document, but more than the one case that the Alberta government had reported at the time and fewer than the five that O'Connor said he'd seen. Presumably, O'Connor's inability to document all five cholangiocarcinomas has been the root of the government's ongoing investigation into whether he raised "undue alarm" in the community. It now seems that the government's under-reporting of the cases should equally require it to investigate itself for undue complacency.

Despite the new findings, Fort Chip's small size and isolation--it's only accessible by plane or boat for much of the year--prevents biostaticians from easily saying that cancers are caused by more than chance. Still, our piece detailed many other reasons to finger tar sands pollution, and even the government's scientists are starting to sound worried: "We did find some soft signals (for concern)," investigator Tony Fields told the Edmonton Journal, adding that scientists would need to keep tabs on the town to see if the cancers were part of a trend. That's small comfort to the many Fort Chip locals who are convinced the tar sands are killing them.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama makes his first official visit to Canada, the U.S.' top supplier of foreign oil. Canadian officials want to propose a U.S.-Canada climate pact that would exempt the tar sands' greenhouse gas emissions (the sands is a big reason why Canada flunked its Kyoto targets). Obama will probably hear how the U.S. oil companies that are knee-deep in the capital-intensive sands stand to lose big bucks in the era of cheap gas and pricey carbon. Let's hope that's not all he hears. Tiny Fort Chip is the oldest settlement in Alberta, sits on the tar sands' doorstep, and is eager to put the brakes on development. Presumably, that should count for something.


UPDATE: Just in time for Obama's visit, the environmental group Forest Ethics has placed a full-page ad in USA Today tarring the tar sands. Meanwhile, the Canadian American Business Council, which includes ExxonMobil and Shell, is running full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Journal stressing that "Canada is poised to securely supply even more oil and natural gas to the U.S."