sustainability

GMO canola on the loose

NPR reports on a survey of wild rapeseed (better known as "canola" for "Canadian Oil", since someone figured out that "rapeseed" was an ugly word, though it derivies from nothing more offensive than a Latin word for "turnip") that found hundreds of genetically modified plants growing along the sides of North Dakota roads.

According to ecologist Cindy Sagers, who led the study, "What we've demonstrated in this study is a large-scale escape of a genetically modified crop in the United States." Moreover, these aren't just plants sprouted from GMO seed that spilled, or blew over from a nearby field: evidence "indicates that these things are probably self-perpetuating outside of cultivation and have been there for a couple of generations at least," according to Sagers.

Pro-GMO researchers say there's nothing to worry about because these GMO canola plants won't out-compete wild plants. Which misses the point entirely: if GMO canola is in the wild, it's certainly in canola fields where supposedly non-GMO canola is being grown. Of course no one with a lick of sense who's considered the issue for more than thirty seconds would be surprised at that conclusion.

(For the roasting and sauteing that I do, I stick with organic extra virgin olive oil, and with coconut oil to grease my cast-iron skillet.)

solar power now cheaper than nuclear

So here's an interesting pair of trends: the price of solar photovoltaic power continues to drop, due to economies of scale and improvements in technology and manufacturing, while the price of building nuclear fission power is rising. According to this study from the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC-WARN), the trend lines have now crossed, and in North Carolina solar power is now cheaper than nuclear. (The report was prepared for the state government; the exact results will be different in other states in depending on insolation, but the trend is going to be the same everywhere.)

The prices compared by the study are the prices to consumers and include government subsides for both solar and nuclear; but even if the solar subsides were removed, the crossover point would be delayed no more than ten years. And the solar includes only PV, with no accounting of the potential of concentrating solar power.

According to the New York Times, the construction of the first round of nuclear plants in the U.S. resulted in electricity users getting stuck with nearly $100 billion of costs from bankruptcies and "stranded costs", and a report by Citigroup Global Markets last November termed the financial risks for a new generation of nuclear plant "so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility to its knees."

Meanwhile, the proposed American Power Act is set to give away about $56 billion to the unsustainable nuclear power industry, including tax credits, access to bonds, an increase in government insurance against regulatory delays, and loan guarantees -- guarantees which leave the American taxpayer on the hook in case of default.

The risk of default for these nuclear industry loan guarantees is about 50 percent.

So, we can get stuck with the bill from the nuclear fission industry as they give us a power source with huge security, waste disposal, weapons proliferation, and safety concerns; or we can make clean, efficient, and effective use of that large nuclear fusion reactor that Providence has provided just 93 million miles away.

locality of food matters far less that what you eat

Eating "local" is a trendy thing these days, with hipsters making much of going to the farmers' market and "Locavore" bumper stickers all over the place. And certainly, all else being equal, it's more energy efficient and gives fresher produce to choose apples from an orchard within 100 miles than to buy apples shipped over from New Zealand.

But, as is often the case, when we look more closely we see that all other things are not necessarily equal.

First off, food coming from far away will tend to use highly efficient rail transport, or moderately efficient tractor-trailers, while your local farmer is probably delivering his goods in a panel van or pickup truck.

The difference is enormous. I got curious, so I ran some rough numbers.

As you may have heard in those CSX ads, rail can move one ton of cargo 436 miles on a gallon of fuel; that works out to moving a pound of food (or other stuff) 872,000 miles on one gallon of fuel. A typical tractor-trailer might haul 50,000 pounds at 5 mpg: that's one pound moved 250,000 miles on one gallon. Now consider a panel truck that gets 20 mpg, carrying a two tons of food: it moves one pound only 80,000 miles on one gallon. (Pretend the panel truck runs on diesel, but since these are back-of-the-envelope calculations it doesn't really matter.)

The tractor-trailer and the panel truck both have to make empty return runs, while the train picks up new cargo for the next leg of its loop; so we should half the numbers for both types of truck.

Rail: 872,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Tractor-trailer: 125,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Panel truck: 40,000 pound-miles per gallon.

That means that, for the same amount of fuel it takes a small farmer to move food 100 miles in their truck, rail transport might move that same food over 2,000 miles! Of course, it has to be moved to and from the train depot, but this illustrates the issue: it's quite possible for food coming from far away to use the same or less energy to transport, than "local" food.

(Of course the most local food is what you garden or forage yourself; there's no transportation cost when I walk out front and pick a few leaves of kale, and I'm thinking of trying some experiments with the plantain that's taking over the yard...)

So in terms of transportation efficiency, local food may not be a big win, or indeed a win at all. But more than that, transportation is a small piece of agricultural energy usage, as this WorldWatch article explains. Final delivery from producer or processor to the point of sale accounts for only 4 percent of the U.S. food system's greenhouse gas emissions; add in "upstream" miles and transport of things like fertilizer, pesticides, and animal feed, and transport still only accounts for about 11 percent of the food system's greenhouse gas emissions.

80 to 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system come from agricultural production. So reducing those is far more important than reducing transport emissions. And how can we shift to more efficient food production? You know what I'm going to say: plant-based diets.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, a bigger share than the total of all transport. Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass. Grazing occupies a stunning 26 percent of the Earth's land area, while about a third of all arable land is devoted to feed crops for livestock.

no doomsday from Gulf methane

Somehow, a hysterical fringe-science blog post by Terrence Aym -- a grade-A teabagger nutball who has previously argued that states should seceed from the U.S. and claimed that North Korea was behind the Deepwater Horizon explosion -- has managed to capture the imaginations of many scientifically illiterate journalists and bloggers.

Aym takes the fact there are elevated levels of methane in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon leak, combines it with a gross misunderstanding of a speculative theory by Gregory Ryskin about methane and the Permo-Triassic Extinction, and concludes that "OMG we're all gonna die!".

It is, of course, a load of hooey. Sorry, but we won't get out of this so easily as the world ending; we're going to have to do the hard work of cleaning up the mess. io9.com does a fine job of debunking the nonsense, with several good links.

if not BP, where should you get your gas? Sierra Club says Sunoco

Just a few years ago, when BP was pushing their "Beyond Petroleum" campaign and was running a solar panel factory here in Maryland (which closed earlier this year), it seemed to many -- including me, and the Sierra Club -- that if you had to buy gasoline, BP was probably one of the least of the evils.

Well, that's clearly not true anymore. So as we head into summer road-trip season, where am I to fuel up my Subaru (the machine affectionately known as "Scooty-Puff, Sr.") now?

The Sierra Club takes an updated look at the options, and puts Sunoco at the "top of the barrel". ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips are at the bottom, with a special Dishonorable Mention for BP.

BPA in cash register receipts

Following up on the topic of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), it seems that exposure from water bottles and other plastic food and beverage containers may be dwarfed by that caused by a surprising source: cash register receipts and other papers from thermal printers, and also carbonless copy papers. (Thanks Sean McCutcheon for the tip.)

These printing technologies rely on paper impregnated with zillions of microcapsules containing ink or dye; pressure or heat breaks the capsules and lets the ink out. (Fun fact: up until 1970, the dye was often made with polychlorinated biphenyls -- PCBs, delightfully toxic chemicals). In some methods, the paper has to be coated with a developer that reacts with the dye; that's where "phenolic resins" like BPA come in.

BPA can cross the placenta from mother to fetus

I've previously reported on Bisphenol-A (BPA), the ubiquitous endocrine-disrupting chemical found in water bottles and many other forms of packaging and linked to breast cancer, insulin resistance, miscarriage, obesity, prostate enlargement, early onset of sexual maturation, and other problems.

The latest: new research shows that BPA can cross the placenta from mother to fetus, where it can affect development during a particularly vulnerable period. And other new research suggests that fetal exposure to BPA and other endocrine disruptors can increase the risk of breast cancer later in life.

More and more I suspect that future generations will look back at our cavalier use of endocrine disruptors the way we look at the Romans' use of lead, and wonder: WTF were they thinking?

GM corn contains pesticides that -- surprise! -- might be harmful

Research published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences looks at the effects of feeding three strains of genetically-modified corn -- two of which produce Bacillus thuringiensis derived pesticides ("Bt"), and one of which is "Roundup ready", meaning that it contains derivatives of this herbicide -- to rats.

Looking at data that was actually provided by Monsanto (though in some cases, only after disclosure was mandated by courts), they found that

...in the three GM maize varieties that formed the basis of this investigation, new side effects linked to the consumption of these cereals were revealed, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the two major diet detoxification organs, but in detail differed with each GM type. In addition, some effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were also frequently noted. As there normally exists sex differences in liver and kidney metabolism, the highly statistically significant disturbances in the function of these organs, seen between male and female rats, cannot be dismissed as biologically insignificant as has been proposed by others. We therefore conclude that our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity. This can be due to the new pesticides (herbicide or insecticide) present specifically in each type of GM maize, although unintended metabolic effects due to the mutagenic properties of the GM transformation process cannot be excluded. All three GM maize varieties contain a distinctly different pesticide residue associated with their particular GM event (glyphosate and AMPA in NK 603, modified Cry1Ab in MON 810, modified Cry3Bb1 in MON 863). These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown.

Monsanto, of course, being one of the finest examples of pure concentrated evil on the planet, looked at this same data and applied weaker statistical methods to say that everything is hunky-dory.

California set to ok soil-sterilizing pesticide

From the really-really-dumb idea department: California;s Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed allowing the use of methyl iodide -- a chemical so toxic that even chemists are reluctant to handle it.

"This is one of the most egregious pesticides out there," said Sarah Aird, the state field organizer for Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of watchdog groups opposed to the use of potentially harmful chemicals. "It is really, really toxic. It is actually used in the laboratory to induce cancer cells."

Methyl iodide was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 for use as a fumigant over the protests of more than two dozen California legislators and 54 scientists, including five Nobel laureates, who signed a letter opposing registration of the chemical.

What makes this such a stunningly bad idea is not just the notion of using toxic chemicals to grow food, with the obvious health risks that entails, but that this stuff is purposefully used to sterilize soil. But that would mean destroying the beneficial microorganisms that make soil fertile. Of course, that means you'll need more fertilizer -- conveniently supplied, no doubt, by the same company that sold the methyl iodide.

eat dirt, get smart

Here's another good reason to go outside: exposure to dirt may make you smarter.

PhysOrg reports on research suggesting that ingesting Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil bacterium, stimulates neuron growth, increases serotonin levels, decreases anxiety, and increases learning ability -- at least, in mice.

"This research suggests that M. vaccae may play a role in anxiety and learning in mammals," says Matthews. "It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks."

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