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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Monsanto Protection Act” and why are environmentalists so upset about it? —Rita Redstone, Milwaukee, WI

More than 90 percent of U.S.-grown corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola are derived from seeds genetically engineered by Monsanto and other companies to resist pests. Some safe food advocates believe that, instead of reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, GE seeds are having the opposite effect in what has become a race to keep faster and faster developing “superweeds” and “superbugs” at bay.

Photo © iStockPhotos

The so-called Monsanto Protection Act is actually a provision (officially known as Section 735) within a recently passed Congressional spending bill, H.R. 933, which exempts biotech companies from litigation in regard to the making, selling and distribution of genetically engineered (GE) seeds and plants.


President Obama signed the bill and its controversial rider into law in March 2013 much to the dismay of environmentalists. It means that Monsanto and other companies that supply the majority of the nation’s crop seeds can continue to produce GE products regardless of any potential court orders stating otherwise. Opponents of GE foods believe that giving such companies a free reign over the production of such potentially dangerous organisms regardless of judicial challenge is a bad idea—especially given how little we still know about the biological and ecological implications of widespread use of GE crops.

Today more than 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola planted in the U.S. is derived from seeds genetically engineered by Monsanto and other companies to resist pests and thus increase yields. Aviva Shen of the ThinkProgress blog reports that, instead of reducing farmers’ use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, GE seeds are having the opposite effect in what has become a race to keep faster and faster developing “superweeds” and “superbugs” at bay. With Congress and the White House refusing to regulate GE crops, the court system has remained a last line of defense for those fighting the widespread adoption of genetic engineering—until now, that is, thanks to H.R. 933.

Monsanto isn’t the only seed company heavy into genetic engineering, but it is the biggest and most well-known and spends millions of dollars each year on lobbyists to keep it that way. Critics point out that the company has spent decades stacking government agencies with its executives and directors. “Monsanto’s board members have worked for the EPA, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served on President Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations,” reports the group Food & Water Watch. “The prevalence of Monsanto’s directors in these highly influential positions begs a closer look at how they’re able to push the pro-GE agenda within the government and influence public opinion.”

“The judicial review process is an essential element of U.S law and serves as a vital check on any Federal Agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods,” reports Food Democracy Now! “Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds, even if a court may find them to have been wrongfully approved.”

Another concern of safe food advocates now is getting the government to require food makers to list GE ingredients clearly on product labels so consumers can make informed choices accordingly. “Not only is [GE] labeling a reasonable and common sense solution to the continued controversy that corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have created by subverting our basic democratic rights,” adds Food Democracy Now!, “but it is a basic right that citizens in 62 other countries around the world already enjoy, including Europe, Russia, China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.”

CONTACTS: ThinkProgress; Food & Water Watch; Food Democracy Now!.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the prognosis for Hawaii’s coral reefs in the face of global warming, invasive algae and other environmental threats? —Bill Weston, San Francisco, CA

Poisonous run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters and overfishing are taking their toll on Hawaii's reefs and the marine life they support. Biologists are working hard to stem the problem but must now deal with invasive algaes that are compromising the whole reef system.

Photo © iStockPhoto

Despite sweeping protections put in place near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency for large swaths of marine ecosystems around the Hawaiian Islands, things are not looking good for Hawaii’s coral reefs. Poisonous run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters and overfishing are taking their toll on the reefs and the marine life they support. Biologists are trying to remain optimistic that there is still time to turn things around, but new threats to Hawaii’s corals are only aggravating the situation.

To wit, a previously undocumented cyanobacterial fungus that grows through photosynthesis is spreading by as much as three inches per week on corals along the otherwise pristine North Shore of Kauai. “There is nowhere we know of in the entire world where an entire reef system for 60 miles has been compromised in one fell swoop,” biologist Terry Lilley told The Los Angeles Times. “This bacteria has been killing some of these 50- to 100-year-old corals in less than eight weeks.” He adds that the strange green fungus affects upwards of five percent of the corals in famed Hanalei Bay and up to 40 percent of the coral in nearby Anini Bay, with neighboring areas “just as bad, if not worse.” Lilly worries that the entire reef system surrounding Kauai may be losing its ability to fend off pathogens.

Meanwhile, some 60 miles to the east across the blue Pacific, an invasive algae introduced for aquaculture three decades ago in Oahu’s Ka¯ne‘ohe Bay is also spreading quickly. Biologists are concerned because it forms thick tangled mats that soak up oxygen in the water needed by other plants and animals, in turn converting coral reefs there into smothering wastelands.

“This and other invasive algal species…don’t belong in Hawai‘i,” says Eric Conklin, Hawaii director of marine services for The Nature Conservancy, which works to protect ecologically important lands and waters worldwide. He adds that there are not enough plant-eating fish to keep them under control.

Biologists are working hard to battle the algae in and around Ka¯ne‘ohe Bay. Conklin and his colleagues from the Conservancy have joined forces with researchers from the state of Hawaii to develop an inexpensive new technology, dubbed the Super Sucker, which uses barge-based hoses and pumps to vacuum the invasive algae away without disturbing the underlying coral. Once divers clear a given reef of algae, they then stock it with native sea urchins raised in the state’s marine lab that can help keep new algal outbreaks in check. The system has been so successful at reducing invasive algae at Ka¯ne‘ohe Bay that the state has begun producing tens of thousands of sea urchins for similar “outplanting” projects on other coral reefs around Oahu and beyond that are threatened by invasive algae.

Fast-growing algae and pathogens are only part of the problem. Decades of overfishing have reduced the biodiversity on and around coral reefs, reducing their ecological integrity and making them more vulnerable to climate change. Higher water temperatures and rising sea levels, two of the more dramatic symptoms of global warming, are hastening the bleaching of some particularly vulnerable reefs that have evolved over thousands of years.

CONTACT: The Nature Conservancy.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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