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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What is “genetic pollution” as it pertains to the bioengineering of animals, fish and plants, and what happens if they cross breed with their wild cousins?
—R. Ahearn, Rome, NY

The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment threatens genetic diversity, which is essential for global food security. And a lack of genetic diversity in agriculture, says Greenpeace, can already be linked to many of the major crop epidemics in human history.

Photo © Punch Stock

Genetically modified organisms are those that have been altered by scientists to include genes from other organisms (known as transgenes) that may impart specific benefits. For instance, crop seeds that have added genes which resist the effects of herbicides can allow farmers to spray their fields liberally with herbicides to kill undesired weeds without the fear of killing their marketable crop along with them.

Genetic pollution is the release into the natural environment of these altered genes, creating the risk that they might breed with wild plants or animals and spread out uncontrollably. Reports author Jeremy Rifkin in his landmark 1998 book, The Biotech Century: “Some of those releases…could wreak havoc with the planet’s biosphere, spreading destabilizing and even deadly genetic pollution across the world.”

To follow through on the previous crop seed example: If herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered crops were to breed with their wild cousins, it could lead to the creation of super-weeds undeterred by control efforts. The weeds could, in turn, edge out native species and drive them to extinction, causing an overall loss of genetic diversity. According to Greenpeace, crop genetic diversity is “essential for global food security” and a lack of it can be linked to many of the major crop epidemics in human history, including the Southern corn leaf blight in the U.S. in 1970. They quote noted botanist Jack Harlan who said that genetic diversity is all that “stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we can not imagine.”

To track the growing problem of genetic pollution, Greenpeace International, along with GeneWatch UK, launched the GM Contamination Register in 2005 (the “GM” stands for Genetic Modification). This free online database details publicly documented incidents of contamination arising from the intentional or accidental release of genetically modified organisms into the environment as well as any accompanying negative agricultural side effects. Individuals, public interest groups and governments make use of the register to see where, when and how contamination has occurred. So far in 2011 alone more than a dozen cases of contamination—from Australia, Asia, Europe and the U.S.—have been reported in the register.

Gene pollution as it pertains to crops is only part of the concern. A Canadian company, AquaBounty, is seeking approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to sell genetically modified Atlantic salmon in the U.S. These fish have a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon (native to the North Pacific) and an anti-freeze protein gene from another fish, the ocean pout (native to the Northwest Atlantic). The resulting transgenic salmon produce growth hormones all year long—not just during the warmer months like other fish—and as such reach maturity faster than their non-genetically modified counterparts.

“There are concerns about the impact of GM salmon on wild salmon should it escape into rivers or the Atlantic ocean, because it could out-compete wild salmon for food, or breed with them producing offspring that may be less fit to survive,” reports GeneWatch UK. “This could have serious negative effects on declining or endangered wild salmon populations.”

CONTACTS: GeneWatch UK; Greenpeace International; GM Contamination Register; AquaBounty.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: Some friends of mine were talking about a book called “Plan B” that proposes a plan for rescuing the environment and ending poverty around the world. Is it a realistic plan or just some utopian pipe dream?
—Robin Jackson, Richmond, VA

Lester R. Brown's "Plan B" is an integrated program with four interdependent goals: drastically cutting carbon dioxide emissions, stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, and restoring the Earth’s natural systems. Pictured: Mr. Brown and the first Plan B book, published in 2003. There have been three subsequent editions.

Photo © Earth Policy Institute

What started as a book has grown into a movement known as “Plan B” which presents a roadmap for achieving worldwide goals of stabilizing both population and climate. According to Lester Brown, author of the 2003 book, Plan B (and three subsequent updates) and founder of the non-profit environmental think tank, Earth Policy Institute, the plan is based on replacing the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model powered by abundant sources of renewable energy.

Brown argues for transportation systems that are diverse and aim to maximize mobility, widely employing light rail, buses and bicycles. “A Plan B economy comprehensively reuses and recycles materials,” he says. “Consumer products from cars to computers are designed to be disassembled into their component parts and completely recycled.”

Brown even proposes a budget for eradicating poverty, educating the world’s youth and delivering better health care for everyone. “It also presents ways to restore our natural world by planting trees, conserving topsoil, stabilizing water tables, and protecting biological diversity,” says Brown. “With each new wind farm, rooftop solar water heater, paper recycling facility, bicycle path, marine park, rural school, public health facility, and reforestation program, we move closer to a Plan B economy.”

Plan B is an integrated program with four interdependent goals: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020, stabilizing population at eight billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the Earth’s natural systems. Where Plan B really hits home is in the numbers: Brown puts realistic dollar values on the various aspects of his plan, and compares these costs with current military spending. Needless to say, restoring the environment and economy looks like a bargain when viewed against what the developed nations of the world spend on being ready for battle.

The beauty of Plan B is that it is feasible with current technologies and could well be achieved by 2020 with a concerted international effort. Brown reportedly wrote the latest incarnation of Plan B as a warning call for leaders of the world to begin “mobilizing to save civilization” given that time is more than ever of the essence. Luminaries from Bill Clinton to E.O. Wilson to Ted Turner have spoken highly of Plan B, and at least one university (Cal State at Chico) has made the latest version of the book (Plan B 4.0) required reading for all incoming freshmen.

Those looking for more up-to-date information on the evolution of the Plan B model and progress toward its goals should tune into the website of the Earth Policy Institute, the think tank started by Brown in 2001 and currently used as a central node in the growing network of thousands of entities and individuals around the globe supportive of making Plan B into reality. Prior to founding Earth Policy Institute, Brown was well known in environmental and policy circles for his work with the Worldwatch Institute, a pioneering environmental think tank he launched back in 1974.

CONTACT: Earth Policy Institute.

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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