August 23, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Atrazine, Hayes, Deformed Frogs and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

deformed-frogThe UC Berkeley situation. A couple of weeks ago, the University of California at Berkeley “paused” laboratory funding for Professor Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology who has for years stirred up controversy by speaking out against the use of the herbicide atrazine. Hayes’s research has shown adverse effects of atrazine on frogs in his lab, duplicating developmental abnormalities found in the wild where frogs are exposed to atrazine; exposure to atrazine disturbed the sexual development of male frogs, which were found to be growing eggs in their testes. Since 1999, Hayes has been at the center of a discrediting campaign led by the manufacturer of atrazine, Syngenta (owned by Novartis), and Hayes said he believes some Berkeley officials have frozen his funding out of a desire to protect a $25-million, five-year research agreement between Berkeley and Novartis. (With the state of California becoming broke as city after city declares bankruptcy, the state-supported University of California may feel it can’t afford to lose this funding.) In 2007, Paul Wotzka a low-profile hydrologist employed by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was fired after speaking out against atrazine. According to Wotzka, his termination came in direct retaliation for his request from Rep. Ken Tschumper to testify before a legislative committee about atrazine levels in Minnesota waters. I find Big Pharma’s influence on research performed at universities and state agencies galling; it’s especially disturbing as the weakening economy puts further pressure on public entities to seek private funding, through association with companies like Novartis, compromising independence and scientific integrity. I’d also like to note that in 2004, atrazine was banned in the European Union, which exercises the precautionary principle, and that according to one article, studies done at Syngenta’s Louisiana facility found that factory workers exposed to atrazine had prostate cancer at 8.4 times the rate of unexposed workers.

Farmworkers and pesticides. Hector Chavez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement has written in the Huffington Post about the estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticide (yes, billion with a B) applied to crops annually in the U.S., and how these chemicals threaten the health of farmworkers and their families. Invoking Cesar Chavez, he calls on the EPA to strengthen its standards and improve protections for farmworkers. Reforming industrial agriculture to adopt more ecologic approaches such as integrated pest management would dramatically decrease the reliance on pesticides. This would improve the health of farmworkers, consumers, and nature!

GMO crops and consequences. A new study suggests that genetically modified crops are passing on modifications to wild plants, i.e., weeds, with unintended consequences for the surrounding ecosystems. This is a new and sobering piece of the GMO puzzle.

EPA Chief McCarthy. In a recent visit to Iowa, EPA chief Gina McCarthy pledged a stronger relationship between the EPA and farmers, with much rejoicing from the farmers. But environmental activists are worried that regulations will be too lax—Iowa is in the middle of a long fight over how state officials will comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The cost to the citizens of Des Moines of extracting atrazine and nitrogen from their drinking water is already reaching unsustainable levels, and the cost is borne by the people of Des Moines rather than the big ag polluters.

Opposed to the poultry plant. In a “cancer cluster” where cancer rates are 17 percent higher than the national average, residents of Millsboro, Delaware, in the Delmarva peninsula are trying to fight the establishment of a poultry plant that would process 2 million chickens per week. Scientists from the CLF have found that poultry plants discharge high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and solids, which have the potential to degrade water quality.

What to feed fish. This Washington Post article features a few University of Maryland researchers who are studying the effects of using all-vegetarian feed for cobia, a carnivorous fish. This kind of research is important because it shows the aquaculture industry that we don’t need to feed small pelagic fish like menhaden and sardines to larger fish raised in farms; that more traditional way of thinking about fish feed is contributing to the current depletion of the oceans of smaller pelagic fish. The featured researchers used a mixture of soy protein concentrate, corn gluten, wheat flour, soybean meal, and canola oil—which is tricky, because of the environmental burden of growing even more commodity crops for aquaculture. We still have a lot to learn about best practices for aquaculture.

Chipotle makes a move. Chipotle, the burrito restaurant chain, said it’s considering changing its meat supply policy and buying beef that may have been treated with antibiotics. The CLF’s own Keeve Nachman was quoted in this USA Today article, saying he saw no problems in Chipotle’s possible change to allow the antibiotics use if it’s done only for treating sick animals. I applaud Chipotle’s commitment to meat raised with judicious use of antibiotics, but I have a new project for Chipotle to tackle: its portion size. Chipotle leadership claims they have to supersize their entrees in order to compete with other fast-food restaurants.

Fossil fuel problems. A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made some very interesting connections between Kansas and the Arab Spring—both of them powered by fossil fuels. In the essay he warned about the oppression of monocultures, too, whether those are cultures of people or crops.

Bee-friendly plants. Are they friend or foe? In this essay, penned by the Pesticide Action Network, we learn that some plants sold as “bee-friendly” actually harbor pesticides (because of pre-treatment), including a class known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” a probable catalyst for colony collapse disorder in honeybees already stressed by tracheal mites and foul-brood disease.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (deformed frog with two right back legs).

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