Blue Marble - February 2009

Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:16 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.”

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Abortion Legislation Update

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 1:34 PM EST

Yesterday two measures included in the slew of bills across the country that would require women to view an ultrasound before having an abortion were shot down in a Virginia Senate committee. One measure would have required women to look at an image of the fetus on the day of the abortion; the other would have forced doctors to offer to anesthetize the fetus.

In related abortion news, the North Dakota House gave fertilized human eggs the legal rights of human beings. The bill now goes to the Senate for review.

A Small but Important Part of Cap and Trade Legislation

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 5:07 PM EST

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning economic think tank, has a little-covered idea that it argues must be incorporated into a comprehensive climate change bill. "Even a modest 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions would cost the poorest fifth of Americans an average of $750 a year per household," it says. "These households have average annual incomes of only about $13,000." To make sure that our transition to a new energy economy doesn't place unreasonable burdens on the country's most vulnerable families, CBPP is proposing a "climate rebate" that, for the very low-income, could be rolled into the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) systems that currently distribute food stamps and other forms of financial assistance. For moderate-income working families, "climate rebates" could be incorporated into a tax credit. Here's CBPP's pitch:

Policies that restrict greenhouse gas emissions will significantly raise the price of fossil-fuel energy products — from home energy and gasoline to food and other goods and services with significant energy inputs. Such policies are necessary to encourage energy efficiency and greater use of clean energy sources. They will, however, cut into consumers’ budgets.

Low-income consumers are the most vulnerable because they spend a larger share of their budgets on necessities like energy than do better-off consumers. They also are the people least able to afford purchases of new, more energy-efficient automobiles, heating systems, and appliances. Protecting low-income consumers therefore should be the top priority of the consumer relief provisions included in climate change legislation.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has designed a "climate rebate" that would efficiently offset the average impact of higher energy-related prices on low-income households. The rebates would be funded with revenues raised by climate change legislation, most likely from the auctioning of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade system.

Such a rebate would ensure that the burdens of fighting climate change and ending our dependence on fossil fuels would be borne by the wealthy and upper-middle class, which doesn't necessarily match Obama's campaign rhetoric on the issue, which emphasized shared sacrifice. But in a recession that is threatening to turn into a depression, maybe that isn't such a bad thing.

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

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:41 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.

Report: FDA Ignores Safety Regs, Risks Lives

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 11:36 AM EST

From last year's outbreak of salmonella-tainted tomatoes, to an internal analysis (PDF) warning the agency can't adequately regulate new medical devices or protect the safety of the nation's food supply, all the bad publicity the Food and Drug Administration has earned in the last two years revealed an agency plagued by lack of funding and incompetence.

A report released Wednesday by Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, adds another item to the list of bad ink for the FDA, this one a product of downright negligence.

Alternative Energy: Ushering the New Era of Corporate Governance?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 5:11 PM EST

Over at the MoJo blog, David Corn highlights the symbolic statement President Obama made Tuesday afternoon when he signed the stimulus package into law at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

The museum draws its power from solar panels, installed by Namaste Solar Electric, a small, progressively minded company based in Boulder, Colo. But the most intriguing thing about Namaste isn't that the president signed the stimulus package, which includes billions for renewable energy, under a roof lined with the company's product.

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Bristol Palin: Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed "Not Realistic"

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 2:45 PM EST
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 6:03 PM EST
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."

Obama Drops Family Planning From Stimulus

| Fri Feb. 13, 2009 12:55 PM EST
If you think it was hard to push out the $787 billion stimulus package, try birthing a child without health care or living with HPV. Though the package bodes well for environmentalists, in order to lure Republicans—none of whom have signed on yet—Obama stripped it of a handful of important provisions on women, STD prevention, and children's services.

Specifically, Obama cut $25 million to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces and $150 million to the Violence Against Women Act at the suggestion of Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ben Nelson (D-NE). Also stripped from the stimulus package was a section that would allow states to cover family planning services—without first obtaining a government waiver, as is the current practice—for low-income women who are ineligible for Medicaid. A Congressional Budget Office report estimates that this bill would have saved the country $200 million over five years and $700 million over the next ten.

STDs were apparently another sore spot for Republicans, so Obama ended up taking out $335 million for STD prevention. According to the CDC, STDs cost the health care system $15.3 billion per year, and we're expected to spend $12.3 billion on HIV/AIDS-related care in 2009. You do the math.


Update: Three Republican Senators—Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—supported the bill.

Nuclear Pork Axed From Stimulus

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 10:09 AM EST

Senate and House negotiators cut a $50 billion provision from the stimulus package Wednesday that would have allocated funds for federal loans to the nuclear and coal industries.

The so-called "nuclear pork" authorized loans under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was intended to help fund alternative energy sources, but diverts the bulk of subsidies and tax breaks to nuclear reactors and "clean" coal plants.