Blue Marble - April 2009

Friday Cocktail: The Conflagration: Splash the G-Word, 1 Shot of Rainforest, Light My Fire & Pass the Ganga

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 7:54 PM EDT

As Steve Allen said: Do not allow children to mix drinks. It is unseemly and they use too much vermouth.
 
Round 1: The G-word punched through the media membrane this week. Geoengineering. Big word for the headlines. Uttered by none other than John Holdren, Obama's chief scientific adviser. He was referring to the possibility that we might be well advised to at least talk about some potential solutions to climate change that involve mitigating the shitstorm coming our way. You'd think he'd just come out in favor of pedophilia. Pour that man a drink. He's going to need one to deal with the hysteria of a misunderstanding media.

Round 2: An unusually uplifting paper at the online journal Plos One by topnotch researcher Stuart Pimm and colleagues concludes that rainforest reserves in the Amazon really are working. Fewer fires are being lit to clear trees inside then outside. They've been watching fires on what might as well be called SatellitEarthTV (can I trademark that?)—the ultimate reality show: namely, the European Space Agency's Ionia World Fire Atlas, mapping fires globally and monthly since 1996. Fewer fires are not always a result of fewer roads in the reserves, since there aren't, at least not always. The reason is partly because of a new generation of politicians in Amazona who foresee that avoiding deforestation will make money in future markets for carbon credits. I'll drink to that.

Round 3: Adding fuel to the fire is an analysis out of UC Berkeley of 10 years of satellite data on global fire activity, combined with a climate-projection model assuming little curtailment of current greenhouse gas emissions. The result: More than a quarter of the terrestrial world is likely to see relatively sharp changes in fire patterns in the next 30 years. That means more fires in some places (Scandinavia, western US, Tibetan Plateau). Less in others (southern US, central Africa, most of Canada). However less fire is not always good since all kinds of green growing plants that help mitigate CO2 need fire to germinate their seeds. Pour me another.

Round 4: It seems the cannabinoids in marijuana (THC) have anticancer effects on human brain cancer cells. This according to a new Spanish study. Tumors from two patients with the badassest form of brain cancer receiving intracranial THC administration showed signs of tumor death. Light one for the stoners.

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Who's Hating on Mrs. Obama's Garden?

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 4:50 PM EDT

Michelle Obama’s plan to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn is old news—everyone’s been bombarded with that adorable photo of schoolchildren tilling the south lawn with Mrs. O.—and no one seems to have much of a problem with it. Sure, it’s not the first White House garden. It’s mostly a PR stunt, a lovely vegetable patch that children can visit on field trips. Maybe some of them will plant a garden of their own, or visit a farmers' market, or just eat more fresh produce. What could be wrong with that?

A lot, according to the Mid America CropLife Association. The large agricultural association was so horrified by the idea of a vegetable garden that they wrote an open letter to Michelle Obama (Mrs. Barack Obama to be precise) and sent it to industrial farmers' advocacy groups. You can read the entire letter on the web, but here are a few choice excerpts: 

Much of the food considered not wholesome or tasty is the result of how it is stored or prepared rather than how it is grown. Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical. Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive...

If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?

There's a lot to be said for advancing beyond the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence, but I doubt a home vegetable garden is enough to disintegrate several thousand years of evolutionary progress. It gets even better: 

The White House is planning to have an "organic" garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama's and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder.

Really, shudder? Organic produce may be over-hyped, but the real problem is that "organic" produce doesn't do enough to find a truly sustainable solution. The Mother Jones food issue presents a number of proposals for the future of agriculture, (check back later this week for a special forum!) none of which involve reverting back to our Homo erectus habits. Or hating on home gardens.

Will H.R. 875 Kill Organic Farming? Nope.

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

For a few weeks now, Internet rumors have been flying about H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill, proposed in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in response to the peanut/salmonella scare, would split the FDA into two agencies, one responsible for overseeing our national food supply and the other for drugs and devices. But an email (of the chock-full-of-exclamation-points variety) warns that Monsanto and other big aggers are behind the bill—and they want to use it to shut down every small-scale farm in the country, including your garden:

It is imperative that you look into this immediately and with extreme scrutiny as our heath and well-being are threatened!!! If this bill passes, you can say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer’s market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!

 

Tar Sands Bad for Caribou

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 1:33 PM EDT

If health problems and polluted rivers weren't enough reason to worry aboout Canada's energy boom, here's another red flag: Declining caribou. According to a report scheduled to be released today by the Canadian government, herds of woodland caribou are struggling to survive in the boreal forests of southern Canada:

Parts of the highly technical, 300-page report show caribou herds are likeliest to decline in northern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

A boom in natural resources such as oil and gas has spurred industrial development in those parts of the country, disturbing the caribou's habitat.

Of 57 recognized herds, 29 are are "not self sustaining," says the report. If the current trend continues, woodland caribou could be gone by the end of the century. For a great visual, check out National Geographic's photo essay on the tar sands. Doesn't exactly look like caribou paradise.

How to Make Farm Subsidy Reform a Reality

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

Make sure to check out Grist's long take on this NYT article on the Obama Administration's botched attempt to reform farm subsidies. Basically, the issue is this: the parts of Congress that oversee food and farm policy are completely beholden to large farm producers (aka Big Agribusiness). Big Ag gets rich off the current system and fights any reform. Obama didn't make a big deal about overhauling farm policy -- he simply slipped a couple key farm subsidy reforms into the budget bill from earlier this month. Naturally, they were spiked by Congress, which, though craven on a number of issues, is particularly craven on this issue. There was no reason to expect otherwise.

(For all the reasons why farm policy in this country sucks, see here and here.)

I know the Obama White House doesn't have the bandwidth for this right now, but the only thing that is going to really change America's food policy -- so that it benefits small farmers, eaters, and the environment, instead of big agricultural producers -- is an organized campaign with grassroots support behind it. It will take commitment, money, and energy on a scale that is close to what Obama and his allies are soon going to put into universal health care and comprehensive climate change legislation. This is unlikely for a number of reasons, not least that the public is largely unaware of the problems with food and farm policy. But it's hard to see how anything short of that is going to be effective. Does Obama have the political courage and the political capital to make that happen? Doubtful. Would any president?

One last note -- if you haven't already, check out Grist's hot new site.

Furthermore When Deciding to Have Or Not Have A Kid

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 11:01 PM EDT

This is hardly news to the couples' therapists out there but kids stress marital bliss. An eight-year study of 218 couples found that 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born.

"Couples who do not have children also show diminished marital quality over time," says Scott Stanley, research professor of psychology at the University of Denver. "However, having a baby accelerates the deterioration, especially seen during periods of adjustment right after the birth of a child."

The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and shows that couples who live together before marriage experience more problems after birth than those who live separately before marriage. As did those whose parents fought or divorced. However, some couples said their relationships were stronger post-birth. Longer-married couples  or those with higher incomes had fewer marital problems after a baby than those with lower incomes or who had been married more recently.

On the other hand, another study in the Journal of Family Communication found that fighting couples live longer. Not happier, I guess. But longer.

Yet another study had the audacity to point out the fact that the happiness of the world at large also hinges on your decision to have or not have a kid. You know, the 10,000-megaton-carbon-footprint baby. Not to mention the 3,800 diapers.


 

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Hop The Fence For Healthcare

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 7:12 PM EDT

The largest randomized health policy study ever conducted finds a health care program that's been astonishing effective in reducing crippling health care costs among poorer households.

Did I mention this health care program is in México? At the rate things are going we're going to be climbing over the border fence and headed south for what we can't get here.

A paper in the current Lancet scientifically establishes that Seguro Popular, established in 2003, achieved its main goal to reduce health care costs.

"The success of Seguro Popular in reducing catastrophic health expenditures is remarkable, not least because governmental money spent on the poor in many countries rarely reaches the intended recipients," said Gary King of Harvard University, lead author on the study.

The study included 500,000 people and monitored health outcomes and expenditures in 118,569 households in 174 communities over 10 months. Half the communities received treatment. That means families in those villages were encouraged to enroll in Seguro Popular. They had their health facilities built or upgraded, with medical personnel, drugs and other supplies provided. The other half didn't get squat.

The outcome of the study is interesting enough. But its innovative research designs and statistical methods vastly increased what can be learned from an evaluation while saving a short ton of money making the evaluation.

The design includes failsafe components that preserve the experimental randomization even if politics or other problems intervene, including those that have ruined most previous large scale public policy evaluations.

Aren't we doing that right now in the US? Don't we need to screen politics out of the equation? Any researchers from this study willing to look at our own sick health care system?
 

Pap Smears Begone!

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 5:26 PM EDT

What? "Spread em and grin" might be hitting the bricks? Yep, according to the Times:

A new DNA test for the virus that causes cervical cancer does so much better than current methods that some gynecologists hope it will eventually replace the Pap smear in wealthy countries and cruder tests in poor ones.
Not only could the new test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, save lives; scientists say that women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years, depending on which expert is asked.
Their optimism is based on an eight-year study of 130,000 women in India financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. It is the first to show that a single screening with the DNA test beats all other methods at preventing advanced cancer and death.
'The study is another nail in the coffin for Pap smears, which will soon be of mainly historical interest,' said Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, a professor of gynecology at Stanford medical school who has tested screening techniques in Africa and Asia and was not involved in the study.
But whether the new test is adopted will depend on many factors, including hesitation by gynecologists to abandon Pap smears, which have been remarkably effective. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

Downside: The insurance industry will no doubt use those DNA results, if this pans out, to take our premiums for years—then deny us a payout based on our genetic profiles. But still...no more Pap smears? Yippee!

Organic Kicks Monoculture Ass

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 6:54 PM EDT

Guess what? Those endless fields of corn, soybeans, or alfalfa are not the thriftiest way to farm. Not in dollar terms. Not in environmental terms. So why are continuous and no-till farming still such staples in American agriculture? Because you & I subsidize them with our tax dollars. Farm welfare for the corporate farm.

A 13-year study out of the University of Wisconsin assessed pastures planted with multiple crop species, as well as organic fields, and compared them to conventional alfalfa and corn farms at two sites in southern Wisconsin from 1993 to 2006.

The simple conclusion: Diversified systems were more profitable than monocropping and organic systems were more profitable than the Midwestern standards of continuous corn, no-till corn, no-till soybeans, and intensively managed alfalfa.

Even adding risk premiums into the equation did not give monoculture the edge expected by the researchers. Bottom line: monoculture is riskier and less profitable than organic and rotational farming.

The authors' advice: Government support of monoculture is outdated and should be shifted to programs that promote crop rotations and organic farming practices.

When that happens—you know what?—we'll all be able to afford food that is better for us and better for the planet. Let's go, Thomas J. Vilsack, Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, hailing from Iowa, land of the newly progressive. Lead the way.

Trophy Wives Beware: Sugar Daddy's Dipstick May Be Defective

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 5:08 PM EDT

According to Lisa Belkin, "Researchers at the University of Queensland found that children born to older fathers have, on average, lower scores on tests of intelligence than those born to younger dads. Data they analyzed from more than 33,000 American children showed that the older the man when a child is conceived, the lower a child's score is likely to be on tests of concentration, memory, reasoning and reading skills, at least through age 7."

It gets worse: higher risk of autism, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Not good news, but it does sort of even the cultural score in which past-their-prime women are understood to be the greatest risk to the children they bear 'late' in life. Damaged goods. Darwin makes them chase younger women to bear their healthy children, not mid-life crises. But what if younger women start looking at that "distinguished" guy driving the red 'vette and thinking like Belkin?

The push and pull between timetables and dreams, between our bodies and our babies, is at the core of many women's worldview, which also means it is at the core of relationships between the sexes. This tension feeds the stereotype of woman as eager to settle down and men as reluctant, and it's the crux of why we see women as "old" and men as "distinguished."
If those underlying assumptions were to change, would all that follows from them change as well? A world in which each man heard his clock tick even a fraction as urgently as each woman could be a very different world indeed. All those silver-haired sex symbols, and balding sugar daddies, and average-Joe divorced guys who are on their second families because they can be while their exes are raising their first set of kids—what if all of them became, in women's eyes, too darned old?
What if 30-year-old women started looking at 50-year-old men as damaged goods, what with their washed-up sperm, meaning those 50-year-olds might actually have to date (gasp!) women their own age? What if men, as the years passed, began to look with new eyes at Ms. Almost Right? Would men of all ages come to understand—firsthand, not just from the sidelines—the fear that the very passage of time will put your not-yet-conceived baby at risk?
Welcome to the club boys.