September 27, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Climate Change’s Upper Limit, Oysters, Chicken, and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)

The heat is on. Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth report about climate change, announcing that the world is near its upper limit and endorsing a “carbon budget” for humanity. According to this New York Times article, The White House praised the new report, and President Obama has declared renewed dedication to curbing emissions. (The United States was for many decades the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, though it was surpassed a few years ago by China.) The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he would call heads of state to a worldwide meeting next September to try to create momentum for a global agreement. If only the Koch brothers and other climate-change deniers would get with the program, we could implement important additional policies to curb greenhouse gases.

Senator Sherrod on antibiotics. On Monday the New York Times ran a letter from Senator Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) in which the senator mentions his reintroduction of the Strategies to Address Antimicrobial Resistance Act. While it’s nice to read of his interest in a strengthened federal response to the problem of antibiotic resistance, we’ve found that over the years Sen. Brown has been rather “squishy” about the issue, perhaps out of fear of alienating pig farmers in southern Ohio. (I doubt those farmers would have voted for him regardless of his stand on the misuse of antibiotics in industrial food animal production.) We’ve been disappointed by his lack of conviction, but maybe he’ll surprise us with an increased commitment to action.

Chinese chicken in school lunches? Since the announcement last month by USDA  that it will allow four Chinese facilities to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile or Canada, and then export the cooked poultry products back into the United States, questions have arisen about whether China-processed chicken will be served as part of the National School Lunch Program. This Food Safety News story delves into what seems like a straightforward answer, but actually isn’t. Of course, the absurdity of shipping chicken to China for cooking and then shipping it back to the U.S. for consumption is one of those uses of fossil fuel that blows my mind.

The seafood safety problem. Vibrio vulnificus is the most deadly food pathogen in the world, killing nearly 50 percent of its human hosts; it seems not to harm oysters, the main vector for infection in humans. In the U.S., Vibrio infections have been rare—but that’s changing. According to this Food Safety News story, the V. vulnificus strain is responsible for 95 percent of seafood-related illness fatalities in the U.S., and the rate of increase in incidence is alarming. “Several studies have linked Vibrio’s quick growth rate with rising ocean temperatures, a critical condition favorable to the saltwater-based bacterium. Instances of Vibrio have started showing up in colder places where they were largely unheard-of before.” This is just one more terrible consequence of climate change.

Conservation in the farm bill. The Great Plains region is being transformed “at a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl,” according to this Washington Post story. Millions of acres of grasslands have been lost because of a farming boom, as farmers and ranchers opt out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners not to develop parts of their property for 15 years. “Its level of compensation — about $40 an acre — can’t compete with the $60 or $65 an acre owners can get for renting their land for crops.” (This is bad news not only for soil and ecosystem protection, waterfowl, several grouse species, mule deer and honeybees, as well as some imperiled species of ducks, but also for humans.) The news article explains some provisions in the farm bill, which is still in limbo, that might reverse the trend.

Misgivings about glyphosate. Some farmers are examining their soil, and finding cause for concern after years of using glyphosate (aka Roundup) to kill weeds in their fields. This New York Times story addresses how farmers are weighing the costs and benefits of the herbicide.

Trader Joe’s and food waste. This NPR story on The Salt addresses the burgeoning of food waste—how much food is thrown away, and the gross misinformation created by “sell by” and “use by” dates. The former president of Trader Joe’s has some ideas about how to put that needlessly wasted food to good use in underserved communities at bargain-basement prices.

Funding in the balance. This week the NIH informed its grantees that as of September 30, when the government fiscal year ends, there could be a lapse in appropriated funds—because the Appropriation Act for FY2014 has not yet been passed. This shameful situation is symptomatic of the increasingly precarious state of public funding of science research, especially true in human medicine and in agricultural sciences; the dearth of public funding drives scientists to depend increasingly on industry funding with all the conflicts of interests involved. Once again, it appears that politics is trumping science and threatening to undermine the most productive period of scientific research in history.

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