March 21, 2014

CLF Week in Links: Climate Change, Philanthropy, and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Carbon dioxide emissions, 1890-2007

Carbon dioxide emissions, 1890-2007

Climate change alarm. The AAAS made a rare policy intervention, urging the U.S. to act swiftly to reduce carbon emissions and lower risks of climate catastrophe. According to this story in The Guardian, “scientists said they were hoping to persuade Americans to look at climate change as an issue of risk management.” Unfortunately, it seems that climate scientists worldwide view the negative consequences of climate change as a fait accompli. What we have to do now is mitigate the damage and manage the risk. Next week, the United Nations’ climate science panel, the IPCC, will gather in Yokohama, Japan, and discuss the consequences to rainfall, heat waves, sea level, oceans, fisheries, and food security. The New York Times covers this story as well.

An app for that. The Obama Administration wants to make it easy for citizens to get information about how climate change affects citizens. With a new web-based app, the government will serve chiefly as a clearinghouse for climate science data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Geological Survey, the Defense Department and NASA—but there are plans to make it a powerful tool that allows visitors to type in an address and see how the projected rise in sea levels might increase the chance that their house will be flooded in the coming years, for example.

Who funds research? This New York Times article addresses the shrinking federal budget for scientific research, and how philanthropists are picking up the slack. While it’s wonderful that the rich are funding investigation into pressing questions in science and medicine, when billionaires steer scientific research, bias can take hold. One criticism is that private funding widens the gap between races and economic backgrounds, “as a number of the campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people — like cystic fibrosis, melanoma and ovarian cancer.” There is simply no substitute for publicly financed research with rigorous peer review of grant applications and as level a playing field as possible for investigators from universities large and small. The article points out that much privately financed research flows to prominent and prestigious universities where the new research centers often carry the name of the benefactor.

Seafood safety confusion. Studies show that the babies who score the highest in memory and behavior tests are those whose mothers ate seafood regularly during pregnancy. But if the seafood contained mercury, the scores dropped. According to this New York Times Well blog, now there’s concern that the mixed messages about mercury contamination in seafood are confusing pregnant women. The advice for pregnant women who want to eat “brain food” but avoid risk to their babies’ neurodevelopment is the same advice for those who want to preserve the world’s oceans and fisheries: eat low on the food chain. Herring, sardines and trout provide many health benefits, without the mercury, and without profiting the fish farms that do the most damage to oceans. Our research director Roni Neff says this: “This is one area (among many) where there are real synergies between the nutritional health, environmental health, food system environmental sustainability and long-term food security messages: eat fish that are lower on the food chain.” To be avoided are the apex predators of the sea – bluefin tuna, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark.

Pigs and PEDv. There’s an epidemic that’s killed 4 million pigs in less than a year in the U.S., known as porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv), and pork producers are facing dire economic straits. Senators Kay Hagan (D–NC) and Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, urged U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to approve disaster assistance for pork producers, with funding from the newly approved farm bill. As CLF friend Alan Guebert remarked, taxpayers will bail out the producers through the 2014 Farm Bill’s Livestock Disaster language. In doing so we also endorse the production system that delivered the problem in the first place and we will give public money to a handful of global pork players, (including one Chinese giant that owns the most sows in the U.S. through its purchase of Smithfield Foods last fall) whose disdain for government is only surpassed by their ability to milk it for favorable regulation and cash. Once again we see privatization of profits and socialization of risk – the dominant strategy of industrial agriculture aided and abetted by politicians who serve their campaign donors rather than the American people. To paraphrase Alan, with Democratic Senators like this (Hagan and Stabenow) who needs Republican conservatives to block farming reforms? On another note, with the tightening pork supplies, prices are rising, and demand for chicken as a protein substitute has increased.

GMO backfire. Now here’s a lesson we all saw coming from miles away. It seems that a genetically engineered corn has had some unintended consequences. A crop known as Bt corn, which was engineered to contain a bacterial toxin lethal to a pest known as corn rootworm, is now no problem for the pest it was designed to repel. The story is in Wired. Under constant pressure from the Bt released by the GMO corn, spontaneous mutations in the corn rootworm allowed a few survivors to take over the ecologic niche. Yes, the same mechanism at play in selecting for antibiotic resistance in farm animals by feeding them low doses of antibiotics in their feed or water. The solution to the corn rootworm problem is a return to crop rotation because the corn rootworm in its larval stage can only survive one winter without new corn roots to eat. If the next crop is soybean, oats, alfalfa, or any of a number of useful crops other than corn, the pest will die out.

Now for some good news. According to Food Safety News, “Families enrolled in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program will be able to get more fresh fruits and vegetables beginning next month, thanks to changes in the program’s “food packages,” which are outlined in a recently published USDA “final rule.” It’s great to see the USDA taking some positive strides toward healthier diets for underserved communities.

Au natural. Here’s an amusing article about using urine to fertilize crops, from Grist. Urine contains good amounts of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), critical elements for plant growth. Says Jillian Fry, a project director at CLF, “The practice can reduce loads on waste water treatment plants and reduce use of synthetic fertilizers.”

Photo: International Energy Agency, 2009.

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