I’m feeling a bit like I ought to start calling my weekly posts here “What’s enraging me this week,” but that’s a theme I really do not want to take hold. Yes, there is more than enough to be angry and sad about, every day, but I do not want to focus on that to the exclusion of the positive news.
I’ll start off with “what’s enraged me most this week” anyway, so it’ll stop bugging me. The topic is “industrial agriculture” and the subtopics are “GMOs,” “corn,” and “the chemicals used with these crops.”
When exposed to nitrogen fertilizer over a period of years, nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia evolve to become less beneficial to legumes — the plants they normally serve, researchers report in a new study.
These findings, reported in the journal Evolution, may be of little interest to farmers, who generally grow only one type of plant and can always add more fertilizer to boost plant growth. But in natural areas adjacent to farmland, where fertilizer runoff occurs, or in areas where nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels settle, a change in the quality of soil rhizobia could have “far-reaching ecological and environmental consequences,” the researchers wrote.
“The nitrogen that we apply to agricultural fields doesn’t stay on those fields, and atmospheric nitrogen deposition doesn’t stay by the power plant that generates it,” said University of Illinois plant biology professor Katy Heath , who led the study with Jennifer Lau , of Michigan State University. “So this work is not just about a fertilized soybean field. Worldwide, the nitrogen cycle is off. We’ve changed it fundamentally.“
Because corn is genetically-modified to carry neonicotinoids as part of the plant. And neonicotinoids don’t just kill insects that eat corn, they kill or impair other insects, too.
It turned out that the stalks near Doan’s farm had come from genetically engineered seeds treated with a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through plants as they grow, attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of pests, from corn rootworm to flea beetles. After they first hit the market in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids–basically, a synthetic form of nicotine that attacks receptors in insects’ nervous systems–were hailed as a breakthrough replacement for previous generations of poisons. They not only worked against a wide array of insects but also could be used in smaller doses, which at least theoretically made them safer to use. Plus, they were much less expensive, allowing farmers to simply buy treated seeds rather than spray pesticides across massive fields.
. . . [neonicotinoids] are now applied to 90 percent of the corn and 30 percent of the soybeans grown in the country. They’re also used on apples, rice, potatoes, sugar beets, and citrus fruits–and on about half of the plants sold in major garden stores.
Though their makers insist that neonicotinoids kill only pests when properly used, a growing number of studies suggest that chronic exposure to the neurotoxin endangers bees, birds, and other animals by disrupting their immune and nervous systems.
. . .
Even at exposure levels that are too low to kill bees outright, neonicotinoids damage their nervous systems in ways that make it difficult to survive, researchers have found. One of the most provocative studies was published in 2012 by French researchers, who attached radio transmitters to the insects and observed them as they flew out of the hives to forage for food. After the bees were exposed to the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, their navigational systems seemed to go haywire, and they were several times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive.
A pair of studies by British researchers, published in 2013, found that neonicotinoids, when combined with another pesticide used to kill mites, wreaked havoc with bees’ neural circuitry, causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.
A different study by South African scientists, published in PLOS ONE in 2014, concluded that neonicotinoids prevented the bees from retrieving the information they’d stored in their memories during exploratory flights. And a 2014 study by Brazilian researchers found that neonicotinoids were damaging bees at the cellular level, hindering them from generating the energy needed to contract their muscles and move their wings.
. . .
A few days after Europe enacted its 2013 ban, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA issued a report concluding that although neonicotinoids were a “potential hazard” to bee health, they were still safer than previous types of pesticides. In a conference call with reporters, officials said there wasn’t enough evidence to justify a ban. “There are meaningful benefits from these pesticides to farmers and consumers, as well as for affordable food,” said Jim Jones, the EPA’s top pesticide administrator.
I can’t stand to quote more from that piece (I will start crying and that will be a mess) but it’s worth the read.
Center for Food Safety (CFS) released today a detailed, 80-page scientific report, Monarchs in Peril: Herbicide-Resistant Crops and the Decline of Monarch Butterflies in North America. The comprehensive report reveals the severe impacts of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered (GE) crops on the monarch population, which has plummeted over the past twenty years. The report makes it abundantly clear: two decades of Roundup Ready crops have nearly eradicated milkweed—the monarch caterpillar’s sole source of food—in cropland of the monarch’s vital Midwest breeding ground. At the urgent request of scientists and public interest groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering listing the monarch as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
. . .
Monarch population numbers have fallen by 90 percent in less than 20 years. This year’s population was the second lowest since careful surveys began two decades ago. The critical driver of monarch decline is the loss of larval host plants in their main breeding habitat, the Midwestern Corn Belt. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on plants in the milkweed family, the only food their larvae will eat.
Monarch butterflies have long coexisted with agriculture, but the proliferation of herbicide-resistant GE crops is threatening that balance. Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have radically altered farming practices, sharply increasing the extent, frequency and intensity of glyphosate use on farm land. Glyphosate—one of the very few herbicides that kills common milkweed—was little used two decades ago, but has become by far the most heavily used herbicide in America thanks to GE Roundup Ready crops. As a result, corn and soybean fields in the Corn Belt have lost 99 percent of their milkweed since just 1999.
Milkweed does grow outside of cropland, but there is too little habitat to support a viable monarch population. First, corn and soybeans dominate the Midwest landscape, leaving little area in roadsides, pastures, and other land where milkweed grows. Second, monarchs produce almost four times more eggs per plant on milkweed within agricultural fields than on milkweed growing elsewhere.
“Milkweed growing in Midwest cropland is essential to the monarch’s continued survival. Without milkweed, we’ll have no monarchs,” said Dr. Martha Crouch, biologist with Center for Food Safety and co-author of the report. “Very few of us fully understand the ecological impacts of our food system, but we need to pay attention. The decline of the monarch is a stark reminder that the way we farm matters.”
Recently a rash of anti-intellectualism has gripped the United States. People are abusing the term skeptic when really they are just denying the consensus of scientific findings. We have seen this with climate change. We have felt the prick of the anti-vaccination crowd. One that we haven’t discussed is that of genetically modified organisms, aka, food.
Let me be very clear here: there is no danger in eating the current crops. The danger is in the unknown.
. . . you have a mountain of evidence showing there is nothing to be concerned with in its consumption.
Bill Nye, recently, has come out against GMO. His take is different and I share it. He posits that we do not know the impact on the ecosystems around these products. The science is not mature enough for his liking on the effects to all the interconnected bio systems. His, is a reasonable position, even if he would prefer to stop using it all until that science is in.
In parting, the foods are safe for us, but we don’t know what the long term effects their presence in the biosphere will have.
Bolding mine, because O RLY?
One of the things I absolutely despise about the pro-GMO side of things is the narrow way “safe” is used to silence critics.
*deep breath* Okay. Moving on. Here are some awesome, hopeful things I read this week:
There’s an effort under way to help ensure grizzly bears don’t become extinct in the North Cascades.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with other agencies on a plan to bring grizzly bears back to this part of their natural range. That includes many of Snohomish County’s prominent peaks, such as Mount Pilchuck and Whitehorse Mountain.
The grizzly bear restoration effort comes 40 years after the animals were listed in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in the lower 48 states.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a robust grizzly bear population,” said Ann Froschauer, a spokeswoman for the Washington office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
. . .
The numbers of the animals have continued to shrink since settlers killed thousands of grizzly bears in the North Cascades from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.
“It’s really shocking to see how many bears were killed for their pelts,” Froschauer said. “The fur trade was a big part of that.”
Now, there might be a small number of grizzly bears living in the North Cascades. It is estimated that fewer than 20 might live south of the Canadian border. In British Columbia, there are likely less than 30.
. . .
Returning the grizzlies would help restore the natural ecosystem of the North Cascades. It is a rare opportunity to bring back all of the native animals to an area, said Chris Servheen, the coordinator for grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The effect on the environment from returning grizzly bears to the North Cascades is expected to be minimal, Servheen said. Recovery is expected to go slowly because the bears usually have two cubs every three years. In Idaho, a study of a similar ecosystem estimated that it would take 50 to 125 years to establish a population of grizzly bears that could live and reproduce without help from humans.
. . .
Without putting the grizzly bear recovery plan in place, Servheen said, there’s little chance the animals would repopulate on their own. They don’t tend to travel far or take over unoccupied territory.
I wonder if this will end up being another case of “wow, we had NO IDEA of the impact these animals really had!” or if this time they are actually right that there will be little effect on the environment. Either way, I’m glad to see the beginnings of a plan like this!
And lastly, combining multiple topics near and dear to my heart:
It’s being designed to provide protection for them (replacing, to some degree, the habitat destroyed by creating the original seawall).
Seattle’s $330 million replacement seawall is taking shape — and local fish are taking notice.
Workers have completed the first section of the wall, including a migratory corridor for juvenile salmon that will eventually run the entire length of the downtown waterfront.
The finished section sits between South Washington Street and Yesler Way, near the Colman Dock ferry terminal at the southern end of the waterfront. It features a suite of design elements meant to attract fish and other aquatic animals and plants.
“Before the old seawall was built on the waterfront, we had tidal flats with birds, plants and salmon,” said project manager Jessica Murphy, who works for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “The tide came in every day as far as Western Avenue. Then the seawall was built. They filled in the area behind it.”
. . .
The wall’s face, where it meets Elliott Bay, is studded with grooves and shelves to promote algae growth and help critters like starfish and mussels take hold.
Workers have stacked mesh bags stuffed with rocks on the seabed next to the completed section of the wall to build a shallow-water environment where salmon and other critters can forage and hide. The same is planned along the rest of the structure, as well, creating what Murphy calls a “habitat bench.”
In addition to shallow water, juvenile salmon prefer swimming in sunlight.
. . .
To keep the salmon safe as they hug the shore, workers are installing a sidewalk cantilevered out from the new wall. Straddling the space between the wall and the piers — and edging out over the water between piers — the sidewalk’s translucent panes will allow sunlight through, down to the water.
The panes aren’t transparent, so pedestrians won’t be able to watch salmon swimming underfoot. But the sunlight reaching the habitat bench should cause the fish to treat the length of the wall like an underwater highway,. . .
“We’re trying to replace some of what was lost,” said Murphy. “We’ve already seen some salmon. Last fall, shortly after we got the marine mattresses and wall face installed, we started to see activity. I saw an entire school, one day. That’s really promising. We’ve only completed a short section, but they’re finding it.”
Two ways to do things: blindly insist that what you’re doing can’t possibly be harmful, or figure out ways to live well with others.